An interview with David Foster Wallace
- Author David Foster Wallace talks about his collection of essays, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”.
The Charlie Rose Show
March 27, 1997
ROSE: The style of David Foster Wallace defies description. In an age where the novel is constantly being threatened by the allure of technological advancement, he put it back on the map with his mammoth work, “Infinite Jest.” When he is not writing novels of extraordinary length, he is out chronicling America for publications like Harper’s, Esquire and Premiere. “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” is a collection of the pieces he has written on everything from the genius of David Lynch to tennis to the horrors of a cruise ship. I am pleased to have him back on this broadcast.
ROSE: Your Dad is a professor of philosophy.
ROSE: He was a protege of George Will’s father, who also taught same school, same department.
ROSE: And considered him –
DFW: Well –
ROSE: — as an influence — [crosstalk]
DFW: Dad’s been at the University of Illinois since the early ’60s and when Dad first came, Fred Will, who’s now I think in his 70s, was, you know, maybe in his 40s or 50s and was a guy of major stature and he was nice to Dad. And I think most junior academics, this is what happens is, you know, you find — you find older people in the department whose intellectual approach is congenial to you and who are nice to you and you kind of become friends with him.
I was a philosophy major in college, but my — my areas of interest were mathematical logic and semantics and stuff, which my dad thinks is kind of gibberish, so it’s very weird. In a certain way, I’m following in Dad’s footsteps, but I’m also doing the required, you know, thumbing the nose at the father thing. And the stuff — the stuff that I was doing was really more math than it was philosophy and I don’t know whether I would have taught. If you’re good enough at that, they just kind of put you in a think tank and let you write on yellow paper. There’s a thing at Princeton where they’ve hired — they’re supposedly professors. They don’t teach any classes. They just sit and, you know, devise proofs.
ROSE: But I don’t think everybody should have to teach, do you?
DFW: I heartily agree with you.
ROSE: Yeah. I mean, I would hope we’re getting away from that sort of — or — and then, likewise, you hope that you can get away from this notion of “publish or perish,” too.
DFW: Yeah. Oh, boy. Don’t even get me started on teaching. Teaching, you learn an enormous amount. The cliché turns out to be true. The teacher learns a lot more than the students. You do for about two or three years and then the curve falls off sharply and most — most of the older teachers that I know, except for a very few geniuses, are extremely bored with teaching and are not very interested in their students and they’re going through the motions and it’s — there’s a weird schizophrenia about higher education because people are hired to teach and to teach college students who are preparing to enter the field themselves, yet on the other hand, very often they’re judged and given or denied tenure based on their own work. And I think administrators believe that the two are compatible. They’re really not. They’re entirely different. And the more time and energy spent on teaching, which is extraordinarily hard to do well, the less time spent sort of on your own work.
I’m in a good position because I was hired — I mean, I didn’t have much teaching experience. I was hired because, you know, I write a lot and publish stuff and that’s really all they care about. And I hadn’t had much teaching experience and so you learn a lot right at the beginning. But I’m coming up on — this is my fourth year and I’m already realizing –
ROSE: So you’re kind of burned out and bottomed out and plateaued.
DFW: No, I think — no, I think what’s the — I think I’ve developed an esthetic or I’ve developed a position and I’m now — I find myself saying this year the same thing I said last year and — and it’s a little bit horrifying. I got very lucky and got a grant, so I can take next year off as an unpaid leave and I don’t really have to confront the decision.
ROSE: And so what will you do with that year?
DFW: I will — if past — if past experience holds true, I will probably write an hour a day and spend eight hours a day biting my knuckle and worrying about not writing.
ROSE: Worrying about not writing?
ROSE: Not worrying about what to write.
DFW: Right. Yeah. Worrying about not writing. [unintelligible]
ROSE: Yeah. Respect means a lot to you, sort of a sense that “I’m taken seriously and respected for my work.”
DFW: You can read this in my face?
ROSE: Yeah. I can read it in terms of what’s been written about you and what you’ve said.
DFW: Well, show me somebody who doesn’t like to be respected. I guess there was a certain — there’s a certain amount of ambivalence about, say, the reception that “Infinite Jest” got because, you know, every writer dreams of having a lot of attention.
ROSE: You bet.
DFW: But the fact of the matter is this is a long, difficult book and a lot of the attention began coming at a time when I — I mean, I can do elementary arithmetic. A lot of people hadn’t had time to read the book yet. So the stuff about me or interesting rumors that developed about the book and all that stuff getting attention — I found that — I didn’t like that very much just because I wanted people to write — to read the book. I’m sorry that I’m essentially stuttering.
ROSE: No, you’re not. You’re doing just fine.
DFW: So other than that, I mean, I — you know, I don’t think I’m more hungrey for respect than the average person.
ROSE: Let me ask about this book, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” which is one of the pieces in here. I want to talk about David Lynch, who after I read your piece in Esquire — was it Esquire? No, Premier. Premier. I interviewed David Lynch. You never got to interview David Lynch.
DFW: Well, I said from the outset it’s the reason they let me on the set of all the other journalists, because I was the only one who said he did not, in fact –
DFW: — want to interview David Lynch.
ROSE: Why did you want to go observe David Lynch?
DFW: I found — you mean why did I not want to interview him or why did I –
ROSE: No, but — well, why was David Lynch interesting to you as a subject of a magazine piece?
DFW: I — for me, the number of — the number of film directors who are truly interesting as artists is very, very small and Lynch was one of them for me. I’ve been interested in Lynch’s films for a long time and actually, in grad school — I think there’s a thing about this in the essay. “Blue Velvet” came at a time for me when I reallyl needed to see it and it helped me a lot in my own work. And then it — after that, I went and, you know, found “Eraserhead” and had sort of followed this guy’s career and I find him — I find him instructive and useful to think about. For whatever that’s worth.
ROSE: Did you like the movie “Lost Hightway”?
DFW: I have not seen the movie “Lost Highway.” I’ve seen the rough cut of “Lost Highway” or scenes. They let me go in and sit in what I believe to be David Lynch’s personal chair –
ROSE: Yeah. And you sat there and –
DFW: — and looked at on the little — on the little monitor and see — which was the thrill of my life. But I’ve been on this tour and even though I’m in big cities, I have not yet gotten to see it. And I’m kind of terrified because there’s a big part of the essay that talks about what the movie’s about and if, indeed, the movie is nothing like that, I’m going to look –
ROSE: Yeah. When he was here, I asked him about what was “Lynchian” and I took that right out of your piece.
DFW: And I’m sure he just looked at you and blinked slowly.
ROSE: Well, he didn’t have a great answer because I don’t think he thinks that way. He obviously doesn’t think that way.
DFW: There was — I mean, yeah, there’s a part in the essay that kind of does this academic “Let’s unpack the idea of Lynchian and what Lynchian means is something about the unbelievably grotesque existing in a kind of union with the unbelievably banal,” and then it gives a series of scenarios about what — what is and what isn’t Lynchian. Jeffrey Dahmer was borderline Lynchian.
DFW: Well, the refrigerator. And actually, what was Lynchian was having the actual food products next to the disembodied bits of the corpse. I guess the big one is, you know, a regular domestic murder is not Lynchian. But if the man — if the police come to the scene and see the man standing over the body and the woman — let’s see, the woman’s ’50s bouffant is undisturbed and the man and the cops have this conversation about the fact that the man killed the woman because she persistently refused to buy, say, for instance, Jif peanut butter rather than Skippy, and how very, very important that is, and if the cops found themselves somehow agreeing that there were major differences between the brands and that a wife who didn’t recognize those differences was deficient in her wifely duties, that would be Lynchian — this weird — this weird confluence of very dark, surreal, violent stuff and absolute, almost Norman Rockwell, banal, American stuff, which is terrain he’s been working for quite a while — I mean, at least since — at least since “Blue Velvet.”
ROSE: You think the failure of “Dune” was good for his career.
DFW: I –
ROSE: Because it made him understand a system that he didn’t want to be part of.
DFW: What happened to Lynch with “Dune” — and now, I’m getting a lot of this from my research, which was published stuff. It’s not like, you know, Mr. Lynch and I had coffee and he told me this stuff. But Lynch’s career for a while had a kind of Richard Rodriguez arc to it. “Eraserhead,” like “El Mariachi” –
ROSE: Yeah, right.
DFW: — this enormous — enormously cool independent film, and it attracts the attention of people with money. The first one is Mel Brooks and Brooks hires him to do “The Elephant Man.” And “The Elephant Man” is a fantastic, fantastic film and it’s lighting and atmospherics, nothing else. So anyway, because of that, you know, DeLaurentis hires him to do “Dune” and now this is — “Dune,” at the time, is equivalent to what, like, “Twister” or “The Rock” would be now. It’s this enormous — this is — this is a “product” and there’s all this money at stake. And “Dune” itself, the novel, I don’t know if people read it anymore, but it’s a trememdously complicated science fiction novel.
Anyway, Lynch — so you don’t need an hour-long narrative of this, but Lynch does the thing and doesn’t do it all that well, but what really happens is the money men come in and they cut, like, I think 35 minutes out of the movie and it renders the movie incoherent. I mean, literally incoherent. And it was a huge flop and I think Lynch ate the flop and decided that what he wanted to do is he wanted to, you know, rule over small films, rather than serve large corporate ones.
I mean, he was really one of the first — we see a lot of them now, the — you know, Cinemax and Fine Line directors, these kind of independents who are doing stuff a little out of the mainstream, but still getting national distribution. As far as I can tell, Lunch really — Lynch really pioneered that ground. He was really the first one to be doing small, eccentric films that got a very wide release, “Blue Velvet” being the best example. And this may be entirely false. I mean, I’m not a film scholar.
ROSE: But you like movies.
DFW: I do like movies.
ROSE: A lot.
DFW: Front row.
ROSE: Okay. Me, too. “The English Patient.”
DFW: You’re seriously asking me for my view on “The English Patient”?
ROSE: I am. Of course.
DFW: I thought “The English Patient” was an extremely well-done, slick, commercial movie. I thought it was beautifully lit. I thought, you know, the desert looks like a body. I mean, it’s got an erotic –
ROSE: It was David Lean-ian for you.
DFW: I thought it was like David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” in some ways. I felt the story — I felt the story was somewhat predictable and some of the — some of the sentimental stuff at the end seemed to me like stuff I’ve seen 250 times before. But in all fairness, and in all respect to Michael Ondaatje, I felt the same way about the book, which I actually really like Ondaatje’s poetry. He’s got a book called “A Few Tricks I Can Do With a Knife” that’s really good. I didn’t think “The English Patient” was his best book.
ROSE: But it’s a good book.
DFW: It’s a — it’s an outstanding book.
ROSE: Yeah. And the film is interesting in that it’s not the book.
DFW: That is –
ROSE: And he recognizes –
DFW: — difficult to argue with.
ROSE: Well, no, no. But that’s not it. I don’t mean to make a simple point, but it is a perfect example of where somebody makes a film that’s every bit as good as the book.
DFW: Yeah. It’s a — [crosstalk]
ROSE: — not doing the book.
DFW: A “Godfather” thing.
ROSE: Yeah. A “Godfather” thing.
ROSE: How about “Shine”? I’m going to go down three, David.
DFW: This is — a lot of this is going to get cut out, right?
ROSE: Perhaps. But I’ll make the decision as to what’s cut out.
DFW: It’s funny. This — I mean, I’m totally intimidated. I’m sitting next to the guy in the Green Room and, you know, not saying a word. Then the minute he leaves, I start haranguing his publicist. The thing that interested me about “Shine” was I thought — I mean, besides being a manual for how to build a mentally ill child — I mean, all the early — early adult stuff — I thought it was absolutely incredible up until the end, and then I just thought — the causes of the dysfunction and the symptoms of the dysfunction are unpacked with such complexity and such care. And the ending, charming though Lynn Redgrave is, just the move from the time he becomes ahit in the bar to the time Lynn Redgrave meets him to the time she consults an astrology chart to marry him, to, you know, his very moving “Mr. Holland’s Opus”-like –
ROSE: Right. Right.
DFW: — performance at the end — it’s terrific, but it happens at about 10 times the speed that all the other stuff did. So the thing I was asking the publicist is: “Did the money guys or the studio guys make him wrap the ending” –
ROSE: And they said no. In fact, it was his script.
DFW: They got a little bristly. The got a little bristly.
ROSE: But why would –
DFW: And I am not trying to bust on “Shine,” which –
ROSE: I know you’re not but, I mean, what we’re trying to do here is just understand you by talking about things other than your work. And we’ll come back to –
DFW: Unfortunately, most of the things that are leaving my mouth seem to be mean.
DFW: Most of the things that are leaving my mouth seem to be mean.
ROSE: Well, we’ll get to that.
ROSE: Now, here — why wouldn’t you talk to Scott Hicks in the Green Room?
DFW: Because –
ROSE: Because what?
DFW: Well, because he’s –
ROSE: I mean, you’re a big-deal writer.
DFW: Well, it — I don’t know. I think of myself as the schmuck in the Green Room.
ROSE: Well, you may be the schmuck in the Green Room, too — [crosstalk] But why wouldn’t you turn to him — I mean, did you have no curiosity to turn to him and ask the filmmaker the question that you were curious about?
DFW: I think if I had known him or he was my friend –
DFW: — I would have been comfortable. Just doing it out of — I think part of it is going to readings — you do a reading at a book store –
ROSE: Yeah. Right.
DFW: — and then afterwards there’s usually a Q&A –
DFW: — which it’s very difficult to get out of. I’ve tried all kinds of things. And many of the questions have this kind of belligerence about them. You know, “Did you think that this ending was weak?” And part of you kind of goes, “Well, why don’t you and I go have supper and we’ll talk about this. You don’t just come at somebody with a question like that.”
What — what I was trying to do is — I don’t know anything about filmmaking from the perspective of making a film. What I know is watching them, as a movie fan. I mean, Pauline Kael is sort of my idol this way. She was — she was the fan. She was the consumer and her authority came from that. I wanted — I felt as if the ending of “Shine” had been mucked with, either to get the time down or the guy said — you know, the producer said, “This is kind of — we need a more upbeat ending.” And I was curious to know whether that was true and it turns out no. It turns out Hicks — apparently the story got really happy really fast in real life and that’s the way it happened.
ROSE: Can you imagine yourself writing a screenplay? Have you tried?
DFW: No, I haven’t tried. I’ve talked a couple times — my best friend writes mysteries and he and I have talked about doing a screenplay. I think — I think I would have a very difficult time writing something that’s a product that other people would mess with. And the amount of money that’s at stake in movies and the amount of — the dispersal of responsibility for the thing — I mean, the director, the actors, the producer — in order to do — writing is very difficult for me and it takes a lot of time and energy. And once I’ve done it, it’s my thing. I can’t imagine putting in the time and energy to do a good screenplay — I mean, something like what David Webb Peoples can do. He’s a screenwriter I think is really, really superb.
ROSE: What’s he written?
DFW: He’s written “Blade Runner” and he wrote “Unforgiven,” the Clint Eastwood Western which –
ROSE: Did you like it?
DFW: I thought — “Unforgiven”?
DFW: I thought “Unforgiven” is the first really smart Western since, I don’t know, early Peckinpah.
ROSE: I do, too. I loved it.
DFW: What’s interesting is I don’t know a single female who likes the film. It’s very odd. I talk to all these people –
ROSE: It’s interesting you say that.
DFW: — about “Unforgiven” –
ROSE: It’s interesting you say that because –
DFW: — and females think, “Western? It stinks.” And if you can get them to watch it, it’s not a Western at all. I mean, it’s a moral drama. It’s — you know, it’s Henry James, basically. But it’s very odd.
ROSE: My girlfriend and I — Amanda hates the film and it’s the one film that I just have a wider difference with her than any other film that we’ve seen together.
DFW: Yeah. If I were going to try to do something, I’d want to do something like that. But that was also an enormous success story — luck story. David Webb Peoples — reclusive, weird screenwriter — I don’t know much about him. This script had been shopped around for years and finally Clint Eastwood bought it and Clint Eastwood’s got enough juice to go, “Okay, I’ll star in it so they’ll make it.” This was a weird Western. This is very cerebral for a Western and I think the only way that it could have got made was if a, you know, star director, you know, was willing to do it. And the thing about it is, I think for every script like that that gets made, there’ve got to be, you know, hundreds of these really intelligent, cool scripts –
ROSE: Absolutely, that there’s not somebody that comes along who has the power to get it made.
DFW: Right. Or else it gets worked on by the rewrite guys, you know, and John Gregory Dunne’s got that whole book, “Monster” –
ROSE: “Monster,” yeah.
DFW: — about, you know, their working on the Jessica Savitch story, which became, you know, what was it –
ROSE: “Up Close and” something –
DFW: — “Up Close and Personal,” which was –
ROSE: Michele Pfeiffer.
DFW: — a film so bad it doesn’t even have charm. You know, some things are so bad that they’re enjoyable. This was worse than that.
ROSE: I know. It was. It was. How about writing essays? I did an interview the other night, not on television, but — with Alfred Kazin. I mean, the kind of thing that he does — does that appeal to you, in a sense?
DFW: I think of myself as a fiction writer and I’m not even a particularly experienced fiction writer, so a lot — like, a lot of the essays in this book, if there’s a schtick, the schtick is, “Oh, gosh, look at me, not a journalist, who’s been sent to do all these journalistic things.”
ROSE: Yeah, but I mean, as some critic wrote about you, you have two things that are — that most journalists wish they had. One is a great — you have a great memory for the phrase, the delivered phrase –
ROSE: And you also have a great power of observation for the moment.
DFW: Oh –
ROSE: You’d agree with that?
DFW: I would agree with that and the things — the things in this book that most people like are the sensuous or experiential essays, which is basically an enormous eyeball floating around something, reporting what it sees.
DFW: When you’re talking about Kazin, you’re talking about something different, which is, you know, the art essay, the belles lettres –
ROSE: Right. Exactly.
DFW: — essay. I think there are one, maybe a couple like that in there, but I — I have this problem of thinking that I haven’t made myself clear or that the argument hasn’t been sufficiently hammered home, so I will make the same point five, six, seven times. And I did — the “E Unibus Plurum” thing in there is an argumentative essay that I did six or seven years ago and I just gave up after that because it seems as if, to make the argument truly persuasive requires 500, 600 pages and nobody wants to read it.
ROSE: Yeah. Talking about style — what’s the — what are the footnotes about? I mean, is that just simply –
DFW: The — in “Infinite Jest,” the end notes are very intentional and they’re in there for certain structural reasons and — well, you don’t need to hear about it. It’s sort of embarrassing to read this book. You could almost chart when the essays were written because the first couple don’t have any. But the footnotes get very, very addictive.
DFW: I mean, it’s almost like having a second voice in your head.
ROSE: But where does it come from? I mean, I’m now on page 981 of “Infinite Jest” and the footnotes run, notes and errata, run to page — you may know the answer to this, but there are 200 –
DFW: Yes, but the reader doesn’t experience it in that way because the end note tags are –
ROSE: Three-oh-four –
DFW: — in the text.
ROSE: Three hundred and four footnotes, sir.
DFW: There are — there are quite a few. Not — some of them are very short. Some of them are only one line long. It is a way — no, see, this is –
ROSE: This is what?
DFW: Well, I’m just going to look pretentious talking about this.
ROSE: Why — quit worrying about how you’re going to look and just be!
DFW: I have got news for you. Coming on a television show stimulates your “What am I going to look like?” gland like no other experience. You may now be such a veteran that you’re, like — you don’t notice anymore.
DFW: You confront your own vanity when you think about going on TV. So I’m — no apologies, but just — that’s an explanation. The — the footnotes in the — there’s a way that — there’s a way, it seems to me, that reality’s fractured right now, at least the reality that I live in. And the difficulty about writing one of those, writing about that reality, is that text is very linear and it’s very unified and you — I, anyway, am constantly on the lookout for ways to fracture the text that aren’t totally disoriented. I mean, you can — you know, you can take the lines and jumble them up and that’s nicely fractured, but nobody — nobody’s going to read it, right? So you’ve got — there’s got to be some interplay between how difficult you make it for the reader and how seductive it is for the reader so the reader’s willing to do it. The end notes were, for me, a useful compromise, although there were a lot more when I delivered the manuscript. And one of the things that the editor did for me was had me pare the end notes down to really the absolutely essential.
ROSE: Who’s your editor?
DFW: His name is Michael Pietsch –
DFW: — spelled P-I-E-T-S-C-H, not like the fruit — senior editor at Little Brown and a fine individual.
ROSE: What did it do to you — Newsweek — “Truly remarkable. What weird fun ‘Infinite Jest’ is to read.” The New York Times — “Uproarious. It shows off Wallace as one of the big talents of his generation, a writer of virtuosic talents who can seemingly do anything.” That’s the way I feel about you. I mean, I — I’m a little bit — I mean, I hear a brain at work there — sort of — where do you want it to go? What is it –
DFW: I think not exploding would be a nice start. That kind of stuff — I’m — I dissociate very well –
DFW: — and it’s a useful talent. Writing for publication is a very weird thing because part of you — part of you is a nerd and you want to sit in libraries, you don’t want to be bothered and you’re very shy. And another part of you is the worst ham of all time. “Look at me. Look at me. Look at me.” And you have fantasies about writing something that makes everybody drop to one knee, you know, like Al Jolson or something.
We — of course, you never get it as much as that part wants, but to get a little bit of it is just — is very, very strange because very often, for me — I didn’t read a whole lot of the reviews, but a lot of the positive ones seemed to me to misunderstand the book. I wanted it to be extraordinarily sad and not particularly post-modern or jumbled up or fractured and most of the people — the reviewers who really liked it seemed to like it because it was funny or it was erudite or it was interestingly fractured, so –
ROSE: What does “post-modern” mean in literature?
DFW: No, no, no, no. “After modernism” is what it means.
ROSE: Okay. [crosstalk}
DFW: -- what it means. It's a very useful catch-all term because you say it and we all nod soberly, as if we know what we're talking about --
ROSE: As if we know what it means --
DFW: -- and in fact we don't. There are certain -- what I mean by post-modern, I'm talking about maybe the black humorists who came along in the 1960s, the post-Nabokovians. I'm talking about Pynchon and Barthelme and Barth.
DFW: DeLillo in the early '70s, Coover. I'm sure I'm leaving out a lot. Let me see --
ROSE: But that's the camp you put yourself in.
DFW: I think -- [crosstalk] I think that’s the camp that interested me when I was a student. The problem is, I think post-modernism has, to a large extent, run its course. The biggest thing for me about — that was interesting about post-modernism is that it was the first text that was highly self-conscious, self-conscious of itself as text, self-conscious of the writer as persona, self-conscious about the effects that narrative had on readers and the fact that the readers probably knew that. It was the first generation of writers who’d actually read a lot of criticism –
DFW: — and there was a certain schizophrenia about it. It was very useful, it seems to me, because the culture — this was a real beaker of acid in the face of the culture, the culture at the time that this came out. This was before, you know, the youth rebellion in the ’60s. It was very staid and very conservative and very Alfred Kazin-ish.
And the problem, though, is that a lot of the schticks of post-modernism — irony, cynicism, irreverence — are now part of whatever it is that’s enervating in the culture itself, right? Burger King now sells hamburgers with “You gotta break the rules,” right? So I’m — I don’t really consider myself a post-modernist. I don’t consider myself much of anything, but I know that that’s the tradition that excited me when I was starting to write.
ROSE: Paul –
DFW: Is that anything like an answer to your question?
ROSE: It is. I mean — Paul Cezanne, the painter, always felt that he had — I mean, up until the end of his life, until he created “The Bathers” in, like, 1907, always felt like he had to create a big painting, a big painting both in terms of size, but in terms of a great piece of work, you know? Do you think about that?
DFW: Well, see, it’s — a book is a different kind of object than a painting. A painting, however big it is, is taken in all at once. Size is an entirely different component of it. For a book, a big book means the reader is going to have to spend a long time reading it, which means your burden of proof goes up, right? Big books — big books are more challenging. They’re more intimidating.
So, you know, if you’re talking about “Infinite Jest,” I have a problem with length and it’s one reason why I’m grateful to have found a really good editor. “Infinite Jest” did not start out to be this long. It started out to be a fractured, multiple narrative with a number of main characters and it became — perhaps I was just in denial that this was going to require great length. And at a certain point, it became clear that it was going to be very long.
ROSE: All right.
DFW: Feminists are always saying this. Feminists are saying white males say, “Okay, I’m going to sit down and write this enormous book and impose my phallus on the consciousness of the world.”
ROSE: And you say?
DFW: I — I — if that was going on, it was going on on a level of awareness I do not want to have access to.
ROSE: Do you still play tennis?
DFW: I do play tennis. I no longer play competitively.
ROSE: You played as a junior.
DFW: I was –
ROSE: And you were competitive and good.
DFW: I was good. I was not even very good. I was between good and very good. I was good on a regional level. And one of the things about writing the piece about Michael Joyce, who was hundredth in the world and junior champion, is I really had to — had to realize that there were a lot of levels beyond the level that I was on. That — that essay, for me, which I know you haven’t asked me about and now I’ll tell you about, is — ended up — it’s very weird and I’m surprised that Esquire even bought it. It ended up being way more autobiographical than it did — it was supposed to. It was supposed to start out as a profile of this tennis player.
ROSE: But it was about you.
DFW: Yeah. Unfortunately, a lot of these, I think, end up being about me.
ROSE: I think so, too.
DFW: As a couple reviewers have pointed out.
ROSE: But — and then, therefore, back to David Lynch. How is that about you?
DFW: I’m trying to think of a way so that this will have anything to do with what we’ve talked about before. Imagine you’re a hyper-educated avant garde-ist in grad school learning to write.
DFW: The screen gets all fuzzy now as the viewer’s invited to imagine this. Coming out of an avant garde tradition, I get to this grad school and at the grad school, turns out all the teachers are realists. They’re not at all interested in post-modern avant garde stuff. Now, there’s an interesting delusion going on here — so they don’t like my stuff. I believe that it’s not because my stuff isn’t good, but because they just don’t happen to like this kind of esthetic.
In fact, known to them but unknown to me, the stuff was bad, was indeed bad. So in the middle of all this, hating the teachers, but hating them for exactly the wrong reason — this was spring of 1986 — I remember — I remember who I went to see the movie with — “Blue Velvet” comes out. “Blue Velvet” comes out.
“Blue Velvet” is a type of surrealism — it may have some — it may have debts. There’s a debt to Hitchcock somewhere. But it is an entirely new and original kind of surrealism. It no more comes out of a previous tradition or the post-modern thing. It is completely David Lynch. And I don’t know how well you or your viewers would remember the film, but there are some very odd — there’s a moment when a guy named “the yellow man” is shot in an apartment and then Jeffrey, the main character, runs into the apartment and the guy’s dead, but he’s still standing there. And there’s no explanation. You know, he’s just standing there. And it is — it’s almost classically French — Francophilistically surreal, and yet it seems absolutely true and absolutely appropriate.
And there was this — I know I’m taking a long time to answer your question. There was this way in which I all of a sudden realized that the point of being post-modern or being avant garde or whatever wasn’t to follow in a certain kind of tradition, that all that stuff is B.S. imposed by critics and camp followers afterwards, that what the really great artists do — and it sounds very trite to say it out loud, but what the really great artists do is they’re entirely themselves. They’re entirely themselves. They’ve got their own vision, their own way of fracturing reality, and that if it’s authentic and true, you will feel it in your nerve endings. And this is what “Blue Velvet” did for me.
I’m not suggesting it would do it for any other viewer, but I — Lynch very much helped snap me out of a kind of adolescent delusion that I was in about what sort of avant garde art could be. And it’s very odd because film and books are very different media. But I remember — I remember going with two poets and one other student fiction writer to go see this and then all of us going to the coffee shop afterwards and just, you know, slapping ourselves on the forehead. And it was this truly epiphantic experience.
ROSE: Now — that’s right. I — you feel the same way when you see “Lost Highway,” too.
DFW: I hope so because –
ROSE: Same thing, and you walk out and you say, “I have no idea. It just was an experience.” And it was an experience inside of David Lynch’s head.
DFW: What’s weird about Lynch, though –
ROSE: And that’s what it is. I didn’t get any message. I don’t –
DFW: Did you see — did you see “Wild at Heart”?
DFW: That was –
ROSE: Yeah, I did see it. I did see it.
DFW: See, I don’t think “Wild at Heart” –
ROSE: This was Laura Dern and –
DFW: — is good at all.
ROSE: — and –
DFW: Yeah. Yeah. Laura Dern and Nicholas Cage and –
ROSE: Right. Right.
DFW: — they were great performances.
ROSE: Was Willem Dafoe in that?
DFW: Willem Dafoe was in that –
DFW: — with black stumps for teeth.
ROSE: Right. Right.
DFW: I mean, there’s all kinds of — and it’s set up exactly the same way and yet it falls flat. There was some magic that “Blue Velvet” had and I think it has to do with the hoary old concept of a well-developed central character, who is Jeffrey, Kyle MacLachlan, whereas in “Wild at Heart” — “Wild at Heart” is a weird, inter-textual allusion to “Fugitive Kind” with Marlon Brando and this Italian actress.
ROSE: Yeah. Yeah.
DFW: And there’s all these arch sort of — but there weren’t really any characters in it and — so I don’t know. The interesting thing about Lynch is, is it going to be absolutely great or is it going to be cringeingly horrible? And I ended up really rooting for “Lost Highway.” Get ready for Robert Blake in this movie. I don’t know whether you’ve seen this movie.
ROSE: Oh, he’s fantastic. He’s fantastic.
DFW: The movie does –
ROSE: He’s fantastic.
DFW: This movie does for Blake what “Blue Velvet” did for Dennis Hopper, who, if you remember, was in oblivion before this movie.
ROSE: Yeah. Yeah.
DFW: And now, all of a sudden, you know, he could do Coke commercials if he wanted.
ROSE: I don’t know whether it’ll do that for Robert Blake, but — you mean Dennis could?
ROSE: Dennis could do Coke commercial.
ROSE Yeah. He could.
ROSE: I mean, he –
DFW: But I — my memory of Robert Blake is, you know, “That’s the name of that tune,” in “Baretta” or something and now, all of a sudden, they’ve got him made up like Max Schreck in “Nosferatu.”
ROSE: We’re way over time. Let me ask one last question. You have gone through — your personal life is kind of bent to hell and back. Yes?
DFW: No, I don’t think any more than most people my age.
ROSE: Oh, come on.
DFW: Well, most of the people I — [crosstalk]
ROSE: I mean, do you look at that as simply sort of passing through the valley and coming out — I mean, come on.
DFW: I think — I mean, I — I think I got — I got some attention for some work that didn’t really deserve it at an age when I had a hard time hardling it. And it wasn’t a whole lot of attention, but it seemed like a whole lot to, you know, a library weenie from the lower level of Frost Library at Amherst College and I had a hard time with it. And I was lucky enough so that there was something left of my life when it was over. Whatever that means. If you wanted something, like, really exciting or sexy, there isn’t much. I just got really — [crosstalk]
ROSE: Well, but you — I mean, it was drugs and you were suicidal and the whole nine yards, yes?
DFW: Yeah. Here’s why I’m embarrassed talking about it, not because –
ROSE: I want to know why.
DFW: Not because I’m personally ashamed of it, because everybody talks about it. I mean, it sounds like –
ROSE: In other words, everybody –
DFW: It sounds –
ROSE: Everybody talks about it for themselves or everybody talks about you?
DFW: No, everybody talks — it sounds like some kind of Hollywood thing to do. “Oh, he’s out of rehab and — ”
ROSE: No, I –
DFW: “–back in action.”
ROSE: — didn’t say anything about rehab.
DFW: This — this was –
ROSE: No, I said something about the course that took you from Amherst College to — back to Illinois.
DFW: I did — I did some recreational drugs. I didn’t have the — I didn’t have the stomach to drink very much and I didn’t have the nervous system to do anything very hard. Yeah, I did some drugs. I didn’t do as many drugs as most of the people I know my age. What it turned out was I just don’t have the nervous system to handle it. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was I started out, I think, wanting to be a writer and wanting to get some attention and I got it really quick and –
ROSE: By writing.
DFW: — and realized it didn’t make me happy at all, in which case, “Hmm. Why am I writing?” You know, “What’s the purpose of this?” And I don’t think it’s substantively different from the sort of thing — you know, somebody who wants to be a really successful cost accountant, right, and be a partner of his accounting firm and achieves that at 50 and goes into something like a depression. “The brass ring I’ve been chasing does not make everything okay.” So that’s why I’m embarrassed to talk about it. It’s just not particularly interesting. It’s — what it is, is very, very average.
ROSE: Yeah. Do you see yourself chasing a brass ring now?
DFW: I — this is what’s very interesting is I — there’s part of me that wants to get attention and respect. It doesn’t really make very much difference to me because I learned in my 20s that it just doesn’t change anything and that whatever you get paid attention for is never the stuff that you think is important about yourself anyway. So a lot of my problem right now is I don’t really have a brass ring and I’m kind of open to suggestions about what — what one chases that — there are real abstract ideas about, you know, what art can be and the redemptive quality of art and, you know, kindness to animals and, you know, all the cliches that we can invoke.
But it’s — I — the people who most interest me now are the people — are people who are older and who have sort of been through a mid-life crisis. They tend to get weird because the normal incentives for getting out of bed don’t tend to apply anymore. I have not found any satisfactory new ones, but I’m also not getting ready to, you know, jump off a building or anything.
ROSE: Well, that’s good news. David Foster Wallace — “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” essays and arguments by the author of “Infinite Jest.” Thank you.
DFW: Thank you.
ROSE: Thank you for joining us. We’ll see you next time.
ps: OHG: I just realized the headscarf DFW is wearing is identical to that worn by the cast of “Mash” , the movie…in the sequence where Hawkeye and others have a feast, (of thirteen?), before the “suicide” of “Painless Pole” Waldowski, (he of the prodigious ah…main member, who was having performance issues).