On Wednesday night I went to Town Hall to see Dave Eggers and Maria Semple discuss their most recent novels, The Circle and Where’d You Go Bernadette? The event was a fundraiser for 826 Seattle, a non-profit writing and tutoring center which works with youth, ages six to eighteen, to improve their creative and expository writing skills. According to 826’s website, “we believe significant learning happens with individual attention and that strong writing skills are essential for future success.” I couldn’t agree more! I was interested in hearing Semple and Eggers, but when I read that their appearance was a fund raiser for this particular organization, I knew I had to go. Find them here:
I first discovered Dave Eggers back in the early 2000’s when I read his brilliant memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, about how he raised his younger brother after the death of both his parents. When I first picked up the book, I remember thinking, “What a great title!” It is certainly one I always remember – and, too, it’s true. Well, maybe not “staggering genius,” but definitely a great, heart-rending story. Maria Semple, of course, charged onto the Seattle writing scene a couple of years ago with the Bernadette novel – a hilarious parody of a certain segment of Seattle which definitely rang true for me. This is a laugh out loud story of a woman who moves to Seattle from Los Angeles with her husband and young daughter and, let’s just say, she has some issues fitting in. I have not read The Circle yet, but I did have an opportunity to pick it up at the event. It’s next in line for me. A friend of mine recently recommended it and Maria Semple described it as one of her favorite books of all times – funny and profound.
I imagined the discussion between these two would be funny and engaging. It was. As is usual in discussions between two authors on stage (I’ve seen this at SAL) I also expected to learn something about each writer’s process (endlessly fascinating for me as a writer) and to hear them read from their work. Maria Semple said that everything she writes has elements of autobiography in it — joking that she is only able to write about a woman with extreme character flaws who has one daughter and a husband who is too good for her. She explained that she takes things from her own experience and exaggerates them to make them more interesting. Another strategy: when she’s writing along and a character starts to bore her, she makes them do something mean. She then asked Dave Eggers if he has the opposite writing process. She writes from the inside out, while his books appear to proceed from the outside in. That is, beginning with a big idea and building characters and the situation around that starting point. Eggers said that he had never thought of it in just that way, but it seemed accurate.
Eggers writes notes in a journal that he carries around with him all the time – he had it in his lap on stage. He writes down things that he notices, things that interest him. He said he had been writing notes on the kinds of characters and situations in The Circle for years, thinking about how technology has changed, especially in the past few years to be more intrusive into our lives. He gave the example of how, just to print a document, he was asked questions by his computer: “You are low on ink. Do you want to purchase ink? Click here to go to the online ink store, etc.” He couldn’t help noting that these questions from the computer seemed incredibly needy most of the time. The Circle is about a young woman, just out of college, who lands a job at a high-tech company (much like Google) and at first believes she’s in heaven — what could be better than working at a place with a beautiful campus filled with genius co-workers? Apparently, many things. According to one blurb on the back cover: “What begins as the captivating story of one woman’s ambition and idealism soon becomes a heart-racing novel of suspense, raising questions about memory, history, privacy, democracy and the limits of human knowledge.” Can’t wait to read it.
I enjoyed this evening so much—from the readings of each author to the welcoming and literary Seattle crowd. I knew I would feel comfortable even though I showed up alone. And I did. Before the authors took the stage, I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation in front of me — all about which books they were reading and the conversation behind me — all about a play they were planning on going to. Ah, Seattle. We are a perfect fit.
So, go forth and read these books! Or, at least set aside some time to sample some of the great opportunities in this city for arts events. Remember, the Seattle International Film Festival starts soon. And, too, check out 826 Seattle. Their work is pretty impressive.