A couple of years ago, my dad asked me who I thought the great American authors of the latter half of the 20th century and today are, and who I thought would be held in the same regard that authors like Kesey, Hemingway, Vonnegut, Kerouac, etc. are now.
I had two names at the time: David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers.
I like both, but prefer the latter; I read “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” in the fall of 2009, two years after the death of my mom, and partly on a flight to San Francisco. I spent a week in the city the majority of the book takes place in visiting a friend going to art school there at the time. That book spoke to me in a way few others had, and I couldn’t put it down.
Also in 2009, he co-wrote the screenplay for one of my top ten favorite movies, “Away We Go,” which also deals with dead parents and becoming a grown-up whether you think you can or not.
I have not read any of his other books, much less his most recent, but I knew I loved what I’d read/experienced so far. I found out the week before last he was going to be at the independent book store by my house and immediately called the owner for an interview for 60625. She was excited, but didn’t have a lot to say. I got the idea to speak with a local writer who volunteers for Eggers’ charitable organization 826, and who was also very recently published on McSweeney’s. He also had ties with the book store. I was happy with that angle, and the story got a lot of play.
Despite that, the event Saturday was not the insane crowd I thought it would be.
Kevin and I went to the Book Cellar at 9, an hour early, afraid a line would have already formed down Lincoln Ave. We got there, and there was no one. We looked for a sign saying the event had been cancelled due to bad weather but there was none. We went across the street to Cafe Selmarie and had breakfast, and when we came out ten minutes before the store opened, we were still among the first five or six people there. A crowd slowly began to form, but by 10:20, the store was full.
Dave Eggers walked in the front door shortly after we did, nonchalantly smiling as he walked over to the table directly in front the one Kevin and I claimed. He sat down and people started coming up to him in order of arrival, with copies of his new book.
Kevin and I each got a copy, and the book store employee had us tell him what name we wanted each book made out to. He wrote each name on a Post-It which he put inside on the book’s title page.
While we waited at our table, I started to feel really nervous. I’ve never met anyone remotely famous, unless you count John Glenn when I was a toddler, and that time Richard Schiff from the West Wing said a brief hello to my 7th grade class when we saw the filming of a scene by the Potomac on our trip to D.C. Luckily we stopped to talk to one of the other reporters who covers Lincoln Square. We caught up on local shop talk with her, so during that time I forgot to be scared of talking to Dave Eggers.
The thing is, I pictured this book signing as: We buy his book, we hand it to him, we awkwardly smile while he signs it, and then maybe we ask him for a picture if he didn’t look like he’d be super annoyed by the request. That’s not how it was — people ahead of us in line sat with him at his table and chatted, some for as many as five or ten minutes. I did not have enough to say to Dave Eggers for five minutes, of this I was sure.
When it was our turn, we went up together with our two books. I shook his hand and introduced myself.
“Is that Marilyn, you said?” he asked. “No, it’s Meryl, like Meryl Streep,” I said, which is my reflex answer to anyone who seems confused by my name.
He signed my book and asked us if we lived close by. We said we did, and I told him I thought it was really nice of him to take the time to talk to all of these people. He said he didn’t mind, and that he didn’t get to Chicago as often as he liked on tours.
Kevin told him he volunteers for 826 and thanked him for the good work he does with it, and I was so proud of Kevin for actually saying something relevant to his work. I felt silly gushing over his 13-year-old memoir and even sillier telling him I loved “Away We Go” when he’s written so many books.
He was extremely friendly and so approachable. I hated the thought of discovering he was a jerk in real life, so I am relieved that was not the case. We were respectful of his time, but I don’t think he would have minded if we’d stayed a while.
My reporter friend Patty sent me some photos she got of me sitting with Eggers later that day. It’s not every day someone takes a picture of you sitting across from one of your favorite writers.