Interview: David Foster Wallace

 Talking about fiction, fellatio and meddling editors with the only American essayist who uses "like" as punctuation.
By TOM SCOCCA  |  November 30, 2010

Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in the February 20, 1998 edition of the Boston Phoenix.

I've never been considered Press before," writes David Foster Wallace at the beginning of his 1993 essay "Getting Away from Already Pretty Much Being Away from It All." That may be technically true; when Harper's sent Wallace to do the piece, for which he was issued press credentials and explored the Illinois State Fair, he went as a novelist on a lark. Still, reading that disclaimer now feels a bit like watching an ingénue fumble with a pool cue before running the table: the 55-page piece, like most of the other six essays gathered in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, is a masterly example of nonfiction.

Wallace's reputation still rests mainly on his fiction, especially 1996's 1079-page Infinite Jest (Little, Brown). But the humor and intellectual deftness that made the 35-year-old Wallace a hot young property in the world of literary novels -- he won a MacArthur "genius" grant last year, and the words virtuosity and brilliance tend to tumble across his blurb pages -- also make him a captivating reporter. The writing in A Supposedly Fun Thing, the 1997 collection of his magazine work now reissued in paperback, has the sort of conceptual and stylistic force that gets a writer talked about as a generational icon. The title essay, a 96-page account (including 137 of Wallace's distinctive footnotes) of a seven-day Caribbean luxury cruise, has assumed epochal status; Phoenix book reviewer Jordan Ellenberg called another essay -- the athlete profile "Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness" -- "the best piece of sports writing I have ever read."

In advance of the Boston reading on his A Supposedly Fun Thing paperback tour, he spoke to the Phoenix by phone from his home in Bloomington, Illinois.

Okay, for basic reader orientation, are you doing this from Bloomington?
Yes, sir.

Are you looking forward to seeing Boston?
Yeah. I was there last year, and I read at the Brattle Theatre. Last night I went and saw Good Will Hunting, which takes place not exactly where I used to live, in Boston, but pretty darn close, so I've been all flush with nostalgia for it. I was in Boston from summer of '89 until spring of '92.

So what did you think of Good Will Hunting?
I think it's the ultimate nerd fantasy movie. It's a bit of a fairy tale, but I enjoyed it a lot. Minnie Driver is really to fall sideways for. And there's all kinds of cool stuff. It's actually a movie that's got calculus in it. It takes place in Boston.

One guy I talked to who saw it described it as a cross between Ordinary People and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. If you see it, you'll see that that's not un-germane. Do you remember The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes? It's got Kurt Russell. There's an electrical accident in the computer room when he's a student in some college. It's like the old sci-fi, toxic-accident-turns-him-into-Spiderman thing. These are great old computers, with like reel-to-reel tapes running back and forth, and it apparently injects him with every bit of data known to man, and he goes on College Bowl. You should check it out. Disney, I think '69, '70.

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