David Lipsky has been kind enough to take part in a little Q&A with The Howling Fantods about his fantastic new book, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself : A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. David spent five days with David Foster Wallace in 1996 recording almost every moment on tape for a Rolling Stone article that never ran. The book documents those five days. It is DFW speaking about DFW, at length, and it's great.
Nick Maniatis: The first few days of your time with Wallace played out like a competitive conversation—positioning, sidestepping, repositioning. I particularly enjoyed moments when you questioned Wallace about his interview persona. Had you planned to challenge him that way? He seemed surprised that you would even go there.
David Lipsky: In the beginning, just being around David was rattling, the kind of thrill that makes you drop stuff. If you’re reporting, there’s lots of administrative stuff you can do—busy work: opening tapes, flipping your notebook—to make yourself look capable and occupied when actually your heart is rhumbaing and the real feeling is being desperate to be liked. That’s where I was the first day or so: I knew how great a writer David was. Now here was this extraordinary thing of his being suddenly in front of me. How had that happened?
And there’s the funny thing of reading somebody a lot—you can’t really get any closer to another person. That’s the great lure of reading, the intimacy, the brain vacation. David says something great about this in the book: “It’s really feeling, that their brain voice for a while becomes your brain voice. The Vulcan Mind Meld perhaps is a better analogy. [Readers] feel intimate with you... not just that you’d be somebody it’d be great to be friends with, but that they are your friend.” And that’s how I felt. And the first day, he wasn’t that brain voice I’d been Vulcaning with. He was talking about hoping to get laid on book tour (which didn’t sound like him at all), he seemed to be holding back on how brilliant he was—he was like an NBA center crouching and shrugging to fit into a junior high’s varsity photo. Which, if you thought about it, was kind of a challenge: was the listener going to not notice his skills and height? So I would point that out. David keeps saying things like, “This is a good tactic of yours, to get me a little pissed off, and then I’m going to reveal more, I’ll be less guarded.” But it was more me just trying to keep up and hang on.
[Continued after the jump]
Reading the book, I keep squinching up at moments when I do challenge him. They seem not nice. One of the great invitations in David’s work—aside from its great overall invitation by example: be awake, be as awake as I am—is to be warmer to other people. To remember there’s another self there under the mask and robes of face and clothing. It feels like I flubbed that second part. Towards the middle, there’s that moment in the car when he seems like he’s being completely open; he’s deciding, after days of travelling together, talking together, eating bad food together, that he can give an explanation. “I think there are different people on the page than in real life,” David says. “I do six to eight drafts of everything that I do. I am probably not the smartest writer going. But I work really really hard. I’m not all that fast. And I’m really self-conscious. And I get confused really easily. When I’m in a room by myself alone, and have enough time, I can be really really smart.” And instead of just accepting that as friendly and trusting, as humanly nice, I show I realize he’s not being completely open—and he does that great thing of asking me to shut the tape off. And then for the rest of the trip we just sat there in the dark singing along to REM. I think that’s one of the hardest moments in the book, but it’s also a very real one: I mean that’s what David was like, and we reached a limit. But it’s not a moment where I like Vulcanly melding with who I am. When I first reread that exchange, I wanted to mount a letter-writing campaign against myself.
NM: So why did the Rolling Stone piece never go ahead? Is it presumptuous of me to suggest that the hype was so big RS didn’t want to look like it was cashing in too?
DL: Not at all (presumptuous, I mean). Maybe a little of that, but more magazine scheduling.
I got home from Illinois—half-shoeless—around the middle of March. To a terrible problem: I had to figure out how to write about David while imagining being read by David: a pretty sweaty task. (David told me how things would have been on his end if we’d talked years before. “I would have waited on tenterhooks for the article, the article would have come out. And if it wasn’t savage, I would have had exactly an hour of a kind of greasy thrill about it.”)
Martin Amis has this great thing about how odd book reviews are. He says it’s the only form where you write about a person in the same basic form as their performance—you don’t review a ballet by dancing your impressions, or shoot a super-8 to discuss Avatar. So typing a paragraph about David, then picturing him reading the words, had the same benefit for my typing as handcuffs. There’s a kind of host thinking you get into, writing a piece: a mental guest list, how much good stuff can I get in? We’d spent all those days together, there was a city of good stuff. (David guessed the problem, looking down at the seventh tape: “We work real differently, man—I would never be able to boil all this down. Maybe I’m a minimalist, in a perverse way.”) How could you do that—with his magazine-holding hands and eyes at the other end, once it got printed, in a reading chair I could exactly picture, shaking his head over the botch job I’d done? I sat and stared at the lead: about us stuck at the frozen airport. I was frozen too.
And then Rolling Stone sent me to Seattle to live with heroin addicts. A perfect, post-David assignment: he’d been talking about the addictive continuum (“One of the things I noticed in the halfway house is the difference between me and [someone] who’d been doing heroin since she was eleven is a matter of accidents. I mean, I really love books and I really love writing, and a lot of these folks never got to find anything else they loved”). He’d talked about how people long to give themselves away to something. And here I was surrounded by these polite, addicted people. One kid said that the thing he liked best about heroin was how it ordered and dramatized a day for you: he knew he had to raise eighty bucks every twenty-four hours to buy heroin; it made everything pointed. It was as if I’d slipped into some abandoned side-chapter of David’s book.
And then when I got back it was May, and the novel’s hype (David calls it “the fuss”) seemed to have been digested. That’s part of what you do at a magazine: salting and marinating cultural products—movies, personalities—to help them go down a little easier. So I was summoned to an office, told I wouldn’t have to do the story after all. Which was an incredible relief. No magazine wants to be last, to be late. (Being late is the trade term: “We’re a little late on Copernicus.”) But it bothered me, and a decade later, when NPR asked me to recommend just one book for a series, I got to say I couldn’t think of anything readers would enjoy more than A Supposedly Fun Thing—except Consider the Lobster, which had just come out. That was another great relief: I felt like I’d discharged a debt. Without it ending up in that reading chair.
NM: I’m interested to know how much of his fiction and non-fiction you’d read before you met him. This kind of stuff is fascinating to me as I am slowly putting together a picture, from over here on the opposite side of the planet, just what kind of hype and literary excitement Infinite Jest generated in the USA. For international Wallace fans like myself your book does a great job of capturing the excitement of the moment. What was it like for you to be caught up in it?
DL: It didn’t reach the Antipodes? You’ve got Malcolm Knox, who did that great The Monthly piece. And you started up, what, a year after it came out?
It was an amazing thing, to watch David’s book land on New York. One nice part is something I hope he appreciated; New York is culturally snobbish, in that it expects its biggest detonations to come from somewhere inside the five boroughs. (Hollywood excepted. Hollywood is the rich cousin whose flash you love but whose work life you’ll never quite understand.) And David, of course, came from outside and just cleared the landscape.
It’s in the early part of the book: you couldn’t get into his readings, when I remember his book party—February, downtown—what I picture is a black-and-cashmere version of a casino. People everywhere, on trapezes from the ceiling. Double-parked limousines. And David in the middle, in a shirt he said he’d picked “because it had the least crusty armpits.” And him in another magazine or newspaper every day. People calling and saying “Who’s David Foster Wallace?”
The books: Everyone I know read Girl with Curious Hair. (David thought it hadn’t gone over. But it came out during a very dark period, “I don’t think I was paying much attention to anything other than good old yours truly.”) Copies of it—with its great blurry TV-on-a-pedestal cover—were passed around by younger writers in New York for a year, until they got finger-printed and grubby. And every young writer noticed when Broom came out, in the sidelong, grudging way you’re aware of early publication. David’s very funny about this: “You’re a student, you’re a writing student. You’re young, you are by definition immature…” When I said that he was now on the other side, he smiled. “Well, then I can tell you, from authoritative firsthand experience that there’s nothing like—there’s no keen, exquisite pleasure that corresponds with the keen exquisite pain of envying somebody whose written something that you particularly admire.” One of things I really like about that part of the trip is how it brings back all the fingers-crossed stuff of being a young writer: the measuring yourself by people around you, trying to be a good sport the way contestants are good sports on American Idol; clapping and congratulating with that aching pull in your chest, calculating just how many spaces are left.
Wallace was the wild card, the young writer you worried about. Then there were rumors about Infinite Jest: it had come in too long, there were scrambling, last-minute edits. Which to some really super-competitive young writers was good news: you weren’t going to have to think about Wallace again. Updike says that when he dreamed of the writing world, he pictured toasts, welcomes, backslaps. Instead, it turned out to be The Raft of the Medusa. “Your instinct when a new writer tries to clamber aboard is to stamp on their fingers.” That’s how it does feel on this side of world: when you go to a book-industry thing, the hands and feet look awfully swollen.
David in the book compares the writing world to “Great white sharks fighting over a bathtub—the amount of celebrity and money we’re talking about is on the scale of like true entertainment so small. And the formidable intellect marshalled by these egos fighting over this small section of the pie, it’s just . . . “ He says, “I just think of this enormous hiss of egos at various stages of inflation and deflation.”
Then David’s cruise ship piece came out, two months before the novel, and everyone understood just how good he was going to be. Everyone was reading it. People who didn’t look at more than the newspaper or a couple books a year would call and urge you to read it. (It turned out it wasn’t that they didn’t like reading: they just hadn’t read anything they liked.) I read it twice the day it came out. It was warm, startling. You were dropped all at once into this tremendous, kind intelligence. For a lot of people, it was very personal: the thrilling and disorienting thing of opening a magazine to a mirror. Here was the stuff you noticed, cared about, thought. (This is how David says he saw the work: “What writers have is a license and also the freedom to sit—to sit, clench their fists, and make themselves be excruciatingly aware of the stuff that we’re mostly aware of only on a certain level. And if the writer does his job right, what he basically does is remind the reader of how smart the reader is. Wake the reader up to stuff that the reader’s been aware of all the time.”) The only thing to compare it to is Salinger—but Salinger got the way people talked. This was internal, and so amazingly personal, and because David was so gifted, it felt personal to everybody. It was brilliant, but didn’t insist on being brilliant in a stand-offish way. The way it felt was, “Come over here, I know you noticed this too, come read these pages and be smart with me.”
Then the novel came out in February, and I’d never seen anything like that before. Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, and Jonathan Lethem got slightly edited versions of the same experience, I’d imagine. But nothing like what it was for David’s book in the early winter of 1996. Everybody was talking about it: there were rumors about who he was dating, talk shows he’d turned down. (Talk shows are New York heaven, the absolute top storey.) When David arrived at his own reading, he couldn’t get in. “It was simultaneously very ego gratifying and also just terrifying. Clearly, if I fucked up a little bit…” I was at party and a female writer sat down beside me, looked around and said, “All these relationships are being screwed up by David Foster Wallace.” Women cooing about his newspaper photos and reviews, boyfriends grousing and envying. Something huge had happened in books—and it was from this figure out in the middle of the country, an unknown quantity. There’s never been an adult writer since who’s gotten that kind of welcome, that I can think of.
NM: To revisit your earlier comment, “You knew how great a writer David was”. Near the beginning of your interview Wallace doesn’t automatically assume you’ve read Infinite Jest. You don’t let on until later that you had, indeed, read it. I enjoyed the tension this created.
DL: I’m glad you liked that. David didn’t think the response to the book could be all that genuine: “The book takes at least two months to read well,” he said. “If two years from now, I’ve got people who like have read the thing three times, then I’ll swell up...As it is, there’s a kind of creeping feeling of a kind of misunderstanding.”
But I got a copy in early February, and read it straight through. My girlfriend was staying with me, reading it in bed, and writing friends at magazines to ask what David looked like and whether he was married. So it was a very strange exciting thing, seeing David the first time, like beating your way upriver to the source of the Nile, the wind that started the hurricane.
NM: There are way more of those “singing along to REM” moments than I expected. You and I had previously spoken about how candid and open he was during your time. But I hadn’t anticipated how much it ends up being like a totally enjoyable road trip / buddy flick. Did it feel that way to you?
DL: It did, and I’m happy that’s how it felt to you, too. The main thing I wanted for the book was to give readers the experience of going on a trip with Wallace, being with him minute by minute. He was astoundingly good company. There’s a friend of his—the editor who brought him to Harper’s—who’s talking about hiking with David through Manhattan.
“Sort of gee-whizzing everything, amazed by everything. He was so much smarter than anyone, including you, and yet his attitude was, he was genuinely pleased to be wherever he was, most of the time. If he was with a congenial companion. Amazed and interested in everything. How could he write what he wrote if he wasn’t looking at everything all the time? And you got to be in his senses, so you got to see more. He’s using all six and a half senses at once, which can drive you crazy. But he shared it with us, which was nice of him to do. Talking to him was a delightful social experience, and also a literary experience.”
That’s what the trip was like. You felt charmed, lucky, and alive to be in his company—even when we were just smoking cigarettes in a doorway, making traffic complaints or joking about the safety guide on the airplane, or he was threatening that if I did a bad job with the writing, “I have twenty years to get you back.” And then he was actually very helpful about how I’d do it. He keeps switching the tape off and on, as he drafts the way he wants to describe his life. We walked into a Denny’s, I’m describing it into the recorder, and he’ll add, “High proportion of people wearing caps, too.” I was surprised Denny’s had a smoking section, and he Wallacized it: “There’s even a chain-smoking section at Denny’s.”
(One thing I hope is in the book is how funny he is. He’s talking about movies: “Tarantino is such a schmuck 90 percent of the time. But ten percent of the time, I’ve seen genius shining off the guy.” “Cameron would be making so much better movies if they gave him a seven, eight-million-dollar budget on each one. And said, you know, ‘Do your best.’”)
So I’m really happy that’s the feeling you got. The book really is supposed to be you going on one trip, from start to finish. It seemed like the best way to let him tell his own story—how and why he became a writer, how he started, how everything felt. But there’s this other, softer thing, which is just getting to be around him.
And then there was the funny stuff of the trip being so hard: our airport getting snowed in; having to dash up to Chicago; having the escort in Minneapolis be so, in her way, comically weird; having to rush to the reading, driving home late, walking his two dogs. (“You get instantaneous production from the Jeevester,” he says. “Drone’s a much tougher nut.”) It wasn’t like any other experience I’d ever had, so compressed and so wide.
NM: As a high school teacher I’ve always wondered what David Foster Wallace “the teacher” was like. There’s a craft to teaching of which a considerable component is performance—I know I become a different person in front of a group of high school students. You saw him teach and I couldn’t help but be drawn to your descriptions of him doing so: “He paces around the classroom. Happy, energetic. At one point, thinking, he even drops into a quick knee bend. Class laughs; they really like him.” “His delivery is darting and graceful: the Astaire quality of good teaching.” I know students can almost instinctually recognise a quality teacher—you appeared caught up in his teaching too—what was his hook?
DL: He thought part of the hook—in the old Mr. Kotter style—was television. David keeps comparing things to TV and movies, which he then kind of smiles about. “The culture has a whole weird, complicated relation to its pop self. Because I know that, like, when I make that Gilligan reference in class, everybody laughs. And there’s a jagged edge to it. Because everybody’s a little uncomfortable with how familiar it is.”
I think they could tell he would do whatever he had to do to make them smarter; the books are like that too—they go to any lengths—and he was doing that for them live. (His mom told me—she’s a grammar whiz—if he had a student in his office, and was stumped on a technical point of grammar, he’d phone her up. “You could hear the student sort of laughing in the background. ‘Here’s David Foster Wallace calling his mother.’”) He was really there, not running on automatic, which I think the students can also sense. And then he was full of practical advice. He told them to be wary of the campus romance subject: “The great dread of creative writing professors: ‘Their eyes met over the keg…’” And exceptionally clear: There are a lot of jobs writing has to do, “But the job of the first eight pages is not to have the reader want to throw the book at the wall, during the first eight pages.” His teaching was like everything else: which is, don’t let things become automatic, be alive, connect.
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