Interview with Dave Eggers
and Valentino Achak Deng
How did the two of you meet?
Dave Eggers: We met in Atlanta through the Lost Boys Foundation. I got a letter in the mail one day from Mary Williams, the founder of the organization, wanting to know if I wanted to meet some of the Lost Boys who were living in Atlanta. I had read a few articles about the Lost Boys, so I thought it would be interesting to meet them and see what the Foundation was doing. Mary had a few ideas about how I might be able to get involved, and one of them was in helping Valentino to write his autobiography.
Valentino Deng: our real initial meeting took place on a long-distance telephone line between San Francisco and Atlanta on a December day in 2002. Mary Williams who had come to know of my intention to publish my biography, swapped our lines, I guess after having communicated with Dave. Mary said she had read Dave’s memoir, The Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and thought we both would make genuine partners if we agree to collaborate. She asked if it is possible to share my contact when Dave agree to meet. I invited Dave to Atlanta on a new year eve in 2003. We met in Atlanta January 1st, 2003 and agreed to collaborate on writing and publishing my story. We started with a few sketchy interviews to get the structure of the story. We aimed to finish the book in three, or something.
Can you describe the process of writing the book?
VAD: Slow and heavily taxing, especially on the parts where I had to recall vivid memories of my past experiences, lost comrades and South Sudan which still was embroiled in a violent conflict.
DE: It was slow. It took three years of pretty steady work.
VAD: We started with interviews. Many interviews in person and swapped hundreds of emails of transcribed materials. Several short questions dominated our internet correspondents. We also made hundreds local and international phone calls.
DE: The first thing we did was just get through the basic story. So that was about twelve hours of tape. Then I spent some time transcribing and reviewing the story, to see what exactly to do with it. At that point, we really hadn’t decided whether I was just helping Valentino write his own book, or if I was writing a book about him.
VAD: I thought I might want to write my own book, but I was aware that I was not ready to do this on my own. I was at a preliminary stage of my college education, work and transition to a new life in Atlanta, GA.
DE: For a long while there, we continued doing interviews, and I gathered the material. But all along, I really didn’t know exactly what form it would finally take—whether it would be first person or third, whether it would be fiction or nonfiction. After about eighteen months of struggle with it, we settled on a fictionalized autobiography, in Valentino’s voice.
Why was this the choice you two made?
DE: The main reason was that Valentino’s voice is so distinct and unforgettable that any other authorial voice would pale by comparison. Very early on, when the book was in a more straightforward authorial voice, I missed the voice I was hearing on the tapes. So, writing in Val’s voice solved both problems: I could disappear completely, and the reader would have the benefit of his very distinct voice.
Why is the book called a novel if it’s based on Valentino’s life? Why not nonfiction?
VAD: Major outlines are based on my personal experiences, but many things in there are somewhat different than what happened to me in person. Some characters have been combined. Some time is compressed. They are minor things, but they were necessary. For one thing, I was very young when the book begins, so I could not remember some conversations and small details from my early childhood in Marial Bai and others along the journey. It was necessary to reconstruct the chronology, and that is what happened. Dave took the basic facts and helped structure the story from there.
DE: Valentino put it very well in his introduction, that though not everything happened in the exact order described in the book, it all very well might have happened. All the events in the book have historical basis. But it really is a biographical novel. I made up many scenes that were necessary to describe the whole sweep of those twenty or so years that the book covers. Sometimes I’d read a human rights report about a certain incident during the civil war and would ask Val if he knew someone who had experienced that incident, or something like it. Sometimes he did know someone, and we could go from there, but other times I had to imagine it on my own. Some of these scenes were necessary to include, even if Val didn’t have personal experience with them.
VAD: It is important to say that some parts of the book that seem most incredible are those that are most true.
DE: Right. That is the case.
VAD: A few of my friends have been confused by the process. They think I spoke the book into a tape recorder, which is not the case. In some instances, I would describe a certain scene for perhaps twenty minutes, and then Dave would return some months later with the scene written, though in a restructured manner. Some events are envisioned through my eyes. We had traveled and spent so much time together by that time and it is not surprising that Dave could guess some of my thoughts.
DE: The odd thing about all this is that once you say a book is fiction, you have a harder time convincing a reader that certain things are possible. Valentino, for example, really was scheduled for resettlement on September 11, 2001. He was on a plane, leaving Nairobi and going to New York, on 9/11. The plane never left Nairobi, of course. He and forty or so other Sudanese deplaned and waited a few more weeks—and they thought they’d never make it to the U.S. That is a true story, but it seems too incredible to be true, especially considering the life Valentino’s led before and since.
Do you feel this is representative of the experience of the Sudanese refugees in the United States?
VAD: It does in a way. The book illuminates some of my experiences and those of my colleagues during our early days of resettlements in the United States. In general, the story is an account of a person, which represents the occurrences many migrants face in silent. There are circumstances in the story that I faced with others. I had to learn how to navigate the metro train rides, public bus routes, grocery shopping and the entry level job applications. Those things that are necessary for integration into a newer community. What is the What depicts elements of my life in Sudan and during the years I spent in exile. It is a story of humanity so to speak.
DE: The book did start out with the aim of being a more general history of the young men like Valentino— the so-called Lost Boys—with Valentino being just the main character. But it evolved into a very specific story about Valentino’s life only. It also evolved from being strictly a history of boys like Valentino was, would-be child soldiers caught in the middle of the civil war, and into more than that. In a way, it’s as much about the immigrant experience in America. This hasn’t been an easy five years for Valentino, even with the material comforts he’s had here. The stories we’ve read about the Lost Boys are usually very heartwarming, though in many cases the reality of their lives has been shaded with a good deal of struggle and frustration.
What do you hope to happen in the wake of the book?
VAD: I hope that it will help people understand Sudan, and why the conflicts continue there. Perhaps people will read this and understand more about the conflict that have stranded the Sudans for decades. And the proceeds from the book will go a great way in helping us provide innovative solutions to developmental challenges in South Sudan. I have plans to organize, establish, manage provide solutions to educational challenges there. I come from a community that lack functional learning center and many things that are needed for improving the lives of local people.