Q&A: David Lipsky

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace follows Wallace in conversation for five days with novelist and journalist David Lipsky, who was assigned to profile the Infinite Jest author at the height of the mania over the book. The piece never ran and the interview was shelved, though parts of it would emerge in a feature Lipsky wrote on Wallace for Rolling Stone in October 2008, shortly after his suicide.

There are plenty of reminders online of Wallace’s quick wit, his willingness to interrogate just about anything for its intellectual value, and his habit of turning questions back on an interviewer to calibrate his own responses. Although of Course is especially intimate, though, a function of the fact that Wallace and Lipsky are captive to each other in ways few interviewers and subjects are, sharing cars, restaurant booths, and planes. (Nobody has more fun flipping through a SkyMall catalog than Wallace.) It’s a fascinating, busy book that says a lot about where a famous novelist was at in 1996, and a lot too about where he thought art and culture were going—predictions that could be surprisingly spot-on. (Disclaimer: I think I come by my admiration for the book honestly, but Lipsky and I have had enough friendly exchanges that my recommendation isn’t entirely unbiased; I’d decline an assignment to review the book.)

Lipsky answered questions via email about his experience with Wallace, what got left out of the book, and how he felt looking back at a 14-year-old conversation.

The book’s title comes from a statement Wallace makes about parenting—the notion that children develop their own personalities regardless of how much direction they get from their parents. What appealed to you about that line so much that you used it as a title?

First, as parenting advice, it’s sharp and an energy-saver: kids will become who they’re going to become. Second, it felt like advice from David to the reader: you’ll have to deal, at a certain point, with who you do become. Last, I hope the book is a way for readers to spend time with David, hear him tell the story of how he became David Foster Wallace. In a sense literally. Growing up, he was David Wallace. Then, at 24, he was standing in an agent’s office. “And that’s when Fred decided my name would be ‘David Foster Wallace,’” he says. “Because ‘David Raines Wallace’ wrote for The New Yorker.”

So when I read it, that line seemed beautiful and very apt and like the title. This is his life in David’s words—from being a kid (“I have all these weird early memories. I remember my parents reading Ulysses out loud to each other in bed, in this really cool way, holding hands and both loving something really fiercely”) to how he turned into the person who wrote the books: the essays, stories, Infinite Jest. What I love most is it’s also the sound—David calls this the “brain voice”—of his books: warm, incredibly alive, modest and funny about himself. “I didn’t know whether I really loved to write or whether I’d just gotten excited about having some early success,” David says. “It’s the only thing I’ve gotten, you know, food pellets from the universe for, to the extent that I wanted.” Infinite Jest was different. Other books, he’d engaged in some preemptive expectation-rigging: “Doing this, ‘All right, I’ll work at like three-quarter speed, and then I can always figure that if I just hadn’t been a fuckup, the book coulda been really good.’ You know that defense system? You write the night before, and if it doesn’t get a great grade, you know it could’ve been better.” The novel he went full-out. “I decided this is a little experiment. I was going to do it for the sake of the book. Fuck it. If I couldn’t even sell it, fuck it. . . And I feel like I’ve built some muscles inside me that I can now use for the rest of my life. And I feel like, ‘All right, I’m a writer now.’ Whether I’m a successful writer or not, I don’t know. But like this is who I am, this is what I do.”

The conversation in the book occasionally dissolves into ellipses and bracketed summaries. Why didn’t the material you trimmed/paraphrased quite rise to the level of full inclusion?

I scissored some of my dialog—stuff I squinted at as a reader, thinking what I’d want, which is: more from David.

In the book, we take a five-day trip as he finishes promoting his novel. (He’s been “sleepwalking through” the tour; he’s edgy about the impressions cycling back via delayed reaction. “There’s a difference between short-term, people-based anxiety. And sort of deep, existential, you know, fear, that you feel kind of all the way down to your butthole. And that’s…that’s what I’ll have when I’m alone.”)

We head to Chicago, Minneapolis, back to his house and his dogs. And spend the whole time talking—an incredible thing to be part of. David is such a natural writer he talks in prose: spitting chewing tobacco, finding the defrost, smoking with the car windows down (he calls it our hypothermia smoking tour of the Midwest), and what keeps coming out is prose. I wanted the book to give readers that experience, without me (David #2) getting too much in the way. So when a question of mine ran long, or I have a complicated point to make, I thought I’d spare readers the length and complication.

I’m there, mostly, to be the anti-nutritionist who orders a burger deluxe at the airport restaurant very early, so David can lift his eyebrows and say, “I’m not even going to start on the idea of eating a hamburger at 7:00 in the morning. The idea is you eat eggs, which are kind of a latent form, as your body is itself awakening. It makes a lot of sense. Because you are the food, and you’re supposed to eat stuff that’s nice to you.” To be the surprised and woozy guest in the kitchen—he talked very late the night before—as David speaks to his dogs about vitamins. “We’re going to give him some right now, because it looks like he’s starting to feel a little poorly.” “You give vitamins to your dogs?” “No, you. You can’t burn the candle at both ends, man. You’re not getting enough sleep, you’re not eating right, working too hard. On the go.”

(David, in addition to being a gracious, vitamin-providing host, is comically and charmingly self-conscious: “I’m just worried I’m going to look like one of those insane old women who talk to their dogs.”)

You decided to interject a fair amount of personal commentary, noting your observations about Wallace’s conversational tics, his tone, and especially your sense of how he’s trying to persuade your feelings toward him. Did you struggle with how much of that to include? I’m sure there are plenty of Wallace fans who would’ve just preferred the unadulterated text, and a more complete transcription.

I did struggle—I basically wanted just enough so there’d be scene-setting (we’re in his living room, we’re at the mall) and sound-setting (there’s ice under the wipers, here’s how David’s voice sounds), but not so much the action gets obstructed. I wanted it to feel immediate. This is pretty much everything David talked about for five days.

There are two or three spots where he asked me not to tape. The writing class he teaches (where he gives students two pieces of advice; one deadpan, “To have the narrator be funny and smart, have him say funny, smart things some of the time,” one absolutely solid: “What’s interesting to me may not be to you”); his friend’s house, where we watch TV. One great demonstration David’s work makes is the power of directness: asking yourself why you feel what you do, then saying it. With his friends, we watch a movie that stars a person David knew and disliked in college. One friend asks why. “He was just very cool and popular,” David says, “and I wasn’t, was the basic offense. To be honest.” (It’s like the thing Fitzgerald says—Fitzgerald is writing about himself in the third person—about his surprise at finding a wide readership “simply for telling people that he felt as they did.”) And then I took notes when David does an NPR appearance. He’s walking past the soundboard, the NPR guy says, “Were going to record digitally. I hope that’s OK.” David says, “So only yes and no answers?” It kind of stopped my breath; he was so amazingly fast.

During your (I believe) second morning with Wallace we read about you getting a bit of guidance from Rolling Stone HQ to bring up talk about his past use of drugs and alcohol, but overall the conversation seems pretty free-flowing. Did you have much in the way of marching orders from the magazine, specific questions that you needed to address? (I ask in part because the conversation you two have about contemporary music is a rare moment where the discussion feels a little stiff and dutiful.)

You’re right, that’s the second morning, and it became a rough conversation. I’ll just dispute one thing, because the music talk has one of my favorite moments. David’s talking about radio—and suddenly it becomes this brilliant spoken mini-essay about pop. Living in downstate Illinois, he says, you’re stuck listening to a lot of country music. “Because that’s like pretty much all there is, when you’re tired of listening to Green Day on the one college station. And these country musics that are just so—you know, ‘Baby since you’ve left I can’t live, I’m drinking all the time.’ And I remember just being real impatient with it. Until I’d been living here about a year. And all of a sudden I realized, what if you just imagined that this absent lover they’re singing to is just a metaphor? And what they’re really singing to is themselves, or to God, you know? ‘Since you’ve left I’m so empty I can’t live, my life has no meaning.’ That in a weird way, they’re incredibly existentialist songs. That have the patina of the absent, of the romantic shit on it, just to make it salable. . . But that if you cock your ear and listen real close—that it’s deep, you know?. . . That we find, that art finds a way to take care of you, and take part. Kind of despite itself.”

So you’re right, there wasn’t much from-New York direction. I wanted to talk about what he wanted to talk about. I also knew I wanted to ask about music and movies—because he was a writer I really loved, and it’s hard to imagine writers you love ducking the same bad songs or being thrilled by the same crap TV as you. He told me he’d loved some songs so much he taped them off the radio—a sly little economy from the pre-digital age I’d forgotten. And he was very funny about music (“I have the musical tastes of a thirteen year-old girl… I am a bonehead who listens to the radio”) and sharp about movies (“Tarantino is such a schmuck 90 percent of the time, but ten percent of the time, I’ve seen genius shining off the guy”), even about a pop star like Alanis Morissette: “She’s pretty, but she’s pretty in a sloppy, very human way. A lot of women in magazines are pretty in a way that isn’t erotic because they don’t look like anybody you know. You can’t imagine them putting a quarter in a parking meter or eating a bologna sandwich.”

And then the music talk led to this ministerial surprise. “The Alanis Morissette obsession followed the Melanie Griffith obsession. It was preceded by something that I will tell you that I got teased a lot for, which was a terrible Margaret Thatcher obsession. All through college: posters of Margaret Thatcher, and ruminations on Margaret Thatcher.” I asked if it was sexual. “Sensuous, perhaps. It more involved—having tea with Margaret Thatcher. Having her really enjoy something I said, lean forward, and cover my hand with hers.” It was such an extraordinary conversation I was happy to follow anyplace he wanted to go.

Wallace seems very anxious about the interview early on, stepping out of himself regularly to analyze how his statements will appear in the magazine. (Disturbingly, he seems to have a nervous tic where he casually makes statements along the line of, “If I had to do this, I’d blow my brains out.”) He seems more relaxed with you by the end, but he’s still referring to how his statements will play in the magazine. What was your sense of his changing comfort levels as the days went on?

That was my sense of it too. It was nice, once the book was over, to read it and see us get more used to each other. It’s a tricky thing, touring for five days with a stranger. The book more or less follows a Henry Ford road trip equation: any two people will become comfortable with each other if they have to travel a distance in excess of forty miles.

In the beginning, I think he was sizing me up. We’re having gigantic slabs of pizza, he looks under the table where I’m jiggling my leg: “You’re a nervous fellow, aren’t you?” And he was shy. “I think being shy,” he says, “basically means being self-absorbed to the extent that it makes it difficult to be around other people. For instance, if I’m hanging out with you, I can’t even tell whether I like you or not, because I’m too worried about whether you like me. And I have elements of that shyness in me.”

But the first day, there’s a lot of arguing. He looks at me right before we finish up and says, “I don’t know whether you’re a very nice man or not.” Not the easiest thing to hear from someone you admire.

We didn’t get the “virtual reality pornography” that Wallace predicted we’d now have, but he makes some very observant statements about what role of the Internet would play, particularly in how it would become more adept at guiding us toward curated content, advertising, etc. In 1996, how sensible did his patter on that subject seem? Did he come off to you as insightful? Cynical?

You’re right, we didn’t get the first-person raunch stuff (David worries that when it arrives, “I don’t know about you, but I’m gonna to have to leave the planet”). But things like YouPorn are close—free porn piped into every internet home 24 hours a day, so now you have support groups for people who have the clammy misfortune of becoming addicted to that.

Reading the book, I’m shocked at how much he guesses right. He got our current politics right. He guessed how broadcast would fold itself into digital cable and then slip into on-demand and the web. And emailing or texting where everybody used to pick up the phone, because a text is so much more limited and easier to control. There’s a food delivery service where I live in New York called Seamless. If it feels slightly too rocky to place a call for take-out, this lets you handle the entire transaction by keyboard: you don’t have to interact with another human until the warm bag arrives at your door. David saw that coming too: “What has happened that I’m now willing—and I do this too—that I’m willing to derive enormous amounts of my sense of community and awareness of other people, from television? But I’m not willing to undergo the stress and awkwardness and potential shit of dealing with real people. And that as the internet grows, and as our ability to be linked up. . . Like, at a certain point, we’re gonna have to build some machinery, inside our guts, to help us deal with this. Because the technology is just gonna get better and better and better and better. And it’s gonna get easier and easier, and more and more convenient, and more and more pleasurable, to be alone with images on a screen, given to us by people who do not love us but want our money.”

(At the time, he didn’t have email in his house. “If I can get out,” he says, “they can get in.”)

And he was very optimistic about the reading future; he knew books would need to change. “You’re talking about nobody will be trained to read the way we read. Which means that if people are reading in more short bursts or whatever, that art will find a way to form conversations with readers in the brain voice or vernacular that they’ve got. But I mean—Jesus, if the thing made the jump from oral, you know, jongleur ballad, to printed text, then I think it can…There’s stuff that really good fiction can do that other forms of art can’t do as well. And the big things seems to be, sort of leaping over that wall of self. And the trick is gonna be finding a way to do it at a time, and for a generation, whose relation to long sustained linear verbal communication is fundamentally different.”

And as you said, he guessed exactly right about the web—about aggregators like Huffington Post, about the really best web things getting collected and bumped to the top of the queue. “Because this idea that the Internet’s gonna become incredibly democratic? I mean, if you’ve spent any time on the web, you know that it’s not gonna be, because that’s completely overwhelming. There are four trillion bits coming at you, 99 percent of them are shit, and it’s too much work to do triage to decide. So it’s very clearly, very soon there’s gonna be an economic niche opening up for gatekeepers. You know? Or, what do you call them, Wells, or various nexes. Not just of interest but of quality. And then things get real interesting. And we will beg for those things to be there. . .I tell you, there’s no single more interesting time to be alive on the planet Earth than in the next twenty years.”

As the days go on, Wallace gets much more comfortable shutting off your tape recorder and going off the record. Without disclosing what exactly was discussed, were there differences in the tenor of those conversations? Is off-the-record Wallace substantially different than witty, hyperobservant on-the-record Wallace?

Mostly when he’s turning the recorder off, it’s because he wants to stop and draft out an answer. It’s also the way he says he worked. “I do six to eight drafts of everything that I do. I am probably not the smartest writer going. But I work really really hard.” He’d pause and say, “I gotta be clear on this.” So we’d talk, the thought and phrasing would come to him, he’d switch the machine back on. It was fascinating and exciting – like getting to watch him at the desk.

So no. It’d maybe be a relief (we’ve all got our internal anxieties, and nobody completely minds when the best quarterback slips) to say differently. I don’t think there was very much he could do about being witty and hyperobservant.

The climax of the book, for me, seems to come about two-thirds of the way through, when Wallace shuts off the tape recorder and asks you to stop talking—at a moment when you’re calling him on affecting a persona for the sake of the interview. (Even though he’d just confessed he was doing some of that.) It’s the only point when there appears to be a pointed silence between the two of you, and that he was actually mad at you. Can you characterize some of the discomfort there? Did it change the tenor of the rest of the interview?

It was a terrible moment; it’s the place in the book where I like myself least. David handled it very graciously.

That moment finishes something you mentioned earlier—the discussion about David trying to manage his listeners’ impressions. “Part of the shyness for me,” he says, “is it’s very easy for me to play this game of, What do you want? What will the effect of this be on you? You know? It’s this kind of mental chess. Which in personal intercourse? Makes things very difficult. But in writing…” We’re on the highway, and he’s decided to explain why he does that—and, to show I’m keeping up, I point out that he’s still doing it. I think him just switching off the machine was right, the most eloquent thing. So for the last half-hour of the trip, we just sat in the dark, mumble-singing to the radio. It felt hot and bad. On top of everything else, he’d been so kind. (“My spare blanket is your spare blanket,” he says, “my Pop-tart es su Pop-tart.”) Years later, I can remember the exact feeling—that smarting, why fullness in the chest—plus a surprise at my ungenerosity. When I read it, I wanted to lodge a protest against myself.

Then we parked at his house, walked his dogs, and I think David put it out of his mind. The next, last day is when he tells me how he worked, about the tiny, snowed-in house in Syracuse (“when I would want to write, I would have to put all the stuff from the desk on the bed. And when I would want to sleep…”), the great story about the Auburndale health club, the lovely thing on the back of the book about how people ought to treat each other and themselves. Which is part of what I mean about his level of kindness.

How did you react to some of the other interviews with Wallace that made the rounds after you had to abandon your piece? I’m specifically curious what you thought of the New York Times Magazine profile, which seemed to take a lot of what you and Wallace discussed but shaped Wallace into a caricature.

I don’t know—David says he feels he’s hard to interview. So I’m sure the writer of that piece did the best job he could with the material he had. I also think that profile gives a good idea of the shock of David: when his novel came out, all over the city, everyone was talking about him. And New York, in a way, prefers being an exporter to an importer of culture—and David had crashed in from outside, from the Midwest, which compounded the impact. I think what the piece shows is the city getting used to him.

What I’ve responded to more is stuff since David died. It’s in the opening of the book. Suicide has an event gravity; eventually everybody’s impressions get tugged in its direction. It’s such a hard end it reaches back and scrambles the beginning. The way I understand his last year and a half is as a medical error. (At the last meeting of his fiction class, he choked up. Students assumed he was joking. “Go ahead and laugh—here I am crying—but I really am going to miss all of you.”) I talked with David’s friends and family, and he was about the liveliest person they’d ever known. He was the voice you hear in the books—as brilliant, teasing, charming and kind a person as you could imagine. When the writer Mary Karr talks about him, he has the sound of a man on an information safari. “Data went into his mind, and it would just shoot off sparks. Wildly funny, unbelievable wattage, such a massive interest in and curiosity about his place in the world…He was just constantly devouring the universe.” I wanted the book to have that—to be about what he was like when he was alive.