Most artists and writers in the United States gave up on the “American Dream” long ago. As the comedian George Carlin joked, “It's called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”
But not Dave Eggers.
The bestselling author is on a mission to keep the American ideal of hard-scrabble success alive, as I found out when I recently interviewed Eggers at KQED on behalf of the BBC Arts Hour's upcoming San Francisco broadcast and live show.
What follows are edited excerpts from our conversation, which focused in large part on two of Eggers' most Bay Area-centric works: the new non-fiction book The Monk of Mokha, and the 2013 novel The Circle.
What inspired you to write The Monk of Mokha, which follows the adventures of a young San Francisco coffee entrepreneur of Yemeni heritage, Mokhtar Alkanshali, and his daring escape from war-torn Yemen?
We first met when Mokhtar was about 23 through a mutual friend of ours. It was a couple of years later that I'd been reading about the Americans stuck in Yemen. There had already been a few articles about Mokhtar crossing the Red Sea to get out of Yemen. So we got back in touch, and he told me this incredible story of how he got out. I think I was initially drawn to this incredible bravery that he exhibited. And also I'm always driven a little bit by outrage when our government doesn't take care of its own people. And so that got me interested right away.
But the coffee part, I had no interest in originally. I was never able to discern differences in quality in coffee. But he sort of gave me a very quick crash-course education in coffee cultivation, and why it matters that we care where our food comes from. And now Mokhtar is bringing a very new awareness about direct trade. I hope everybody looks out for consumer rights.
Yemeni coffee certainly isn't cheap. I had treated myself to a cup imported by Mokhtar's company this morning at Equator Coffee on Market Street — for research purposes (ahem!). It cost $14. It's $16 a cup at Blue Bottle, I hear. Why the nosebleed prices?
Let me ask you this: if you go to a restaurant here in San Francisco and you get a glass of nice wine even from Napa, 30 miles up the road, it might cost 15 bucks, right? But this coffee from Yemen has gone 6,000 miles and through war zones and over the sea and represents hundreds of years of expertise in the Yemeni highlands where they invented coffee cultivation. I don't know if every cup of coffee should cost $14, but maybe it shouldn't cost $2.50 if everybody along that supply chain is being paid fairly. The weird thing is that the coffee, or anything you eat or drink, starts to taste better if you're thinking about the people who make it. One of the big ambitions of Mokhtar's in the book is to get a fair price for these farmers.
This is the latest in a series of books you've written about immigrants to the U.S. The others being What is the What, a novel about a young Sudanese refugee, and Zeitoun, an account of a Syrian American's experience of Hurricane Katrina. How important is it for you to use your profile as a writer to give voice to the marginalized?
I never conceived it as a series. But I am attracted to stories of courage. I feel like we're obviously in a period of unprecedented fear, ignorance, paranoia and xenophobia unlike anything in my lifetime. These stories sometimes can remind us of who we are at our best and also at the core.
These books are all about people who are striving for the American Dream against really harsh odds. So what do you think there is that's really new and different to say about the American Dream at this time?
Sometimes people think it's some old cliché or it's no longer true. But it's absolutely true. Every day immigrants are keeping it alive. They're the ones that exemplify what it means. There are millions of stories of the American Dream dreamed well. But more so than any time in the last 40 years, that dream is under threat. These DREAMers are being vilainized. I am almost in a state of paralysis some days because I cannot figure out why so many young people would be put in such peril. So many families being torn apart. It is the cruelest time in my lifetime, where cruelty and inhumanity are being expressed as a matter of policy from the White House. That's something brand new.
Let's talk about another book of yours set in the Bay Area, and also about entrepreneurism: your novel The Circle. It was adapted into a movie starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson, and it's about a sinister Internet giant and a young woman who gets caught up in its culture. What prompted you to write about the tech industry?
I got here in 1992. So I saw the rise of the Bay Area as a tech mecca. I saw what the early Internet achieved — the incredible democratization of access to information, the easy way you could communicate with people around the world. Then, maybe 10 or 15 years ago, it started changing a little bit. The consolidation of wealth, the hoarding of power, the surveillance aspect of it and the intrusion on privacy aspect of it, I didn't see coming.
It seemed more and more sinister, and it took on this darker and darker tinge. So I thought it was maybe time to write something about it from the point of view of the most idealistic young person who gets her dream job at one of these tech companies, but slowly sees the walls close in around her.
Since the novel was published in 2013, we've seen some fairly shocking revelations about mass surveillance globally, not to mention the gathering of information by the National Security Agency here in the U.S. When you first began work on The Circle, did you imagine the extent of this issue?
I did. I was trying to imagine the worst-case scenario. So my goal every day was to scare the hell out of myself. I've been shocked at how humanity has undergone a radical evolution. In the 1980s and '90s, we did have certain presumptions about privacy — that our conversations were private, that our correspondence was private. Most of that is gone now. The people who work at these companies are some of the best and brightest. They're largely idealistic people too, and they do latch on to the good that is done. I think there is a blind spot about some of the not-so-good. There's an unwillingness to face the fact that they do have the power to turn things back from some of these abuses of privacy and human rights. They have the power to improve these platforms.
To what extent do you think it's within the technology industry's power to really shape the creative and cultural landscape of this region and the world more broadly?
I think that the Internet companies have to own up to the fact that they contributed a lot to the hollowing out of the creative middle class. Because we expect everything online to be free, creators have suffered greatly in the last 20 years. And I think everything needs to sort of slow down for a minute. If the goal isn't just clicks or eyeballs, but actually the improvement of humankind, then the companies have to actually rethink a lot. It isn't just about speed. And it isn't just about numbers. It is really about morality, ethics and all of these things that were never part of the growth of these companies. And now we have a broken system. We almost broke democracy 18 months ago. We have a society that is drowning in mistrust.
Any cause for hope?
Really, I am eternally optimistic. When The Circle first came out, I would go to colleges and the students were thinking I was some old crank that was judging their way of life and judging social media. But in the last year, it changed completely. I used to have maybe 10 kids come up to me and say "yeah, you're speaking to me. I'm as scared as you are." And now, it's like 100 percent want to talk about this.
The BBC Arts Hour comes to San Francisco's Gray Area Foundation Theatre on Thursday, Mar. 15. Tickets and information here.