“It’s Not Very Good for Me When People Treat Me Like a Big Shot”: David Foster Wallace on Nonfiction, 1998, Part 5

Q:How much distance is there between David Foster Wallace—the narrator—andyourself?

DFW:I don’t understand the question?

Q:How crafted is that persona? Because it has the appearance of course of, like,nakedness, and an actual opening up of the thought process. But at the sametime, you said, like with the David Lynch thing, you felt it sort of turninginto shtick.

DFW:Yeeeah. Well. Huh. You know, I think sincerity can be a shtick. I know people,just in private life—you know the kind of person who takes great pride thatthey will never have an unuttered thought, and there will never be a truth, youknow, they’re like, “So how do I look in this?” “Wellll, I’dlove to tell you you look good, but I’ve just gotta tell the truth, you lookawful”—you know what I mean, those people?


DFW:And uh—[sighs]. The hard thing about any of this stuff is, after a while,almost anything becomes this kind of postmodern pose. And I think really thefirst four or five of those, particularly like through the cruise, I don’tthink there was really any persona there at all, except what emerged throughthe fact the thing was getting cut over and over again, and I’d cut out thelines that were clunky or whatever. I don’t think anybody thinks entertaininglyat all times.

Bythe end, like by the Lynch thing, I began to kind of hear that voice in my headthat I thought of as the nonfiction shtick voice. I don’t think I particularlylike the idea of having a persona in nonfiction. I think it’s basically theheart of fiction, but I don’t really like that idea in nonfiction, particularlynonfiction that’s trying to slice open its brain for you.

Andthat might be another reason to cut it out for a while.

Thenatural hope is that if you don’t write any more nonfiction for four or fiveyears, you’ll sort of be a different person, and that voice and sensibilitywill be different by the time you go back to it. With any luck.

Q:So what are you working on now?

DFW:When you were in college, did you read much Parmenides? The pre-Socratic?


DFW:Parmenides has this very interesting thing about, what does not exist yetcannot coherently be spoken of? It’s like contradictory?


DFW:I invoke Parmenides.

Q:OK. Did you read much Parmenides when you were in college?

DFW:We had to—I remember spending months and months on the pre-Socratics. We had aprof who was really big on the pre-Socratics.

Q:What was your major?

DFW:I was a—well, actually, I’m not sure if I had enough math to be a math major. Ithink my book majors were philosophy and English.


DFW:I might have been a triple—I don’t think I ever declared math. A lot ofphilosophy classes, like logic and semantics and number theory and stuff arekind of both philosophy and math.

Q:So you said there was a period of time, like six days, when you were really hotwith magazine editors. How’s the whole pendulum of fame swinging?

DFW:The degree of fame we’re talking about here—getting hot as a writer for sixdays is equivalent to a fan base of like a local TV weatherman, right? Magazinesare certainly not calling every day to ask me to do stuff anymore, which to behonest is something of a relief, ‘cause there’s other stuff I’m working on.

Idon’t—see, the thing about it, I’ve been doing this since the mid-’80s. Sincethe mid-’80s, I’ve watched, you know, I don’t know how many writers get hot,and then not get hot, and then get hot again, and then not get hot, and youjust—after a while, you just kind of don’t really take it seriously? A lot ofit is just kind of the peristalsis of the industry.

Theindustry I think it’s so pressed, and so anxious to create kind of heat andbuzz around specific people, you know? It’s the same way movies are, the sameway music is. Although the amounts of money at stake in books are vanishinglysmall.

It’snice when the phone doesn’t ring as much, and it’s not very good for me whenpeople treat me like a big shot. Because then I get puffed up inside. But otherthan that, it doesn’t really make much difference?

Q:How big does the big-shot treatment get?

DFW:Oh, I just mean—giving a reading, I remember giving a reading in the late ‘80s,and like nobody came. I remember giving a reading at, it wasn’t the HarvardBookstore, but it was a bookstore in Harvard, and it was December of ‘91, andHarper’s had this whole idea that they were going to put on these readings ofpeople reading their stuff from the magazine. And this was when that one aboutplaying tennis as a kid came out.

Andthe Harper’s PR person came to Boston and I came and I gave that reading, andit was, I mean, nobody showed up. There was like a snowstorm, but. The basicpoint is nobody showed up. And so me and the PR guy went out and ate like threepieces of cake each and apologized to each other for three hours.

So,being used to that kind of stuff, you know, giving a reading in New York andhaving some people not be able to get in is just, is weird, and I think itmakes you feel like you’re a big shot. Temporarily.* The Sauron-like eye of theculture passes over you, like in Lord of the Rings. You’re old enough to knowLord of the Rings. A bitchingly good read, I think.

Q:There’s one other thing that I wanted to ask you about, which was therelationship between footnotes and hypertext.

DFW:I’ve had people say that, and I would love them to think that there’s somegrand theory. I sometimes use a computer to type when I’ve got a lot ofcorrections to do, but I don’t have a modem, I’ve never been on the Internet.There’s a guy in my department who teaches hypertext, but I don’t really knowanything about it.

Q:You do your stuff by typewriter?

DFW:I mostly typewrite. Some of the magazine stuff I did on disk, because you learnthat the magazines very often will ask for a disk. And there’s this great termthey use: they say, Well, we’ll just take the disk and massage it. I stillcan’t get them to be entirely clear what “massage” means. I guess itmeans, like, changing the formats or something. I think it’s a terrific term touse for a disk.

Butbasically, I can type and I can save stuff onto disk, and that’s just about it,in terms of computers. I feel like an old fogy.

Goodluck on this. You’re going to exceed whatever word limit, I’ll bet.

Q:Yeah. Well, we’re just going to take the whole tape and, you know, cut it downinto something that—

DFW:Just massage the tape.

Q:We’re going to massage the tape.

DFW: Cool.

[* At this point, the 12-year-old cassette tape malfunctions and goes silent.”Temporarily,” then silence. The rest of the transcript is reproducedfrom the printed version that ran in the Phoenix. ]