Editing David Foster Wallace's 'Host'

The process behind our unusual April 2005 cover story

David Foster Wallace's "Host," as it appeared in the April 2005 Atlantic. (Nadine Ajaka / The Atlantic)

In December 2004, David Foster Wallace’s “Host” was in production at The Atlantic. As was our usual process, I had copyedited it and passed it back to his editor at the magazine, Cullen Murphy, for review. The next step would ordinarily have been for the author to receive the piece in clean typeset galleys with any questions embedded and then to mail them back with comments and corrections or discuss them by phone or email with the article’s editor. Navigating the baroque structure of footnotes within footnotes on either the original manuscript or galleys would have been nearly impossible, so we worked on a printout of pages in the ingenious design of our art director, Mary Parsons.

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Deep into the mercenary world of take-no-prisoners political talk radio
By David Foster Wallace

DFW elected to discuss the changes on the phone. In fairly short order Cullen divined that the pace and detail of the discussion would be more than his schedule or psyche could tolerate, and suggested that DFW confer with me instead. Until then I had been an invisible if sometimes irritating figure in the lives of most Atlantic authors, who accepted, rejected, or railed against my efforts without ever being able to put a voice to, much less a face on, the person responsible for them. DFW did not of course know that, and was amenable.

We had probably three or four conversations and spent a total of seven hours on the phone. (A few years ago, at the suggestion of Corby Kummer, I sent all the “Host” files to the Harry Ransom Center, at the University of Texas; but my memory is that the edits were for the most part minor.)  He was friendly, polite, and deeply interested in even the fine points I raised, and to my astonishment accepted a number of my changes, later saying that he had learned a lot in the process. More often, however, he wanted his prose left alone, and would say “Throw me a bone on this one.” He spoke admiringly of Betsy Uhrig, his copyeditor at Little, Brown, and said that I ought to meet her. When we had finished, he sent me a poinsettia.

A year later I wrote to tell him that The Atlantic would be moving to Washington, that I would be staying behind, and that our discussions had been the high point of my 31 years at the magazine—something I had said to my colleagues as well. He sent me a note with an orange lobster glued to it (Consider the Lobster was due out a week later) in which he wrote in precise block letters that if Betsy Uhrig and I ever started our own firm, he would be our first customer.

That same month The Atlantic had its last Christmas party in Boston, and my colleagues presented me with a parting gift in the form of a framed magazine page designed like the opening page of “Host.” The text was a gentle roast of me, using the same progression of footnotes, but they had solicited a contribution from DFW. On a tiny sticky note in the lower right corner, he had written: “‘Throw me a bone!’...and you did!”