Knopf conducted a Q&A with Eggers to talk about The Parade.
Q: Tell us about the beginnings of The Parade — inspirations and catalysts.
A: The first inkling emerged in 2004, when Valentino Deng and I traveled back to what is now South Sudan. We flew from Nairobi to Lokichoggio, which was then the staging ground for international aid to the South. We were heading to Valentino’s hometown, Marial Bai.
Q: You traveled by road, like the road in The Parade?
A: Well, no, there were no roads that could take you from Kenya all the way to Marial Bai. We had to fly, but there were no commercial flights at the time into South Sudan. The civil war was still going on, though there was a ceasefire in place. So we flew from Nairobi to Lokichoggio, and then Valentino negotiated with some people from a Norwegian aid agency to allow us to sit in the cargo hold of a flight bringing medicine and bicycles into the country.
Q: And you made it to Marial Bai?
A: We did, but first the plane made a bunch of stops, including one in the Nuba Mountains. There we got out for an hour or two, and some of the cargo was unloaded, and while that was happening, out of nowhere a Jeep sped onto the airstrip, full of four or five Western men and women in military gear. Our Russian pilots — at that time it seemed all the pilots going into South Sudan were Russian — told us that these were arms inspectors, there to make sure the plane wasn’t bringing guns into the country. They took their work seriously, but there was a swagger about how they did it, too. They jumped off the Jeep like they were in a music video. That image stuck with me.
Q: The adventure-seeker in a war zone. Is that the model for the character named Nine? I should point out that the two main characters go by assumed names, Four and Nine, given they don’t want to make themselves vulnerable to kidnapping. Four is nicknamed “The Clock” and is more responsible and businesslike, whereas Nine is flighty and unreliable.
A: There’s some of those arms inspectors in Nine. He’s the kind of guy who would leap from a Jeep wearing mirrored sunglasses.
Q: But Four and Nine aren’t UN arms inspectors, and aren’t affiliated with any government.
A: No, they’re just private contractors. They build roads anywhere they’re paid to. On another trip to South Sudan, we saw the beginnings of a massive highway that was being built to connect parts of the south with the north. The way it cut through the forest looked like the path of a tornado. They had just removed every tree and every human dwelling. It was incredible. This was just after the civil war, and was meant to symbolize the connecting of the two previously warring halves of the country.
Q: We would assume the road crews were American, given the US was involved in brokering the peace between the north and south?
A: Well, that’s just the thing. The crew was Swedish. All of the equipment was Swedish. A Swedish crew was building a road through South Sudan.
Q: It would be easy to see this as a comment on American interventions, or Western colonialism. But it seems like you took pains to make sure that no countries were named — not the country the book is set in, and not the nationality of the contractors.
A: American readers are quick to assume the guilty party is always them. There’s a huge swath of our people who assume everything our country does is noble and pure, and there’s a smaller, but very powerful, segment of us who are guilt-ridden Americans, and who assume we’re responsible for, or complicit with, every evil in the world. But both sides suffer from a national narcissism that’s probably a bit unique to the U.S. — good or bad, it’s always about us.
Q: Right. But increasingly, this isn’t true.
A: These contractors, Four and Nine, could be from any industrialized country. Now, for example, the roads in South Sudan, and in much of Africa, are being built by the Chinese. All over the world, for centuries, foreign contractors have built roads, ports, bridges and dams. And often they do so without much concern for how these things aid the host country’s autocratic regimes, or further the misery of the people of that country. Those are themes I’m interested in. I don’t want The Parade to be read as a comment on American interventions, because that would limit its scope, just as it would limit its scope to think of the book as taking place in South Sudan. After seeing that highway being built in South Sudan fifteen years ago, I’ve seen similar infrastructure projects in places like Saudi Arabia and Bosnia, and always there are similarities in the interplay between the foreign workers and the locals.
Q: Such as?
A: There’s an aloofness, for starters — an intentional distance kept, and sometimes with heavy security. I saw that in Papua New Guinea — incredible security there, and contractors being transported around in armed vehicles. And often there’s a sense that the workers want nothing to do with whatever political implications there are to their work. They want to be left alone to do it, get paid, and go home. It’s the same, in a way, with the contractors who built the samples at the Mexican-U.S. border.
Q: The samples of Trump’s prospective wall?
A: About a year ago, I went on a tour with some other journalists, led by Homeland Security and the Border Patrol. We went out to the desert at the border between San Diego and Mexico, and saw the wall samples, and it was profoundly surreal and disturbing. The border guards and the Homeland Security officers were very open and willing to answer any questions, but we weren’t allowed to talk to, or photograph, any of the contractors who had built the wall samples. They disappeared from view pretty quickly. They wanted nothing to do with the controversy around the wall. They just wanted to collect the fees — the contracting companies were paid a significant fee for those samples, by the way — and go home. The role of engineers and laborers who built those samples was connected, in my mind at least, to Four and Nine building their road in The Parade.
Q: They’re just following orders.
A: But maybe they’re doing nothing wrong. It depends on how much we assume they know about the impact of their work. But I’m interested in what motivations and worldview Nine and Four would have brought with him to that work. Were they invested emotionally or intellectually in what was happening, or what had happened, during the civil war? They’re paving a highway that cuts through former battlefields, and they no doubt had to move aside human and mechanical evidence of the war, and they’re passing through all this war-ravaged land, and they have to either remain emotionally closed to it all, or, if they become involved at all, the project could unravel and they could expose themselves to significant danger. It’s easier to remain quiet and do the work.
Q: It seems connected, in a way, to Ishiguro’s butler in The Remains of the Day, who serves as a silent witness to history.
A: Right. I’m interested in characters who are close to the action but have no dog in the fight. Or they haven’t deemed it necessary to pick a side.
Q: When I read The Parade, I thought of Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, another novel where the author purposely doesn’t name the country or time in which it takes place.
A: After I finished The Parade, one of the first people I sent it to was the writer and editor Nyuol Tong, and he mentioned Waiting for the Barbarians right away. I can’t tell you how much I admire Coetzee, and how much his books have meant to me, but I hadn’t read Waiting for the Barbarians. Then I did, and of course found that similar attempt to set the story apart from any one nation or specific period in time. But it’s a story told within a deeply naturalistic setting. Waiting for the Barbarians isn’t a fable, and I wouldn’t call The Parade a fable, either. I’m not sure I could give it a label, but the story’s been with me for a long time now, and it feels good to have exorcised it.