David Foster Wallace: Genius, Fabulist, Would-Be Murderer

A conversation with Wallace biographer D.T. Max

Viking Adult

Shortly after David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008, The New Yorker staff writer D.T. Max wrote what seemed like the definitive posthumous profile of the tormented and brilliant writer. Yet Max says he finished the piece with more questions about Wallace than answers. The result of those inquiries is the recently released biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. I spoke with Max by phone, and we discussed, among other things, Wallace's early influences, thoughts about embellishments in nonfiction, political and religious views, and how "he was sailing into the wind with The Pale King."

You've said that your article on David Foster Wallace in The New Yorker left you with more questions than answers. What were some of those questions?

When I was done with the piece, I really didn't know a lot about David's early life. I knew a lot about his last year. I had quickly gone over everything else, and just scratched the surface from my point of view. One of the biggest things I really didn't know—which I wanted to try to answer in the biography—was why the culture was becoming more and more interested in David. I wanted to go back in and say, "Who really is this man?" He wasn't always fated to have this early death. But it does look inevitable in hindsight.

Also, there's just a way that sometimes something you write about doesn't leave you. Most of the time it does leave you, though. Where you think, "Okay, that was interesting but it's time to move on." But David didn't leave me at all. There were phrases of his that kept rattling around in my head. Images of him that kept haunting me, and I wanted to turn back to him somehow.

One phrase I imagine you kept coming back to was Wallace's line: "making heads throb heartlike." He first used it his essay-review on the book Wittgenstein's Mistress, and he later, you say, told his editor that Infinite Jest would make "the head throb heartlike." It's one that shows up often in the book.

Yes, it meant a lot to me primarily because it meant so much to David. It's a phrase that states an interesting problem for literature, because the head and the heart are so very different. They do join together briefly in Infinite Jest. But besides his later story "Good Old Neon," which is a perfect example of making the "head throb heartlike," I don't think that notion was a goal for him any longer when he wrote most of the other stories collected in Oblivion. It really was an ethos most of all for his move from the more postmodern stories in his collection Girl With Curious Hair to Infinite Jest.

You do a wonderful job chronicling Wallace's early influences. You quote his friend Mark Costello as saying Wallace discovering Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 was "like Bob Dylan finding Woody Guthrie." Yet he often downplayed a lot of these early influences, including Pynchon. Another example is that the tone in his story "Girl with Curious Hair" was a riff on the one found in Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis, but he refused to acknowledge it.

I think in his early years, David is almost reverse-engineering fiction, and because he's doing that with the incredible mind he had, things are going right into his work that for a different writer would be much more digested and broken down. You see that particularly in The Broom of the System. For instance, there's a scene in there when the character Lenore Beadsman is looking down from an airplane at the town East Corinth and it looks like the actress Jayne Mansfield from the air. It's extremely similar to the scene in Crying of Lot 49 where the character Oedipa Maas is looking at a neighborhood from afar and it reminds her of a printed circuit with the "intent to communicate." And it's just so clear that David read this scene, liked it, and applied it. And I don't think it's plagiarism. I actually think it's brilliant the way he stole it. And he doesn't digest the point of it, but he totally reinvents it. He finds a cleverer, more wonderful application for it in a way.

One of the most disappointing things in the book was your account of how at the time he wrote some his most iconic nonfiction pieces, he thought it was okay to sometimes fabricate details. You say he did so in the state fair piece "Ticket to the Fair," the cruise ship essay "Shipping Out," and his account of the AVN Awards called "Neither Adult Nor Entertainment."

The odd thing is that I don't think he needed to do this. His prose and perceptions are so rich that he didn't really have to make these embellishments. In my mind his embellishments were always a little shticky. I don't think those pieces would have been much less admired if he'd been a little more literal-minded in what he saw. But I think that every intelligent reader could have guessed, for instance, that the tomahawking cheerleader baton that flies at the state fair doesn't really knock down the guy holding the video camera. It reads like comedy.

There are various times that he tells reporters that you need to read his nonfiction differently because he is first and foremost a fiction writer. He hinted to journalists that their rules weren't his. For instance, in 1998 he tells the Boston Phoenix, "you hire a fiction writer to do nonfiction, there's going to be the occasional bit of embellishment." What an extraordinary thing to admit. David knew what fact-checking is. He's not stupid—he's the opposite of that, right? But does he worry a lot about these sorts of embellishments? I don't think so, until much later. It's really interesting to see how Wallace and Jonathan Franzen diverge on nonfiction. Franzen's nonfiction seems every bit accurate and restrained. Franzen seems to have made a deliberate decision to wear two hats, creatively. And I don't think David ever fully made that decision.

But I don't think Wallace's very last pieces have very much embellishment. I don't think there's embellishment in "Host," for instance, or "Roger Federer as Religious Experience." As he got older, I think he begins to play it a lot more straight-forward. Let me read to you a section of one of his unpublished letters, which is a line not in the book. He sent it to one of his former Illinois State University colleagues, Becky Bradway, in 2007. "A journalist who misrepresents a speech, or skews quotations or facts in order to lend credence to a political argument or to advance a certain agenda ... this is bad faith." I don't think he ever entirely solved the problem of whether it was right to do in nonfiction, but one thing that happens is that James Frey's A Million Little Pieces cracks up. From that, I think that he takes in a new piece of information about what he can and can't do.

Do you think these earlier embellishments tarnish those pieces?

I don't think about it that way. I think it's useful to know. And I think it's useful for young journalists to know about them so they don't think, "Why don't these perfect moments ever happen to me like they did to David?" In all my reporting years, some 20 years, I can remember on one hand perfect moments that just fell in my lap. If you're doing journalism, I think it's good for you to know that you're not doing anything wrong just because these things don't happened to you.

Later in the fall, Little, Brown and Company is releasing a new Wallace essay collection called Both Flesh and Not. It seems clear that he wanted The Pale King published even though it was unfinished, but do you have any thoughts on how he would have reacted to having a collection of his nonfiction put together without his input, given how much he would obsess over such things?

There's a mixture there. Some of them are older pieces that he initially passed over in other volumes, like the essay "Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young." And there's the Federer piece which he never lived to put in a collection, which I'm sure he would've wanted to. My feeling why he never had "Fictional Futures" put in a collection is because it sounded so different and so arrogant. But it's a wonderful piece in that it sounds like David before he knew how to be David. It's got this massive energy and yet it's also arrogant in a way that he learned not to be arrogant. It's fascinating in that way—it has a complete opposite stance that David would later take so effectively, like in "Consider the Lobster," where he's just asking questions and not providing answers.

You write that Wallace turned to writing letters when work wasn't going well—particularly it seems with Don DeLillo and Franzen—and in a note in the back of the book about your sources, you say, "David may have been the last great letter writer in American literature."

I finished the book with fumes in my head of joy and relief, and so, forgive me for making a slight overstatement. What I wanted to say was that I found it interesting that David's letters were so much richer than his emails. David loved writing by hand and he loved typing things up, and he loved the slowness of the typewriter. He abandoned the typewriter for the word processor reluctantly. But when he starting writing emails, there seemed to be less of David in those. I have the correspondence between David and Franzen in letters and then in email, and I was struck by what was lost through email. Email doesn't want you to be you. It wants you to be sort-of-you. One thing his letters make you feel is that he thought the word was God, and words were always worth putting down. Even in a letter to the head of his halfway house—where he apologizes for contemplating buying a gun to kill the writer Mary Karr's husband—the craftsmanship of that letter is quite remarkable. You read it like a David Foster Wallace essay.

That's one of the most shocking things you discovered: that he considered—granted in a half-baked manner—murdering Karr's then-husband. He later went on to have a tumultuous relationship with her.

Yes, certainly. I didn't know that David had that in him. I was surprised, in general, with the intensity of violence in his personality. It was something I knew about him when I wrote The New Yorker piece, but it grew on me. It made me think harder about David and creativity and anger. But on the other end of the spectrum, he was also this open, emotional guy, who was able to cry, who intensely loved his dogs. He was all those things. That, in part, is why he's a really fascinating guy and an honor to write about.

You write that Infinite Jest was motivated by his "dysfunctional yearning for Mary Karr." How did she influence his drive to write the book?

What I meant by that was that he was trying to impress her. He really wants her to think he's doing wonderful work, and I think when she, at various times, breaks up with him, he's thrown into those negative spirals that can also be enormously productive for a person, a creative spiral of anger. Almost like something out of a Hollywood movie. There's a note in one of my files where he says something like, "Infinite Jest was just a means to Mary Karr's end, as it were." A sexual pun.

You write that Wallace, during his younger years at least, was "politically fairly conservative," and that he "voted for Ronald Reagan and supported Ross Perot in 1992." Yet it's interesting how his politics changed over time. You write he was a vocal critic of George W. Bush and "seriously considered leaving the country" when he was reelected. You say he even briefly thought about the possibility of being a speechwriter for Obama.

The paradigm here is he tended towards the extreme as a young man. He came from a liberal academic family in the Midwest, and it was a little bit of an épaterof the bourgeoisie in voting for Reagan. I also think that there's a little aspect of Ayn Randism in his confidence in himself. It's also paradoxical. Later on, he was a beneficiary of a great number of social services, so he could hardly have emerged from all those experiences still in a Reaganite frame of mind. I think his wife, Karen Green, made him more liberal and more interested in politics on a daily basis. With that said, when you look at all his correspondences, there's hardly anything about politics.

Since his death, there seems to be an emerging interest in Wallace's religious views, and to cast him as more religious and spiritual than he was. What do you make of that? One part of the book I found striking is when you discuss how he developed an interest in Buddhism, but as you write, it was always hard for him to "understand that Buddhism wasn't a course you tried to ace." He seemed to have the same issues when it came to Christianity.

I think some people have tried to turn David into some kind of Thomas Merton figure, but whereas Merton found God, David found God in the form of a 12-step program. Part of the 12-step program that he found hardest to accept—and therefore in my mind most exciting to think about—was faith. I don't think the Judeo-Christian God ever satisfied him. I think he found it hard to put his skepticism away and feel faith. I think that one of the reasons he tried so hard to believe in God was because in 12-step programs, one of the reasons there's an emphasis on God isn't because 12-step programs want you to be a Christian or a Jew, they want you to know you're not God. And that's really important for him as an addict: I'm not God. I can relax a bit. I don't have to be perfect in my attitude towards others. I just have to do what I can do. I think there's a very important quote he liked, which I list in the book's notes: "It's not about whether or not you believe, asshole, it's about getting down and asking." That's so David.

In Franzen's essay about Wallace's suicide, "Farther Away," he writes that it is "fair to say that David died of boredom." What do you make of that statement?

I actually haven't read the piece. I have my own panic of influence. I'll say this: I think that David was uncomfortable with happiness. He never entirely felt he deserved happiness. And he was a writer, and so, what did it feel like to be a writer who was happy and is also not writing successfully? I don't think that Franzen's wrong if he's using boredom as a synonym for contentment. I think Wallace raised the bar impossibly high with The Pale King. What Infinite Jest has going for it, among a lot of other things, is it has a perfect venue with the halfway house, and it has terrifically contrived characters, similar to Salinger's Glass family. To some extent a novel is a sailboat. It needs favorable wind. And I think he was sailing into the wind with The Pale King.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity and length.