Dave Eggers’s latest book, The Eyes and the Impossible, is the story of a dog named Johannes. Johannes is a free dog, a fast dog—such a fast dog! He lives in an urban park by the sea, and every day, he runs through the park, seeing all, missing nothing, and reporting what he sees to the park’s three ancient Bison, the Keepers of the Equilibrium. But the Equilibrium has been disrupted.
Gorgeously illustrated throughout by Shawn Harris,The Eyes and the Impossible is a lyrical, soulful book full of wit and passion—a timeless story for readers of all ages. To celebrate the release of a new, oversized edition, we present an interview with Dave and editor Taylor Norman.
TAYLOR NORMAN: Can you tell us about an important dog in your life?
DAVE EGGERS: You know, I’ve never had a dog.
TN: Oh, come on.
DE: We only had cats. I grew up with various cats, and now we have two free-range cats, Dwayne and Clyde, who are very complicated souls who also shed voluminously. But I do love dogs, and have drawn pictures of a hundred or so dogs over the years, and I feel weirdly connected to them. Something about their need to run and see.
TN: Well, I do have a dog, and this year, I’ve vowed to try and follow his tendencies: instead of dreading everything that isn’t reading a book, I’m trying to look forward to every next thing. What makes a dog a uniquely interesting perspective on the world?
DE: That’s just it. Generally speaking, dogs are optimists. They always want to leave the house, believing there’s going to be something out there utterly fascinating and new. And they’re easy to please: that fascinating thing can be a skunk carcass, a moldy piece of havarti, or a just about any person. Doesn’t matter. And they forgive easily and constantly.
TN: Were there any moments while writing as a dog that you either found human knowledge hard to discard—or when you were finished writing for the day, a particularly dog-like observation that you found hard to shake? A revelation that arrived thanks to Johannes?
DE: There’s not that much difference between the way Johannes sees the world and the way I do when I’m moving through nature. I was just in Golden Gate Park today on my bike, and my thoughts could have easily been Johannes’s. That exultation in speed, moving quickly through green fragrant space.
TN: San Francisco readers will initially assume the book takes place in Golden Gate Park, but at a certain point, the setting in the novel departs from the exact parameters of the actual park. Why did you give the book the setting you did?
DE: Local readers will definitely see the homages to Golden Gate Park, but Johannes’s park is its own fictional place, and near the end there are some revelations that radically reorient the reader geographically. (I don’t know if you caught that, but that was me inserting intrigue into the minds of potential readers.) But I will say, the creators of Golden Gate Park, who built that vast wild and green space out of miles of sand dunes, were visionaries who gave us a great gift.
TN: One such homage: there are bison in Golden Gate Park, and bison in your book. Why bison?
DE: Bison are hard to read. They don’t seem happy, ever. I’ve seen them in the wild, and in the semi-wild—in a big bison park in Idaho—and I’ve seen them in Golden Gate Park. In no place do they seem like joyful animals. Wouldn’t that be strange, to know that certain animals experience joy, while others can’t? What if bison, as a species, were dyspeptic curmudgeons? The bison-keeper I met in McCall, Idaho, had been keeping bison for decades, and still couldn’t walk among them without fear of being gored. They did not like him, at all.
TN: In The Eyes and the Impossible, they seem to me to be wise.
DE: They’re not adventurous or fun, so they might as well be wise. They’re surrogate parents to Johannes. They have that grandparently presence—slow-moving, kind, accepting. They trust Johannes, and have a lot of faith in him. That’s something good grandparents do— seeing the best in a young person, always seeing the best version of their grandchildren.
TN: There are very few books written about friendship. At its core, one of the things The Eyes and the Impossible is most interested in is the value of true friendship in one’s life—loyalty to one’s friends, of course, but also sacrifices for friends. Sacrifices of one’s own certainty, sacrifices of time and energy, sure, but even sometimes sacrifices of the friendship for the sake of the friend. Johannes and his friends have complicated, variable, changing relationships, but their commitment to each other is so deep that it can sustain disagreement, difficulty, and ducks. Can you talk about why you decided to create a cast of characters who are devoted friends rather than a sprawling family? Why is the love of a friend more powerful than the love of a family member?
DE: I don’t know if the love of a friend is more powerful than that of a family member, but it’s definitely less talked about. That’s why, in art, depictions of committed friendships hit us so hard. Johannes and his friends show up, and don’t ever question whether any of their group will show up. It’s a given that they will be there. A lot of friendship is just a matter of presence over time. Being there year after year, showing up at good times, at banal times, and times of great struggle. The animals in the book are all adults, alone but for each other, and best of all, they’re united by a common purpose. Nothing is better than that—having something urgent to do, and doing it with the people you love.
TN: Johannes is shaken out of his own well-worn ruts when he experiences art for the first time. Can you remember the first time you felt moved by a piece of art? Were you conscious at the time of how important it was, to be so moved? As much as it’s possible to generalize about such things, when are you apt to find yourself swept aside by art? Can you create these conditions, or is emotion in relation to art necessarily a visceral, unpredictable thing?
DE: Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” was probably the first painting that I remember studying for hours, seeing how it worked, the chiaroscuro, the silver, all that drama, and all those diagonals and flourishes. He did everything well. This still happens to me once a week—when someone puts colors and shapes together in a new way, it floors me. The first time I saw the work of Kehinde Wiley, I thought, Well, painting can’t be better than that. Same with Neo Rauch. That’s what happens to Johannes. He sees certain paintings and goes catatonic in a kind of visual stupor.
TN: There are a few stances Johannes takes, and skills he has, which he speaks about so passionately it’s hard not to imagine you, the author, share his perspective to some extent—for example: running, ducks, and cars beeping when they back up. Are any of these passionate stances ones you share? If not, what did you see or think of that conjured them on Johannes’s behalf?
DE: In the book, the animals find the ducks flaky and unreliable. Which they prove to be. But I don’t have any problem with ducks myself. I have many duck friends who are great. In terms of humans, I do find the beeping-while-backing-up thing one of the weirder things our species has invented. For a while our household owned a Prius, which beeped inside the car. You would put the car in reverse, and then it would beep to tell you the car you yourself put in reverse was indeed going in reverse. You can imagine the guy in the engineering department at Toyota, always raising his hand to add more beeping.
TN: What is the value of nestling such a park within a city, for example; why situate this book here rather than in a forest? Johannes himself has two paws in two places—wild and domestic. Did you find any interesting resonance in creating a character whose demi-domestication mirrored the place he lived, a contained wilderness rather than a fully wild place?
DE: I love that some urban parks here in Northern California are still very wild—very often they border the ocean or larger state or federal parks, and they have a vast array of wildlife within. The interactions with humans are going to be fraught, always, but it can work. Golden Gate Park, for instance, has stayed more or less the same for a hundred years, and as long as we don’t keep putting new things inside it, as long as we leave most of it loose and unmanicured, there will be animals, and the animals can have some semblance of freedom.
TN: Which of these characters do you still find yourself thinking about, months after leaving them behind?
DE: Johannes, of course. Of the other characters, Bertrand and Sonja and Helena. I know it’s a debatable topic, but I do think sometimes the characters you write can grow beyond your original conception of them. Sonja, for example, was a minor character when I began the book. I grew up with a one-eyed squirrel living in our backyard, who came to our door once a day asking for food, but always tentatively, even after years and years. Sonja is a version of that squirrel; she’s never sure she’s fully invited to any gathering, even after ages with the same group of friends. In the book, Sonja grew and grew, and there were times I’d type something she said really before I had thought about what she’d say. She was just a few seconds ahead of me, if that makes sense. And Bertrand’s last few scenes—those weren’t at all what I planned early in writing the book. The character that emerged was more complicated than I’d conceived, and so his arc got more complicated, stranger.
TN: While still being noble, even heroic.
DE: Bertrand is noble, but his heroism is complicated by his awareness of it, his pride in it. His pride pushes it into pathos, at least for a moment or two.
TN: But there’s nothing better than integrity in a character. We’re so relieved when we finally see someone in fiction do something right.
DE: Well, there’s nothing better than writing a noble character. You get to think, What would be the very best thing someone could do here? That’s Bertrand. And being a seagull, he can fly, which is a plus.
TN: You’re publishing this new book simultaneously in one edition for adults and another for children, and you’re calling both “all ages.” Why specifically is it important that this book be read by readers of all ages?
DE: I see both editions as all-ages, for everyone. I miss the term “all-ages.” After The Eyes came out, a friend recommended Randall Jarrell’s books, which I hadn’t read. That was embarrassing, given Maurice Sendak illustrated some of them, and I usually think I’m aware of most of what Sendak did. Anyway, I bought The Animal Family, which is about as gorgeous a book as you can find. And you look up and down on every inch of the jacket, and there’s nothing that says what age group it’s for. It’s just a book about a man who falls in love with a mermaid, and they live in a cabin with a bear and a lynx and eventually some other animals. So on the surface you might see it as being for kids, but it it’s for anyone and everyone.
TN: Mermaids, lynxes, and bears. Those used to be pretty standard ingredients for adult best-sellers.
DE: I do miss that era, when a book was a book. I love the idea that anyone can feel welcome to read a certain book, without feeling they’re too old or too young. Books like Charlotte’s Web, and Hatchet, and Holes, and anything by Kate DiCamillo or Jason Reynolds—these are the books that come to mind. These are beautifully written books of unimproveable writing. I remember reading Mr. Popper’s Penguins to my kids and feeling that it was completely fulfilling for all of us. These all-ages books move quickly, there’s excitement and joy on every page—there’s a pure reading pleasure there. So that was my goal with The Eyes and the Impossible, to allow it to be readable by anyone, to be totally agnostic to the readership. I didn’t make any choices to make it appropriate for this or that age group. I didn’t edit a word or change a phrase with a certain audience in mind. It really just came out the way it was meant to be.
TN: In a few weeks, you’ll release an oversized edition of the book. Can you talk about that?
DE: Shawn Harris and I spent four years going back and forth on the wooden edition, with at least six different iterations, tests and more tests. We looked back and realized our first sketches for the book were from 2019! And when the wooden edition came out, we were so happy with it, that it only made sense to do a limited-edition oversized version. It’s 11″ x 17″ and weighs about twenty pounds.
TN: Sort of like those oversized teacher’s editions meant for reading aloud.
DE: For years I had a big, beautiful copy of Chris Van Dusen’s The Circus Ship. It was about three feet wide. I just love that format — the preposterously large book. So we asked our printer if they could make everything from our regular wooden edition of The Eyes exactly the same, but three times bigger. We printed five hundred copies.
TN: The result is ludicrous.
DE: It gives me great joy.
To order the regular-sized wooden edition of The Eyes & the Impossible, click here.
To order the preposterously sized wooden edition of The Eyes & the Impossible, click here.
Taylor Norman is the Executive Editor at Neal Porter Books. Previously, she was an editor at Chronicle Books, where she edited many of Dave’s picture books. She edited The Eyes and the Impossible freelance for McSweeney’s.