David Foster Wallace Reads. Fans Swoon.
real audio

One of David Foster Wallace's New York readings was in a very small bar that either

a) bit off more than it could chew

b) didn't realize Wallace's popularity


c) wanted to be cool by having 3/4 of the people who showed up left frustrated on the stairs and street outside.

People started arriving two hours ahead of time and the author himself had a hard time getting in.

After the reading, Wallace was mobbed with fans holding out brand new copies of Infinite Jest to be signed. I overheard one woman tell the author she had written to him before, and he never replied. Then she asked him to sign her copy, ''To Spanky Pants." Wallace did.

I asked the following questions out of my own obsessed curiosity. I'm sure they'll also be of interest to Spanky Pants and her ilk. Having read the book is probably a requirement for this to make any sense.

Valerie Stivers: David Foster Wallace:
The length is the one thing that anybody can tell by looking at the book, and hence really appealing to talk about in things like reviews... Its not that [long]. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth was 250 pages longer, came out two years ago . [Joseph] McElroy's Women and Men [is] longer than this book.

[Q.] "So, how'd you write such a long book?"
[A.] "Well, you wouldn't believe it, but I wrote it all in one sitting. I had a catheter, and I had a drip in one arm."

I mean, how do you answer that question...You do it for a while, with a long book, you just don't stop as soon.

Where did you start? Page one.
What was the last thing you wrote before starting Infinite Jest?

       real audio

I did an essay for Harper's about playing tennis when I was a little boy. Originally I [wrote it] for a book of essays about the midwest. That was in October or November of '91. I hadn't written any fiction for publication for, like, four years before I started that. Harper's always fucks with my titles. The thing at Harper's was called "Tennis, Trigonometry, and Tornadoes." It's funny because Sven [Birkerts, who reviewed Jest in The Atlantic Monthly] saw that essay for all these autobiographical references in the book. It was actually kind of naive of him, when in fact, the names I was using were names that were already in my head 'cause I was starting to think about the book. There was some fiction in that essay.
So the reference to Antitoi being your best friend? There was no such person. I needed a fake name for this poor guy. It's also really sloppy of me—"Oh, I'll just use this name again in a book, no one will notice..." But it was an odd moment of naivetë on Sven's part—Sven's usually very cunning.
Have you read the OED? I have read the OED, but I have a vastly abridged version of the OED. I wouldn't say that I've read it all. When I was 13 I decided to try to get through it all and I got continuously up through K and then I began to skim. Unlike Hal, I do not remember it all, nor could I spout etymologies. Our family is weird. We would collect words—both my parents are huge readers. Whatever autobiographical stuff in the book is enhanced and, through some coincidence, slightly more impressive.
How do you know all these things about how to break into houses?

real audio

There [are] enormous amounts of information out there; the question is, how is it to be deployed. Fiction's job isn't just to list the information, but to show the information being used, to make it plausible, contextual. Then (the information has) a taste to it. Yeah. I learned a lot.

I would go to halfway houses and just sit there. I lurked a lot. Nice thing about halfway houses is they are real run-down and real sloppy and you can just sit around. And the more you sit around looking uncomfortable and out of place, the more it looks like you belong there. Some of the people knew this [breaking and entering] stuff very well and they loved to talk about it. And nobody is as talkative as a drug addict who just had his drugs taken away. They are eager to tell you their life [stories].

Who is F.P. Foster? My mother's father, who died before I was born.
Shameless Fan Moment:
David Foster Wallace and tooth brushing:
If you chew tobacco, you get real interested in tooth brushing. My grandfather was a dentist. There was a lot more dental trivia in the first draft of the book. [My editor] pointed out that the stereo chemistry of the bicuspid root was probably not of compelling interest to most readers.
Back Up Talk!