Andrea and Roberto over at the excellent Italian blog, Archivio David Foster Wallace Italia, [ Follow them on twitter @ArchivioDFW] conducted an interview with D.T. Max, (@D_T_Max - dtmax.com) author of Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.
Below is the English version of the interview reproduced for your enjoyment in collaboration with Archivio David Foster Wallace Italia, (visit them if you haven't already done so).
archivioDFW: Can you remember the first time you heard about David Foster Wallace? What were your first impressions?
D.T. Max: I knew about David very early. I was in my mid 20s and an editor in New York, when Gerry Howard, DFW's editor, sent me an advanced copy of Broom of the System, in the hopes I would review it. I still have the book, now yellow and aged but cherished.
aDFW: We had a poll among Italian fans, but I’d like to ask you too: which of David’s books would you recommend as an introduction to someone who has not read DFW before and why?
D.T. Max: I think it's sensible to begin with A Supposedly Fun Thing. The special DFW tone is there though the book is considerably easier to read than the fiction is.
aDFW: Your book is an expansion of your excellent New Yorker piece from 2009. We are wondering how (and if) the way you approach DFW’s work as a reader has changed as a result of your research into his biography. In general, should we expect our reading of his books to change after learning so much about how they came about?
D. T. Max: I grow more and more respectful of David as a writer the more I know about him and his life, more and more in awe. More and more in love. I'm constantly struck by how remarkably he took what he saw and turned it into fiction. I always say about biography that it can tell you everything you want to know about a writer except the one thing you really want to know: what the genius consists of. Before that, as Freud might have said, the biographer must lay down his arms.
aDFW: About the title you chose for your book: We know it is a sentence used at least twice by Wallace (in Tri-stan [from Brief Interviews] and The Pale King). What is its meaning for you? And for David?
D.T. Max: For David, it's anyone's guess. He writes it at the bottom of a letter to one of his teachers in graduate school for the first time when he is in his mid20s. Then it appears again and again. He clearly liked the phrase. In a New Yorker post [and more here, about my part - Nick], I trace its origin to an unpublished story of Christina Stead, a story David could not have seen. Dunno.
For me, the phrase sums up the effort of the biographer, who is, metaphorically and literally, all too often chasing a ghost. And when I think of DFW and his hope that writing could free him of his demons, well, wasn't that another love story that ended with a ghost?
aDFW: In his 2004 review of the biography Borges on the Couch, DFW realizes the challenges of a biographer trying to create literary interest with a story that might not be necessarily interesting. He argues that the life of Kafka or Dostoevsky is worthy of a biography, but not that of Borges. So my question is: why is David’s life an interesting story to tell?
D.T. Max: Intuitively, I think, we agree with David in his distinction: there's a disconnect between fiction and life that in Borges's case is unspannable. DFW seems to me rather the opposite: biography throws so much light on DFW's fiction, the concerns of the life and the work overlap so extensively it's almost as if David were the perfect example of a biographizable author. There's little David tries out in his fiction that he hasn't already tried out in his life.
aDFW: Italy was certainly one of the first countries to read DFW in translation. But we also find a strange relationship between DFW and Italy; for instance Capri was the destination of one of his few trips out of US [here for le conversazioni 2006], and there’s plenty of allusions to Italy in Infinite Jest (the origin of Incandenzas, the Bernini’s Santa Teresa, the Appian Way where Hal dreams to run, Dr. Zegarelli...). Can you find an explanation for this?
D.T. Max: Did he like Italy in particular? I think there's something to that but what i'm not sure. And it's also true that Italians responded to DFW's work before most other Europeans. As for the presence of Italian surnames in DFW's work, it may be for comic effect—in English long names read as enthusiastic, bombastic, chaotic.
aDFW: Wallace was a great fan of maths. Have you found, in your research, something new and surprising about his hugely exhibited but often shaky relationship with the discipline?
D.T. Max: Well I came to appreciate that DFW's reach exceeded his grasp, as we say in English. Also I found a letter where he admits he doesn't really like math at all but “meta-math”; what turns him on is theory of math. He talks of it as “sort of cheaty,” in a letter I quote in the book, “something like throwing a girl’s skirts over her head and kissing her on the bare stomach before you’ve even introduced yourself or taken her for a malted or anything.”
aDFW: Reading your book we discover that a lot of the themes in DFW’s fictions are actually very biographical (addictions, depression, tennis, maths, and apparently issues with IRS). Would it be correct to consider this somewhat limits David’s work as a writer?
D.T. Max: Oh, not at all. David was in some ways not very inventive—he took the materials he had on hand—but my God, he was imaginative. Just look at the things he did with those materials.
aDFW: In your book you speak about David’s journals (for example you tell us he kicked out a girlfriend when he discovered she was reading them). We could not find traces of them in the Austin Archive, but I am guessing you’ve read them: what was the impact of them in the biography you wrote?
D.T. Max: There are only a few known journals and some spare pages, most of which are in the Austin archives now and which I have read. David sometimes scribbled in the margins or on the backsides of drafts of stories and these often contain very personal reflections. Of the hundreds of journal books he must have kept, we have only a small percentage. I don't know if they will turn up later or if he destroyed them or threw them out. He was not, in general, a keeper of things—journals, letters, drafts.
aDFW: According to you which writers are showing to have read DFW and are going along the lines defined by David in terms of going beyond po-mo and so on?
D.T. Max: I think you'd want to look at George Saunders in particular here—another writer whose early mastery of technique and tone eventually expanded to include a sympathetic reading of the human condition.
[Thanks again to Andrea and Roberto from Archivio David Foster Wallace Italia. Follow them on twitter @ArchivioDFW for Italian DFW news]