Q&A with Dave Eggers

The author of “The Circle” discusses groupthink, healthy skepticism and the value of weirdness in education

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Dave Eggers has been a literary celebrity since his bold debut book, the memoir “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” was published in 2000 to widespread critical admiration. In the years since, Eggers has written eight books, including five novels, and co-written two screenplays made into feature films (“Away We Go” and “Where the Wild Things Are”). In addition, he founded McSweeney’s, an influential independent publishing house, and co-founded 826 National, a nonprofit network of eight writing and tutoring centers.

“The Circle,” Eggers’ latest novel, is a provocative thriller about a massive technology corporation called the Circle, which has become the world’s most powerful company while promoting apparently benevolent messages of transparency and sharing. The last vestiges of personal privacy are rapidly being swallowed into the digital realm as the Circle’s technological breakthroughs prove too appealing and sweeping for consumers to turn down.

Mae Holland, the novel’s protagonist, starts her employment at the Circle as a fairly average user of the Internet and social media. In the novel’s opening sentences, she arrives on her first day of work and is immediately besotted with the company’s remarkable campus: “My God, Mae thought. It’s heaven.”

In the ensuing pages, Mae becomes an increasingly central figure in the Circle and its pursuit of a utopian future constructed with the company’s products – products that are ostensibly designed to make the world a more friendly and secure place. In the New York Review of Books, author Margaret Atwood wrote that one of the most compelling effects of the novel is “to remind us that we can be led down the primrose path much more blindly by our good intentions than by our bad ones.”

Virginia Commonwealth University chose “The Circle” as its 2014 Summer Reading Program selection. This is the first work of fiction that has been chosen by the selection committee in the nine-year history of the program. Eggers will visit campus on Aug. 19 to discuss the novel with students and to serve as the featured speaker at New Student Convocation.

Daphne Rankin, Ph.D., associate vice provost for strategic enrollment management, said “The Circle” was an ideal fit for the Summer Reading Program because of its exploration of a topic sure to inspire debate among students, faculty and staff. The selection committee felt that “The Circle” could be referenced and discussed in a number of first-year classes.

Eggers answered some questions from VCU News in anticipation of his visit.

How possible do you view the events that transpire in the novel?

There are a few things, like the transparent all-consuming shark, that might not be so likely. But otherwise most of the technologies and company policies are within the realm of possibility. A few of them have actually transpired since the book came out.

Part of what makes “The Circle” unsettling is how the company’s leaders and advocates seem to believe that what is essentially the Circle’s creeping global domination will lead to a more just and safe world. And their arguments can sound convincing. Many of the less powerful characters in “The Circle” – with some notable exceptions – seem either oblivious to their loss of privacy or to welcome it. How closely do you think that approximates the way we are now?

“The Circle” is of course an extreme example of groupthink and of a situation where utopianism outstrips rationality, individuality, common sense and any respect for privacy. But at the same time, most of the Circle’s creators are absolutely sure that their efforts are improving – perfecting, really – the world. But with perfection usually comes a certain suffocating control, and that kind of control is sometimes hard to see when you're in the thick of it. There’s also a funny tendency with some of the companies extant today to ask for forgiveness, not permission, which means that most of the time, the control or surveillance we know about is only revealed after the fact. The recent Facebook experiment in manipulating the emotions of its users is one of the creepier examples.

Do you have a particular hope or expectation about how younger readers – such as VCU students – who are coming of age with social media as a natural extension of themselves and with the ubiquity of the Internet as a given will engage with this novel?

The book isn’t meant to be proscriptive in any way, but I do hope it stimulates discussion, and maybe even awareness, of the potential overreach, and diminution of certain rights, in a highly connected, but ultimately profit-driven world. A good college education should instill a healthy skepticism – without dampening one's optimism – and the digital world, more so than any other I can think of, needs plenty of both.

“The Circle” is filled with Internet products and services that are somehow both attractive and sinister. What was your approach to coming up with these ideas?

I’ve been living in the San Francisco Bay Area for about 20 years, and it’s impossible not to absorb, or somehow be connected to, dozens of startups and digital visionaries, successful or otherwise. Over the years I’ve heard a lot of ideas and pitches, and so it wasn’t a stretch to imagine what sorts of ideas might be percolating in a place like the Circle. In most cases, I wanted technologies or applications that were, like you said, both attractive on one level but highly sinister if misused.

You are a co-founder of 826 National, a nonprofit network of writing and tutoring centers for kids. Can you talk about the 826 mission, its impact and why you are devoted to it?

My mom was a teacher, and many of my friends became teachers, and back in 2001 a small group of us had the thought that we could raise an army of tutors who could help public school teachers in whatever ways they found useful. 826 Valencia, our first center in San Francisco, served mostly students from Spanish-speaking homes, many of them new Americans. So from a concentration on English and writing help, 826 grew into creative writing, publishing programs, field trips, college access and too many other areas to name. But we’ve always been driven by the hope that volunteers can help level the playing field for inner-city students in public schools, who often don't have anywhere near the advantages of students from better-funded districts. I just made 826 National sound a little drier than it actually is. The one thing we’re dedicated to is making writing fun – allowing for the inherent wildness and weirdness of young people’s imaginations. So the eight centers we have around the country are all tasked with keeping it weird, so learning doesn’t have to be something formal or dusty.

How important a role do you believe service plays in a college education?

I’m a fan of service being part of the college experience. Four years is a long time to be rattling inside your own skull, and getting out of the classroom and putting your brain or skills to work in the community can only lead to a better-balanced human. I think service is habit-forming, too, so it’s good when we make a permanent habit of fitting some volunteering into our lives.

What do you wish you’d known when you were a college freshman?

For some reason, I signed up to be in the dorm set aside for students who wanted to cook for themselves – as opposed to being on the meal plan. I have no idea why I did this. It meant I lived in a very funky smelling all-male dorm.

Is there anything in particular that you’re looking forward to about your visit to VCU?

I’m really honored and humbled that VCU saw fit to choose “The Circle” for their common read, and I’m really looking forward to hearing the students’ thoughts on the book’s themes and ideas. And, as a failed cartoonist, I’m also hoping to get a peek at VCU’s comics archive, which is one of the best in the world.


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