[Sidebar] February 19 - 26, 1998
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"Genius" at work

A conversation with David Foster Wallace

by Tom Scocca

[David Foster Wallace] "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 Bloomington, Illinois.

Q: Okay, for basic reader orientation, are you doing this from Bloomington?

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 '92.

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 versus nonfiction?

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 verifiably true?

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 --

A: [groan]

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 again.

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 work?

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 deliberately humorous?

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 swinging?

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.

A: Cool.

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