By Christian Viveros-Fauné
By Miriam Felton-Dansky
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Author and journalist D.T. Max sat down at a table in the cafe at Housing Works. On his left hand, just between his thumb and index finger, he had scribbled the initials "DFW" in black ink. "DFW," of course, is short for David Foster Wallace, one of the most influential and leading literary figures of the modern era. Max has written a biography of him, titled Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (Viking, $27.95, pp. 356).
"It's not a tattoo," he insisted about his hand. "I was driving in and trying to focus on what mattered to me about David. Every time I would think about something different, I'd remind myself that I needed to think about David."
Max has spent much of the past four years thinking about David. A month after the late author's suicide in the fall of 2008, Max, a staff writer at The New Yorker, started working on an article that would end up being published the next March. It focused on Wallace's daily struggles and challenges with anxiety and depression, but specifically riffed on Wallace's immense battle to surpass Infinite Jest, his one-thousand-plus–page novel, now a staple of postmodern literature. Yet, Max felt like the article "hadn't finished the job."
So Max decided to write a book. He pushed forward, uncovering over 700 letters from Wallace written to friends, family, and fellow writers such as Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen, and interviewing and interacting with over 200 of Wallace's friends and acquaintances. (Max himself had never met Wallace.) The resulting biography is compressed into just over 300 pages, revealing much unknown about the author (like the fact that Wallace voted for Reagan and once plotted a murder of writer Mary Karr's husband). Max sat down with The Village Voice to chat about these reveals, Wallace's influence, and what it's like to undertake the biography of one of the most beloved authors of the modern era.
What did you feel was missing from the New Yorker article?
The article is very, very freighted towards Wallace's end. It was a downhill slalom. Everyone kept saying that there was so much more to him. I knew that in the abstract, but I wanted to know what that "so much more" was.
How did you reel it all in and get everything compressed to 300 pages?
It's actually longer than the biography I anticipated doing. There's a bunch of reasons for that. I didn't think that a 500- or 600-page book on David, although he wrote a thousand-page novel—it didn't feel like that was what I wanted to do. My intuition was that I wanted to tell a story. I wanted the story to be very alive, just as he was recently very alive. I didn't want it to feel in amber. I wanted it to feel like he could walk into the room the minute you put the book down. I was also interested in David's great cause as a fiction writer: "Realistic fiction for a world that is no longer real." That's something he pursues in Infinite Jest. It's realism, but it's not realism like most writers write. It's not a realistic novel in a conventional sense. It's only a realistic novel if the world is no longer real. I do very little interpreting of his personality, except almost in the way that you and I are sitting here talking about a mutual friend of ours. People have said, "You're style couldn't be less like David's." And that's true, in the very shortness of the book you can see something, right? The book gives equal weight to major events and minor events. His decision to select Rice Krispies is not given that much less weight than his attempt to get a gun to shoot Mary Karr's husband.
That Karr story was probably the biggest reveal in the book.
Well, there's a ton of stuff that nobody knew before. But it's probably the one that falls far outside the norm of our behavior, where you go, "Whoa." But some other things that would be news are that no one knew he started Infinite Jest as a graduate student. I don't think anyone knew that he started The Pale King in the '90s. His relationship with Elizabeth Wurtzel has never been explored—that it mattered, why it mattered, and how it occurred. All the Amherst years are new. His fights at Arizona. His attempt to find a voice for his fiction. I think, generally speaking, I don't think anyone knew—including me—just how difficult his problems with women were. We all were getting the idea that he embellished his nonfiction, but I think you have more now about that embellishing. It should become a standard part of the understanding of his nonfiction, whether you like it or not. And frankly, all the letters—maybe three or four of them haven't been seen by anyone before except the recipient.
Do you think there will be a collection of letters published?
I don't know. I believe [there are talks] to do a collected literary letters. But how you define literary will make that a somewhat complicated endeavor, because David didn't really write letters where he was like, "The way to write fiction, son..." But I think the letters do talk about what it's like to be a "fucking human being," and by extension what it is to be a writer writing about fucking human beings.