“There’s Going To Be the Occasional Bit of Embellishment”: David Foster Wallace on Nonfiction, 1998, Part 3

Q: How do you handle being responsible for facts, writing nonfiction, after writing fiction? Coming to a genre where the things you say have to be on some level verifiably true?

DFW: That’s a real good question. And the first one of these that I did, in order, the first one I did was the very first one, about playing tennis as a Midwesterner. Where I had some shit that I just, that was like impressionistic, and I didn’t know, and I’d never dealt with a fact-checker before. And they’re like, “We discovered there is no yacht and tennis club in Aurora, Illinois, what are we to do?” And I was like, oh, God.

So after that I just started to take better notes and be willing to back stuff up. The thing is, really—between you and me and the Boston Phoenix’s understanding readers—you hire a fiction writer to do nonfiction, there’s going to be the occasional bit of embellishment.

Not to mention the fact that, like, when people tell you stuff, very often it comes out real stilted. If you just write down exactly what they said. And so you sort of have to rewrite it so it sounds more out-loud, which I think means putting in some “likes” or taking out some punctuation that the person might originally have said. And I don’t really make any apologies for that.

Q: Also when you’re writing about real events, there are other people who are at the same events. Have you heard back from the peoplethat you’re writing about? Trudy especially comes to mind—

DFW: [Groans]

 Q: —who you described as looking like—

DFW: That, that was a very bad scene, because they were really nice to me on the cruise. And actually sent me a couple cards, and were looking forward to the thing coming out. And then it came out, and, you know, I never heard from them again. I feel—I’m worried that it hurt their feelings.

The. Thing. Is. Is, you know, saying that somebody looks like Jackie Gleason in drag, it might not be very nice, but if you just, if you could have seen her, it was true. It was just absolutely true. And so it’s one reason why I don’t do a lot of these, is there’s a real delicate balance between fucking somebody over and telling the truth to the reader.

The Michael Joyce—what is that called? Oh, that’s the one with the really long title in the book—was really, really upsetting. Can I tell you this? Yeah, I won’t say the name of the magazine. That was originally commissioned by a different magazine. And I screwed up, because I really got to like this kid. There was some stuff about this kid that would have been very interesting in the article, that he, in kind of naked candor, told me, and then asked me not to print it. And, you know, and I didn’t. And I wouldn’t put it in.

But I, dickhead that I am, made the mistake of telling this magazine this. And they ended up killing the piece. So I never expected that piece even to see print, and then Esquire, I guess, an Esquire editor had a beer with the editor of this other magazine, and Esquire picked it up, even without, you know, the icky stuff about this guy.

Not icky like he did anything. There was just stuff that would have been embarrassing to him. The thing is, is I think if I was really a pro, I would have printed it. I mean, I’m not going to see the guy anymore. He’s not—there wouldn’t—I had it there in the notes, there wouldn’t have been anything legal he could do. And then, I’m sure you’ve run into this, I sort of got, I got captured by this guy, and I really liked him.

One reason why I might have put in some not particularly kind stuff on the cruise is that I felt like I’d kind of learned my lesson. I wasn’t going to hurt anybody or, you know, talk about anybody having sex with a White House intern or something. But I was going to tell the truth. And I couldn’t just so worry about Trudy’s feelings that I couldn’t say the truth. Which is, you know, a terrific, really nice, and not unattractive lady who did happen to look just like Jackie Gleason in drag.

Q: Maybe if you’d emphasized that it was not in an unattractive way. Which is sort of a hard thing to picture.

DFW: Actually the first draft of that did have that, and the editor pointed out that not only did this waste words, but it looked like I was trying to have my cake and eat it too. That I was trying to tell an unkind truth but somehow give her a neck rub at the same time. So it got cut.

Q: But you actually did want to have your cake and eat it too. Not in a bad way.

DFW: I’m unabashed, I think, in wanting to have my cake and eat it too.

Q: The titles are different between the originals and the book.

DFW: God love magazines, but the editor picks the title, and they don’t even really consult with you about it. And if you protest, they’ll invoke house style, blah blah blah blah, a certain image for the magazine. There’s just nothing you can do about it. But this was my revenge.

Q: Is there any chance of Celebrity Cruises picking some less negative passage out of the “A Supposedly Fun Thing” essay and using the “Shipping Out” title and reprinting it for promotion?

DFW: I believe A. I would have to give my consent, and I would not, because I think, there was a horrible sort of Frank Conroy thing—but B. they’re not going to. They were not amused, and actually there was some litigatory saber-rattling with Harper’s.

Which Harper’s—these editors, you’ve really got to meet these guys—the editor of course, pointed out blandly out on the phone that 90 percent of this essay was going on and on about how almost insanity-producingly luxurious and terrific Celebrity Cruises was. So they really kind of, they kind of had to stick their chest out but back down.

It wasn’t like I was saying, you know, that they were dumping toxic waste over the side or anything. I just said that I was worried they were going to try to assassinate me with a toilet. I came off, I think, far sort of more pathetic in that thing than Celebrity Cruises did. But anyway,the chances, I think, of them—I don’t know.

I don’t know whether you’re interested. This is kind of funny. At the beginning, I was talking to, Celebrity Cruises has the services of some kind of PR company or somebody, somebody who does their press releases and stuff. And Harper’s got me the number of this lady. Who I think is quoted in the piece.

Q: Yeah.

DFW: And it started out real good. You know, it started out like real, she’s very helpful and all this stuff. And then, as it got on, and she started to bristle at some of the questions—and then toward the end, she started shunting me over to this vice president of this P.R. who was this lady who, like, you could just tell ate Rocky Mountain oysters for breakfast, it was just like.

And she began, you know, sort of like, “We want to see a copy of this,” “We want to make sure you’re not going to libel us,” or whatever. It just got really, really amusing. And it was tempting to put some of that stuff in, but it was too, it was just unrelated to the cruise itself. But they were not pleased.

Q: Have you heard from Frank Conroy since you wrote that?

DFW: I’m trying to remember what happened. The sad thing about the Conroy thing is, Conroy was real decent to me on the phone. I basically said to him, “I’ve got some problems with this, I want to hear your justification.” And then he said, you know, he said what he said, and I printed what he said.

And I seem to remember—I don’t think I talked to him or he sent me a note, but he and I know some people in common, and I think I had through them conveyed not really an apology, but just regrets, and hope that this thing didn’t cause him too much pain. And that he conveyed back, no problem, or something like that.

That was a tough one, because I’ve got no, you know, this guy’s kind of a hero of mine ‘cause of Stop Time. I got no interest in doing him any harm. And yet I think what he did was wrong.

Q: Besides Conroy, are there any nonfiction writers who inspired your work, or—?

DFW: Oh, golly. Ever since I was in college, I’ve been an enormous fan of both Joan Didion and Pauline Kael. And I don’t know—I think prosewise, Pauline Kael is unequaled. I mean, maybe McPhee, at his very best,is as good.

And so I don’t know what influence they have, but in terms of just being slobbering fans of? Conroy’s first book, Tobias Wolff, Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life. Oh, God. There’s a book by a mathematician named Hardy at Oxford called A Mathematician’s Apology.

Hardy gets mentioned in Good Will Hunting, by the way. Have you seen that movie?

Q: No.

DFW: Oh. Well, there’s a brief mention of Hardy. Anyway. There are quite a few that are just really really really really good. But I’d say Pauline Kael above all of them is sort of, I think, the best. Annie Dillard’s really good, but she’s much more sort of restrained.

Q: Did you see  her essay  in the Harper’s where “The Depressed Person” ran?

DFW: Yeah. I thought it was a real sort of one-two punch of holiday cheer. The bizarre thing about that, man, is that they were going to run it a month earlier, and they said, oh, no, we don’t want to run it in our Christmas issue, it’s too depressing. So they wait and run it in the January issue, which happens to come to everybody’s house like 10 days before Christmas.

So it’s like, I don’t know. I don’t know what they were thinking.

That was a kind of a weird Dillard essay, but it’s certainly Dillard. She’s got that one about them watching the deer tied to the tree dying in South America. You know the one I’m talking about?

Q: Yeah.

DFW: That’s just—it raises hair on your body. In places you don’t even have hair.

How many words you got on this thing, by the way?

Q: For this piece? I don’t know. We’re just going to transcribe it and see what happens.

DFW: Have you ever—I mean, you go through the cuts process, right?

Q: Oh, yeah.

DFW: You chew your knuckle.

Q: Yes.

DFW: Yes. So you know what I’m talking about.

Q: Absolutely.

DFW: Yeah.

Q: Yeah, early on, I had a piece reduced by about 70 percent.

DFW: So you know what I mean, then, about like Harper’s, you know, the editors, actually, some of the time, make your stuff better in the cuts. You just, you get real attached to ‘em. ‘Cause it’s so easy to mangle. Or like, oh, we want to put in another Gap ad, let’s cut four paragraphs. That stuff just makes you upset.

Q: Yeah. Absolutely.

DFW: I used to read the Phoenix, by the way. Religiously. When I was there.

Q: Oh, really? That’s good to know.

DFW: This is a bit of a tickle for me.

Continueto Part 4 of the interview here.