"Genius" at work
A conversation with David Foster Wallace
by Tom Scocca
"I'VE NEVER BEEN considered Press before," writes David Foster Wallace at the
beginning of his 1993 essay "Getting Away from Already Pretty Much Being Away
from It All." That may be technically true; when Harper's sent Wallace
to do the piece, for which he was issued press credentials and explored the
Illinois State Fair, he went as a novelist on a lark. Still, reading that
disclaimer now feels a bit like watching an ingenue fumble with a pool
cue before running the table: the 55-page piece, like most of the other six
essays gathered in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, is a
masterly example of nonfiction.
Wallace's reputation still rests mainly on his fiction, especially 1996's
1079-page Infinite Jest (Little, Brown). But the humor and intellectual
deftness that made the 35-year-old Wallace a hot young property in the world of
literary novels -- he won a MacArthur "genius" grant last year, and the words
virtuosity and brilliance tend to tumble across his blurb pages
-- also make him a captivating reporter. The writing in A Supposedly Fun
Thing, the 1997 collection of his magazine work now reissued in paperback,
has the sort of conceptual and stylistic force that gets a writer talked about
as a generational icon. The title essay, a 96-page account (including 137 of
Wallace's distinctive footnotes) of a seven-day Caribbean luxury cruise, has
assumed epochal status; Phoenix book reviewer Jordan Ellenberg called
another essay -- the athlete profile "Tennis Player Michael Joyce's
Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom,
Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness" -- "the best piece of
sports writing I have ever read."
In advance of Wallace's reading at the Boston Public Library (on Wednesday, February 25 at 6:30 p.m.) on his A Supposedly Fun Thing
paperback tour, he spoke to the Phoenix by phone from his home in
Q: Okay, for basic reader orientation, are you doing this from
A: Yes, sir.
Q: Are you looking forward to seeing Boston?
A: Yeah. I was there last year, and I read at the Brattle Theatre. Last
night I went and saw Good Will Hunting, which takes place not exactly
where I used to live, in Boston, but pretty darn close, so I've been all flush
with nostalgia for it. I was in Boston from summer of '89 until spring of
Q: So what did you think of Good Will Hunting?
A: I think it's the ultimate nerd fantasy movie. It's a bit of a fairy
tale, but I enjoyed it a lot. Minnie Driver is really to fall sideways for. And
there's all kinds of cool stuff. It's actually a movie that's got calculus in
it. It takes place in Boston.
One guy I talked to who saw it described it as a cross between Ordinary
People and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. If you see it, you'll see
that that's not un-germane. Do you remember The Computer Wore Tennis
Shoes? It's got Kurt Russell. There's an electrical accident in the
computer room when he's a student in some college. It's like the old sci-fi,
toxic-accident-turns-him-into-Spiderman thing. These are great old computers,
with like reel-to-reel tapes running back and forth, and it apparently injects
him with every bit of data known to man, and he goes on College Bowl. You
should check it out. Disney, I think '69, '70.
Q: How do the different kinds of writing differ for you, fiction
A: Golly. You know, I'm not a journalist and I don't pretend to be one,
and most of the pieces in the book were assigned to me with these maddening
instructions like, "Just go to a certain spot, and kind of turn 360 degrees a
few times and tell us what you see."
I'll be honest: I think of myself as a fiction writer. Fiction's more
important for me, so I'm more scared and tense about fiction, more worried
about whether I'm any good or not. The weird thing is that when a couple of the
nonfiction pieces got attention, then other magazines started to call. And then
I start thinking of myself as doing that, too, and Mr. Ego gets in there and I
begin worrying and sweating over that stuff.
Q: As you're getting more offers, are there things you don't
want to write about?
A: Well, I've decided I'm not going to do any more nonfiction for a
while, 'cause I'll use that as an excuse not to work on fiction. The funny
thing is, I think magazines are all so desperate for stuff that -- when was it?
There was that really long piece about the cruise, and a version of it appeared
in Harper's, and for I think about six days I was really hot with these
editors. There was one offer to go to a nudist colony and write about being in
a nudist colony, and there was one offer -- Elizabeth Taylor was having the
product launch of some new perfume, which bizarrely was being held at an Air
Force base. There was an offer to interview David Bowie. I don't know anything
about David Bowie. For a while there were all these offers and it was really
neat. I took a couple that I thought were going to be kind of interesting to
me, but most of them I just kind of laughed and said, Thanks anyway.
Q: There are several places around the book where you lay down a
challenge to the editors -- where you say that they probably won't like this,
or they'll cut this. Were there some of those that didn't make it into the
original magazine articles?
A: Well, the reason for doing the book -- other than the fact that
Little, Brown said they'd publish it, and I of course am a whore -- is that
this was the chance to do the long, original versions of these things that had
gone through meat grinders in various magazines.
I'd worked really hard on these things, and then magazines sliced and diced
them, and here was the chance to do kind of a director's cut. [Laughs.] You
don't have to put in the thing about me being a whore -- by which I simply
meant it's just a big thrill to have a publishing company be willing to publish
one of your books.
Q: How long was the initial version of the title essay [about the
cruise], and how much writing time did that represent?
A: I always try to fool the magazine editors by sending stuff
single-spaced, in eight-point font. Which of course insults them because they
think, what, I think they're idiots? So then they call me up and get pissed and
I send it back in 12-point font, double-spaced. I think the cruise essay was
about 110 pages, and it ended up getting cut just about in half. And every time
I'd bitch and moan to Harper's they would say, Well, this is still going
to be the longest thing we've ever put in Harper's. At which point I
would have to shut up or look like an even bigger prima donna than I am.
But the cruise thing took almost three months to do, and then it took
another two weeks -- I had to go to New York and sit in a room with the editor.
It was very exciting. Rewrote the ending like an hour before they had to wrap
the magazine. It was like that moment in Broadcast News when Joan Cusack
was having to run through the hallway to get the tape to Jack Nicholson in time
to run it. Kind of like my peak moment in the magazine industry, and it was one
I'll always remember.
Q: How do you handle being responsible for facts -- after writing
fiction, coming to a genre where the things you say have to be on some level
A: The thing is, really, between you and me and the Boston
Phoenix's understanding readers, you hire a fiction writer to do
nonfiction, there's going to be the occasional bit of embellishment. Not to
mention the fact that when people tell you stuff, very often it comes out real
stilted, if you just write down exactly what they said. You sort of have to
rewrite it so it sounds more out loud, which I think means putting in some
likes or taking out punctuation that the person might originally have
said. And I don't really make any apologies for that.
Q: Have you heard back from the people that you're writing about?
Trudy [in "A Supposedly Fun Thing"] especially comes to mind --
Q: -- who you described as looking like --
A: That was a very, very bad scene, because they were really nice to me
on the cruise and actually sent me a couple cards and were looking forward to
the thing coming out, and then it came out, and I never heard from them
The thing is, saying that somebody looks like Jackie Gleason in drag -- it
might not be very nice, but if you could have seen her, it was true. It
was just absolutely true.
One reason why I don't do a lot of these is that there's a real delicate
balance between fucking somebody over and telling the truth to the reader. The
Michael Joyce essay was really, really upsetting. It was originally
commissioned by a different magazine, and I screwed up, because I really got to
like this kid. There was some stuff that he told me and then asked me not to
print, and I didn't. But I, dickhead that I am, made the mistake of telling the
magazine this, and they ended up killing the piece.
One reason why I might have put in some not-particularly-kind stuff on the
cruise is that I felt like I'd learned my lesson. I wasn't going to hurt
anybody, but I was going to tell the truth. I couldn't worry so about Trudy's
feelings that I couldn't say the truth, which was -- you know, a terrific,
really nice, and not unattractive lady who did happen to look just like Jackie
Gleason in drag.
Q: Your footnotes have a way of making the reader break stride, or
have to loop around and backtrack. How hard do you want the reader to have to
A: I don't really think that way, because I don't want to go down that
path of trying to anticipate, like a chess player, every reader's reaction. The
honest thing is, the footnotes were an intentional, programmatic part of
Infinite Jest, and you get sort of addicted to them. A lot of these
pieces were written around the time that I was typing and working on
Infinite Jest. It's a kind of loopy way of thinking that it seems to me
is in some ways mimetic.
I don't know about you, but certainly the way I think about things and
experience things is not particularly linear, and it's not orderly, and it's
not pyramidical, and there are a lot of loops.
Most of the nonfiction pieces are basically just: Look, I'm not a great
journalist, and I can't interview anybody. But what I can do is slice open my
head for you, and let you see a cross-section of an averagely bright person's
head. And in a way, the footnotes I think are better representations of thought
patterns and fact patterns.
The tricky thing with the footnotes is that they are an irritant, and they
require a little extra work, and so they either have to be really germane or
they have to be fun to read. It does get to be a problem, though, when every
single gag that occurs to me, I think I can toss in as a footnote. The most
heavily cut thing in the book was the David Lynch essay. The book editor had me
cut like a third of it, and a lot of it was footnotes that were just gags. And
I think he had a good point.
Q: How much gag writing do you do? To what extent do you try to be
A: [Sighs.] I'll tell you, I think another reason I'm not doing any
more of these for a while is that by the end there really was kind of a schtick
emerging: the somewhat neurotic, hyperconscious guy showing you how weird this
thing is that not everybody thinks is weird. I think it's more trying to notice
stuff that everybody else notices but they don't really notice that they
notice. Which I think a fair number of good comedians do, too.
Q: I mean, when you have something like the oil rigs "bobbing
fellatially" . . .
A: Yeah, except that's exactly how it looks.
Q: That is exactly how they look, but it's funny enough to
. . .
A: But that was another big fight, 'cause I originally had
fellatically, which I thought sounded better and had more of a kind of
harsh, glottal, fellatiatory sound, and then the copyeditor goes, "There's no
such word, we've got to say fellatially," and I think that sounds like
palatially, and I don't like it, and so 48 hours is spent
thumb-wrestling over this bullshit.
Q: You said there was a period of time, like six days, when you were
really hot with magazine editors. How's the whole pendulum of fame
A: The degree of fame we're talking about here -- getting hot as a
writer for six days is equivalent to a fan base of, like, a local TV
weatherman, right? Magazines are certainly not calling every day to ask me to
do stuff anymore, which to be honest is something of a relief, 'cause there's
other stuff I'm working on.
I've been doing this since the mid-'80s, and so, since the mid-'80s, I've
watched I don't know how many writers get hot and then not get hot, and then
get hot again, and then not get hot. A lot of it is just the peristalsis of the
industry. The industry, I think, is so pressed, and so anxious to create heat
and buzz around specific people. It's the same way movies are, the same way
music is, although the amount of money at stake in books is vanishingly small.
It's nice when the phone doesn't ring as much, and it's not very good for me
when people treat me like a big shot, because then I get puffed up inside. But
other than that, it doesn't really make much difference.
Q: How big does the big-shot treatment get?
A: I remember giving a reading at a bookstore in Harvard Square. It was
December of '91, and Harper's had this whole idea that they were going
to put on these readings. The Harper's PR person came to Boston, and I
came and I gave a reading, and nobody showed up. There was a snowstorm, but the
basic point is, nobody showed up. So me and the PR guy went out and ate, like,
three pieces of cake each and apologized to each other for three hours.
So, being used to that kind of stuff, giving a reading in New York and
having some people not be able to get in is weird, and it makes you feel like
you're a big shot. Temporarily. The Sauron-like eye of the culture passes over
you, like in Lord of the Rings. You're old enough to know Lord of the
Rings. A bitchingly good read, I think.
Q: Are there any nonfiction writers who've inspired your work?
A: Ever since I was in college, I've been an enormous fan of both Joan
Didion and Pauline Kael. And, I don't know . . . I think prosewise,
Pauline Kael is unequaled. Maybe John McPhee, at his very best, is as good. I
don't know what influence they have, but in terms of just being a slobbering
fan of . . . Frank Conroy's first book, Tobias Wolff's This Boy's
Life. Oh, God, there's a book by a mathematician named Hardy at Oxford
called A Mathematician's Apology. Hardy gets mentioned in Good Will
Hunting, by the way. Anyway. There are quite a few that are just really,
really, really, really good. But I'd say Pauline Kael is the best. Annie
Dillard's really good, but she's much more sort of restrained.
Q: There's one other thing that I wanted to ask you about, which was
the relationship between footnotes and hypertext.
A: I've had people say that, and I would love them to think that
there's some grand theory. I sometimes use a computer to type when I've got a
lot of corrections to do, but I don't have a modem, I've never been on the
Internet. There's a guy in my department who teaches hypertext, but I don't
really know anything about it.
Q: You do your stuff by typewriter?
A: I mostly typewrite. Some of the magazine stuff I did on disk,
because you learn that the magazines very often will ask for a disk. And
there's this great term they use: they say, Well, we'll just take the disk and
massage it. I still can't get them to be entirely clear what "massage"
means. I guess it means, like, changing the formats or something. I think it's
a terrific term to use for a disk.
But basically, I can type and I can save stuff onto disk, and that's just
about it, in terms of computers. I feel like an old fogy.
Good luck on this. You're going to exceed whatever word limit, I'll bet.
Q: Yeah. Well, we're just going to take the whole tape and,
you know, cut it down into something that --
A: Just massage the tape.
Q: We're going to massage the tape.