Eggers’s new book, A Hologram for the King, tells the story of an ex-Schwinn executive who travels to Saudi Arabia for financial salvation. Devin Leonard chats with Eggers about the decline of manufacturing and why he prints his books in the U.S.
Why write a novel about business?
Well, first of all I have been running a series of small businesses since I got out of college—since I was 12, really, with lawn cutting and snow shoveling and gardening and running summer camps. So it’s familiar. But as I read more and more about the decline of manufacturing, I was surprised at how much it tugged at me. I have a lot of friends that have been or still are in manufacturing. Over the last 15 years or so, I would check in with them and see how it was going and talk to them about what they had to move abroad or what they didn’t. So I started thinking about a guy at middle age, like Alan Clay, who might have been part of a lot of the outsourcing, unwittingly or not.
Clay’s 54, and he’s spent most of his career at Schwinn before losing his job and trying to make it on his own. Why Schwinn?
I am a bike enthusiast; there’s a certain amount of romance to bikes. They’re both beautiful and utilitarian. Schwinn was in almost every childhood. And I grew up 20 miles from the Schwinn factory [in Chicago]. It felt very personal to me that it was so close.
Is the Schwinn stuff historically accurate?
I did a lot of research about Schwinn. In particular, there was a book called No Hands. The history of Schwinn followed such a familiar playbook of a company that became not very nimble. There wasn’t a whole lot of vision. There was a certain amount of arrogance. Still, they were part of the city’s fabric and identity. So when they first moved to Mississippi and then out to Taiwan and China, it was sad for a lot of people. When I went back and read what the newspapers were saying back then, there was, you know, obituary after obituary. … It hit the town hard on a psychic level, not just the jobs level. And there was the familiar story line of shopping out more and more of the manufacturing process.
You pack Alan off to KAEC—King Abdullah Economic City—an unfinished “megaproject” in Saudi Arabia.
KAEC [“cake”] was kind of the real catalyst for the book. My brother-in-law had been to KAEC about three and a half years ago. I thought it was fascinating, this notion that you could pick a spot in the desert and decide that you are going to build a city from scratch. And it seemed like the perfect metaphor for a guy that’s pretty far off course.
Did you wind up visiting the city?
I went there two years ago. I flew into Jeddah and spent many days just sort of wandering around the city-to-be and meeting many of the people who work there. It was everything I had hoped—just as surreal as I imagined. At that point, it was literally three buildings by the Red Sea. Most construction had stalled because some of the partners were in trouble financially. King Abdullah, with all his money, could decide to build a city overnight if he wanted to, but somehow they were waiting for Holiday Inn (IHG) to buy in. They were waiting for California Pizza Kitchen to sign a lease. I thought it would be an appropriate place to put a man at that crossroads where he is subject to whims or a lack of will.
Several characters in the novel talk about the decline of America’s can-do spirit. One observation that sticks out is from the architect at a party in KAEC, “… in the U.S. now there’s not that kind of dreaming happening. It’s on hold.”
You know, I interviewed a noted architect who designed the financial center for KAEC. I saw an American name on the plan, and so I looked him up and it turns out he was part of the Burj Dubai design team, and he has designed, I don’t know, four of the top 10 tallest buildings in the world. But all in Dubai and China and other parts of Asia. None of them are in the U.S. When I called him, he said, “Oh boy, I can’t remember the last time I did something in the U.S.” He went on and on about why that was. He would love to, but he said that those very bold dreams and visions, and also the wherewithal and political acumen and will—it isn’t really there. Of course, architects like places like Dubai because they aren’t democratic countries. They aren’t subject to the same sort of political push and pull and voices being heard.
The architect aside, do you think that American can-do spirit has moved elsewhere?
Well, the architect wants it to be otherwise, and Alan wants it to be otherwise, but it’s not in the air right now.
Bringing it back to you as an entrepreneur, you make a point of thanking a Michigan-based printer in the book’s acknowledgments. Was it important to have your novel about globalization produced in the U.S.?
It’s funny—we’ve been publishing for about 13 years, and we started by printing in Iceland. That was really done because I wanted to spend more time in Iceland. Our books were printed outside of Reykjavik by Icelanders in blue jumpsuits. But then those prices were too high. And it was not very practical. So we started printing mostly in the U.S. and Canada. Then, some years ago for the higher-end art books, we were printing some of those in China and Singapore. But we had some problems with the printers in terms of communication and shipping and customs. It takes a long time to print something in Asia, and so we just started bringing more of our production back to the U.S.
Two years ago, I learned of this printer. We have a nonprofit writing and tutoring center outside Detroit. Thomson-Shore was providing pro bono printing of student work and doing these beautiful books. So I went to visit them and found it was a relatively small plant in the middle of homes and farms. They did exceedingly high-quality work and had an archival bindery, too, and so I just was really taken with the whole enterprise. We started getting estimates from them, and they were competitive. It’s so easy to print in the Midwest. You’re saving months in shipping and customs, so we have started printing a number of books there. We were really gratified to see how well this one turned out. When I tell people what we paid per unit, they can’t believe it, because it’s right in line with any other hardcover book. Here and there you’re seeing other people bringing manufacturing back for all those same reasons. We’ll see. I hope it starts a trend.