"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles, and Miscellany"

The Boston Phoenix
Week of February 19 - 26, 1998

David Foster Wallace

Tom Scocca talks about fiction, fellatio, and
meddling editors with the best American essayist who
regularly uses like as punctuation

By Erica Werner


"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 ingénue 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 the Boston reading 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.

Tom Scocca can be reached at tscocca@phx.com.

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