D.T. Max almost approached David Foster Wallace at a book release party, but ended up getting cold feet. It was only after writing an entire book about the famed recluse that Max could be sure he made the right choice in holding back. Two things became abundantly clear during his research: DFW didn't exactly relish interaction with strangers, and other writers made him feel competitive and defensive.
The notoriously private author was even closed off from friends and family. That's why Every Love Story is a Ghost Story (Penguin) became a collaborative endeavor between Max and those who also yearned to understand the literary icon in the wake of his 2008 suicide. People wanted to share what they knew about David's inner life beyond the hints they garnered from an oeuvre of incredibly personal novels, short stories and essays.
"They wanted to know more... and I think that was sort of a stronger force in the end than sort of the trauma around the suicide," says Max about conducting interviews for the book. "In that sense, it was sort of like a memorial service."
Max will join other biographers and memoirists on Saturday morning for a conversation at the Miami Book Fair International. Before the event, he spoke with Cultist about David's one-and-only Florida experience, which is catalogued in the classic essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." He also clued us into the pleasure of writing a biography on a contemporary subject.
Why was the thought of doing "absolutely nothing" on a cruise ship so traumatic for David?
It seems pretty obvious that being pulled out of his routines was anxiety provoking, as was being put in the midst of people who could have fun. Obviously the cruise ship piece was an opportunity to objectify people as happier and more normal. So the particular structure of the cruise ship gave him the perfect opportunity to turn his personal anxiety into a sort of societal unease or dis-ease, and he does it beautifully because the cruise ship touches on one of the great themes he'd been working on [which is] reviewing Joseph Franks' four or five volume Dostoevsky biography, which he publishes in the Village Voice that summer. So he's inside this very somber investigation about Dostoevsky of all people as he's writing notes on the cruise ship.
And you can see that the contrast is really perfect. He's almost like Dostoevsky sitting there thinking these thoughts about the impiety of all these people who are surrounding him.
What would David have thought of Florida?
Would he have liked the sort of multi-cultural aspect of Miami, the music? Who knows? Certainly it would be a possibility. He had a tendency to be interested in that kind of thing. But David wasn't a big traveler. I think that the cruise ship part of Miami would be the easy target for him. But would he have had interest in other parts of it? It's hard to know. I think he would have found Miami Beach interesting in sort of its earlier incarnations and probably highly toxic in its current one. The kind of Miami Beach that gets on the cover of Interview magazine would have been anxiety provoking for him.
He was a complicated guy and it wouldn't be surprising for him to find Florida insufficiently intellectual. But David wasn't really after that. He was after some other sort of authenticity of spirit. Miami has so many aspects to it. The tourist aspect would probably have not appealed to him. On the other hand, he loved tennis. I was totally surprised when he liked and didn't like when he traveled. He would certainly have been terrified of the sharks. That's a given. I don't think he was a fan of the water.
Why did you think it was so important to write a biography about David so soon after his death?
One was that he was my contemporary, and I've never never been drawn to writing biographies about people who are older than me, because I think you could slip into an easy historicism and nostalgia. When I wrote about David, I also had the opportunity to write about my times.
Because David died so young, I think -- and I could be wrong -- that it's the only biography written about this time period, set against Jethro Tull as your childhood rock, and Jaws as your childhood movie, and 80s cynicism as the formative verbal form of your 20s. You cant write a biography about John Updike and expect that, or a biography about Toni Morrison. That's not the world they grew up in.
And second, I felt David was a once-in-whatever individual. The more I learned about him, the more excited I got about writing about him. It wasn't that he experienced things so stunningly different from the rest of us, but he was always more intense, I think. He never took anything for granted. Every morning he got up and tried to figure out questions that most people sort of lay to the side like, "How do I be an authentic person?"
Who else begins their life as a kind of shallow, starfucking muse (by his own description) and has this conversion but doesn't miraculously wind up converted to religion itself? When most people convert to religion, that's when the interesting writing ends. But David converts to a kind of humanistic faith, which I find kind of beautiful and stunning. And that's my faith. So many people have kind of gotten into this sort of humanistic triumph through David, and that strikes me as a very important thing to write about, more important to write about even than David's life.
I do think that in an era when so many people are reluctant to declare their affinities and aspirations, when people are very shy to express that there's anything more that they want besides the latest iPhone or whatever, he had the courage to raise his head up and say "No, there's gotta be something more." And how can you resist that as another writer? That sounds like a character being created for another writer to write about.
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Max speaks at 1 p.m. this Saturday, Nov. 23, alongside Elizabeth Winder and Greg Bellow. Admission is free. Visit miamibookfair.com.
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