Interview: David Foster Wallace

By TOM SCOCCA  |  November 30, 2010

You said there was a period of time, like six days, when you were really hot with magazine editors. How's the whole pendulum of fame swinging?
The degree of fame we're talking about here -- getting hot as a writer for six days is equivalent to a fan base of, like, a local TV weatherman, right? Magazines are certainly not calling every day to ask me to do stuff anymore, which to be honest is something of a relief, 'cause there's other stuff I'm working on.

I've been doing this since the mid-'80s, and so, since the mid-'80s, I've watched I don't know how many writers get hot and then not get hot, and then get hot again, and then not get hot. A lot of it is just the peristalsis of the industry. The industry, I think, is so pressed, and so anxious to create heat and buzz around specific people. It's the same way movies are, the same way music is, although the amount of money at stake in books is vanishingly small. It's nice when the phone doesn't ring as much, and it's not very good for me when people treat me like a big shot, because then I get puffed up inside. But other than that, it doesn't really make much difference.

How big does the big-shot treatment get?
I remember giving a reading at a bookstore in Harvard Square. It was December of '91, and Harper's had this whole idea that they were going to put on these readings. The Harper's PR person came to Boston, and I came and I gave a reading, and nobody showed up. There was a snowstorm, but the basic point is, nobody showed up. So me and the PR guy went out and ate, like, three pieces of cake each and apologized to each other for three hours.

So, being used to that kind of stuff, giving a reading in New York and having some people not be able to get in is weird, and it makes you feel like you're a big shot. Temporarily. The Sauron-like eye of the culture passes over you, like in Lord of the Rings. You're old enough to know Lord of the Rings. A bitchingly good read, I think.

Are there any nonfiction writers who've inspired your work?
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. Maybe John McPhee, at his very best, is as good. I don't know what influence they have, but in terms of just being a slobbering fan of . . . Frank Conroy's first book, Tobias Wolff's 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. Anyway. There are quite a few that are just really, really, really, really good. But I'd say Pauline Kael is the best. Annie Dillard's really good, but she's much more sort of restrained.

There's one other thing that I wanted to ask you about, which was the relationship between footnotes and hypertext.
I've had people say that, and I would love them to think that there's some grand theory. I sometimes use a computer to type when I've got a lot of corrections to do, but I don't have a modem, I've never been on the Internet. There's a guy in my department who teaches hypertext, but I don't really know anything about it.

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