Stephen J. Burn (ed.) | Conversations with David Foster Wallace (University Press of Mississippi)


book conv-dfwWhereas Wallace’s books highlight his brilliant mind and flair of the written word, these interviews show him to be just as thoughtful—and every bit as genius—in a straightforward and unedited form.




Prior to opening this book, you first have to acknowledge two irrefutable facts: (1) David Foster Wallace was one of our generation’s greatest literary talents, and (2) His untimely death by suicide in 2008 was one of our generation’s greatest literary tragedies.

Conversations with David Foster Wallace is further proof of the writer’s genius and serves to keep the legendary author alive. For any fan of the written word, DFW devotees and casual readers alike, this is a welcome addition to a lifetime library, one you’ll return to time and again.

Conversations is a collection of 22 interviews given by Wallace throughout the course of his career, from the publication of The Girl with Curious Hair (written while he was an undergraduate in college) to the much-lauded release of Infinite Jest. Whereas Wallace’s books highlight his brilliant mind and flair of the written word, these interviews show him to be just as thoughtful—and every bit as genius—in a straightforward and unedited form.

As expected, Wallace has a lot to say about the role of fiction. In a 1987 interview with William R. Katovsky that appeared in Arrival, Wallace described his view of fiction through a charming narrative:

“I spent a lot of time as a volunteer in a nursing home in Amherstlast summer. I was reading Dante’s Divine Comedy to an old man, Mr. Shulman. One day, I asked him where he was from. He said, ‘Just east of here, the Rockies.’ I said, ‘Mr. Shulman, the Rockies are west of here.’ He did a voilà with his hands, and then said, ‘I move mountains.’ That stuck with me. Fiction either moves mountains or it’s boring; it moves mountains or it sits on its ass.”

In a 1993 interview with Larry McCaffery of Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wallace ties writing inexorably with living:

“I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of generalization of suffering.”

book dfw photo2Later in this same interview, he reveals that “‘I just think that fiction that isn’t exploring what it means to be human today isn’t good art.’” Perhaps a somewhat surprising revelation comes later in that discussion: “‘…(a) whole lot of what I’m trying to do in my writing—and I don’t know whether this is good or bad—is my desire to make something pretty.’” He tells the interviewer, “‘One of my few strengths as a writer is that I think I have a good ear for rhythm and for speech and speech rhythms. I can’t render as well as somebody like Updike—I just don’t see that well, with enough precision and accuracy—but I do hear real well and I can translate that.’” He then he seems to downplay his own genius with the words “‘Talent’s just an instrument. It’s like having a pen that works instead of one that doesn’t.’”

Further attempting to define fiction writing, Wallace reveals that:

“…[W]riting a novel gets very weird and invisible-friend-from-childhood-ish, then you kill the thing, which was never really alive except in your imagination, and you’re supposed to go buy groceries and talk to people at parties and stuff. Characters in stories are different. They come alive in the corners of your eyes.

“You don’t have to live with them.” (Lorin Stein, Publishers Weekly, 1999)

Despite his apparent genius, Wallace still recognizes—and admits—his own imperfections. He tells Hugh Kennedy and Geoffrey Polk (Whiskey Island, 1993) “‘For me, 50 percent of the stuff I do is bad, and that’s just going to be the way it is, and if I can’t accept that then I’m not cut out for this.’”

Wallace acknowledges his readers—devoted ones, by necessity—by speaking to Anne Marie Donahue (Boston Phoenix, 1996) about his expectations of their efforts: “One task he requires of his readers is ‘keeping track of enormous amounts of information.’ Others include ‘being required to pay attention to some of the strategies that regular entertainment uses’ and ‘having certain formulaic expectations that go along with reading commercial stuff fucked with. Not just disdained. Fucked with.’”

Eerily prescient is his revelation to Larry McCaffery: “’I think I had kind of a mid-life crisis at twenty, which probably doesn’t augur real well for my longevity.’” (Wallace was 48 when he died.)

Through his words—both fictional and self-revelatory—David Foster Wallace will forever live in the minds—and, cheesy as it may sound, hearts—of readers everywhere. Books like this continually remind us of the gift he is to a generation of readers and beyond. A+ | Laura Hamlett

About Laura Hamlett 467 Articles
Laura Hamlett is the Managing Editor of PLAYBACK:stl. In a past life, she was also a music publicist and band manager. Besides music, books, and other forms of popular culture, she's a fan of the psychology behind true crime and violent criminals. Ask her about mass murder...if you dare.

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