D.T. Max on the life of David Foster Wallace


Author David Foster Wallace reads selections of his writing during the New Yorker Magazine Festival in New York September 27, 2002 (Keith Bedford/GETTY IMAGES)
November 23, 2012

New Yorker staff writer D.T. Max never formally met enigmatic novelist David Foster Wallace. But he became fascinated with his electric works (“Infinite Jest,” “The Broom of the System,” “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,”) and Wallace’s explorations of what it meant to be alive in the information-overload era. Wallace, tortured with depression and mental illness, committed suicide in 2008. Max wrote a magazine profile of him shortly thereafter, and that led to three years of work on “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace,” published in September.

He’ll be discussing Wallace on Tuesday at Georgetown University, in a talk open to the public. We asked the first questions, which have been edited here for space.

You make the case in the book that Wallace was “the writer of his generation.” What makes him so?

David does a couple of things for readers. There’s the novelist, and then there’s the person behind the novelist. As the years are going by, you see him touching people in the manner of Salinger or Pynchon. People have “This Is Water” [the title of a commencement speech Wallace once gave] tattooed on their arms. There’s a woman who has the date she started and finished “Infinite Jest” tattooed on her arm. There are not ordinary responses to a novel . . . Anxiety and doubt have replaced sin as the modern preoccupation of our generation, and he was the representative sufferer for our time.

And you two never quite met?

I was at the publishing party given for “Infinite Jest” in Manhattan in 1996. It was packed. He was a [recovering] alcoholic, so he didn’t drink. He was allergic to New York media. And he was agoraphobic. So here he was, in a room packed with media people, surrounded by alcohol. He looked so unhappy, I just couldn’t cross the floor to meet him.


"Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story" by D.T. Max. (Viking/VIKING)
Did you come to a conclusion about whether his anxiety was triggered by success or if it was just part of his biology?

In some ways David was always David, but in high school depression set in. He was anxious and he was ashamed of it. It was the 1970s, and depression wasn’t well understood. David feared people’s responses, he didn’t count on people’s generosity.People said to me over and over again, ‘I never met anybody who had so much self-loathing.’ He really suffered from the imposter syndrome. It’s sad, because people loved him so much.

It’s ironic that his success seemed to exacerbate that feeling rather than dispel it.

The only thing worse for David than being unknown was being well known . . . it took him a long time to realize that the world was a kinder place than he imagined it to be.

How did the book come about?

When I was done with the magazine piece, and it was to time to go on to other reading, I found I didn’t want to. I wanted to stay with him, I wanted to stay with “Infinite Jest.” And I didn’t think I had made him as funny as he actually was in that magazine piece. He began as a gag writer in college.

The family cooperated with you on the book?

The estate was supportive, and his wife and his sister in particular made themselves very available. And there were something like 200 personal letters to 30 different correspondents. It was helpful to hear his informal writing to get inside his mind. It’s said that “Infinite Jest” is the sound of his thinking, but clearly it’s not. He was a very careful writer. In the letters, you get a truer portrait of an amazing human being.

Did the family ask you to hold anything out?

Nothing that I can imagine that would matter to anybody. They were really remarkable.

D.T. Max, “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace,” Tuesday, Nov. 27, at 4 p.m. in the Lannan Center (in New North 408) at the Georgetown University campus. The campus is at 3700 O St. NW. 2o2-687-6294

Neely Tucker is a staff writer in the Sunday Magazine. He has reported from more than 50 countries around the world and from two dozen of these United States.
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