Daniel (D.T.) Max, of Montclair, is a staff writer at The New Yorker, and the author of the recently-released Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. The book provides a close and compassionate examination of the life of the literary icon, whose 1996 book, Infinite Jest, is widely acknowledged as the most important novel of the 1990s. Max’s book is the first biography to appear since Wallace took his own life in September 2008, and it has garnered much critical praise. Max will be reading from, and discussing the book, at Terra at the Isabel Rose Cafe, in the Montclair Public Library tonight, September 27, at 7:00 p.m.
I caught up with Max a few days ago on a sunny afternoon on the patio of the Cafe, where he’s clearly a regular, having written “half the book” just upstairs.
Q. How goes the multi-city book tour?
A. I’ll spend about a month and a half pretty consistently traveling. I’ll also be going to England for the British edition. I miss my family; that part is hard. And I miss Montclair, but I don’t want to complain. It’s a big commitment for the publisher and it’s good to have a book tour.
Q. Congratulations on your book hitting number 14 on the New York Times bestseller list a few weeks ago.
A. It was nice to see people were responding to David and to me. I was certainly surprised but I could feel interest in David expanding as I was working on the book.
Q. What have you noticed in talking to people at book events about David Foster Wallace?
A: People’s response to him is so intense; he was the first person in my generation to be promoted to cultural artifact. Everyone cares about him, especially people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. They see in him someone they can learn something from.
Q. People tend to either love his most famous novel, Infinite Jest, or are intimidated by its 1200 pages. How many times did you read it?
A. Three times, but that makes me a piker in the world of DFW. If you care about fiction at all, and you care about what was happening at the turn of the millennium, you have to read Infinite Jest. It deals with the basics of human experience. It may be difficult to read in total, but the individual chapters are not hard to read, and the book is not difficult to like once you’ve read it. People have been reading Infinite Jest on campuses since 1996. It’s the kind of book people take with them when they go spend a year in Tibet. Some people get tattoos with the date they start the book and the date they finish. There were writers who meant a lot to me, but I don’t think I would tattoo any writer’s name on my arm!
Q. How much has interest in his work grown since his death?
A. The suicide accelerated what was already going on in terms of interest. I think more and more people will care about DFW five years from now, 10 years from now. He appealed to anyone with a sense of unease.
Q. Besides his literary achievements, your book details DFW’s personal life, and he was dogged by depression. Yet, it’s not a terribly sad book. There’s a lot of hope too.
A. He was always struggling to get better every day, not only as a writer but as a person, which is more inspiring to me in a way than someone who overcame their problems, because that’s how most of us live our lives every day – struggling, trying. That is inspiring. His life shows us you can do what you want to do, despite your demons. He wrote and lived and tried to put those demons in a temporary jail.
Q. How did the book come about?
A. On September 12, 2008, I briefly saw his name on the news crawl at the bottom of the TV screen and wondered what DFW had done – maybe won a big literary prize? – and went to my computer and saw he’d committed suicide. David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, called a couple of days later and asked if I wanted to write a piece on him, which came out in March 2009. I think I knew almost immediately I would write the book because the response to the article online was so quick and intense. People were moved and said it was all so sad; and part of the reason I wrote the book was because his life was not all sad.
Q. Why is the subtitle A Life, not The Life?
A. I never once thought I could write THE life of David Foster Wallace. No one can write THE life of anyone else. One thing his fiction and even his nonfiction teaches us is that real life is so complex, no one can really know it. There’s so much you have to leave out.
Q. DFW loved footnotes and endnotes and your biography has 14 pages of endnotes.
A. The endnotes are my favorite part of the book, it’s where I got to put all the things I thought were small but kind of remarkable, such as the one which quotes his sister about how in the family, it wasn’t his nonfiction embellishments that were concerning, but “his fiction was what you had to look out for.”
Q. What’s your writing routine?
A. I have no obligations between 9 and 3 every weekday, and I just write. I work either at the Montclair Library (in the quiet zone on the second floor), or at home — in nice weather on the front porch. I suppose it would be more fun to go into The New Yorker office, but by the time I get into the city, settle down, have a big yammer with the other folks – that’s half the workday.
Q. What’s next? Is there a letdown after finishing such a massive, absorbing project?
A. I still think about David every day and the things I want to do for the sequel — which I don’t actually plan to write! He was like a drug to me, his life was so big to me, even when it was small and it becomes tricky to find the next thing that would grab you in the same way. I have a few New Yorker pieces to write; they’ve been very patient with me.
Q. What has stuck with you most about DFW’s life?
A. That you can find joy and satisfaction even in the most tortured life. He tried, he tried every day. Not only to overcome his challenges and to write well, but to be a better human being, a better person. In researching his life, I was also looking for things that I could use in my own life – I like the AA adage (DFW references): “Do what’s in front of you to do.”
Q. Ever contemplate writing fiction yourself?
A. There are lots of things I’d like to write–the big worry is time time time! It was six years between (my first book) The Family That Couldn’t Sleep and this one.
Q. You said you miss Montclair when you travel. There are so many writers in Montclair. Is that part of why you moved here in 2008?
A. We knew the area a little. My grandfather once ran Max Lumber on Route 10 in Livingston and in the 1990s, my grandmother lived in West Orange. A friend of my wife’s, the writer Aviva Patz, lives in Montclair, and she was always singing its praises. I do love Montclair. The town is so full of people who do interesting things. It’s a very unique community; I don’t know of any other place like it.
The event at the Montclair Library tonight is free, but if you want “tea and goodies,” there’s a $6 fee. And if you can’t make it tonight, catch Max at WORDS bookstore in Maplewood on October 20.