The Captain and the Glory is a savage satire of the United States in the throes of insanity. The novel tells the story of a noble ship, the Glory, and the loud, clownish, and foul Captain who steers it to the brink of disaster.
Knopf conducted a Q&A with Eggers to talk about this new book, which comes out this November.
Q: When did you begin writing this book? Tell us about how it started.
A: I’d been covering the Trump era as a journalist since back in August of 2016, and I think like most writers, and most humans, trying to convey the madness of the time was hard to do in journalism. Or rather, in my reporting, when I met actual Trump supporters, they were always far more sane and reasonable than Trump himself, so it created this weird paradox, where at a Trump rally, for example, by far the craziest person in the stadium was Trump himself. So I’d get to know Trump supporters and go home and feel almost pacified by their reasonableness. I’d temporarily forget the towering crimes and cruelty perpetuated by the man. This book was the opposite of the kindly conversation with the reasonable Trump supporter. This was an attempt to understand this era by painting it in the gaudy and garish colors it really deserves.
Q: Careful readers will notice a resemblance to a certain sitting U.S. President, but that person’s name doesn’t appear in the text. Why?
A: This is part farce, part parable, and I do hope, though the Captain bears more than a passing a resemblance to Trump, that the book will be readable when Trump is gone. That’s part of the reason I called it “An entertainment” on the title page. It’s a nod to Graham Greene but also the way I hope people will read it. It was cathartic to write and I hope cathartic to read.
Q: Inevitably there will be more tragedy, more jaw-dropping incompetence and cruelty under our current leadership. Why publish it now?
A: I think we need satire in real time to help us deal with this moment. Otherwise the pain is too great.
Q: The subject matter is dire, but the book is laugh-out-loud funny throughout. How did you balance that? And how have readers responded to that aspect?
A: I had a blast writing it, because I abandoned logic and rationality, which is both part of the Trump era, and crucial to comedy.
Q: Tell us about the illustrations — by Nathaniel Russell — and what they add to the text.
A: An editor I work with, Em-J Staples, knew Nat’s work, and connected us. When I was finishing the text, I ran across an edition of James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks, with art by Marc Simont. It worked so well, and in color it added so much, so I asked Nat to imagine the characters any way he saw fit, so long as the tone was sinister. I wanted that juxtaposition of the text’s manic energy with a kind of cool brutality to the artwork.
Q: During the course of writing it, did you do anything different than you usually do in terms of keeping up with current news events?
A: I keep up with the news far too much for a healthy life. But I did have to give up trying to include every last Trumpian crime in the book. The novel has a specific take on this moment, and it doesn’t try to cover everything — that would be futile. Once the nature of the story was in place, that it involved a ship and its passengers and an unsteady captain, I let the narrative run its course without trying to mirror everything Trump has actually done. It’s more a look at how someone like Trump would operate in such a situation, and what ultimately motivates him, which is really naked fear.
Q: The Captain and the Glory looks at the current U.S. political situation a step or two removed from how we’re experiencing it now, which essentially feels like an international perspective. Did you intentionally consider how other nations are viewing what’s unfolding here as you were writing?
A: Weirdly, I finished writing the book in Idaho, which is about as American as you could get. But I do think we all need some remove from the day-to-day events to see clearly what’s been happening. Setting the events on a ship gives the story some sense of containment, and giving this story an ending, I think, is comforting at a moment where we really don’t know where we’re heading.
Q: The book’s youngest character is also the one who shows the most leadership and strength. Is that a reflection of how you view the world as it is now — or how believe the world should be?
A: I do think young people have a moral clarity that we often lack as adults. They see through the bullshit and call a crime a crime. Yesterday Trump, in front of multiple cameras, asked China to investigate Joe Biden, his possible opponent in the next election. That’s impeachable on its face, and yet the news coverage, and Congressional reaction, has been muted and equivocal. We’re either numb, or no longer able to tell the difference between surreal television and actual crimes against our democracy. Yesterday represented both. Ana, the young girl in the story, represents, I think, our better American selves, and she’s just flat-out heartbroken by her compatriots’ embrace of and fealty to the very worst human on the ship. In a way, this goes back to my journalism. I’ve been to a bunch of Trump rallies and have interviewed so many normal people who rationalize their support of him, and I always leave feeling almost calm, having met a startlingly diverse group of reasonable people who have in common their support of this man. That’s the adult part of me, who sees all the nuances and can empathize with where these Trump voters are coming from. But then there’s the Ana part of me, part of so many of us, that’s screaming out, who just can’t believe that we’ve lowered our standards so much that among 320 million people, we expect and embrace the most foul and cretinous lunatic of us all.