“I’m Not a Journalist, and I Don’t Pretend To Be One”: David Foster Wallace on Nonfiction, 1998, Part 1

I’m spending the week of Thanksgiving aboard Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas, where Internet access costs $35 for one hour. So in honor of my isolation on a cruise ship, here’s the transcript of a phone interview I did with David Foster Wallace in February 1998.

A much-shortened version of the conversation ran in the Boston Phoenix that month, in advance of a Boston reading on his paperback tour for the essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again . The cassette turned up when I was cleaning out old files.


Q: For basic reader orientation here, are you doing this from Bloomington?

DFW: Speaking to you? Yes, sir.

Q: What sort of phone?

DFW: What sort of phone? What kind of phone is this? This is a Panasonic Easa-Phone. E-A-S-A, hyphen, P-H-O-N-E. And I don’t see a model number on it. It’s got a little answering machine attached, although the answering machine doesn’t work as often as the average consumer probably would like it to.


Q: OK. Let’s see.

DFW: You’re really going to orient that reader, aren’t you?

Q: Yeah. You have to bring the color in somehow.

DFW: Uh-huh.

Q: Any particular configuration of beard or bandana or glasses? It seems to change over time.


DFW: So what, we’re going to pretend, we’re going to pretend that we’re sitting in the same room?

Q: No.

DFW: I’ve never had a beard. I’ve tried periodically to grow a beard, and when it resembles, you know, the armpit of a 15-year-old girl who hasn’t shaved her armpit, I shave it off. I do not have a head hanky on at this point, although I did recently, ‘cause I just got back from running my dogs around the countryside.

Q: OK. How many dogs?

DFW: This is what’s technically known as “soft news,” isn’t it?

Q: Yes. So how many dogs?

DFW: I have two dogs, who need a great deal of exercise to keep damage from being done to the house.


Q: Are they border collies or something?

DFW: They are—well, they’re both mutts, but they’re mostly black Lab, but they’re large and prone to mischief. They need to be tired out daily or else they chew the walls. Which has a deleterious effect on property values, I’m told.


Q: Are you looking forward to seeing Boston?

DFW: Yeah, I was there, when was I there? I was there two years ago, to—no, I was there last year, actually, and I read at the Brattle Theater. I think that was last year. And I just got back, actually, last night, went and saw Good Will Hunting. Which takes place not exactly where I used to live in Boston, but pretty darn close, and so I’ve been all flush with nostalgia.


Q: As far as you can tell, is the nonfiction work attracting different readers, or is it getting a different sort of reaction than the fiction has?

DFW: Boy, that’s a good question. I think people are somewhat less interested in nonfiction, so I think there’s been rather less fuss about this book. These were also pieces that were done over six or seven years and then got rewritten right at the end, but, you know, I don’t really have much of an emotional investment in them. So it’s kind of, it’s a more relaxed book, at least for me. In terms of readership, I really have no idea. I stay very far away from that stuff.


Q: How do the different kinds of writing differ for you, fiction versus nonfiction?

DFW: Oh, Lord. Is this an aesthetic question, a process question?

Q: Aesthetic, process, intellectual.

DFW: Golly. You know, the weird thing about the nonfiction is, I don’t really think, I mean, I’m not a journalist, and I don’t pretend to be one, and most of the pieces in there were assigned to me by Harper’s, with these sort of maddening instructions of, you know, just go to a certain spot and kind of, you know, turn 350 degrees a few times and tell us what you see.

And so there’s a kind of vagueness about the assignment and a kind of, it’s more—I’m not being very articulate. I’ll be honest. I think of myself as a fiction writer. I’m real interested in fiction, and all elements of fiction. Fiction’s more important to me. So I’m also I think more scared and tense about fiction, more worried about my stuff, more worried about whether I’m any good or not, or I’m on the wrong track or not.


Whereas the thing that was fun about a lot of the nonfiction is, you know, it’s not that I didn’t care, but it was just mostly like, yeah, I’ll try this. I’m not an expert at it. I don’t pretend to be. It’s not particularly important to me whether the magazine, you know, even takes the thing I do or not. And so it was just more, I guess the nonfiction seems a lot more like play. For me.


The weird thing is that when a couple of the nonfiction pieces got attention and then other magazines started to call, then of course I start thinking of myself as doing that, too, and begin—Mr. Ego gets in there, and then I begin worrying and sweating over that stuff, too, so.


Does that sound anything like an answer to the question?

Q: Yeah, that is something like an answer to the question. You cover a pretty wide range of stuff, given the number of essays. As you’re getting more offers, are there things that you don’t want to write about?

DFW: Well, I’ve decided I’m not going to do any more of that stuff for a while, just ‘cause I’ll use it as an excuse not to work on fiction. So. Yeah, there was lot—I mean, the funny thing is, is I think magazines—there’s so much competition with magazines, and I think they’re all so desperate for stuff that like, when was it? Actually there was that really long one about the cruise, and a version of it appeared in Harper’s, and some of the editors liked it, and for I think about like six days, I was really hot. You know, with these editors.


And so there would be these offers, like, I’m trying to remember what some of them were. Well, I won’t tell you the names of the magazines, but there was one offer to go to a nudist colony and write about going to a nudist colony. There was one offer to go to, Elizabeth Taylor was having like the product launch of some new brand of perfume, which bizarrely was being held at an Air Force base. And there was an offer to interview David Bowie. What about, I really don’t know. I don’t know anything about David Bowie.

But so, the weird thing is, for a while there were all these offers, and it was really neat, ‘cause I just, I got to take—I took a couple that I thought were going to be kind of interesting to me, or that I might have anything to write about, but most of them, I just kind of laughed and said, thanks, anyway.

So I think the answer to the question is, the wide range represents the fact that those were just certain times when magazines would call up and say, “Do you want to do X?” and “Do you want to do Y?” and I would go do it. It wasn’t really like I sat down and said, OK, I want to do two essays about this and four about that.

Continueto Part 2 of the interview here.