Monday mid-afternoon. I was in Oakland, observing a blue minivan pocked with dents trying to negotiate the BART parking lot with a grinding flat tire. I reached Agent 99 by phone. Agent 99 reminded me that David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest and a smart and dreamy hunk to be reckoned with (or at least that was pretty close to how Agent 99 described him), was in my town for an event hosted by the Booksmith. I told her we’d be in touch in two hours. I was paying a visit to a friend, a man who had taught me a seminal life lesson during a table tennis game. The appointment was inflexible, my devotion inexorable.
As it turned out, my meeting with the guru went on longer than expected. Personally, I blame the fresh oranges and the tea that were kindly prepared by the guru’s wife. Fortunately, Agent 99, a more perfervid agent than me, was ensconced in the Haight at 5:30 PM. The event was at seven. And I was staring down the BART platform hoping for a miracle. “Never mind my displacement,” I said to Agent 99. “You’re a trusted associate. I’ll be there in an hour. Even if it means leading the police in a high-speed car chase.”
Sometimes miracles do happen when you’re unwilling to spring for cabfare. And by 6:30 PM, I was ready to boogie, having arrived in record time across the Bay. Along the way, I had even managed to scarf down a tortilla for sustenance. In my bag: (1) a copy of Consider the Lobster that would serve as pretext for a tete-a-tete with DFW, (2) a minidisc recorder and (3) a microphone. All portable, all battery powered. Operation DFW was under way. The objective: to see if I could get DFW to sit down for an interview. Others had tried. But these were mere amateurs. They had not possessed the determination, if not a slightly unhealthy obsession, to talk with the author face to face. Would Joe Woodward go this far? Probably not. The man was a journalist, not a crazed litblogger. Then again, perhaps I had more Bob in my blood than he did.
Agent 99 and I reconnoitered at the People’s Cafe. Efforts were made to contact Special Agents Tito Perez and Scott Esposito, but were unsuccessful. We arrived at the All Saints Church at 6:34 PM. No seats available. SRO. Agent 99 and I found standing positions at the back, flush center. As beads of sweat began to form on sundry foreheads, Special Agent Perez entered and spoke into his headset. He was part of a special triad of professionally trained assassins: one masquerading as a sweetheart, the other as a good friend from Berkeley. But I had witnessed at least one of these agents tear the heart out of a living man, proving to several naysayers that the Mortal Kombat universe wasn’t entirely implausible.
The populated quarters meant that Perez’s team and mine couldn’t stand together. But as I learned later from the dossier, this was all part of the plan. Cover the action from two angles. Keep DFW on his toes. Let him believe that Special Agent Perez would be the rabid fanboy to approach him. Special Agent Perez was twenty-five feet to my left and I knew that there was only one dependable way to communicate under the circumstances: charades.
I mimed Perez a two-word covert message. He parsed word one, but catastrophically failed to figure out word two. Since it was imperative that Perez understand the message, I took a professional risk and called him on my cell phone, feeling very much like a lazy man IMing a roommate who is sitting only a room away. Not my brightest hour. The message was conveyed. Thumbs up signs were exchanged. The preliminary stages of the operation had been effected.
Eventually, DFW took the dais. He was dressed in a short-sleeved black shirt worn over a blue tee and jeans. Factoring in his long hair, he resembled a Tai-Bo instructor. At least one young lady passed out in All Saints’ sweltering confines, but was restored to full health when one of our agents told her that DFW was a married man.
Unfortunately, someone had tipped DFW off. He ordered anyone who was standing to sit down. It did not help that I was a particularly tall operative. Had he seen me scribbling down notes in my reporter’s flipbook? Damn! More training! I tried to signal Perez with a game of paper-rock-scissors, but Perez was quite transfixed, taking in DFW’s words as if DFW were Montezuma himself!
With Perez momentarily out of commission, I sat down, situating myself outside of DFW’s direct gaze (lest he take me down with his stare as well). I should note that Agent 99 was one of the few ladies strong enough to resist DFW in spots (though not entirely, for even trusted assassins have their weak spots). A consummate pro from the get-go, it is my professional opinion that Agent 99 should be promoted to more intricate and dangerous levels of espionage.
DFW then told the crowd, “Please feel free to perspire,” and prepared to read his essay, “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s.” He noted that he would not be subscribing to the etiquette of looking up at the crowd while reading because this made him nervous and uncomfortable, and caused him to lose his place. He apologized for this, saying, “I’m very aware that you’re here.” The essay, a reaction to September 11th, had been commissioned for Rolling Stone. DFW noted that because of its swift deadline, it was the fastest thing he had ever written. Initially, he had not cared for it, but years later, in assembling it for Consider the Lobster, he had learned to love it. “The Horror,” used in reference to the planes crashing into towers, was drawn from “Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz.” DFW also noted that he found the store “Kwik-N-EZ” hideous and explained his dismay by carefully noting the dashes and the “EZ.”
During his reading, DFW was, for the most part, a prominent elucidator. His voice shifted between the casual academic tone of a lecturer and, for certain words, a hard Midwestern dialect (“sur-REAL,” “gawn,” “SAWL-ice”). And when reading such phrases as “really looked like,” DFW would clarify with an adorably geeky timbre, the kind of gushing sensation of words caught in the throat that I’m sometimes guilty of. I wasn’t certain if the dialect bristled through because of nervousness or earnestness, but, having previously opined that DFW often came across as “a sincere computer programmer,” I’d conclude that his shoegazing reading approach (and preamble) was likely a way of coming to terms with this uncomfortable process.
I looked around the room as DFW read and did not note a single person over 40. Agent 99 reminded me that this was mostly a young crowd. I was a bit surprised, however, that the crowd was mostly silent or engaged in scattered titters at parts in the essay that I had thought quite funny or revealing or distinctly DFWian. I got the sense that the people in this room had read this essay twice or more, certainly more times than me. They knew every intonation, every sentence, and it seemed as if some of them hoped that DFW would digress. Some of them were rapt, some of them were bored. Perhaps this is typical of a crowd who attends a reading. Or perhaps this was because there were people in this room who had not seen an author in the flesh for some time, if at all.
Eventually, the reading concluded and DFW answered questions.
DFW was asked about the notion of people crying or not crying, according to their abilities, in reaction to the September 11th coverage. What had DFW meant by that?
DFW noted that the September 11th event was unique because it was televisual. This context struck DFW as “extremely weird.” If you cry, you feel gross. If you don’t cry, you’re an insensitive bastard. He compared the September 11th crying to the self-consciousness seen at funerals, noting the “laughs of identification.”
Did Dwayne (a figure in the “Mrs. Thompson” essay) ever read? “Not a big reader,” rejoined DFW. This led to a further question of whether the people that DFW lampooned in his essays ever read his work. DFW responded that what separated his essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’d Never Do Again” from other essays was that he didn’t write about things in which he knew people. He noted that he had not tried to be mean in that essay. When this revelation was followed by dubious laughter from the crowd, he then frowned and found the audience reaction “disturbing.”
DFW then noted that some of the people on the cruise were very nice, while also resembling without question “Jackie Gleason in drag.” He had exchanged postcard correspondence with some of the people. When the essay was published, he never heard from these people again. “I was really naïve,” said DFW. He had somehow formed the idea that nobody was going to read the essay. He also noted that he had found the crew horrible, but not the civilians.
A poorly phrased question was then asked about 9/11 and the “sociological” or “cultural” meaning of it. Presumably, the question was intended to tie into DFW’s essay “E Unibus Pluram.” But DFW offered his “amateur thoughts,” pointing out that one of the main reasons the country had not confronted September 11th in art and culture was because it had been punched in the stomach. The culture had not begun to figure it out or exploit it any way. He found that the media reaction had been “emotionally cool.” The main response has been political, which is unfortunate. He noted that the media reaction came right down to the cameraman’s decision to concentrate upon the falling dots of people leaping off the tower instead of pulling in tight for a closeup, a decision that he found more disturbing. “Am I fucked up?” asked DFW. “Do some people have cleaner hearts?”
There was another question asked which I didn’t quite hear: something about “innocence” and the business side of writing. DFW responded by noting that his entrée into publishing was by complete fluke. With The Broom of the System, DFW rode in on a wave of Brat Pack titles marketed by Vintage Contemporaries, where the “youngness” of the author was a selling point – different now, given that one’s physical attributes are more of a factor. The major advice he had received was to “get an agent, get an agent.” And he had seen the other end of the publishing cycle while working at the Sonora Review, where 500 applications had come in during one semester for a “third-rate” literary journal. The agent then would give DFW a certain credibility to get through that pile.
DFW has had the same agent (Bonnie Nadell) for twenty years. For everything DFW writes, he has a circle of 3-4 people that he clears his work through. Nadell is one of them. Often, Nadell responds to his writing by saying, “David, I really have no idea of what’s going on. Do you want me to send this out?” He compared a good agent with a good therapist. He said that any agent who charged a reading fee was bad.
One of the initial struggles DFW had faced was worshipping the editor for his first two books. Without really going into a specific explanation as to why, there had been a break because DFW didn’t like this sensation.
Agent Perez then asked a question about the Audible essays, asking if the “four hour unabridged” version included footnotes.
This led to some talk about Michael Pietsch (not specifically named) as DFW’s editor. He noted that Pietsch operated against the typical publishing mentality whereby loyal company men end up working with the literary authors they desire. Pietsch makes quite a bit of money, edits music books, and also works closely with Joanna Scott and Rick Moody. There was some talk of the Audible essays being a way to recoup the development costs. But DFW had to cut the footnotes. When reading these, he also didn’t know the precise way to breathe. Further, there was some discussion about altering the sound quality between the footnotes and the texts. But DFW suggested that most people listening to this in their cars, lacking high-end digital audio, would likely not be able to tell the difference and that likely a different voice would be required. Thus, the footnotes had been cut.
As for “Host,” apparently DFW had submitted the whole essay on a giant posterboard. He confessed to being “kind of a dick” about this, but was very happy with the way the Atlantic had found a way to typeset it. He also confessed that it’s “probably a little harder to read than it’s worth.”
There was some talk about where to break sentences and whether there was any value to the idea that if it can’t be read out loud, it wasn’t worth reading. DFW noted that there were two voices: the out loud voice and the brain voice. And he wrote mainly for the brain voice. Apparently, DFW loves going to poetry readings, which opens up a whole new way of parsing text to him. He noted, however, that he had not written any worthwhile poetry himself.
There was some additional info about “Mrs. Thompson.” DFW noted that he was “not comfortable” with the process of writing it because of the quick deadline, because he was getting older and the essay involved all-nighters and making trips to Kinko’s to fax things at 5 AM.
At this point, the questions were over. And a good 70% of the people thronged into a line on the church’s southern side. Agent Perez’s triad had to take their leave for another unexpected assignment, which left Agent 99 and me contemplating just how to fulfill Operation DFW’s objective.
I should note that several weeks ago, I had sent several emails to various publicists (including Pietsch). Many of the publicists were very kind, but it all went to pot. I should also note that I sent a very amicable and humorous letter to the Pomona College English Department with a free drink coupon. It had gone unanswered.
Should I bumrush DFW with the microphone? Should I wait for the entire crowd to get their books signed and then approach him afterward? Should Agent 99 and I take this to a crazed and sociopathic level, kidnapping DFW, Suicide Kings-style, and demand that he answer our questions while bound in duct tape?
Well, fortunately Agent 99 and I had clear heads. Given DFW’s temperament, a pugilistic or aggressive approach was probably not a good idea. But it was essential to go above and beyond Woodward’s efforts and see if DFW was indeed “not doing interviews for this book,” as claimed by Nadell. The one thing that Woodward had failed to do was to approach DFW directly. And I was determined to do just that.
So I waited in line and began to feel slightly nervous. Asking DFW for an interview was a bit like asking the smartest and most attractive women you had ever met out for coffee. But then I realized that it was much better to just be straightforward about the request. After all, the least DFW could say was no.
Eventually, it was my place in line. There were dollops of sweat on my business card. Jesus, did my palms sweat that much? I handed DFW my book and said, “Hello there. I’m sorry to ask this like this. But my name’s Edward Champion. I run a literary blog and a literary podcast. And it never hurts to ask. I realize that you’re reluctant and diffident to give interviews, but I’d like to talk with you about your work. In a respectful manner and in a comfortable location. Even if it’s just 10-15 minutes. Perhaps if you had some time afterwards?”
DFW responded with a slight scowl. To quell my nerves, I partially avoided eye contact, paying attention to the space between his nose and his cheek, just where his beard started. Not so surprisingly, I didn’t get the warm vocal timbre that he delivered to everyone else. DFW said that he had obligations with friends afterwards. I noted again that I understood this, but that I reiterated that I wanted to ask him intelligent questions about his work in a respectful setting.
“It’s not a matter of being respectful,” said DFW. “I’m not against interviews, but I have an agreement with my agent. Further, I really feel that anything I have to say is insipid and that the work speaks for itself.”
I told him that I understood this and that I had seen the Charlie Rose interview, but that I would not be asking him about Clint Eastwood movies. I would be talking with him about Tom LeClair’s academic assessment of his work as “prodigious fiction” and the like. I also pointed out that he probably had more profound things to say than he expected.
In an effort to shuttle me along, DFW suggested that if I could convince his agent to talk with him, then he would gladly talk the next time he came up. I then thanked him and momentarily lost my composure, muttering something about being “a huge fan” before giving him my card.
And thus begins Operation Nadell – a far more arduous assignment. Objective: Convince Nadelll that I’m a guy worth talking to. Although given the revelations to be found in the Woodward article (“seemingly in a hurry to do something else, and answered each of my questions before I finished asking”), the probability is slim. Although Nadell is local and there is a good chance that I might run into her in person.
But here is the question: Is it DFW or Bonnie Nadell that’s keeping DFW from interviews? Is this an effort to give DFW a Pynchon/Salinger-style mystique? Or has DFW really had enough of interviews for good?
[UPDATE: The fetching young lady who asked DFW about “crying abilities” has posted her report and apparently she’s heartbroken. There’s another Haight report here. Also, Counterbalance is offering a serial report on DFW’s L.A. appearance. And if there are any other lengthy reports, please let me know and I’ll update.]