Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: An Interview with D. T. Max

Weston Cutter
September 4, 2012
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What follows is a brief conversation with DTMax which occurred the 23rd of August at 4:30pm EST, and though the details aren’t critical, I insert them here simply for the fact that it was the end of the work day, and, perhaps because of that, my phone and I did not see eye to eye, and so the conversation was not recorded. And so, what follows is a fairly representative cobbling together of the conversation Mr. Max and I had, but is not the Actual Thing.

And why would I be talking to DTMax, aside from the fact that he’s an author and New Yorker staff writer and seemingly nice guy? Because he has written the first (one imagines there’ll be more) biography of David Foster Wallace, and the book is titled Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, and it’s being released by Viking presently. Getting too much into the book here isn’t crucial—I’ve reviewed it elsewhere, and while a piece of correspondence between Wallace and I is in the book, I’ve no more access to privileged info about his works and ideas than the next excitable reader—but it is, overall, an exceptionally good if hard-to-read book, and if you’re a Wallace fan you’ll be absolutely knocked to your knees to discover much more than you likely already did about who the guy was, specifically about his pains and loathings. It’s pretty incredible, honestly. I’ll admit that the conversation with Mr. Max was much too brief, though I’ll also admit that I’m one of those rabid Wallace fans who’d be happy to spend solid chunks of every week talking about the man’s work (again: I dug the guy so much I wrote letters). Finally: Mr. Max has also just been interviewed over at Salon, and that thing’s great as well.


Were you really into Wallace before you started the book, or the magazine piece that led to the book? You mention having been at the IJ release party but not meeting him, but were you a big fan?

It’s kind of a funny story. I was into Wallace, but I was into the wrong Wallace. Isn’t there a Woody Allen movie where a woman says she has the wrong kind of orgasm? I think it’s Manhattan.

I loved Broom of the System. I was sent pre-publication copy by his editor, who I knew (Gerry Howard), and the book came out in this world of minimalist fiction and it was this massive, joyous novel, and I flipped for it. It was postmodernism for my generation, and that novel is much more heart than lots of pomo novels. David dismissed the book later, but I loved it. You never forget the first time you fall in love with an author.

That was my deepest grounding in David when I started the New Yorker piece—Broom. Which is good, because  I like, in my articles, to learn, and to do learning. My big hope is that whatever I’m writing about is not something I know so much about is that it doesn’t feel fresh to me. The work is better when I’m a learner too.

And so the really cool process that took place, both in the book and the article, was my shifting allegiance from Broom to Jest, like David did. There’s this wonderful phrase in Broom, a line about the moral clarity of the immature. I had some of that. But there’s—everyone’s pleasure with David is that personal connection. I only truly took Jest in later when I was old enough to appreciate it, which, as it happened, was older than he was when he wrote it. But he was a genius. So there’s that.

What’s strange too is I can feel my allegiance sort of shifting to the Brief Interviews, now, after the book is done.

Really? That’s—I’m fairly convinced Interviews is his best and most underloved work. That’s awesome to hear you’re shifting your allegiance to it.

Well, I can see my allegiance shifting to Interviews. I mean, I’ve read Jest now three or four times, and I love it, and it’s gorgeous, but a piece of me keeps thinking Interviews is the book where I’ll keep finding new things now.

Maybe this is wildly off, but it almost feels like, had Interviews been less jumped on, if it’d been more welcomed, it seems like a certain warmth that seems gone in Oblivion might’ve stuck around. Does that seem remotely likely?

That’s a—that’s hard. Because you can’t map David’s imagination, and I don’t think the direction of his work was that determined by reviews. And he knew, when that book (Interviews) came out—it was a damning book, and he knew it was a damning book. He wrote Michael Pietsch—I think it was Michael–that is was a book that was mean to just about everyone it was possible to be mean to. And I think after it came out, there became a lot more—there were more issues about polishing the statue. (ed note: ‘polishing the statue’ was a phrase used with regularity by Wallace as an example of the bad side of writing, whereby such polishing wasn’t about actual good, alive work, but just about work which tends to the public notions of the author him/herself).

That leads directly to this, then: What was most surprising about him or his work, as you wrote this? For a lot of us who are deeply into him, I think some of the stuff about his family, specifically issues with his mom, is gonna read as a fairly large shock, plus also this notion of polishing the statue. I had no idea he was this obsessed or taken with his perception of others’ perception of him.

Yeah, his reputation becomes this weird hovering malevolence in his mind. The statue idea is tricky though—it’s not synonymous with reputation. He said in a part of a letter that I didn’t include in the book that he sort of acknowledges that he’s more invested in the statue than the public.

There is a lot of new info for people to absorb in this book, certainly, especially the stuff with his mom. But I don’t think the importance of his mother was even the same in his brain throughout his life. When he was in his 20s, would he have said he was really hung up about his mother? Probably not. In his 30s, that relationship, and the complexities there, become central. But I think by the time he was with Karen Green, in his 40s, he’d put that relationship back into a place in which there was balance.

The thing that is tricky about David is that he was so complicated and so multivalent, about everything. And just because he says something, or writes something in a letter, doesn’t mean he means it. Which leads us to the big truthfulness issue that haunts all biographers: Where do you find the truth in someone’s life? In what they say or what they write, or both? But in David’s case, one part of his writing was fiction, but he didn’t necessarily tell the truth in his letters, either. He’s a tricky figure.

That’s the other weird thing: how much he stretched things, that was a huge shock. I guess how much he stretched the truth, how much he lied—you know, saying someone was from his church when in fact it was a friend from his rehab program.

Well, but you’ve gotta remember: those in recovery do sometimes speak of it as a church. There are a bunch of different phrases that they use instead of just saying, This is someone I’m in a certain program with.

But yeah, he changed things, he wasn’t 100% factual all the time, but I don’t know if he’s any less a truth-teller in a deeper sense for those stretches. In all of his writing, it wasn’t as if he was trying to talk about being perfect, but about how to regard life as something to take with great seriousness.

Also, he was naturally secretive, even as a child—he struggled with secrecy his whole life. But he was always honest—even his duplicity has as its basis a painful search for honesty.

Right: changing his relationship to whom he went to the State Fair with.

Which is a pretty classic move in nonfiction. There was almost certainly faked stuff in the cruise ship piece. But there is maybe a kind of school of nonfiction where it gets sort of gray—not at the sort of place that I work [the New Yorker], but elsewhere. And also I think post-James-Frey things tightened up and these pieces were written before. In a piece of a late letter he wrote that I didn’t include he says nonfiction should be truly straightforward, and he mentions Frey. So he noticed what had happened and saw the rules were changing. But regardless, his fudging really began as gags—they were fudges to make life funnier than it really is. He fudged to make things funnier or better, not worse, not to lie about things in a more global sense.

Do you think there’s more work that’s coming? There’s Both Flesh and Not coming later in the fall, but do you think some of the other things will ever get published?

There’s really not anything else, really, that I know of. I think there were only one or two other nonfiction pieces, but I believe they were destroyed. Everything else has been gathered and put into collections. Of course it’s always possible a trunk somewhere will cough up an early story, but if so I don’t know of it. But I found no references to other significant stories in the correspondence.

I was thinking about if maybe there’ll be a complete, uncut edition of Jest or something at some point.

Maybe the IJ notebooks may surface, and those could be published. I’m not sure anyone knows if there actually is a complete first draft anymore, or if you could even piece together the first full, initial draft of it. My strong impression is that that’s actually not what you’re going to find in the archives—not the draft that was originally carried in person to Michael Pietsch in June 1994, I think. I think that’s gone. What I think you do see, at the Ransom Center, is various drafts, including one partial one that was attached when he sent it to Steven Moore for comment. I’m not a textual scholar. There are some investigating the archives now. You have to make a huge effort to answer this question definitively. You have to look at typewriter faces and the color of the pen in hand annotations. It’s a huge effort.

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