David Foster Wallace

The author David Foster Wallace 85, a towering figure in modern literature, died on Sept. 12, 2008. Best known for his novel Infinite Jest, Wallace received an honorary degree from Amherst in 1999.

That year, Amherst magazine writer Stacey Schmeidel interviewed Wallace by mail. The feature-length Q & A, titled "Brief Interview With a Five Draft Man," ran in the Spring 1999 issue of the magazine, and is reprinted here:

1) This interview-by-mail is an unusual medium for an Amherst magazine interview. From your perspective, what are the benefits of presenting you and your work to readers this way?

I am a Five Draft man. I actually learned this at Amherst, in William Kennick’s Philosophy 17 and 18, with their brutal paper-every-two-weeks schedules. I got down a little system of writing and two rewrites and two typed drafts. I’ve used it ever since. I like it. My problem with most interviews is that they’re terribly first-draftish. If an interview question is even remotely interesting, it’s going to be hard to answer it briefly. I always wish they’d let me scuttle into the next room and do five drafts and come back out. This way, unless it turns out your deadline’s real short, I can do five drafts. Actually this is better for everybody, because the more drafts I have the more succinct I can be (usually).

2) You were a talented tennis player and an outstanding student at Urbana High School in Illinois. What brought you to Amherst?

I was a marginally talented tennis player as a teenager. I got hurt freshman year (Sp. ’81), but I probably wouldn’t have made the Amherst varsity anyway; there were at least two other freshmen who were clearly better than I. People tend to think I’m a better player than I really am. Nor was I an outstanding student in high school. I wasn’t anywhere near the top of my class, anyway. I was sort of too much a jock to be a really first-rate student and a little too nerdy to make a good jock.

My father is an Amherst alumnus, and he also teaches at a big public university. The sum total of his college-application advice was that small liberal arts schools tended to be better for undergrads. So I visited several small LAS schools, of which Amherst was one. What I hadn’t known was that if you were the child of an alumnus, the Admissions guy would tell you right in the interview whether they’d take you or not. [Editor’s note: This no longer is true.] This is a huge perk, it seems to me, given the amount of hand-wringing and knuckle-biting my high-school classmates had to go through. Anyway, this perk, plus a laziness that made me not even bother applying anyplace else, is what brought me to Amherst.

3) How will people who knew you at Amherst remember you?

4) How do you remember Amherst? What are the experiences—in and out of the classroom—that shape those memories?

5) Similarly, what aspects of your Amherst education served you best? And what are the things about Amherst that, in hindsight, disappoint you?

I don’t know that many would remember me at all. For one thing, I had a tendency to take semesters off and stay home, so I started out as ’84 and ended as ’85. For another thing, I was cripplingly shy at Amherst. I wasn’t in a fraternity and didn’t go to parties and didn’t have much to do with the life of the College. I had a few very close friends and that was it. I studied all the time. I mean literally all the time. I was one of those people they had to flicker the lights of Frost Library to get out of there on Friday nights who’d be out there right after brunch on Sunday waiting on the steps for them to open the doors.

There were happy reasons for all this studying, and sad reasons. It was at Amherst, with its high expectations and brilliant profs and banzai workload, that I loved to read and write and think. In many ways I came alive there. But I was always terrified. Amherst terrified me—the beauty of it, the tradition, the elitism, the expense. But it was less Amherst than me: I was a late bloomer and still deeply in adolescence when I entered college. I had an adolescent’s radical self-absorption, and my particular self-absorption manifested as terror and inadequacy. This is the sad part. The same obsessive studying that helped me come alive also kept me dead: it was a way to hide from people, to try to earn—through ‘achievement’ or whatever—permission to be at Amherst that I was too self-centered to realize I’d already received when they accepted me.

So ‘the things about Amherst that, in hindsight, disappoint [me]’ are things not about Amherst but about who I was when I was there. I let almost no one know me, and I lost the chance to know and learn from most of my peers. It took years after I’d graduated from Amherst to realize that people were actually far more complicated and interesting than books, that almost everyone else suffered the same secret fears and inadequacies as I, and that feeling alone and inferior was actually the great valent bond between us all. I wish I’d been smart enough to understand that when I was an adolescent.

6) You did two honor theses at Amherst. What on earth were you thinking?

My very best friend at Amherst, Mark Costello ’84, had done two the year before, one a piece of fiction. So there was precedent. Plus I was having a hard time deciding whether to go to grad school in philosophy or writing, and it seemed like a good idea to try doing sustained work in both and seeing which I liked better. (The option of not going to grad school at all didn’t occur to me; that’s how much an academic brat I was at the time.) Plus I didn’t exactly have huge demands on my time during senior year, since most of my closest friends had graduated the spring before. Anyway, it turns out that a thesis isn’t any more work than two hard classes—and we got one class per semester off for thesis work. The trick was starting early, in September instead of February. I’d watched several friends put themselves through hell the year before by futzing around the first semester, so I started early, and it wasn’t that hard.

7) Amherst is an institution that places a high value on the written word. Your writing is consistently singled out for its distinctive voice. To what extent was your writing style influenced by the courses you took and by the professors and students you met at Amherst? (Also, what influences outside of Amherst do you credit with shaping your style?)

Praise is always nice, but I don’t really feel like there’s anything terribly distinctive or original about the ‘voice’ of my stuff. Most of the modern writing I like the best is both sophisticated and colloquial—that is, high-level and complicated but at the same time intimate, sort of like a smart person is sitting right there talking to you—and I think I do little more than try to achieve this same high-low blend. Just having to write paper after paper—more writing my freshman year at Amherst than I’d done in three years of high school—and having first-rate adult minds respond to my stuff (I can still remember the wonderfully dry acerbic little comments that profs like [William] Kennick and [John] Cameron and [Alan] Parker and [Dale] Peterson would put in the margins when I tried to BS or be too cute)… all this helps.

8) Can you talk about your writing process? When/were/how do you write? Do you rewrite?

Well, like I said, I am a Five Draft man… the first two of these drafts are pen-and-paper, which is a bit old-fashioned, but other than that I don’t think there’s anything very distinctive about my work habits. I fluctuate between periods of terrible sloth and paralysis and periods of high energy and production, but from what I know about other writers this isn’t unusual. Work-wise, my only real distinction is that I am incredibly fast and accurate two-finger typist, the best I’ve ever heard of (another skill honed at A.C.).

9) Amherst magazine likes to profile alumni whose work has had an impact on the world outside of Amherst. How would you describe the impact of your work? (That may be a two-part question: What kind of impact do you hope your work will have as you’re creating it? And what do you think the actual impact has been?) And how do you measure the success of your work?

Sneaky, Ms. S.: this question actually comprises more than two subquestions. And unfortunately this is all stuff that I’ve discovered it’s in my own best interests not to think much about. ‘Impact’ is tricky because it has so much to do with interpretation and fashion (which phenomena are far from independent of each other). Plus plain luck: the fact that you’ve got to find first an agent and then an editor and then an editor’s publishing co. who not only like your stuff but believe it to be ‘viable’—which in 1999 America means salable in sufficient numbers to permit an approximate 7-percent net profit—before you even get to consider something like ‘impact’ the way Q9’s using it. And I know way too many fine and serious writers who haven’t been able to get anything published to be able to regard the whole process as anything much more than a lottery. Then, if your thing does get published, and if some combination of cultural kismet and corporate hype garners it an audience, you get to discover how extremely remote people’s takes on your work are from anything you had in mind when you were working on it, plus how little whatever they feel and think about the work’s author has to do with you as you know and experience yourself…

I’ve hit on an effective way to handle all this schizogenic stuff, which is to keep the whole thing at a very simple level, roughly a level/vocabulary that an average U.S. fifth-grader can understand. I want my work to be good. I want to like it. This is the only part that has anything to do with me. I can’t make it have an ‘impact’ on anybody else. This doesn’t mean I can’t hope it has one, but I can’t do anything to guarantee it, or even to cause it. All I can do is make something as good as I can make it (this is the sort of fact that’s both banal and profound), and promise myself that I’ll never try to publish anything I myself don’t think is good or finished. I used to have far more complex and sophisticated ways of thinking about ‘impact,’ but they always left me with my forehead against the wall.

10) You’ve received attention for both fiction and non-fiction work. What do you see as the merits and drawbacks of each genre?

I think of myself as a fiction writer. The nonfiction thing is a result of a patronage of a Harper’s editor named Colin Harrison who in the early ‘90s started dreaming up marvelous little experiential assignments for me, mostly I think to keep me alive (I was really, really poor in the early ‘90s, though this was mostly my own fault), and then also helped shape them, etc., and they got a good response, etc. etc. And the interesting thing about the U.S. magazine industry is that it runs almost entirely on Herd Instinct, so that if one or two things in Harper’s turn out well, editors at all sorts of other magazines start calling and pitching prose-intensive experiential non-fiction assignments, and even if you take only one in a hundred of these offers (offers that flood in during the interval in which you are considered ‘hot’ by a couple dozen editors who must surely go through one another’s mail), there are still enough for a book pretty quickly… especially considering that magazines will always (a) lavishly overpay you and then (b) feel free to chop and mangle the hell out of your piece before it runs, ignoring your squeaks of protest because it turns out the lavish payment in (a) bout them the right to chop and mangle, which everyone in the Industry appears to understand but you.

11) Much of your work has to do with our seemingly insatiable need for instant gratification through passive enjoyment of entertainment. Can you talk about the challenges of looking critically at entertainment media while also trying to provide an experience that is—at base level, anyway—entertaining? Why do you choose this medium to deliver this message?

Unanswerable within the constraints of a condensed back-and-forth like this (see Q14).

12) Do you read reviews of your work?

It’s tempting to. It’s also tempting to try and eavesdrop on people who are talking about you and don’t think you can hear them. But you almost always get your feelings hurt if you eavesdrop like this. It’s the same way with reviews. It took me a while to figure out that reviews of my work are not for me. They’re for potential book-buyers. I have a nice tight established circle of friends and associates I can send stuff to and get honest critical response that helps me make the stuff better. By the time the stuff is published, though, anything I hear about it amounts to me eavesdropping.

13) What writers move you?

The question’s verb is tricky. I regard Cynthia Ozick, Cormac McCarthy, and Don DeLillo as pretty much the country’s best living fiction writers (with Joanna Scott and Richard Powers and Denis Johnson and Steve Erickson being the cream of the country’s Younger crop). But that’s no quite what you’re asking. I’m not sure I want to respond to what you’re asking. ‘Move’ is tricky. I heard all kinds of sneery stuff about the book Bridges of Madison Country when it came out, and joined in the sneering, and then saw the movie version on an airplane and bawled my head off at the end, which was mortifying. I find the part of It’s a Wonderful Life when Jimmy Stewart is yelling at Donna Reed that he doesn’t want to get married and stuck in dreary airless little Beford Falls and at the same time hugging her and kissing on her and crying and saying ‘Mara, Mara!’ tremendously moving. I find the end of Lord of the Rings when Frodo says ‘I have been too badly wounded, Sam’ moving. Etc.

There’s some top-shelf literary fiction I find moving—David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress is one, and Power’s Operation Wandering Soul—but it’s more a more complicated kind of ‘moving’ because this stuff involves cerebration and aesthetic apprehension and so on. Cerebration may produce a richer and more sophisticated kind of ‘moving’ but it’s not the kind of stomach-punching emotion I guess I associate with ‘move.’ The truth is I don’t think I’ve ever found anything as purely ‘moving’ as the end of The Velveteen Rabbit when I first read it.

14) What’s the one question you always wish interviews would ask?

There really aren’t any. The problem with interviews (including even very considerate ones where you let me write answers out instead of just saying them) is that no truly interesting question can be satisfactorily answered within the formal constraints (viz. magazine-space, radio-time, public decorum) of an interview. At least that’s what I end up feeling. It kind of puzzles me that people seem so keen on asking fiction writers straightforward interview-type questions, since if the fiction writers really thought interesting stuff could be talked about straightforwardly they probably wouldn’t have become fiction writers.

15) What were your aspirations when you left Amherst? And what are they today?

This is a good example of the Q14 phenomenon. Questions like this almost demand a quick pithy burst of pious methane. The fact that we’d need four pages of back-and-forth to nail down exactly what you mean by ‘aspirations’ before I could even start trying to answer you… and this would not be pithy or brief or probably even very interesting to anybody else. I’m 99+ percent sure you’d have the same problem if somebody asked you, Ms. S., the question in any kind of compressed public forum. Why do we do these sorts of things to one another?