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Author Q&A: D.T. Max on the life of David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace mid-’90s around time his novel “Infinite Jest” was published became best seller. | Sun-Times files

David Foster Wallace in the mid-’90s, around the time his novel “Infinite Jest” was published and became a best seller. | Sun-Times files

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Local appearance

D.T. Max will discuss and sign “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace,” 7 p.m. Oct. 11 at the Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln.

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Updated: November 8, 2012 6:06AM

Author D.T. Max began work on his recently published biography of the late author David Foster Wallace (“Infinite Jest,” “The Pale King”) not long after Wallace’s 2008 suicide by hanging, when “the grief was still fresh.”

An outgrowth of a Wallace profile Max penned for the New Yorker, where he’s a staff writer, “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story” (Viking, $27.95) delves deeper into the tortured psyche of a man with tremendous gifts and equally tremendous self-doubt. Wallace, Max says, was “an amazing person with amazing virtues and amazing flaws.”

Speaking by cellphone amid the siren-punctuated hubbub of Manhattan, Max talked about his complex subject and the process of chronicling his short but intriguing life.

Q. How did you approach people for this book and get them to trust you?

A. The New Yorker piece left a very good aura in its wake. If you’re going to write about a writer, the New Yorker’s the place to do it, because there’s so much goodwill associated with the New Yorker, which has run everybody’s story for the last 200 years. But once you’ve written your New Yorker article, Daddy leaves, and it’s just you when you do your book. I’ve had a lot of grief in my own family, so I’m kind of familiar with what it’s like. I just understood that you don’t go straight in. You can’t just talk the talk. You really have to understand what these people are feeling. You have to understand what it feels like to be the wife of David or the sister. And you have to feel it deep. David’s all about feeling things for real, and I think working on this book was similarly about feeling things for real. I may have understood 10 percent of what they were going through, but it was enough to not make a complete ass of myself.

Q. It must have been purgative in some respects for the people you were interviewing.

A. You’re better off asking them than me. The responses I’ve gotten have been very rewarding. There are lots of things in this book that everyone who loves David, including me, would rather were not in the book. But I think I tried to do this with an open heart and a belief that the kind of level of intelligence and moral openness that David obtained [doesn’t come] easily. You’ve got to go through something to get that. And I think that they all accepted that. One of his friends said something really moving. He was referring to how carefully I treat David’s writing and how carefully I kind of lace it into his life. He said, “This would have been David’s last wish.” Which was very flattering. I’m not sure it’s quite true, but it was lovely to hear.

Q. Wallace seemingly was never satisfied with his work. That sort of mentality can either spur you on to greatness or it can hamper you greatly. What was the effect on Wallace?

A. In his most successful and functional moments, it did spur him on. To write “Infinite Jest” [Wallace’s hefty and widely acclaimed 1996 bestseller], you have to have something deep to prove…. [But] he was full of self-loathing. One of the things about David that I find so fascinating is I don’t think he ever had a moment where he said, “Job well done,” and patted himself on the back.

Q. What was the most challenging aspect of chronicling his short life?

A. Well, there were different challenges in different sections. The hard part about the beginning years is nobody knew he was going to grow up to be David Foster Wallace, so the records are scattered, the memories are faint. The letters [including many to fellow authors Jonathan Franzen and Don DeLillo] were hard to come by, but they were great, great letters. The last years of his life, which I first approached with the New Yorker piece, were intensely hard and painful. You don’t want what’s going to happen. Even up to the time I was reading the copy edit I would tear up on the last pages of my own damn book.

Q. You treated his death very simply. It was maybe a page.

A. Well, the decisions that led to his death are maybe five to 10 pages — very short. And then his death itself, I actually simplified it between the galleys and the final book publication. I took out some of the more gruesome details because I felt like it wasn’t what I wanted to have in my book — the forensic. And if you really want it, you can go on and read it, which is where I got it. I just felt like simple would be better.

Q. As a journalist, what do you think about Wallace’s fiction-infused nonfiction? He seemed pretty easy-breezy about that.

A. It’s not the rules that I play by, for sure. But I don’t think he stayed up at night wondering if he had violated the Geneva Convention.

Q. Wallace had a good sense of humor. But especially later in life, he seemed so overburdened that it didn’t really emerge as much as it might have otherwise.

A. Well, one of the reasons I went back to write the book after I wrote the magazine piece was that everyone said, “You missed his sense of humor.” That’s because the magazine piece is so freighted toward his end. But I was determined to make him funny this time around, because he was funny. He was incredibly funny. And, of course, he was also always in profound stress.

Q. Journalists at least have facts to work with, even though we may not know how to present them right away. But fiction is another thing entirely.

A. Being a fiction writer who’s blocked, that’s like being in the third circle of hell. Especially if you’re David. There’s a line in Don DeLillo’s letter [to Wallace] that he asked me not to use, where he says, “We die alone and in a room.” And Don thought that was insensitive to have in the book, so it’s not in the book. But that’s really what they’re talking about — being alone in the room with no one to help you. But, of course, the paradox with David is that just when he has the most help ... that’s when he’s most pronouncedly dying alone in the room.

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