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Getting to Know David Foster Wallace

An interview with Rolling Stone contributing editor David Lipsky

October 30, 2008 12:30 PM ET
In 1996, Rolling Stone contributing editor David Lipsky spent a week with David Foster Wallace, conducting a series of interviews with the author of Infinite Jest. Lipsky gradually won the celebrated author's trust, gaining access to a world few but Wallace's closest intimates knew. As is often the case in the magazine business, a series of events took place — a rock star's untimely death, a heated political season — and the profile never saw publication. So Lipsky sat on a massive interview with one of the most important writers of the last 50 years. When we heard Wallace committed suicide on September 12th, we immediately sent Lipsky to report on the author's life and death. The story he came back with, The Lost Years & Last Days of David Foster Wallace, (from RS 1064, on stands now), is one of the most moving pieces RS has published in years. Here Lipsky discusses the process of his reporting, the man he got to know, and the legacy of a writer who changed the game.

When you were sent out to profile David Foster Wallace, how hard was it to gain his trust?
David Lipsky: Well, it was pretty hard, in that he'd try to read what kind of person you were and then try to give you an answer that would suit the publication you were from or what he guessed your values were. So at first he did a lot of joking about how he hoped he'd meet girls through the success of the book — that didn't seem like him at all. The first couple days he kept doing stuff like that and I kept kind of teasing him about not doing stuff like that. But then we were supposed to fly from Bloomington to Minneapolis — the last leg of his tour — and the Bloomington airport got snowed in, we had to drive to Chicago and then fly out of O'Hare, we had a couple days in Minneapolis and then we had to drive back from Chicago. And I think anyone you do a long car trip with, you have to open up to at some point. So I think Henry Ford got us together.

What was your biggest impression of him, just as a guy, as a person?
He was incredibly smart and funny, and really casually sharp — like someone playing tennis who you're just hitting with, and all of a sudden, he would just sizzle it back to the far corner of the service court. I remember that we pulled in to Minneapolis and I was told that my hotel room had two twins, and he said, "Yes, Anita and Consuela," which I thought was very funny. Before readings he would get incredibly nervous, and you thought it was an act — he'd talk about how he suddenly had no saliva — because he had no reason to be nervous, everyone loved him. And then once he started reading, it was like watching some incredibly high-level version of stand-up comedy. He was so nervous beforehand, but his social self was all charm. I think he used that charm, somehow, as a strategy for being left alone: I gave you all this — entertainment, wit, intelligence — what more can you ask? Did you keep in touch with him over the years?
In fact, I was a little embarrassed the piece didn't run. I called his agent and said, you know, David has mixed feelings about his work being publicized and you know his wishes have been granted — we're not doing the piece, pass along the good news. But it was a really embarrassing, because in the second half of our time together, he decided to be very straight. He would sit and try to come up with the clearest possible answer, and I could hear his answers were more complete and honest in the second part than in the first part. It was like he was downloading his memoirs. He knew he had given me this really clear look of what his life had been like, and that it wasn't going to be published anywhere.

Did you ever hear from him after these interviews?
I had left a shoe there. So he sent me this gigantic loafer back in a box with in a Chicago Bears post-it note, saying, "I presume this is yours, yours, Dave Wallace," with a little smiley face he drew on the bottom. I felt like a barefoot idiot.

Can you talk about his rare ability to toggle between high and low brow, philosophy to athletics, journalism and fiction?
I think he changed journalism. I felt like it was the first time I accurately heard the brain-voice of people his age and a little bit younger, and that was an amazing experience. When I read the cruise ship piece in Harper's I thought, here's the first person to speak this language, to actually catch and write this language, which everybody's hearing all the time. And I thought it was amazing. He could talk about Joyce, he could also talk about some fitness-world guy, or he could just curse; somehow, not keeping those things on separate planes in your brain, but having them all come out in the same sentences, was great — it's how it's feels on the inside. He's never precious — he told me he hated the kind of "beret-wearing English majors, sensitive and politically correct." He came from a sports background and the double-album, bong background. That gives his work a power, because it has to do with the way most people live; most people don't live like the people who spend their teens reading and having their glasses stolen by bigger kids. He was one of the big kids — not a glasses-stealing kid, but that background allowed him to write about everybody's life, as opposed to just the way writers experience life. And that's a huge, huge advantage.

You think he spent some time sitting in 7-Eleven parking lot drinking tall boys?
Yeah. We were talking about TV, because my mom was pretty anti-TV, and I said that my friends' houses was where I went to watch extra TV in the afternoon, and he said, "Really? My friends' houses was where I went to burn bones. That's what my friends' houses were for." When you were reporting this piece, were there things that didn't jibe with your original reporting, that just came out of the blue for you?
That he was very ashamed of being on medication, which is so sad. I know people who are medicated and it's their favorite subject. And he'd never want to talk about it. He told me that he had been on antidepressants for a while when he was at Amherst, and hated it, that he wasn't anymore and didn't allude to being on Nardil. So that was the biggest surprise. And I felt sad that he didn't talk about that, I was sad that he hadn't shared that with readers.

It may be all right there in his writing, if you look really carefully.
Yeah, but never in his non-fiction, right? I mean, he would talk about feeling sad at times on the cruise ship — this kind of comic, sharp despair — but it was things that would make anybody sad if they looked at it properly. I wondered, could it have changed the way you read him, if it he'd said, if it came out that he had been on medication for the whole time he was a writer?

But that wouldn't change the way you thought of him as a writer.
There's a very funny remark that Elizabeth Wurtzel made: she said that the flipside of depression is curiosity. I don't know if she's right, but I could see what she meant: I think depression is examination you can't turn off: Once you start the examination you can't stop it, and it kind of settles on you. But if you can somehow change the spigot you get incredible curiosity. Because if you're examining things all the time, when you're depressed, the hard thing is you're examining yourself and your life and how many things can fail. The Nardil let him turn that outward. The one thing I think is reductive about that thought is I don't think Wallace's talent had anything to do with being medicated.

Often with suicide there's a far amount of anger that friends and family feel. It seemed absent in your piece. Why?
I think that anyone who had seen him in the last year saw a human being in incredible pain. So I think that they just understood — I think they thought it was terrible that the new drugs hadn't worked, and the Nardil didn't work when he returned to it. But there was no anger at all. His sister Amy said that she knew David wouldn't have done this to them if he could have found any way not to. I thought that was great and moving, you know. People just felt for him. They felt horrible knowing someone they loved was in that situation, that amount of pain. How hard was this piece to report?
It was very sad and it was very hard. I mean, the people were great, he picked his friends incredibly well and the people he grew up with were these incredibly smart, warm, literary people. So it was a pleasure talking with his parents — aside from how awful it was talking to be talking to his parents — and they helped me understand him. You know, someone called last night after reading this piece, and just said, "Gosh that mom, she's just incredible, you know just so funny and sharp, the same way that he was." But it was just incredibly sad. His close friend, Jonathan Franzen, said it was like having someone sucked out of the air-lock in a science fiction movie — this guy was there and now suddenly he was gone.

What do you think his legacy is?
There's no way of knowing what his legacy is but I know he changed prose. And prose gets changed not that often in a century. Hemingway changed prose, so did Salinger and Nabokov. David changed it too. He did an amazing thing. One the things that writing and speech can do is express what we're thinking one thought at a time. But we think a thousand things at a time, and David found a way to get all that across in a way that's incredibly true and incredibly entertaining at the same time. He found that junction. I would have liked to have read many more things by him, because he was the one voice I absolutely trusted to make sense of the outside world for me. Anyone that picks up his work for the next 50 years will have their antenna polished and sharpened, and they'll be receiving many more channels than they were aware of. And that's great. I think that will probably be his legacy, but what I think we'll miss is that he won't be sending out those signals himself. In a sense, he taught you to look at the world the way he did, and then stopped seeing the world that way at all. Evan Wright asked if everybody knew how great a teacher he'd been — he'd helped Wright how to think of himself as a writer — and of course when you invent a prose style, you invent a world and a way of seeing, and it's one big master class, one giant lesson in seeing the world better and clearer, and I think beyond the books and stories and piecs that career-long lesson is a big part of his legacy. He ended a piece for our magazine with the words "Try to stay awake." That open-eyeness is the giant thing he leaves behind.

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