Conversations with David Foster Wallace – Edited by Stephen J. Burn

David Foster Wallace claimed that he didn’t like to do interviews. He had problems with the give-and-take process of being interviewed. Even further, Wallace didn’t like the attention; he didn’t, for the most part, like being viewed as a rock star writer. In a letter to Don DeLillo Wallace expressed concern about how certain interviewers would comment on the persona he would adopt during the interview process; he was bothered by their offhanded comments on what he was wearing, how he ate, or what brand name products were strewn about his home. Yes, some of Wallace’s earlier interviews took place in his home, which Wallace later admitted was a tactical error.

From an outside’s point of view, interviewing Wallace would seem like an exciting and difficult task. There is a certain level of intimidation and apprehension that naturally occurs when asking questions of someone who is so sharp, intelligent, well read and ultra-conscious of the world around them. The fear of asking Wallace the proverbial stupid question would be a stress that would hang over the interview like a spiteful specter. It’s interesting to note, on Wallace’s English 102-Literary Analysis: Prose Fiction syllabi from Fall ‘94, Wallace wrote: “Anybody gets to ask any question about any fiction-related issues she wants. No question about literature is stupid. You are forbidden to keep yourself from asking a question or making a comment because you fear it will sound obvious or unsophisticated or lame or stupid. Because critical reading and prose fiction are such hard, weird things to try to study, a stupid-seeming comment or question can end up being valuable or even profound.”

Not sure if this statement on his syllabi would put an interviewer’s mind at ease, but it would give him/her a reference point to help maneuver around Wallace’s genius. On a side note, Wallace’s English 102 required the class to purchase and read novels by Mary Higgins Clark, Jackie Collins, Thomas Harris, Stephen King and Larry McMurtry. What an amazing and thought-provoking class this must have been! Can you imagine Wallace explicating Collins’ Rock Star? Crazy.

Anyway, Wallace was right. Within this collection of interviews there are stupid questions asked about Wallace’s work, but the reader still benefits from these types of questions and receives special insight into Wallace’s writing. Or, at the very least, we occasionally get to see Wallace become a rhetoric and composition bully and call the interviewers out for their inane questions that don’t directly correspond to his writing. This academic posturing is most prevalent in Wallace’s two thousand and five interview with French journalist Didier Jacob.  Oddly, Jacob asked Wallace, “Could you describe a typical writing day, how you describe the Illinois State Fair of a tennis tournament?” Wallace replied, “I don’t understand how the two clauses in your question fit together. I have no ‘typical’ writing day” (155). The brief interview with Didier is full of Wallace-like moments where he analyzes and critiques the questions before giving the answers he thinks Didier is asking. Jacobs’ questions had little to do with Wallace’s work, and Wallace called Didier out on his question asking abilities.

The nineteen ninety-three interview with Hugh Kennedy and Geoffrey Polk for Whiskey Island, a literary magazine published by Cleveland State University, is insightful and candid. Even though Kennedy and Polk have a difficult time keeping up with Wallace, they were able to garner some of the most insight and seemingly honest responses from Wallace, especially in regards to his thoughts on MFA programs and the challenges contemporary/modern fiction writers face when writing. Also, Wallace shares an impromptu grocery store list of writers/books that he admired/loved to read.

For those who are not familiar with Wallace, the last addition to the text is an excellent place to start. David Lipsky’s The Lost Years and Last Days of David Foster Wallace, original published in a two thousand eight issue of Rolling Stone, is a sensitive and insightful piece that gives the reader a thoughtful view into Wallace’s life and last days. The thoughts and feelings of Wallace’s sister, Amy Wallace Havens are heart wrenching as they strip Wallace of his superstar writer persona that was placed upon him by many in the academic world. Havens seems to be the only person to see Wallace for what he really was—an incredibly wonderful person who was truly a goofball.

If you’ve been following Wallace’s career, most of the interviews in this text are going to be extremely familiar. Also there is the obvious problem of accumulating twenty-some interviews into one text—the questions and answers can become redundant. Overall, editor Stephen J. Burn understood this inherent problem and he effectively chose and presented the proper interviews to avoid much of this expected redundancy.

It’s curious that this collection of interviews is titled Conversations with David Foster Wallace. I know the University Press of Mississippi has a long history of publishing collected interviews and titling them Conversations with. . . Maybe in the spirit of Wallace I’m being overly analytical, but the word conversation implies a somewhat relaxed interaction between two or more people. Since Wallace had a general dislike for interviews, outside of a few instances, I’m sure he wouldn’t consider this text to be full of conversations; he would view the book as an accumulation of questions and answers, especially considering the tennis match like written format chosen for most of the interactions. Would Interviews with David Foster Wallace be a more appropriate title? Maybe.

Conversations with David Foster Wallace is a text worthy of a place on your bookshelf. It is great to have a collection of Wallace interviews to rummage through and investigate. Wallace’s responses open up another area of the writer’s world to the reader, an area that showcases Wallace’s wit and genius. One could easily use this text as a sort of travel guide through many of Wallace’s essays and novels, or one can use it as an excellent introduction to a writer that will only grow in popularity and appreciation within the academic world.


May 18, 2012. Literature.

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