flickr/Claire Le Monde
After the first eight chapters, David Foster Wallace introduces himself into the novel as a character. The "Author's Prologue," Chapter 9, is written in Wallace's voice—the trademark, self-conscious style used in so many of his essays and stories. It's such a crystal-clear conjuration that it almost reads like a radio transmission—he even begins the section with the words "author here." How did you feel coming upon that section for the first time, while you were looking for clues in a dense and difficult work—and suddenly found yourself addressed by the very friend and colleague you were mourning?
In fact, that's the first chapter that I read. In the stack of material on his desk, the first words were the chapter that begins, "author here." And the second chapter I read also begins "author here." It was galvanic. It did feel like a transmission from David. In this period of great grief, suddenly, there was something—not just something David had created with great fullness—it was David he had created with great fullness. It was bewildering and exalting and thrilling.
The book posits itself as memoir, stating that the only untrue line in it is the "all persons fictional" disclaimer at the beginning. How is this conceit central to the novel?
I think David wanted his readers to think about the ways in which fiction can be true in our lives. I think that's his intent in a lot of his fiction, but much more directly here—by positing that this is a true story, even though it's clearly not a true story. David Wallace did not do the things that he says he does in those chapters [work for the IRS in the 1980s]. But he wanted us to think about how stories are real to us. How telling stories matters to us.
It's interesting that your process of assembling the multiple pieces of this book was a task as imposing as some of the bureaucratic processes in the book.
Except this was exhilarating. It was the challenge of a lifetime. For me, it was a grief-stricken challenge—but how lucky I am to have been given this opportunity. Even working through the page of David's smallest, most illegible handwriting, I was happy every second—attuned every second to reading what he had been working on. I felt privileged to be seeing, so intimately, the process of his writing.
Karen Green designed the book's striking cover art. How did this aspect of the publication come together?
Karen, David's wife, is a—brilliant—artist, and I asked her if she wanted to create something for the cover. She said yes.
She made this image by shredding one of David's actual tax returns and threading it through the pages of the card you see on the cover. So that's an actual David Wallace IRS document that she made into this beautiful cover image.
There's something so intimate about re-appropriating something of his for the cover—the whole book strikes me as intimate in that way. There's your very moving introduction about your editorial process, and her artwork, and of course, the writing itself—this book is a labor of love, a collaboration between people who had serious relationships. In that sense, I've never seen a book quite like it.
I'm really touched that you feel that way. It certainly was a labor of a love. And not just for me, and not just for Karen, but everyone around him, who worked with him and knew him, who's had any hand in this. People who worked with him came away feeling enormous affection towards him, and gratitude towards him, and wanted to spend more time with him. So that implored us all to do everything we could do to bring this book into the world as carefully and respectfully as possible, and with a sense of delight.
Maybe it's a sign that people miss Wallace's consciousness so much—I often hear people ask what he would have written about WikiLeaks, say, or Twitter. More than so many writers, his work embodies the Internet age with its stylistic variance, its nonlinear structure, its obsession with pop culture—and yet tragically he's going to miss out on so much of what develops. So what does it mean that we're moving forward into unknown cultural territory without one of our wisest and most generous interpreters? How would you describe what we've lost by losing his voice?
[long pause]. You've posited that question so incredibly well, I feel like you've answered it yourself. I think I'm not going to add anything to it. I'm sorry. I don't have the words.
All I'll say is I share your admiration for David Wallace's work. He was a once-in-a-lifetime writer. Once in many lifetimes.