A Conversation With D.T. Max About His New David Foster Wallace Biography

A Conversation With D.T. Max About His New David Foster Wallace Biography

by Michelle Dean

In 2009, D.T. Max published a long piece about David Foster Wallace, and his suicide, in The New Yorker. The project grew into the biography Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. In the final months of the book’s completion, through a stroke of incredible luck, I had the opportunity to help Max as a research assistant. Biography, it turns out, is complicated, wrenching work, particularly when your subject inspires the kind of devotion Wallace can, and where the end of a life comes in the form his did. With the book’s release today, I wanted to talk to Max about the process that went into its research and writing. Granted, it’s a strange thing to be interviewed by someone with whom you’ve worked for several months already — but he was willing, and over the past few days, we had this exchange by email.

Michelle Dean: The act of biography is obviously an enormous commitment to another person’s life, whether the terms are temporal or emotional or just sheer intellectual stamina. How did you end up undertaking that commitment here?

D.T. Max: I had no idea how hard biography was, especially a first biography of someone. I’d never done one before. I guess I just thought you asked people where someone was and what they were doing and you stuck it on note-cards, then you strung the parts together, à la Richard Ellmann. Definitely not the case, at least not with David. The first step was just the beginning of a very long slippery process. But, then, think about auto-biography? Do you remember where you were in May 1989? Or June 2001? And if you don’t care enough about yourself to remember that, why would anyone else? You don’t have to be a writer to have this experience, one that for me really reads as challenge, the ultimate challenge before the writer. How do I prevent you from disappearing into the past? Slipping into oblivion? Growing ghostly?

Right, but often biographers get misty-eyed in retrospect about how the subject “chose them” or what-have-you. Did you come to feel that way at all? I mean, it’s obvious that the biography was an outgrowth of the 2009 New Yorker essay you wrote, but beyond that.

The New Yorker piece was 10,000 words long and I’m sure it felt like an eternity to most writers and readers of magazine articles, but I felt I had elided over the problems, not gone deep enough. It seemed to me that there was a lot of unprocessed information in it. When I was done most of David’s life was only a little less spectral than when I began. I felt, for instance, I did a particularly cursory job on what would later turn out to be a fascinating time, Arizona, where he wrote Girl with Curious Hair. I just didn’t understand that time at all.

I felt a calling to do this, you know, and it was a calling that grew.

From outside too, I imagine?

There was this communal grief over David’s death that at least for me was eye-opening: the posts from people comparing his death to that of John Lennon, people speaking about the world as a scarier place without him. It started just after he died and kept growing and growing. It’s still growing.

Look, David was special and the purity of his commitment to his readers and his interest in their well-being was seductive — I saw this more and more and kept thinking about a more ample way to respond to this as a writer — that insistence that what he wanted to do was show what it was to be a “fucking human being.” If he wanted to show what it was to be a fucking human being, could I return the compliment?

But, you know, his is a terribly sad story too and if anything led me to hesitate it was that sadness. I took an oath at the beginning to make the book happier than the article, to catch the joy that kept breaking through. I don’t know if I succeeded.

It’s odd. As this project progressed, and the further I got into research, the more surprised I felt at all the trouble in his life. On some level, the cliché goes, it was all in those books, it was all there, but those books are joyful, too.

David lived his life mostly indoors and in his head. He starts out a boy in central Illinois, goes to Amherst College, does his graduate work at the University of Arizona, teaches briefly back at Amherst and Arizona, then home to eastern Illinois, becomes a graduate student at Harvard, enters a halfway house, winds up in Syracuse, back to Illinois to teach and then finally Pomona College near Los Angeles, to the end we all know.

But there are things that haunt me that got left out and phrases that bounce around in my head. One was about David and his dogs. I thought a lot about why he had usually two oversized, undertrained dogs tearing up his living room and scaring anyone who came to the door.

Maybe because he was so anxious he also had one of the most routinized lives you can imagine. He eats the same breakfast, goes to the same twelve-step meeting, works out with the same weights day after day. Yet in these humdrum stats — little different from those of any academic gypsy — is an immensity of feeling, living, and a great deal of suffering. The breakdowns, the suicide attempts, the triumph of Infinite Jest. How do you write about such a narrow but intensely lived life? How do you reveal the multitudes contained in the little rooms in which he lived? For a biographer it’s a challenge. When you get to the tradecraft of writing there are always strange allurements, inducements that would make most people shrug and say, why did that interest him? Among other things I wanted to capture the life of a late 20th-century middle-class American of my own age with roughly my own interests. We were both into Alanis Morissette at the same time though only he had a poster of her on his wall.

And in biography, you can use either a wide net or a narrow one. The dilemma was often how much you wanted to include. Too much and these things can become a kitchen sink (particularly when your subject wrote an 1100-page book himself); too little and you risk oversimplification. And you had over 850 pages of letters, nevermind the interviews and the drafts… Is there anything you’re willing to share here that you ended up cutting but just as easily could have gone in?

I drew the lines often and maybe a little arbitrarily. If it didn’t interest me it didn’t go in. In that sense I was slightly outside the usual style of biography. But there are things that haunt me that got left out and phrases that bounce around in my head. One was about David and his dogs. I thought a lot about why he had usually two oversized, undertrained dogs tearing up his living room and scaring anyone who came to the door. And at one point when he received a bad review, he shrugged it off, writing to one of his editors that his dogs didn’t care so why should he. Another time he says he won’t go see Gwyneth Paltrow in Great Expectations because she looks like the “ghost of a horse.” I thought that was pretty brilliant.

Ha! It’s true those funny little observations stick with you, I find myself stealing them. Sometimes the sadness crept in through the crevices of the process, though, because most of the people who knew David, in large ways and small, were still around, and still living it out, don’t you think?

Absolutely. David left a lot of grief — grief in his family, on the part of his wife, his friends. I know grief firsthand — I lost both my parents relatively young. And so I know that grief has a number of sides — part of grieving is sometimes narrating, telling before it’s forgotten. Grief can also circle back and grab a person a second time, a third time. Researching a book like this does not take you on a linear path. You aren’t writing about Thomas Hardy or Plotinus. You’re writing about someone people knew and loved just a few years ago. My approach was if you didn’t want to see me you didn’t have to, but in the end nearly everyone did want to. It’s a process, interviewing the grieving, putting yourself forward when it’s propitious and knowing when to back off. You think as a journalist: oh, go in there and ask for what you want, but that’s wrong. Journalists forget — read David’s Kenyon College speech and it will help you remember — that other people have lives that are at least as vivid to them as yours is to you. You have to respect this reality; in fact genuflect to it. What I’m talking about is not a technique; it’s a way of being alive that extends into your work. You sometimes you get better results than if you were a ramrod, sometimes you don’t, but in any event if you do it for the results you won’t get them. One former lover brought me a shirt of his she had saved. Another friend gave me the audio letters they had exchanged just after college. To hear David’s voice, so full of youth and excitement, that was priceless. You think you know but when you hear that, you do know.

Researching a book like this does not take you on a linear path. You aren’t writing about Thomas Hardy or Plotinus. You’re writing about someone people knew and loved just a few years ago.

It was often hard, though as the years slipped by it became easier. David’s story in the broadest sense is still in play for the people who knew him. The book is the product of interviews and email exchanges with, probably, 200 people. They were his family, his wife, his teachers, the students he taught, the women he dated, the boys he played tennis with in high school and even the video clerk from whom he rented movies. David didn’t just brush against people. He tried to inhabit their minds on some level — and then he left. Suicide is the ultimate withholding gesture — I’m going to withhold myself from you. And because of his abrupt end, all these people are still trying to reconcile the person they knew with the ending they know. And with Every Love Story published, they are also now trying to reconcile it with the story I tell.

In some sense, though, you were also triangulating between the people who knew him in this world and the people who knew him through the work. Which can be tricky at times, it seemed to me. Did you ever think so?

Well, David, maybe even more than other writers, created a fictional self. And to complicate things, he sort of had one fictional self for his fiction and another for his nonfiction and then a third for his letters. “You can see how fraught and charged all this going to get,” as David wrote in “Tense Present.” The accounts often don’t agree with one another.

The David of the letters, yes, often felt the easiest to access and trust. And I mean, you had so many.

The letters are glorious. Weird. Unsettling. I have about 750 pages of letters.

850, I just checked.

Okay, then 850 pages of letters that he sent to various people — lovers, friends, his twelve-step program sponsor, editors and fellow writers. I would sometimes sit in my office at night and look at the piles of them and think how lucky I was to have this quasi-narrative of his life, beginning when he is in graduate school and ending just a few months before his death. The weirdness of the letters, though, is you have the ones he sent — because people kept them — but you don’t have the ones sent to him. He seems to have kept almost nothing. I felt the letters calling out to me so strongly that sometimes late at night I would close the door to my office to quiet their voices. The effect was, well, ghostly, all his unanswered declarations of his being. Sometimes I felt like Bartleby.

But since the biographer’s job is to at least highlight the distinctions between those selves, if not sort of offer a verdict as to which one was “truest,” doesn’t that leave you in a bit of a bind?

Yes! Which is appropriate when writing about the original double-bind man, David.

Describe what you mean, by “double-bind man”?

A double bind is an unresolvable dilemma and in David’s cosmology, they were the most frightening of all dead-ends because they brought with them no rest. You bounced endlessly between two possibilities, two courses of action. Hamlet-like you can’t make up your mind, Dante-like you are perpetually whirling around some upper circle of hell.

Practically speaking, one of the great struggles was to figure out what really happened or at least get close to it. David was writing his autobiography even as he was living it and the life and the narrative coincided but were not identical. Take an example. David used to tell people he sold thesis help for pot or money at Amherst. He even has his doppel do it in The Pale King and Stonecipher LaVache Beadsman, something of a stand-in for David, does it in The Broom of the System. David was one of the smartest people anyone ever met in their lives — everyone agrees on that — so it’s obvious that in philosophy or English, and probably history or French or economics, all subjects he got A-pluses in — he could have done it. Anyone would have been smart to make that trade with him. But did it ever happen? His college roommate and confidante Mark Costello, the one who knew him best in those years, thinks not. He thinks it’s David’s self-mythologizing. I never found anyone on the receiving end of such a transaction or had direct knowledge of one, so it’s not in the book. If I were writing a novel with David as the protagonist, it would certainly be something the character did. It’s something he should have done if he didn’t.

In David’s own case it always struck me as going beyond the double, too. His thinking was so recursive that he would double-back on himself more than twice. I think of in the letters — and there are several instances of this — where he’s talking about what he called ‘his Statue,’ a public image that he has a love-hate relationship with.

It’s certainly true that David found double binds where others mightn’t. It’s part of his radical distrust of the stability of the world, the same impulse that yields the stories in Brief Interviews illustrating “the porousness of certain borders” and, for that matter, his undergraduate thesis, a refutation of a philosopher named Richard Taylor, where he tries to reassure himself that the future is not pre-ordained but just as we were taught as kids, up to us. How much, sometimes, though, he wished it was less up to him!

Well, that’s a very high-minded way to put it, yes. But was it so abstract for him, I wonder? Another interpretation might be to just call it anxiety, or depression.

I think it’s more the price of having a Ferrari of a mind. It’s hard to handle but it goes fast.

No one answer, I suppose.

But I think you’d have to say that both are valid. There are no simple explanations for lives, least of all David’s.

Related: Inside David Foster Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library

Michelle Dean writes in a lot of places, now. Follow her on Twitter.