“My Big Problem With Magazines Is That They Tend To Have Word Lengths”: David Foster Wallace on Nonfiction, 1998, Part 2

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: Did Tennis magazine come to you for the stuff you’ve written for them?

DFW: Yeah, except I don’t think—originally, I did one piece on the U.S. Open for Tennis and one piece on that pro guy for Esquire. No, the one in Tennis isn’t in.

Q: Right.

DFW: Because the editor of the book decided he didn’t want two. But no, yes, Tennis magazine came to me and it was like a serious thrill, because I had of course as a child read Tennis magazine and tried out their little drill instructions with masking tape on the local courts and stuff. And so when the big call came, I was of course right there clicking my heels together, ready to go to the U.S. Open.

Q: And how do the editors at Tennis react to getting a piece of your style of prose?

DFW: I don’t think they had any problem with it. But my big problem with magazines is that I tend, um, they tend to have word lengths. That I try really hard to hew to and then sort of get into it and exceed. And then begins this hideous cutting process.

The Tennis magazine cuts were particularly grievous, and at one point I remember getting into a bit of a tiff with the head editor, who’s this, you know, Connecticut lady with a lot of yellow in her closet, I think. There was stuff about-you know, there was just certain ridiculous things the United States Tennis Association was doing. And I had had some stuff about that, and she wanted that cut, because it turns out the USTA is a big sponsor of the magazine, at which point I of course get to get on my little moral high horse and invoke the First Amendment and all that stuff.

It all got worked out. I remember the poor editor-what was this guy’s name? Jennings, Jay Jennings-was just this poor-he was just right in the middle of this. And like me and the head editor just were like cats, fighting with each other. And he of course can’t lose his job, but he also, you know, asked me to do this and feels obligated to me. But anyway, the whole thing ended up being, of course, fine.

Q: There are several places around the book where you have sort of a challenge to the editors. Where you’re saying that they probably won’t like this, or they’ll cut this.

DFW: [Chuckles.] Yes.

Q: Were there some of those that didn’t make it? That did get—

DFW: No, the deal with the book—the whole, really the reason for doing the book, other than the fact that Little, Brown said they’d publish it, and I of course am a whore, is that this was a chance to do kind of the long, original versions of these things that had just gone through meat grinders in various magazines. So the annoying-dash-amusing thing about the versions of the essays in the book is that they really do have 99 percent of the original stuff in them, including “I predict this will get cut by the editor.” Because I knew this was an editor who had a big, blunt machete at the ready in his office and stuff. And I—

Q: Did any of those predictions make it into print in the Harper’s version?

DFW: Harper’s— Three of the things were done by Harper’s, and Harper’s does some cuts. But I think they cut better and they consult more with their writers. And I think they let a couple of those go in when they thought they were like amusing. But no, most of them, most of them, the editors would cut, with the very convincing rationale that, well, we have to cut 3,000 words, and is that particular footnote as important to you as something else? And I would say no. And that would be that.

Q: The thing about Andre Agassi looking like a Port Authority whore—

DFW: —I don’t know—

Q: —didn’t run in the original.

DFW: I think Esquire, Esqiure did leave a couple of those in, and I remember my mom, you know, reading that and just, kind of, her eyes being very wide the next time she saw me. There was something about Brooke Shields looking like somebody you’d masturbate to a picture of but not have sex with, that was really one of those four-in-the-morning, 15-cup-of-coffee-really, if I’d been in my right mind, I wouldn’t have put it in the final draft, but I did. And then Esquire, I remember, left it in. Being Esquire. You know, wanting to create as much unpleasantness as possible. So.

But anyway, I guess—I should go on the record as saying, there is really kind of a reason for the book, and the reason is probably somewhat juvenile, but it was that I’d worked really hard on these things and then magazines slice-and-diced ‘em, and here was the chance to do kind of the director’s cut.

You don’t have to put in the thing about me being a whore. [Laughs.] By which I simply meant it’s just a big thrill to have a publishing company be willing to publish one of your books. I’m getting in more trouble.

Q: How many words was the original version of the title essay? And how many hours of work did that represent? Hours of writing time.

DFW: I don’t know how many words. I mean, I remember, I always try to fool the magazine editors by sending stuff in with like single spaced and eight-point font.

Q: It’s all counted on computers now, you know.

DFW: Which of course insults them, because they think, what, what, I think they’re idiots? Like I think they don’t recognize type? So then there’s always this thing of like they call me up and get pissed, and I have to send it back in with 12-point font, double-spaced.

I think the cruise essay was about 110 pages, and I think it ended up getting cut just about in half. And every time I’d bitch and moan to Harper’s, they would say, well, this is still, this is going to be the longest thing we’ve ever put in Harper’s. At which point I would have to shut up or look like even a bigger prima donna than I am.

But no, that took-the cruise thing, let me see, I got done with that in March—ehhhh— The cruise thing took almost three months to do. And then it took another like two weeks of—I mean, I had to go to New York and sit in a room with the editor. We were cutting like widows and orphans off the ends of lines to get it to fit. It was very exciting. Rewrote the ending like an hour before they had to wrap the magazine. And so the typesetter’s putting it in on their Quark system as the editor and I are rewriting it.

It was like that moment in Broadcast News—I don’t know if you remember this—when Joan Cusack is having to run through the hallway to get the tape to Jack Nicholson in time to run it. Kind of my peak moment in the magazine industry. It was one I’ll always remember.

Q: Was it like totally different ending, or just a revision?

DFW: It was just, you know, as usual, Harper’s editors, I like Harper’s editors, I think they’re real smart. And the editor said, “I don’t think this ending works.” And I of course fought with him and then finally knuckled under and did a new ending right there. And the ending, the end—he was right. The rewritten ending was a lot better.

And then the nice-the better ending ended up going in the book. Some of Harper’s edits just made lines better and less clunky and less long, and so it’s probably not quite honest to say this book is just exactly the way they were originally done. They were kind of the best blend of editors’ cuts and the original thing.

I’m sorry, I feel like I’m not being particularly clear. I’m doing the best I can.

Q: That makes sense. Not to pry, but do they pay standard per-word scale for tens of thousands of words?

DFW: I don’t think magazines—I think maybe the New Yorker pays by the word, but I’ve never done anything for the New Yorker. No, Harper’s pays, Harper’s pays I think like 2,500 or 3,000. See, Harper’s pays less, but they fuck with your stuff less. That’s the tradeoff with Harper’s.

It’s like in fiction, there’s a trade off between, you can publish stuff in literary journals, where they don’t really pay you anything, but they also won’t mess with the story. Whereas if you publish it in a glossy mag, you get more money, and it’s I think a bigger ego thrill, but they also, then you’re in for like four knock-down fights with fact-checkers and editors and all this stuff.

And Harper’s, of the glossies, I think-I don’t think they pay quite as much as the Atlantic and New Yorker, but they work with you rather than cram stuff down your throat. Which—eeugh, I don’t mean to cast aspersions on the other magazines, it’s just—I think Harper’s, I don’t think they’re as rich, I don’t think they have as much money as other magazines. They’re kind of halfway between a glossy and kind of a literary magazine or something.

Other ones, no, you get like a couple thousand dollars for each one. There’s not really very much money in it, I guess, unless you’re one of these guys who’s doing like one every two weeks, for Sports Illustrated or something.

Continueto Part 3 of the interview here.