2012 National Book Award Finalist,
A Hologram for the King
Interview by Mary Beth Keane
Mary Beth Keane: Congratulations on being named a fiction finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. I know this must be a busy time for you, so many thanks in advance for doing this.
A Hologram for the King has been described as a novel about the changing global marketplace, an allegory about the frustrations of middle-class America. While it is certainly those things, it was, for me, a novel about a man who is lost and struggling to find a firm foothold in the world. What was the seed idea? Did you begin with Alan? With Saudi Arabia and the King Abdullah Economic City? Elsewhere?
Dave Eggers: I did begin with Alan. The character had been kicking around my head for a while―a guy who had been in manufacturing for many years, and then found himself in an America where very few things were made at all. Then one day my brother-in-law told me about the King Abdullah Economic City, and a blank, surreal city-to-be in the middle of the desert seemed like the perfect place to put a man like Alan.
MBK: One of the things I so admired in this novel were the details about a country and culture entirely foreign to me, but which, in your telling, became vivid and true. How difficult was it to capture Saudi Arabia?
DE: I'm pretty bad at writing about places I haven't been, so I went to the Kingdom a few years ago, and visited Jeddah and KAEC and spent some time in the mountains. I had some very good guides and made some great friends there―and seeing the country through their eyes, and with their help, aided me tremendously in rendering it.
MBK: How did writing A Hologram for the King compare with writing your previous books?
DE: The last two books I'd written were either nonfiction or based closely on real events, so writing Hologram was liberating. I can't say it took any less time, but for a while I was happily operating under the illusion, at least, that writing fiction was easier than writing nonfiction. Somehow, though, books―for me, at least―always find a way to make themselves very difficult.
MBK: Did the final product end up looking like what you imagined at the outset?
DE: In some ways, yes. I always had a sense of the shape of the book, and I knew more or less how it would end. But within that general shape, it changed a lot. At one point it was a lot denser, the prose more crowded. That didn't seem to fit the mood I was trying to conjure, or the character's state of mind―both of which were more desolate and contemplative. So I removed a lot of the clutter to clarify things, to let it breathe a bit.
MBK: How much consideration do you give to audience when you write?
DE: On a stylistic level, my goal with Hologram was to write something I'd want to read. And I was happy that when I re-read it recently, it felt right. That's pretty rare for me―I almost never like anything I've written right after I've written it; it always seems like there are a thousand things you could change, make better. But I didn't think of audience while writing it―not in that way. Still, because the book is rooted in the real world, in a real place and a real time, it was important that certain audiences found it credible. So the audiences that mattered in that way were, for example, people who knew about manufacturing, sales, and Saudi Arabia. When those audiences found it credible, I felt like I was getting close.
MBK: What, in your opinion, is the fiction writer’s greatest responsibility when writing a novel or short story?
DE: I don't know if this is the No. 1 greatest responsibility, but lately I've been finding it very important that a writer says something bold. As a reader, that's what I've been looking for.
MBK: This is the 63rd year of the National Book Awards. What was your first response upon learning that you’d been named a finalist?
DE: It honestly meant the world to me. I can't overstate it. The jury is a group of writers I respect profoundly, and the other nominees are some of my favorite people. And I really was hoping Kevin Powers would be nominated, so that feels especially good, to be near that guy. I respect the hell out of him.
MBK: What previous National Book Award winners or finalists have been an influence on your work?
DE: There's no end to that list. Wouldn't know where to start.
Mary Beth Keane is the author of The Walking People (2009) and the forthcoming novel, Fever, about the life of Typhoid Mary. She attended Barnard College and the University of Virginia, where she received an MFA in Fiction. In 2011, she was named one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35. She lives in Pearl River, New York with her husband and their two sons.