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Conversations with David Foster Wallace

Conversations with David Foster Wallace

Edited by Stephen J. Burn
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 208
  • Book Info
    Conversations with David Foster Wallace
    Book Description:

    Across two decades of intense creativity, David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) crafted a remarkable body of work that ranged from unclassifiable essays, to a book about transfinite mathematics, to vertiginous fictions. Whether through essay volumes (A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Consider the Lobster), short story collections (Girl with Curious Hair, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Oblivion), or his novels (Infinite Jest, The Broom of the System), the luminous qualities of Wallace's work recalibrated our measures of modern literary achievement.Conversations with David Foster Wallacegathers twenty-two interviews and profiles that trace the arc of Wallace's career, shedding light on his omnivorous talent.

    Jonathan Franzen has argued that, for Wallace, an interview provided a formal enclosure in which the writer "could safely draw on his enormous native store of kindness and wisdom and expertise." Wallace's interviews create a wormhole in which an author's private theorizing about art spill into the public record. Wallace's best interviews are vital extra-literary documents, in which we catch him thinking aloud about his signature concerns--irony's magnetic hold on contemporary language, the pale last days of postmodernism, the delicate exchange that exists between reader and writer. At the same time, his acute focus moves across MFA programs, his negotiations with religious belief, the role of footnotes in his writing, and his multifaceted conception of his work's architecture.Conversations with David Foster Wallaceincludes a previously unpublished interview from 2005, and a version of Larry McCaffery's influentialReview of Contemporary Fictioninterview with Wallace that has been expanded with new material drawn from the original raw transcript.

    eISBN: 978-1-61703-228-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xviii)

    “I’m wretched at interviews,” David Foster Wallace told me in a letter sent late in the summer of 2007, “and will do them only under big duress.”¹ Wallace’s discomfort with interviews makes sense on multiple levels. His concern about public revelation is reasonable in terms of the overall arc of his career, which shuttled between what Wallace called the “schizophrenia of attention” and the despondency of private torment (Stein). Equally, his thematic obsessions—self consciousness, the difficult exchange economy that exists between characters’ interior landscapes and the world around them—draw on the same energies that might be located in...

  4. Chronology
    (pp. xix-2)
  5. David Foster Wallace: A Profile
    (pp. 3-7)
    William R. Katovsky

    David Wallace is kneeling in the hallway, like a golfer lining up a putt. He taps a Marlboro Light on his gray cords, then lights it. Before the cigarette reaches his mouth again, one of his students, a sorority girl, tanned, chunky, with a thick mane of honey-blonde hair, approaches him.

    “I can’t take class Thursday,” she says.

    From his vantage point, he’s eyeball to crotch, so he stands up, the cigarette still several inches from his lips. “Can you say that again?” he asks.

    “I can’t make it on Thursday. I think I’ve come down with bronchitis.” The silver...

  6. A Whiz Kid and His Wacky First Novel
    (pp. 8-10)
    Helen Dudar

    In his final year at Amherst College, David Foster Wallace faced a difficult career decision. He had to decide whether his future lay with graduate studies in philosophy or in what academia labels “creative writing.” Few of us could have solved the problem as neatly: Mr. Wallace produced two senior honors theses that brought him a double summa cum laude. The philosophy paper, a highly technical mathematical affair, was, he reports, the more successful effort. But the fiction—which turned out to be a wild, funny, somewhat disheveled novel—really blissed him out.

    He would sit down around lunch time...

  7. Looking for a Garde of Which to Be Avant: An Interview with David Foster Wallace
    (pp. 11-20)
    Hugh Kennedy, Geoffrey Polk and David Foster Wallace

    At thirty, David Foster Wallace has been called the best of his generation of American writers. His novel,The Broom of the System, and his collection of short stories and novella,Girl with Curious Hair, have earned him wide critical acclaim, a prestigious Whiting Writers’ Award, and an intensely devoted readership. Wallace, a mathematics and philosophy major at Amherst College, did not begin writing creatively until the age of twenty-one. His first novel was published while he was still an M.F.A. student at the University of Arizona at Tucson. His writing benefits from a mathematical and philosophical grasp of symbolic...

  8. An Expanded Interview with David Foster Wallace
    (pp. 21-52)
    Larry McCaffery and David Foster Wallace

    LARRY McCAFFERY: Your essay following this interview is going to be seen by some people as being basically an apology for television. What’s your response to the familiar criticism that television fosters relationships with illusions or simulations of real people (Reagan being a kind of quintessential example)?

    DAVID FOSTER WALLACE: It’s a try at a comprehensive diagnosis, not an apology. U.S. viewers’ relationship with TV is essentially puerile and dependent, as are all relationships based on seduction. This is hardly news. But what’s seldom acknowledged is how complex and ingenious TV’s seductions are. It’s seldom acknowledged that viewers’ relationship with...

  9. The Next Big Thing: Can a Downstate Author Withstand the Sensation over His 1,079-Page Novel?
    (pp. 53-57)
    Mark Caro

    David Foster Wallace’s new novel,Infinite Jest, weighs about four pounds and runs 1,079 pages, almost 100 of which are endnotes in teeny-tiny type.

    It’s not the sort of book, in other words, that you’re likely to see on the beach, unless it’s a really windy day and a pair of sandals and a tote bag prove inadequate in holding down the towel.

    Yet the novel has become what the hypesters like to call the literary sensation of this young year. It has attracted attention across the nation’s mainstream print media—Time, Newsweek, Spin, Esquire, Elle, GQ… —and the...

  10. The Salon Interview: David Foster Wallace
    (pp. 58-65)
    Laura Miller and David Foster Wallace

    David Foster Wallace’s low-key, bookish appearance flatly contradicts the unshaven, bandanna-capped image advanced by his publicity photos. But then, even a hipster novelist would have to be a serious, disciplined writer to produce a 1,079-page book in three years.Infinite Jest, Wallace’s mammoth second novel, juxtaposes life in an elite tennis academy with the struggles of the residents of a nearby halfway house, all against a near-future background in which the U.S., Canada, and Mexico have merged, Northern New England has become a vast toxic waste dump, and everything from private automobiles to the very years themselves are sponsored by...

  11. The Wasted Land
    (pp. 66-69)
    David Streitfeld

    The city of Normal, Illinois, has taken its name as its destiny. It boasts a two-block downtown so low-key that no one ever goes there, a strip containing every fast-food outlet known to man, and 19,000 Illinois State students who would probably rather be at the University of Illinois. The landscape is featureless, the weather extreme, the thrills obscure.

    David Foster Wallace likes it here. He’s bought a house just outside of town, teaches at the university, has acquired two huge hounds, and likes the idea of having children. One of Wallace’s deepest desires is to be normal in Normal....

  12. David Foster Wallace Winces at the Suggestion That His Book Is Sloppy in Any Sense
    (pp. 70-72)
    Anne Marie Donahue

    “It may be a mess, but it’s a very careful mess,” he says. “A lot of work went into making it look like that. That might sound like a pathetic lie, but it’s not. Now, as you can see, my dander’s getting up.”

    Wallace’s dander, however, isn’t perceptibly on the rise. Seated in his hotel room at the Copley Plaza, shortly after doing Christopher Lydon’s radio show and before heading out for a reading, Wallace looks tired but entirely calm. And he remains that way except when he thinks he might be coming off as pretentious or self-promoting, when he’s...

  13. Young Writers and the TV Reality
    (pp. 73-75)
    Donn Fry

    There’s just no getting around it, as far as David Foster Wallace is concerned: Reality ain’t what it used to be.

    After all, fiction writers of his generation—Wallace is thirty-five—were raised in an environment in which the average American family spends six hours a day in front of the television. He sees that reflected in myriad ways: young people’s diffident, inarticulate conversations—or lack of them; their preference for visual imagery over the printed page; their acceptance of fractured, bite-size storytelling techniques in place of the leisurely narratives of an earlier generation of writers.

    “I was born in...

  14. The “Infinite Story” Cult Hero behind 1,079-Page Novel Rides the Hype He Skewered
    (pp. 76-81)
    Matthew Gilbert

    There is The Thing, plunked down in the coliseum of our consciousness. There is The Viewer of this Thing, sitting in the stands, hand on chin. And there is The Viewer of The Viewer of The Thing—the postmodernist metaphysician hovering in the helicopter above, discussing the way people watch.

    And then, somewhere out in the cosmos, watching the watcher watch himself watching, talking about talking about talking, there is David Foster Wallace, novelist, essayist, recovering ironist, and wizard of giddy self-consciousness.

    Wallace is the writer best known for a multitiered novel calledInfinite Jestthat weighs in at 1,079...

  15. David Foster Wallace
    (pp. 82-88)
    Tom Scocca

    February 23, 1998: “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; whenHarper’ssent 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 fifty-five-page piece, like most of the other six essays gathered inA Supposedly...

  16. David Foster Wallace: In the Company of Creeps
    (pp. 89-93)
    Lorin Stein

    “It wasn’t till I saw the galleys that I noticed how horrific this stuff was.”Sunday evening in Normal, Illinois, David Foster Wallace andPWare lost somewhere near the lingerie department of the local Kmart, on the lookout for audiocassettes, and Wallace is taking this unforeseen pre-interview delay to air a couple of last-minute reservations about thePWinterview process. “Am I expected to have insight or opinions about the publishing industry?” Wallace freezes mid-aisle, for maybe the third time in two minutes, as if he might bolt for the check-out. “Because what I know about the publishing industry...

  17. David Foster Wallace Warms Up
    (pp. 94-100)
    Patrick Arden

    After all the attention David Foster Wallace received following the surprising success of his 1996 novel,Infinite Jest, he’s dedicated to protecting his privacy. Responses to the 1,079 -page social satire and human tragedy—which famously included 388 endnotes—were overwhelmingly positive. He was described as “brilliant” (Kirkus Reviews), “a genius” (Chicago Tribune), and “the funniest writer of his generation” (Village Voice). Wallace followed his celebrated epic with a 1997 collection of nonfiction “essays and arguments,”A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, and for the next two years he continued to show up regularly in magazines as mainstream...

  18. Mischief: A Brief Interview with David Foster Wallace
    (pp. 101-103)
    Chris Wright and David Foster Wallace

    Don’t expect to find any rakishly charming Don Juans in David Foster Wallace’s new collection of fiction,Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. More neurotic than erotic, the book delves (with some glee, we might add) into the mire of modern romance through a series of fictional Q&As. With characteristic flair, Wallace subverts the form by omitting the questions, marking their absence with a Q. We caught up with Wallace in New York, a day after he read to a packed house at the Harvard Film Archive, and found him to be tired and full-bladdered, but not at all hideous. In...

  19. Behind the Watchful Eyes of Author David Foster Wallace
    (pp. 104-109)
    Mark Shechner

    From a certain point of view, that of raw Mozartian virtuosity, Wallace might honestly be called the best young writer in America. For pungent phrase, performative strategy, unpredictability, hurricane force, risk-for-risk’s-sake bravado, and back-of-the-envelope improvisation, he stands out among his contemporaries. Young as novelists go, thirty-eight, Wallace has published five books:The Broom of the System(novel, 1987),Girl with Curious Hair(stories, 1989) a massive novelInfinite Jest(1996), a collection of essays and commissioned travel pieces,A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again(1997), and a grab bag of stories and psychiatric interviews,Brief Interviews with Hideous...

  20. Conversation with David Foster Wallace and Richard Powers
    (pp. 110-120)
    John O’Brien, David Foster Wallace and Richard Powers

    O’BRIEN: Most of the questions are about relationships, fortunately not personal ones. First is relationship to your readers. How much do you take your reader into account, how much do you think about your reader as you’re writing? How often are you afraid that you may be stepping over the boundary with readers, expecting too much from them or demanding too much? David, this is a subject you and I have discussed many times, actually.

    WALLACE: One of many reasons for being terrified about this sort of venue is that a lot of the stuff, it sort of feels like...

  21. Approaching Infinity
    (pp. 121-126)
    Caleb Crain

    If there were another superpower anymore, it would probably classify David Foster Wallace’sEverything and More: A Compact History of∞ (W. W. Norton) as a Sputnik-level threat to its national security. After all, America’s intellectual vigor must be fearsome if a publisher is willing to bet that its citizens will voluntarily, recreationally, and in reasonably large numbers read a book with sentences like this:

    Cantor shows thatP’s first derived set,P’, can be “decomposed” or broken down into the union of two different subsets,QandR, whereQis the set of all points belonging to first-species...

  22. To the Best of Our Knowledge: Interview with David Foster Wallace
    (pp. 127-135)
    Steve Paulson and David Foster Wallace

    PAULSON: I want to start by talking about one particular story, “The Soul Is Not a Smithy.” How would you describe this story?

    WALLACE: As longer than I intended it to be? A little kid with attention problems in school is not attending on a very dramatic day for him, where his teacher kind of has a psychotic breakdown.

    PAULSON: His substitute teacher starts writing “Kill Them” over and over on the blackboard, and then when these kids in the fourth grade start realizing what he’s doing—that he’s basically lost his marbles—they panic.

    WALLACE: Yes.

    PAULSON: But your...

  23. The Connection: David Foster Wallace
    (pp. 136-151)
    Michael Goldfarb

    GOLDFARB: Here are some things we know about author David Foster Wallace. He is from the Midwest, but currently lives in Southern California. He knows more about mathematics than most of us, and he’s a tennis player of some quality. And for better or worse, for richer or poorer, whether he wants to be or not, he has been handed the mantle of writer of his generation, the person among his peers most likely to write the great American novel. His last novel wasInfinite Jest, a thousand-page excursion into twelve-step programs, terrorism, and other stuff, and it was published...

  24. Interview with David Foster Wallace
    (pp. 152-157)
    Didier Jacob and David Foster Wallace

    JACOB: You were born in a place where people are not very interested in foreign literature, and perhaps not even interested in American literature. What led you to love literature, and to want to become a writer?

    WALLACE: I assume that your “born in a place where … literature” refers to the entire U.S.A., not to the specific region where I was born. If I’m right, then your real question is “How, given most Americans’ lack of interest in literature, does America produce any literary writers?” Obviously, one could ask the same question about how any Americans become classical musicians,...

  25. Just Asking … David Foster Wallace
    (pp. 158-160)
    Christopher John Farley

    David Foster Wallace, author of the novelInfinite Jest, was asked byRolling Stonemagazine to cover John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2000. That assignment became a chapter in his essay collectionConsider the Lobster(2005); the essay has now been issued as a stand-alone book,McCain’s Promise. In a phone interview, Mr. Wallace said he came away from the experience marveling at “how unknowable and layered these candidates are.” Mr. Wallace also answered questions via email about presidential hopefuls, the youth vote, and smiley faces.

    WSJ: So why would a novelist want to travel around on a campaign bus?...

  26. The Lost Years and Last Days of David Foster Wallace
    (pp. 161-182)
    David Lipsky

    He was the greatest writer of his generation—and also its most tormented. In the wake of his tragic suicide, his friends and family reveal the lifelong struggle of a beautiful mind.

    He was six-feet-two, and on a good day he weighed two hundred pounds. He wore granny glasses with a head scarf, points knotted at the back, a look that was both pirate-like and housewife-ish. He always wore his hair long. He had dark eyes, soft voice, caveman chin, a lovely, peak-lipped mouth that was his best feature. He walked with an ex-athlete’s saunter, a roll from the heels,...

  27. Index
    (pp. 183-186)