Paul Thomas Anderson only lasted two semesters at Emerson College in Boston. David Foster Wallace wasn’t there any longer, teaching as an adjunct for one year before getting a job at Illinois State. Amazingly, their time at the school overlapped, and, according to Anderson, the future filmmaker took a class from the not-yet-famous writer—and he loved it.
It was 1991 or ’92. “When I was at Emerson for that year,” Anderson tells Marc Maron on Monday’s episode of WTF, “David Foster Wallace, who was a great writer who was not known then, was my teacher, my English teacher.” Anderson was studying English. Wallace had published The Broom of the System and Girl With Curious Hair, as well as his book on hip-hop, Signifying Rappers (co-authored with Mark Costello), but he had not yet hit on the literary stardom he would find with Infinite Jest.
Wallace “was the first teacher I fell in love with,” Anderson says. “I’d never found anybody else like that at any of the other schools I’d been to.” They only spent time together in class, he notes, but they did also talk on the phone.
I called him once. He was very generous with his phone number. He said “Call me if you got any questions,” and I called him a couple times … I ran a few ideas by him about this paper that I was writing. I was writing a paper on Don DeLillo’s White Noise, and I’d come up with a couple crazy ideas, and I don’t remember the conversation well, but I just remember him being real generous at like, you know, midnight the night before it was due.
Anderson doesn’t say whether he knew at the time that DeLillo was one of Wallace’s literary heroes, nor does he share what those crazy ideas were that he’d had about White Noise. The relationship, such as it was, apparently ended when they both decided to leave Emerson. In what he calls “that classic move,” Anderson thought, “Oh, I want to get to New York, that’s where I’m supposed to go,” thinking he should study film at NYU’s famous Tisch School. And when he got there, he realized, “I wish I was back in Boston, taking English classes.” He dropped out of NYU after two days and never went back to school.