In Dave Eggers' New Book, Heroic Kids Do The Heavy Lifting

May 3, 2018
Originally published on May 3, 2018 11:37 pm

These days, it's not uncommon to open up the paper and read about a dying town that lost its factory. Or about families struggling economically. Or about a political battle tearing a community apart.

In his latest book, Dave Eggers folds those elements into a supernatural story for kids. The Lifters is about a young boy who discovers that a dangerous force is literally feeding on the despair in his community — and even threatening his family.

The story is set in a town that once manufactured carnival carousels, which sounds light and fun, but it's actually a pretty dark place. "It's based, a little bit, on some of the small towns in rural Pennsylvania where carousels were manufactured, about a hundred years ago," Eggers says, "and this town was called Carousel, and then to some extent they've forgotten why they even had that name."


Interview Highlights

On Gran, the hero of the story, and his friend Catalina

I don't think he's a loner by choice ... he's new, and instead of being picked on, he's completely ignored. Gran is so sure that maybe he doesn't even exist that he runs into a brick wall just to prove he's three-dimensional. So I wanted Gran to have that kind of sensitivity, but Catalina ultimately bolsters him and gives him a purpose, you know, which I think so many kids want — like a task, a responsibility, sort of — they're heroes in waiting, really, they just want to be given the opportunity to prove it.

On having kids read his story

They're astoundingly good editors. They will tell you exactly what's working, exactly what's not working. I took every last edit from every one of these kids. They are the purest readers. They do want to be entertained, and I'll say that sometimes they are easier to please, for sure, than cynical adult readers, because it's all new to them — so this might have been, like, the seventh chapter book some of these kids read, or the second or the third. So that's why I feel honored to be part of their reading experience at such a young age, because I remember every last book I read in that era. I was not, like, a voracious reader, so I remember the one or two books a year that I read when I was ten and 11 and 12, because I had to be dragged kicking and screaming to a chapter book at that age.

On what he wants kids to take from the book

I want them to feel power in their own abilities. Courage matters, bravery matters, and if you lead, there will be people that will be follow — those are some of the things I'm hoping readers will take away, and then there's a lot of good cheap jokes, too.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

These days, it's not uncommon to open up the paper and read about a dying town that's lost its factory or about families struggling economically or about a political battle tearing a community apart. In his latest book, Dave Eggers folds those elements into a supernatural story for young readers about a boy who discovers that a dangerous force is literally feeding on the despair in his town and even threatens his family. It's called "The Lifters." And he's here to talk more about it. Dave Eggers, welcome to the program.

DAVE EGGERS: Thank you.

CORNISH: So this story is set in a town that once manufactured carnival carousels, which sounds very light and fun. But it's a pretty dark place, and it manifests itself in ways kind of big and small. And I wanted you to maybe talk a little bit about that, like how you depict that through the eyes of a kid who in this story - I think he's about 12.

EGGERS: Yeah, he's 12, and he just moved to this town. It's based a little bit on some of the small towns in rural Pennsylvania where carousels were manufactured about a hundred years ago. And this town was called Carousel. And then to some extent, they've forgotten why they've - were even had that name. He comes as an outsider, and he doesn't know anything about that history either. But slowly he and his sort of partner in crime, 12-year-old girl named Catalina Catalan, discover the history of the town while trying to save it.

CORNISH: Right. The hero of this story - his name is Gran, short for Granite. And he's - I guess you would call him a loner at Carousel Middle School. Although it's kind of worse than being picked on. I mean, he's completely ignored.

EGGERS: Yeah, I don't think he's a loner by choice.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

EGGERS: He's a loner by the decision of the rest of the school to see through him. He's new, and instead of being picked on, he's completely ignored. Gran is so sure that maybe he doesn't even exist that he runs into a brick wall just to prove that he's three-dimensional. So I wanted Gran to have that kind of sensitivity. But Catalina ultimately bolsters him and gives him a purpose, you know, which I think so many kids want - just, like, a task, a responsibility, some sort of - they're heroes in waiting, really. They just want to be given the opportunity to prove it.

CORNISH: These kids do find a mission because the book starts out this mystery of them - of these sinkholes and building collapses in the town. And you come to understand that once they stumble on these underground tunnels, that their job is to literally prop up the foundations of the town - right? - using essentially junk and - I don't know - the flotsam (laughter) of the manufacturing town.

EGGERS: Yeah, hockey sticks, old poles, gutters, you know, anything that's sort of vertical and could be used as a support. And so everything that lives and breathes above-ground relies on these two young people to prop it all up underground.

CORNISH: At one point, there's a rallying cry from a leader in this effort - right? - to save the town, which I almost printed out to put over my desk, which said, the work ahead will tire us and will frustrate us, and victories will be brief and quickly reversed. Who among you is unwilling?

EGGERS: Yeah, that was the head lifter. You know, these kids that sort of are in charge of holding up the town and towns all over the world are called lifters, and that was the head lifter who said that when they're all at a convention of lifters deep in the inner mantle of the earth basically.

CORNISH: But the idea that, like, change is...

EGGERS: Thanks for quoting that. I forgot about that.

CORNISH: (Laughter) Change is hard. It doesn't work at first, (laughter) right? Like, it might not take the first couple of times. It's a rough lesson.

EGGERS: I had kids read this. So I have, like, student readers who read the book and marked it up and told me what was working and what they liked. And everybody loved that speech and that time when all the lifters were gathered. And it just shows, like, kids want to be heroes, and they want to be given that sort of higher purpose. And I think we've got to respect that and give them chances to bring it out.

CORNISH: Can I ask what other notes your student readers gave you (laughter)?

EGGERS: They're astoundingly good editors. They will tell you exactly what's working, exactly what's not working. I took every last edit...

CORNISH: Oh, really?

EGGERS: ...From every last of these kids - oh, yeah.

CORNISH: I'm just imagining a kid writing, like, overwritten...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...Like, adverb use.

(LAUGHTER)

EGGERS: You know what? They are the purest readers. They do want to be entertained. And I'll say that sometimes they are easier to please for sure than cynical adult readers because it's all new to them. So this might've been, like, the seventh chapter book some of these kids read or the second or the third. So that's why I feel honored to be part of their reading experience at such a young age 'cause I remember every last book I read in that era. You know, I was not, like, a voracious reader, so I remember that one or two books a year I'd read when I was 10 and 11 and 12 because I had to be dragged kicking and screaming into a chapter book at that age.

CORNISH: In the end, what do you want kids to walk away feeling?

EGGERS: I want them to feel power in their own abilities. And courage matters. Bravery matters. And if you leave, there will be people that will follow. And so those are some of the things I'm hoping readers might take away. And then there's a lot of good, cheap jokes, too.

CORNISH: (Laughter) Dave Eggers - his new book is called "The Lifters." Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

EGGERS: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.