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D T Max: "It’s abusive to crowd the reader with too much explanation"

The Books Interview.

Your biography of David Foster Wallace makes uncomfortable reading. The depth of the psychic pain he endured is terrifying.

The pain was deep. When I first wrote about him for the New Yorker, there were vast areas of David’s life I knew nothing about.

I knew he’d had some uncomfortable times but I had no idea how much he’d suffered when he was 15, for instance. The scope of that difficulty and upset was really revelatory. It made me think more highly of him: here was a guy who never really woke up feeling entirely well.

You write in the preface that you weren’t “lying in wait for a biographical subject”. Can we infer from that some skepticism about the biographical enterprise?

I wasn’t trying to write a biography in the sense of a tombstone – that struck me as antiquated. I don’t want to overstate it: it’s appropriate to some writers. If you’re going to write about Thomas Hardy, that’s fine. But if you’re writing about someone who could [have been] in the room, it strikes me as weird to do it like that.

The book is in some ways my answer to how you can write a biography of a recently deceased person yet not make it sound as if he lived in the 18th century. One of David’s battles was how to write fiction in a world of TV and not a world of horses and buggies.

You’re quite sparing when it comes to psychobiographical speculation.

I’m very anti-Freudian. There’s a way in which I feel it’s abusive to crowd the reader with too much explanation.

You’re dealing with a complicated guy, so to say that it was his mother who, to invoke Philip Larkin, fucked him up – it just feels wrong. David believes that only in a certain period of his life and he goes beyond that idea. If you do a Freudian reading of Wallace’s relationship with his mother, which certainly the life supports, you’d feel as if you’d thinned him out in a way that really doesn’t capture him.

Wallace had a few long-standing friendships. His friendship with Jonathan Franzen was particularly important, wasn’t it?

Jon worked so hard to have a relationship with David. And he succeeded. But it was still fairly thin stuff. They rarely spent time in the same city. But Jon was a friend. He was there when David was sick.

The friendship began with Franzen’s editor sending a galley of his novel The Twenty-Seventh City to Wallace. David writes a letter that’s 95 per cent enthusiastic to Franzen. Franzen writes back a letter that is 50 per cent enthusiastic.

Wallace also treasured his friendship with Don DeLillo.

David was desperate for a role model for how to behave as a writer. He saw in DeLillo a way to be a writer in the world.

But he also exaggerated how much DeLillo meant to him, too. When Franzen was going to go off to see DeLillo one day, David begged Jon to come back with a sugar packet with DeLillo’s sebum on it!

The veracity of a lot of his non-fiction writing unravels in the course of your research. He made things up, didn’t he?

Of all those pieces, the one on playing tennis in the Midwest gives you the greatest indication that you’re entering a mythic, invented America. Anyone who takes that for non-fiction – who believes that someone could be blown over the net by a tornado – sort of deserves what they get! But when you reach the more realistic pieces, the questions get a bit more serious. David’s stuff is taught in journalism classes and I do feel a bit uneasy about that.

Are you suggesting that Wallace’s influence on young non-fiction writers is pernicious?

What I feel is that credibility and accuracy in a certain kind of journalism are indispensable. But I have more trouble with Ryszard Kapuscinski’s reported fucking around, because of its implications, than I do with David’s.

Of all David’s pieces, the falsifications that bother me most are those in his long essay on John McCain, which strike me as an illegitimate attempt to create a persona that people will like. One of his editors described David’s work as “literary performance”. And I think that’s not a bad way to think about his non-fiction.

D T Max’s “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: a Life of David Foster Wallace” is published by Granta Books (£20).

Jonathan Derbyshire is executive opinion editor of the Financial Times. He was formerly managing editor of Prospect and culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India special