Interview: David Foster Wallace

By TOM SCOCCA  |  November 30, 2010

How long was the initial version of the title essay [about the cruise], and how much writing time did that represent?
I always try to fool the magazine editors by sending stuff single-spaced, in eight-point font. Which of course insults them because they think, what, I think they're idiots? So then they call me up and get pissed and I send it back in 12-point font, double-spaced. I think the cruise essay was about 110 pages, and 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 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 an even bigger prima donna than I am.

But the cruise thing took almost three months to do, and then it took another two weeks -- I had to go to New York and sit in a room with the editor. It was very exciting. Rewrote the ending like an hour before they had to wrap the magazine. It was like that moment in Broadcast News when Joan Cusack was having to run through the hallway to get the tape to Jack Nicholson in time to run it. Kind of like my peak moment in the magazine industry, and it was one I'll always remember.

How do you handle being responsible for facts -- after writing fiction, coming to a genre where the things you say have to be on some level verifiably true?
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 when people tell you stuff, very often it comes out real stilted, if you just write down exactly what they said. You sort of have to rewrite it so it sounds more out loud, which I think means putting in some likes or taking out punctuation that the person might originally have said. And I don't really make any apologies for that.

Have you heard back from the people that you're writing about? Trudy [in "A Supposedly Fun Thing"] especially comes to mind --
[Groan]

-- who you described as looking like --
That was a very, 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 I never heard from them again.

The thing is, saying that somebody looks like Jackie Gleason in drag -- it might not be very nice, but if you could have seen her, it was true. It was just absolutely true.

One reason why I don't do a lot of these is that there's a real delicate balance between fucking somebody over and telling the truth to the reader. The Michael Joyce essay was really, really upsetting. It was originally commissioned by a different magazine, and I screwed up, because I really got to like this kid. There was some stuff that he told me and then asked me not to print, and I didn't. But I, dickhead that I am, made the mistake of telling the magazine this, and they ended up killing the piece.

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