Brief Interviews was a dream project for DFW; after the sudden literary success of his novel Infinite Jest and his essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, I suspect he was given a bit of the artistic freedom that only commercially successful authors have. Allowed to exercise an unusual amount of literary discretion, I believe DFW set about collecting the stories that pushed his own personal literary-ambition buttons the most: experimental story forms, voluminous footnotes, and complexly layered narrative structures. Once he had cobbled together all of his favorite uncollected works, he
started looking for connections, and found two major ones. First, many of the pieces dealt with love and sexuality. Second, he found himself fascinated with a particular experimental form he had dabbled in while writing Infinite Jest: an interview in which the interviewer's questions are omitted, and must be inferred from their answers.
Rumor has it that DFW wrote and discarded far more of the Brief Interviews than he eventually included in the book that would bear their name. The ones he selected comprise some of DFW's most emotionally accessible work, and their literary brilliance is just now beginning to be understood. According to DFW (outside the text), all the interviews are conducted by the same woman, who interviews dozens of men over a period of years, about topics related to love and sexuality. The narrative arc implied by this is fascinating: while Interview #1 is not published, Interview #2 is her own breakup with a boyfriend she travel across the US to live with, and Interview #3 is overheard in an airport lounge. It appears that our protagonist
didn't set out to conduct interviews; they were forced upon her and she later stitched them into a pattern that described the various men in her life.
Some of the interview subjects are bright, some are dim. Some are chatty, some are reticent. Some are unable to deal with sex or women in conventional ways, while some flirt with the interviewer, sometimes even making a pass. All of the interviews are interesting, some are fascinating. Several reveal DFW's skill as a straight raconteur; others delve into the interlocking structures and layered narrative disassociation that he has become noted for exploring. What strikes me as most distinctive about the Interviews, in contrast with his other work, is the firm sense of 'voice' in his writing: each interview subject has a rhythm, a cadence, a vocabulary, a conversational structure, all different from one another. This work remains some of DFW's most vivid character writing in his career.
Digging into this fascinating work, I hunted around for online criticism and commentary. What I found was wallace-l, a listserv of kindred souls fascinated with DFW for many reasons. By the end of the summer, I was hanging on every word of my online fellows, sharing personal stories, discussing literature, music, and art, exploring the ways in which reading DFW and his peers had changed our lives.
Through these compatriots ("exiles from a place that has never existed," in one lister's words), I became aware that DFW had
published many of his stories and essays in small magazines and had never bothered to collect them in his anthologies. As a holiday present for my newfound online friends, I set about compiling a book of these uncollected pieces. Many other list members helped me locate obscure magazine issues, scanned journals in their college libraries, and even took road trips to track down work. Some listers contributed essays describing their experiences with DFW, his work, and wallace-l. As the winter approached, I looked forward to sending these compiled books as gifts to the people who had helped me articulate my struggles with literature and love, whose faces I had never seen.
My work on the compilation project began to come up in conversation with actual friends in my real life. "Oh, that author you like to read aloud," they'd recall. I began to realize that part of my fascination with DFW's work, and especially the Interviews, was that sense of 'voice' that gave his characters such individuality and vivid appearance. I had to find a way to include that 'voice' in my holiday gifts to my friends. DFW himself had recorded an audiobook version of a few stories from the book, but I didn't care for his reading style. Something even better was possible.
So, on a snowy weekend in November 2003, I gathered a couple of dozen friends and colleagues to produce spoken recordings of the Interviews. Most of them had never heard of DFW or Brief Interviews; many of them had significant experience in theater and public speaking. The production turned out to be downright enjoyable; one of my friends was
an experienced sound engineer, and another had worked in New York City as an audiobook producer. All of them enjoyed their time with the microphone and in discussing the various stories and characters while they waited a turn.
Engineering the recordings in post-production took considerable time, and benefited greatly from the voluminous talent of my colleague Jordan Davis. I didn't have the heart to make my one female actor sit through two days of saying nothing but "Q" over and over again; Jordan recorded her part in five minutes, and later inserted the same "Q" into hundreds of places in over three hours of recording time. He pieced together the best takes, cut out the occasional mistakes, and even made a cameo appearance reading one of the Interviews.
After Jordan finished his wizardry, I burned a few dozen copies of the recordings on my home stereo and mailed them out around the world, as a surprise bonus with the compilations of DFW's uncollected work. Many of the 'uncollected' essays from back then have since appeared in later collections, but nothing has come along like the Brief Interviews. The text was adapted into a stage play shortly after their publication, and adapted again into a screenplay that's filming in 2007. But for me, the Interviews would be spoiled by visual images: I read them on the page, and hear a 'voice' in the aether. These recordings are what I believe Brief Interviews With Hideous Men were really destined for. Now available for your listening pleasure and consideration. Enjoy.