Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng were in Atlanta for a reading last night in support of What is the What. The event was held at the Center for Southern Literature at the Margaret Mitchell House (which we are now supposed to call “The Lit”). It quickly became apparent that the reading was “kind of a big deal.” The line started forming outside at least an hour before the doors opened. When Mrs. Cayenne and I got in line, the woman who lined up behind us called no fewer than three friends to tell them where she was. I’ve been to numerous readings at “The Lit,” and I’ve never seen anything like this. It felt more like a concert than a book reading.
The line stretched down the block when we arrived
Things settled down to proper literary decorum once everyone was inside. It was standing room only when Dave and Velentino were introduced. Rather than launch directly into a reading, Eggers interviewed Deng for about an hour, and they passed the mic back and forth telling Deng’s story. Dave opened with, “Well, Valentino how does it feel to be back in Atlanta?” Given how things go in the book for Valentino during his stay here, he seemed genuinely happy to be back.
There were 10 or so Sudanese men (who had been Lost Boys) in the audience, including the former room mate featured prominently in the novel. Valentino introduced each of them to the audience to wild applause. Deng was also careful to recognize several friends and others in the crowd who had helped him out over the years. He called this the “homecoming” of their joint book tour.
Dave Eggers “a budding writer” and Valentino Achak Deng do their thing
The interview style of the event allowed Valentino to tell parts of his story in his own words. It was a moving evening, and the crowd reacted with spontaneous applause throughout.
After the interview/reading portion of the evening, questions were taken from the audience. In answering someone else’s question, Eggers addressed the question that I was going to ask: how did he make the decision to scrap the original version of the book (as it began to be serialized in The Believer) in favor of how it turned out. The short and paraphrased answer is that he felt that too much of his voice was showing up in the earlier version, because he was narrating events in which he was present and reporting on Deng’s life in a journalistic style. In order to better tell the story and get at its “truth,” he said that he needed to remove himself, inhabit Valentino’s voice, and use some of the tools of fictional story telling. So there you go.
Dave and Valentino signing after the reading
After the reading, we moved across the lawn and into the Margaret Mitchell House itself to get our books signed by Dave and Valentino. I felt a little self-conscious pulling Eggers’ entire catalog out of a bag for his signature. He happily signed everything, which was very cool.
Mrs. Cayenne and I were joined at the reading (and in line) by Frank of TTT and his friend Nicole. Frank recognized Lillian from Criminal Records in the signing line. I found out when we pulled up in front of our house that our neighbor from across the street was also there. It gives me hope that there is a solid audience here for literary events. The trick is getting the authors that we want to see.