Author Dave Eggers channels a stray dog for his new book
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
What goes on in the minds of animals? It's an age-old question that we may never truly answer. But the writer Dave Eggers has imagined one possibility in his new book, "The Eyes And The Impossible." His protagonist is a wild, freethinking dog named Johannes, an incredibly confident creature who abhors leashes and runs at the speed of light, according to himself. His job is to serve as the eyes of the vast urban park where he resides, reporting what he sees to the other animals to make sure the so-called equilibrium of the park is forever preserved. And then one day, that equilibrium falters. Author Dave Eggers joins us now at the studios of NPR West to talk about the magnificent beast at the center of his new story. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
DAVE EGGERS: Thank you so much for having me.
CHANG: Oh, well, thank you for coming in today. So tell me; what first moved you to write a novel from the perspective of a dog?
EGGERS: You know, I experimented with this voice, like, 23 years ago with a short story, and it was the most sort of liberating and joyful kind of writing I've ever done. And I always thought, why would I not be doing that every day...
EGGERS: ...Writing from this point of view? Something about that perspective just - well, this is a terrible pun - unleashes me, and so...
CHANG: Do it. Embrace the pun.
EGGERS: I keep finding myself with that word in my mouth. But it's more fun than anything else that I've ever done, and so I finally got back to it.
CHANG: Was there a Johannes in your life? Like, did you once have a dog with a spirit that reminded you of Johannes'?
EGGERS: Never had a dog.
CHANG: You seem like such a dog person in this book.
EGGERS: We grew up with cats, weirdly enough, and lizards. It's so strange. I love dogs, but I never had one.
CHANG: That's funny.
EGGERS: So for some reason, during COVID, we got cats again. So weirdly, I'm a cat person, but I do love and appreciate dogs. And I'm convinced that they have, you know, very complicated souls and that they exult in their abilities, in their speed. And I think that people are starting to study why animals play. Can they appreciate beauty, you know?
EGGERS: Do they grieve?
EGGERS: All of these things - of course they do.
CHANG: A hundred percent.
EGGERS: Of course they do. But, you know, Johannes is particularly hypnotized by beauty.
EGGERS: And it gets him in a lot of trouble.
CHANG: Well, not just hypnotized by beauty but hypnotized by hyperbole. I think it's so funny the conclusions you draw about the inner workings of a dog's mind. Like, Johannes exaggerates all the time. The park is 10,000 miles long. That was 200 years ago. I am the speed of light. I mean, what could possibly convince you that dogs have an outsized perspective on the universe?
EGGERS: Yeah. He's not good at math, either.
EGGERS: He can't tell time. He has no sense of distance or how big anything actually is or how many, you know, fellow animals or anything there are. He just exaggerates everything. Everything is just sort of the largest number that he can conceive. But luckily, he has friend animals that are better at math and can read - things like that.
CHANG: Right. Right.
EGGERS: So they help him out.
CHANG: You know, I was also trying to picture this park, and, yes, as a fellow Bay Area native, it does feel like Golden Gate Park. So like, what made you decide you want to set Johannes' world in Golden Gate Park?
EGGERS: Well, you know, it is his whole world. And for most of the book, he's never left. But Golden Gate Park is a huge, vast, wild park for being an urban park and...
EGGERS: ...I think the biggest, best urban park maybe in - you know, in existence. It's got so many facets to it.
CHANG: Take that, Central Park.
EGGERS: I mean, Central Park is beautiful, but it's a little bit more manicured. And Golden Gate Park - so much of it is totally wild still. So you do see strange things there all the time, whether it's hippies dancing without music, which is what happened the last time I was there. There's always something very unusual happening, but it's populated with thousands or tens of thousands of animals. So I thought, well, what if his perspective is this wild, beautiful place, but it is cordoned off by, you know, that grid of streets that - you know, the Richmond district and the Sunset on either side?
EGGERS: It is very orderly and gray on either side...
EGGERS: ...And then the sea at the end.
EGGERS: You know? And so the animals in the park are trying to make sure that human development doesn't encroach too much, hordes of revelers that are there for concerts and stuff don't despoil the land. But, you know, so far, they've been able to keep that balance. But it starts getting challenged a little bit from an unexpected place.
CHANG: True. But can we just talk about the ducks? - because, like, what do you have against ducks? Throughout this whole story, Johannes has such a deep disdain for ducks. It made me think, what did a duck ever do to you, Dave?
EGGERS: I have nothing - you know what? Ducks have only been good to me. But I thought that you have to give the dogs and the animals - in the book, the ducks are super-unreliable.
EGGERS: You know, there are those creatures in all of our lives that, no matter what you do, they're just not going to show up. They don't even know what it means to lend a hand. And it was funny because my editor kept saying, like, should we redeem the ducks at some point? Should the ducks...
CHANG: I was wondering if you're going to go there. Nope.
EGGERS: And I thought, that's just too easy. That's always, like, the sort of go-to thing. And I thought, what if we just leave them as sort of...
EGGERS: ...Useless as they are at the beginning?
CHANG: Deficient ducks. When Johannes discovers where the park is in relation to the greater world, I was curious when I got to that part. Was that moment reminiscent of a realization that you personally had at some point about your position in relation to the universe?
EGGERS: Wow. Yeah. I mean, I grew up in a bubble. I was in a beautiful little town north of Chicago, and I didn't get on a plane till I was 16. I didn't have a passport till I was 26. So I was that kind of dog in the bubble that only knew...
EGGERS: ...The green world around him. And you think you're at the center of it, you know? And when you're riding your bike, you're the fastest bicyclist that ever lived, and - you know? And so a lot of that - Johannes' voice is sort of channeling that kind of reveling in your speed and power when you're 12 or 14 and thinking that nothing could ever be better and you could never be more sort of at the center of things.
CHANG: It did make me think, reading this book, what is home, ultimately? If you love the place where you live but you are searching for whatever exists beyond that, like, who are your people if you do choose to leave them one day?
EGGERS: Yeah. I mean, Johannes is basically - he doesn't know where his siblings went. His mother is a kept dog in the city. His friends are, you know, a pelican and a seagull and a...
EGGERS: ...One-eyed squirrel and a raccoon. I grew up with a one-eyed squirrel...
EGGERS: ...As a pet in our yard.
CHANG: I get it.
EGGERS: And so that's, like, a homage to our one-eyed squirrel that we fed every day. But he's created this sort of family around him. They all have a job to do. They take it very seriously. And so that is, like, their world, and it really can't be improved. But when they become aware of a world beyond it, then that's a choice, you know? Like...
EGGERS: If you live to see, if your soul yearns for beauty, if that's the thing that fills you, fills your heart, I don't know. Maybe it's important...
CHANG: To see what's...
EGGERS: ...To keep seeing, to see new things...
EGGERS: ...To see beyond. And so...
EGGERS: I think it's, like, that tug that we all have - family here.
CHANG: Adventure there.
EGGERS: Do you want to - adventure there. How do you balance it, too? This has been, like, a central challenge of my life.
EGGERS: But I think that you can find that balance. And ideally, you can take those loved ones along with you sometimes and sort of find that way. But I do think that the soul wants adventure.
CHANG: Yeah. Dave Eggers - his new book is called "The Eyes And The Impossible." Thank you so much for coming in personally today. This was such a pleasure.
EGGERS: Yeah, it was really fun. Thanks.
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