"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles, and Miscellany"


American Booksellers Association Bookweb

Words With the Singular David Foster Wallace

Interviewed by Zachary Chouteau

[This interview was shortened for print in Bookselling This
Week and appears here in its entirety.]




While reviewers of David Foster Wallace's
"Infinite Jest" and "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll
Never Do Again" (both Little, Brown) have resorted to such
platitudes as "engagingly wacked-out," "mesmerizing," and
"consistently innovative," a conversation with the Illinois
author suggests a less imposing adjective: real. A product
of Midwestern honesty and East Coast academia, Wallace in
interview is unpretentious yet deeply thoughtful. BTW
caught up with Wallace near the end of a long bookstore
tour and asked him about bookstores, writing, and the
nature of success.

BTW: You've been on a book tour for a while now -- what are
some of the highlights?

DFW: Well, I get to stay in hotels that I couldn't afford
otherwise, and I got my own bathrobe in a hotel in Seattle.
At readings and signings it's weird to run into old
neighbors and school friends. It's kind of strange talking
to them while somebody else is tapping their foot for 30
seconds waiting to get a book signed.

BTW: What about the bookstores -- any
favorites?

DFW: I've always haunted independent bookstores, and I
think the single coolest bookstore is Elliott Bay in
Seattle -- it's completely beautiful. I love the big,
beautiful independents. The big chains are so sterile. It's
not the stock at Elliott Bay so much as the quality of
light and acoustics. There's something about the spine glue
from books mixed with wooden shelves. The scent makes my
knees weak. To whoever put the comfortable chairs and the
cafés in Barnes & Noble: those fluorescent lights have got
to go. They really cause a sense of alienation.

BTW: What do you do in your spare time during the tour?

DFW: I'm preparing class most of the time. Occasionally
I'll go out to supper with an old friend. I've been getting
to watch TV while I order room service that I don't have to
pay for. It's frustrating; going to someplace like San
Francisco, but not really getting to experience it because
you're there so briefly. I did have days off in Madison and
Atlanta which was nice.

BTW: "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" covers a
wide variety of topics. Is there a common bond or
undercurrent to the collection?

DFW: Not really, though there might be a similarity to the
narrative voices. The collection was put together for a
couple of reasons. One, the pieces were cut back a lot when
they originally ran in magazines, and this was a chance to
run them in completion. Two, there's a real sense of
closure when a book is finished. There have been a lot of
great offers from magazines, and I could see myself
spending 10 years as a magazine journalist; but I want to
write fiction.

BTW: "In David Lynch Keeps His Head," [an essay from "A
Supposedly Fun Thing"], you define the term Lynchian. How
would you define the term Wallaceian?

DFW: Oh, lord [laughter]. I'm the last person to ask that
question to -- it's like when you look in a mirror and you're
not able to describe yourself. Lynchian was also a parody
of an academic definition.

BTW: What advice would you give to a young writer?

DFW: The advice I have, which I think is true but also a
little profound, is: Take your time and energy thinking
what the word success means to you. I probably wouldn't
have taken this advice at 22 or 23. There's an enormous
amount of pressure on publication. That's understandable,
but unfortunate. You need to be good to get published, but
you also need to be lucky. You could be an incredible
writer and still take 20 years to get published. So relax
about publication and worry about the art of the craft.

The scenario -- "you either need to get published by 23 or
go to law school" is very unfortunate.

BTW: What has been the most satisfying part about all your
success?

DFW: What do you mean by success?

BTW: Being accepted by a major publisher, all the acclaim.

DFW: Well there's no better feeling than working hard at
something and having it come out good, even before you put
the stamp on it. But with all the public stuff...it's sort
of how you like people to be nice to your child. There's so
much bullshit to trying to get accepted -- reading a mean
letter from someone you don't even know, getting rejected.
I think you need to invest way more into how it feels when
you are in a room writing by yourself.

BTW: What about the reviews of your work -- how seriously do
you take those?

DFW: I don't read reviews. If someone sticks one in my hand
I'll read it, but early on I learned they're upsetting.
It's like if you're in a group with two other people and
you walk away and they start talking about you. Whether
they say good or bad things, it makes you self-conscious.
It's like eavesdropping. Reviews are not for the writer,
they're for the potential reader. I have 4 or 5 colleagues
and friends that I get feedback from, and I try to
triangulate their responses -- agent, editor, sister, best
friend from college.

BTW: When did you decide to become a write -- know that you
could make a career of it?

DFW: I never really just decided I would be a writer.
There's not a great deal of money in literary fiction -- I
still need to teach. "The Broom of the System" (Avon) was
originally a senior thesis, and it got sold when I was 22
or 23, and anytime you get paid for something you wrote it
makes you think.

BTW: Tell us a little about your teaching.

DFW: I Teach at Illinois State University, at something
called the Bloomington/Normal Campus, in the English
Department. I teach as little creative writing as possible.
One of my classes is freshman literature. One way to get
out of creative writing is teaching courses other
professors find distasteful.

BTW: How much impact has your upbringing and background had
on your writing?

DFW: Well, my parents really like to read, and a lot of my
memories of growing up are lying around with opera on the
stereo and reading. Kids that read have an enormous
advantage. I'm from a Midwestern town, but my parents are
from Eastern schools. The East Coast is faster, more
cynical. On the East Coast when people hear or read
something they ask "is it interesting?" and in the Midwest
they ask "is it true?".

BTW: You've been compared to Swift, Pynchon, and Barth. Who
do you think your writing might compare to?

DFW: That's a tough question. The Pynchon thing really
annoys me. I haven't read him for so long. I get tired of
it, pissed off by it.

BTW: What writers have influenced you?

DFW: There've been so many different ones during different
stages of my life. In college, Donald Bartheleme had a big
impact on me. More recently Cormac McCarthy -- who did "All
the Pretty Horses" (Vintage) -- has sent shivers up and down
my spine. Manuel Puig is another writer that I really
admire. William Gaddis, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Wolfe...

BTW: Do any current authors impress you?

DFW: George Saunders' "Civilwarland in Bad Decline" (Random
House) is incredibly interesting. Also "Fight Club" (Norton)
by Chuck Palahniuk, about white-collar men developing a
cult where they beat each other up. There's a real detached
violence to it. I had a chance to judge the O. Henry awards
and read someone named Arthur Bradford, who's really
interesting; I bet he'll have a book out soon.

BTW: What do you enjoy writing more, fiction or nonfiction?

DFW: I think of myself as a fiction writer. I find
nonfiction harder mechanically and fiction more difficult
emotionally. Reality is a lot bigger than what you can make
up; for example, making up a room could be done in a
paragraph or two, but describing the room you're in might
take hours. Fiction is more whatever bubbles up.

BTW: What's next for David Foster Wallace?

DFW: That's really up in the air right now. Between
teaching and traveling I'm not getting jack done.


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