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 Achak Deng: We became friends that first weekend, and we started interviews right away. For a while, I thought we would finish the book within a few months. I was very wrong about that.
Can you describe the process of writing the book?
DE: It was slow. It took three years of pretty steady work.
VAD: We started with interviews. Many interviews in person and over the phone.
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 learned that I was not ready to do this. I was still taking classes in basic writing at Georgia Perimeter College.
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: It is very close to the truth, but many things in the book are somewhat different than what happened in life. 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 conversations and small details from my early childhood in Marial Bai. It was necessary to reconstruct the chronology, and that is what Dave did. He took the basic facts and then created 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 of the events in the book have historical basis. But it really is a 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 the 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. This is not how it has happened. In most cases, 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 fictional form. It was not until six months ago that I saw the book in the form of a whole book. It was very strange how he envisioned events through my eyes. Because we had spent so much time together by that time, it is not surprising that he could guess 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 actually 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: I want to tell you that this is my story and not the story of the thousands of Lost Boys in America. There are many experiences in the story that we all shared. We all struggled while walking to Ethiopia. We all had encounters with the SPLA [Sudan People’s Liberation Army], and those of us who survived those early years of travel and deprivation made it to Kakuma [refugee camp in Kenya]. But my life is different in many ways. This is a story of my life, not everyone’s life. We are all different people.
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 Darfur. And the proceeds from the book will do great things in southern Sudan. I have many plans for my home village. There will be a library there. And a youth center. And a women’s center. Many things that are needed there. We will begin very soon.