An Interview with D. T. Max

This Tuesday, Viking Press will release D. T. Max’s Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. I first read Max in a college copyediting course, where his wonderful article on editorial boundaries and the relationship between Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish was assigned. Our professor talked fondly of the buzz created by the article, how it was all anyone talked about, how he and his friends wrestled with what the revelations about Lish’s heavy influence meant about Carver’s work.

When I found out Max was writing the first comprehensive biography of Wallace, I hoped he might help us at least know more Wallace’s life and work. And of course I had high hopes—Max’s heartbreaking New Yorker piece on Wallace’s final years augured well for a larger project.

Max was kind enough to speak with me about the book’s reception, the DFW backlash, and where The Pale King fits in Wallace’s oeuvre. Special thanks to Viking’s Shannon Twomey for arranging the interview. 

KEVIN MORRIS: Given Wallace’s cult status, his gigantic and very passionate fanbase, who do you see as sort of the audience for the biography?

D.T. MAX:  David has two or three different pools of readers, I think.  The goal of any biography that’s well done is to lead the readers to the books themselves. So in David’s case, even if you don’t like the person you biographize, you’re still in a sense saying that this literature’s worth reading. Famous case, I forget the name of the guy  who wrote a biography of Robert Frost, and wound up halfway through absolutely despising him [Ed. note: Lawrence Thompson, discussed here]. But I don’t think it made him feel any less that you should read Frost’s poetry.

So I think the book is full of surprises for people who have read David Foster Wallace, who are already familiar with Infinite Jest or even really love it.  So then there’s discoveries about when Infinite Jest was started or where he wrote Infinite Jest.

There’s a big group of people who ought to read the books but are intimidated by them, and feel that they are either too long or too hard.  David doesn’t really give you an easy hand hold, except maybe the nonfiction.  So I think for some of those people, I think the book could function almost the way the nonfiction can function, which is it can kind of give you a person around or through whom you can then explore that person’s writing.  I think a lot of people who’ve never read David know about David in a funny way, now.  Or maybe they haven’t never read David, but they’ve never really sat down with him as a writer.  I’m hoping this book will lead them to do that.  And maybe having a biography in the mix helps.  It certainly helped me to appreciate some of the harder pieces to like.  I felt I appreciated them much more once I was done with the biography, especially a book like Brief Interviews.

MORRIS:  I know this is true of a lot of writers, but it seemed like Wallace’s career and his personal life were so tied together—these long periods of being unable to write coincided so well with the ebb and flow of his condition or life in general. Were you surprised by that in the course of your research?

MAX:  Well, yeah.  Sometimes it’s the opposite.  When his writing ebbs his life flows. And when his life is at its absolute ebbtide— which was Boston and Syracuse—the writing is just going gloriously.  So it’s a little tricky with him.  I think one thing that is familiar from writers and creativity in general is that happiness does not always track with productivity.  It made David happy to be productive, but happiness in his life didn’t make him productive. I was certainly surprised by how tumultuous his personal life was in general.

MORRIS:  Do you expect a lot of queasiness from people who followed his personal life as closely as they could?  There’s a lot of kind of icky revelations in there about his engagements, his romances with women?

MAX:  The people who knew him well all read the book already. And they all feel—including members of his family and friends—that the book explores and discovers legitimate and interesting important things about David. And does so in a way that always keeps him as a writer in the forefront, which was very important to me.  I think the reason we’re interested in David I don’t think is because he had a perfect life. I think the reason we’re interested in David is because he never gave up caring about his life, and by extension he never gave up caring about our lives. To the extent that he’s sometimes referred to as St. Dave—I never thought that was meant to say that he never committed the sin of fornication, it meant that he had always—the saintliness was something to be achieved, it was something to be earned.

And I think even beyond that, the reason that he matters for people—especially who haven’t read him, who really can’t be said to have been engrossed by his extraordinary work, I think that what they’re catching is that in some way he’s telling them to take their lives seriously.  Distilled into his “This is Water” performance, never to stop caring about who you are and how you live in the world.  I think that’s very important.  And I think that’s how he extends outside of his books now.  And I think that’s also not new but it’s what’s grown most remarkably in the last few years since his death.

MORRIS:  Yeah, he’s absolutely everywhere.  Between this book and the Iowa University Press collection of essays that came out this year, and then the essay collection that Little, Brown’s coming out with—even in 2012, four years after his death, he’s everywhere—

MAX:  Where you really see this happening is on the Web, not in paper form. He’s becoming a meme of some sort.  I think that’s incredible.

MORRIS:  I’m curious if you feel like with the way he’s permeated the culture, if a backlash could come soon?  He himself went against Updike so flagrantly in public—

MAX:  I thought a backlash already sort of had begun to occur, am I wrong in that regard?

MORRIS:  I wouldn’t say you’re wrong.  I’ve certainly seen a few things pillory Infinite Jest or his equivocating writing style in general.  I know Maud Newton wrote something last year that was very abrasive about his style.

MAX:  I haven’t read it, but my understanding of this Joshua Cohen piece in Harper’s—which is linked to my book—is really about—have you read the piece?

MORRIS:  I’ve read bits and pieces, but I’m aware of the general tone.

MAX:  Yeah, I mean, you probably know more than I do.  From what I understand from people, it’s sort of like his attempt to say, “I’m not a descendant of David Foster Wallace.” It’s already under way.  Nobody would have understood this better than David.  He was so aware of the dynamics of literary competition.  There’s a wonderfully titled New York Review of Books piece about him called “The Panic of Influence.” So no one would understand being panicked by his influence more than David would have.

But yes, I think a backlash probably has begun and I don’t know what form it will take or who will lead it, but clearly young writers will have to declare themselves DFW-free at some point if they’re to get their work done.

MORRIS:  One thing I was surprised by in the biography was how small a role religion played in Wallace’s career—and I know you’ve already gotten some pushback on that.  Was that something you expected to find more of going into your research?

MAX:  It’s funny, I don’t really agree with the premise.  I saw some mentions of that.  I think faith played a huge part in his life, but I think his faith was really in his Twelve-Step Program.  I don’t think he really had need or room for a deep involvement with organized religion any more than he had a deep need or involvement with organized baseball.  There’s this one letter he writes to a friend where he’s paraphrasing Bertrand Russell, and he says, “Some things I’m unable to think about for more than a few minutes, and one of them is God.”  And then the other quote which is emerging in my head is the one about whenever I’m in church, I get the giggles.  Those are harsh statements about religion.  And if somebody’s looking for David to have become a Catholic, they have the wrong guy.  He had incredible difficulty, which I think I capture or attempt to capture in the book, with organized acceptance of anything.  The only organization he really ever accepted was his Twelve-Step Program, which has a component of faith in it.

Later in life, he would go to church sometimes with his wife.  But I don’t think he based much on that.  He was a perpetual seeker.  I find that comment also sort of interesting because his interest in Buddhism is pretty manifest.  Are we not calling Buddhism a religion because it doesn’t have a temple or a church?  So I didn’t feel that way at all.  I felt like his struggle with faith was very present in everything he did, especially in his Twelve-Step Program.

MORRIS:  Right.  That revelation that he originally had in “Mrs. Thompson’s” about going to church, but as you said in the biography he was talking about his Twelve-Step community.

MAX:  Yeah, he was.  He never was a regular at the Mennonite church that he claims to have gone to.  I asked the people who introduced him to that church and they were like, no.  Absolutely not.

MORRIS:  One of the things that I thought was well handled in the book was how you very subtly pushed against his negative feelings about Broom of the System, his constant discounting of himself.  So I wonder, given his negative feelings about what became The Pale King, your feelings on what was compiled in that book?

MAX:  I’ve seen a lot of what wasn’t in there, because I’ve seen the unpublished material.  I think that Little, Brown published the most likely version of the book as David left it.  I know David was always very dissatisfied with it.  There’s an interesting argument to be made that I’ve heard by other people that if you look on the book almost as a kind of Kafkaesque story,  you can regard it as sort of complete.  In other words, that lack of a plot shouldn’t be a concern.  I know David didn’t feel that way.

It’s very hard as a biographer to look on a book like that outside of the kind of suffering and difficulty that it caused him.  I don’t think that it’s a book that stands up quite next to Infinite Jest, but that’s a very unfair comparison.  Infinite Jest perfectly fits its moment and his moment as a writer writing that book.  The Pale King, I don’t know—it’s such a difficult concept to depart from.  It went so much against the natural energy of his mind and his writing style.  It was almost like a counterphobic book.  You take the thing that a person least naturally is able to do, which in David’s case is to quiet his mind and just accept, and you make that the subject of your book.  And then you lay on top of that the necessity that prose has to interest people.  Prose isn’t directly representational. It’s not a mimesis, it’s got its own relationship to reality—which David was perfectly well aware of.  You get yourself into a very difficult situation: how do you imitate boredom without being boring?

That said, there’s wonderful scenes in there.  I think the scene with Sylvanshine on the airplane is terrific.  The more sustained scenes in general I like a lot.  The one with Drinion when he levitates in the bar, I think is a really wonderful scene.

My instinct is he wasn’t very close to finishing it, just because there’s so many things that are missing from it.  And it’s a shame, because it could have been a really—I don’t know that it ever would have replaced Infinite Jest, but it could have played a major role in how we thought of him as a writer.  And of course I’d be really interested in what he would’ve written afterward too.  If you even think about the book as a counterphobic book—to simplify vastly, if you think of Infinite Jest as thesis and Pale King as antithesis.  What’s the synthesis?  Again that’s simplifying, because Infinite Jest also contains some of Pale King in it.  If you think of the Incandenzas as thesis and Pale King as antithesis, what’s the synthesis?

I would have loved to know.

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