Talking with Paul Eggers (page 3)
Talking with Paul Eggers
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  Where do you live in California?
 


I live about 15 miles outside Chico and teach at Cal State-Chico, where I’m lucky to be teaching with fellow RPCV writer and the recent Maria Thomas Award winner, Rob Davidson.
     In some ways my wife and I live in a clichéd “writer’s house” — in a pine forest, with a woodpile out back, a big fireplace, a propane tank, a redwood deck, and lots of trees and quiet.
     My wife also teaches at Chico State, so life tends to revolve around school and various projects requiring us to sit at our respective writing desks. We have a dog, Jackson, who likes nothing better than to get something going, but outside of him and socializing with friends there really aren’t that many distractions.
 
  What does Ellen teach?
  Linguistics. She got her Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 1990; I got mine later on. For writing, it’s wonderful to have an expert on various language and cultural issues in the house.
Give us some idea of how you go about your writing.
   The pattern I developed in graduate school was to do most of my writing during the summer. It took me almost seven years to finish my novel while I was at Nebraska, but I was also taking and teaching a full load of classes, studying for comps, and writing academic essays. I found that writing during the summer gave me the best shot at having a long, unbroken stretch of time. Since then, I’ve continued this pattern, doing most of my writing when school is not in session.
  Where do you write?
  I have a home office (there are too many distractions at school) where I do all my writing, usually on the computer. Until this year, I couldn’t get “in the zone” unless I was listening to loud rock music. The louder and trashier, the better. My explanation is that the music forced me to tune things out more quickly; my best writing always occurred when I couldn’t hear the music any more. I don’t know if my explanation is truly accurate, but nowadays I’m tending toward having quiet when I write.
     When I began writing my novel, I also smoked cigars while I was drafting. I’m not sure if it was the buzz or the affirming picture I had in my head — the cigar-chomping writer at his desk — that made me do this, but I’ve since given that up, too. Now I like to have a cup of coffee at the desk and stare at the trees outside the window.
     I usually don’t write every day; I tend to write in patches, whenever I’m free and motivated to do it. Typically, I like to begin a writing session by reviewing my previous writing on the subject and looking over things I put in my writer’s notebook — ideas, quotes, questions and observations I have about the material I’m working on, doubts, rough sketches of scenes, ramblings, images, and so on.
     I find I forget useful things if I don’t put them down in my notebook.
How might a short story develop?
Well, one of the stories in my collection, in fact, grew out of an image I scribbled in my notebook. It was an image of a guy hauling a bucket up from a well, and inside the bucket was a pet monkey. In the Peace Corps, a friend of mine actually did have a monkey that liked to curl up in the well bucket and take naps. The image stayed with me. In real life, the friend and his monkey were benevolent presences. But when I separated that image from its actual context, there was something lurid and vaguely threatening about it, all of which I tried to capture in the story. I knew that if I could convincingly get to that point in the story — a character hauling up a hellish, screeching monkey from a well — the story would work itself out because the scene was so metaphorically rich and full of possibilities.
Finally, what are you thinking about now in terms of a new book?
I’ve spent the past few years trying to nail down a voice and approach for a novel involving chess and Africa. Ellen and I lived in Burundi, Africa, from ’85–’86, and while we were there, I made some Reagan-era friends with Burundians and Soviets who hosted elaborate chess tournaments. As a writer, I love the incongruity and oddness of having a mismatched group of chess fanatics — I, myself, am a former nationally ranked chess master — indulge their game board fantasies in a developing and largely ignored country with very real problems, a country on the brink of violent change (the early ’90s ethnic violence in Rwanda was played out on a smaller scale, with the sides reversed, in neighboring Burundi). The blindness and moral ambiguities of that “pre-explosion” time, from my vantage point as outsider, are what interest me now; the experience is, to my mind, heavily overlayed with issues of fiction and fictionalizing, so fiction seems the appropriate vehicle.
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