D.T. Max is the author of The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery and the bestseller Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. Max is a staff writer for The New Yorker and has written for The Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine and Condé Nast Traveler, among many other publications. He also has held a fellowship at the Leon Levy Center of Biography at the City University of New York.
Max lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with his wife and two children and often writes at the Montclair Public Library. This interview took place in the library’s Fair Trade tearoom. Over tea and lemon cake, Max described how David Foster Wallace became much like a friend, although they never met.
You went to high school in New York. Were you always a New Yorker?
Yes, I grew up in Manhattan.
And you went to Collegiate, the private boys’ school on the Upper West Side.
I went to Bank Street before that. It’s important to mention Bank Street. I went to Bank Street for eight years and to Collegiate for three years.
They both contributed to why I write, but at Bank Street we did a lot of writing. It was a progressive school. There was a lot of emphasis on writing, although not so much on handwriting. When I sign copies of my books, I actually feel I’m lowering their value.
So did you write in high school? Beyond the classroom, I mean.
No, not really. I think for a period of time, much like David Foster Wallace, I thought of writing as what other people did. I would write about their writing. Or edit their writing. Or otherwise be a handmaid for their writing. But at Bank Street I wrote. Words were just flowing all the time.
Did you have favorite subjects in high school?
I loved English. I would just pounce on the books. I was a weirdly great student in high school. I had gone to a school without grades, and then suddenly I went to a school with grades—and I loved it. I had the highest grades in the history of Collegiate. It’s true. I wasn’t really that smart, I just had a really good intelligence for school. I mean, it was a perfect mating of work and brain at that moment. I was ready for high school, I was discovering things, I was emotionally stable, I felt fine—all those things that don’t always add up all the time.
What did you like to read?
When I was in seventh or eighth grade, I read a ton of science fiction, all the things that little boys read. In high school, the books in the curriculum made an impression. I can still remember freshman English and The Sun Also Rises, Silas Marner and Heart of Darkness. All these books had an enormous impact on me. I remember reading Look Homeward, Angel, which must be, I don’t know, 900 pages, and just loving it, and loving that there were hundreds of pages to come.
You graduated early.
I did. I went to Spain for a year on my own. It’s impossible to imagine a 16-year-old going to Europe alone for a year, but it was still the seventies and any bad idea a child might mention could happen. It was an act of insanity—and a different time.
Where did you go in Spain? What did you do?
I went to Salamanca, a beautiful, beautiful city. I didn’t go fluent, but I was good at languages and picked up what I needed quickly. I lived in an apartment with a bunch of students for a while and spent a ton of time reading in a bookstore called Cervantes. And I taught English. It was so cheap to live there, and at the time my needs were minimal.
So I’m fluent in Spanish now, and I’m fluent in Italian, which is how I wrote my first book. The Family That Couldn’t Sleep is set in Italy, and most of the research was in foreign languages.
Did going to Harvard hold any special meaning for you?
It did when I applied. I thought of Harvard as the central incandescent point for the bright mind. And I had very strong opinions on it over other colleges. Today I find that the faculty in supposedly fifth-tier schools is amazing, and the struggle is to get students to plug in and take advantage of the professors.
I was not a very good student at Harvard, but I liked to immerse myself in a subject just to see where it went. I would read people who were much more obscure than what I was reading in high school. So, for instance, in high school I loved Thomas Gray’s poetry because that’s what we read. I actually memorized “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” [He recites several stanzas. ] By college I was into things that were more subtle. If you were a drunk, I was probably a big fan of yours. Malcolm Lowry, W. H. Auden, Louis MacNeice. I had brilliant friends and learned a ton from them. The editor of [the book publishing arm of]The New York Review of Books, Edwin Frank, was a classmate. He was so widely and intelligently read. He was 18 and had read more than I’ve read 30 years later.
We really taught each other. It’s hard really to imagine because it’s different now, but when I was there – from 1979 to 1983 – I can’t tell you how unimportant classes and the professori were on our intellectual landscape. We were like Lord of the Flies, a group unto ourselves, teaching ourselves, organizing ourselves, showing each other what was interesting and what wasn’t.
What did you major in?
Comparative literature. It sounded fun. Collegiate had a ban on reading writers in translation. Which may be one reason I was so avid to acquire foreign languages. I could read Dante in the original. That felt much more satisfying than reading Dante in translation.
That makes me sound like a better student than I was. It took a while to read it.
So after college?
I wanted to be a book editor. I didn’t think I had within me whatever it takes to be a writer—some combination of intelligence and isolation and certitude. It was only later that I found I had them. I was always doing some writing, but there are people who fill their little notebook from the age of seven. I wasn’t that way.
So I was an editor, and I rose very quickly. For most of those years I was a paperback editor at Washington Square Press. It wasn’t really “roll up your sleeves and edit.” I selected fiction previously published in hardcover and decided which ones would find new readers in paperback. It was almost more like being a critic in a way. We were reading with an eye on the market. I had some big successes: Terry Macmillan’s fiction in paperback began with us, Tama Janowitz’ Slaves of New York. There were others, but the credit really goes to the hardcover person. It’s a funny in-between job, but authors were always happy to see or hear from me because I came with money, unexpected money.
I got promoted to Houghton Mifflin to be a hardcover editor. The industry was changing, though, and I didn’t find enough books, so I realized I wasn’t destined to be an editor. As a writer, the thing I appreciate most now in my editors is a nurturing quality. I wasn’t particularly nurturing in those years.
How did you transition to writing?
I got fired. In 1990. And then I didn’t really know what to do. I started writing about writers for magazines. It was fun to form little feature pieces, to think about how to write about writers.
Do you remember where you were first published?
I think my first piece of any size was for [the short-lived women’s magazine] Mirabella. It was on Author and Agent, a book about Eudora Welty and her relationship with Diarmuid Russell, her agent. I loved writing that piece. When it came out, it was all glossy and beautiful and set in that sans serif type.
At the same time, though, I had a neuromuscular problem that popped up very quickly, and I actually thought at some point it looked like it might be—it could have been fatal. It was a fast progressing neuromuscular disease. It came up right as I was ending my job at Houghton Mifflin. By the time it stopped progressing, I didn’t have the physical strength to go to a job. I wear braces on my legs, and I still can’t really go to a job every day. There’s no place I can’t go or won’t go, but to actually get on a subway every morning to go to work would be really hard for me. That’s in a lot of ways what made me a writer: losing the ability to walk long distances.
It was as if I had this skill waiting that I might never have utilized otherwise. It turned out I had exactly the right amount of stamina for the sort of burst of energy you need to be a long-form journalist.
There was a third event: the invention of the laptop. Until then, I did a lot of writing on electric typewriters, and I always found it incredibly frustrating—all that typing and the Correcto tape and the retyping. So when the first laptop came out in 1990 or ‘91, I bought one. And it really did free me.
—coincides with everything: writing assignments, my legs falling apart, and technology taking over.
I was working on a 300-word piece on Graham Greene for Condé Nast Traveler, a little review of his latest book. But then Greene died while I was doing the piece, and suddenly they wanted three thousand words. I had tons to say on Graham Greene; he was one of my favorite writers when I was in college. When I got the check, I was so shocked at how big it was for what was really just play for me, I thought, “I can do this.”
At some point along the way come The Paris Review and The New Yorker.
They came much later. Within a few months of starting as a freelance writer, I got two columns at the same time—one for Variety and one for The New York Observer, covering publishing. Doing columns on an industry is very hard. That was my trial by fire on what it was like to be a reporter. I hadn’t done The Crimson, so I had no clue that, for instance, people can be angry with what you write. I thought people would just applaud your effort, applaud the superb-ness of your effort. But it turned out people take very personally what you write. Those columns went on for a couple of years. They were really hard work, and they were how I made my living then.
We’re up to the mid-90s.
I went to work at Harper’s Bazaar as a features editor for a couple of years and managed to get fired again. I thought we did wonderful work. We had some of the best authors in America writing for us. In fact, we had Vince Passaro do a very smart interview on David Foster Wallace, and it remains a very good piece. There’s a letter from Wallace in my piles of Wallace letters in which he says something like, “Why the fuck is Harper’s Bazaar writing about me. Who the fuck who reads Harper’s Bazaar is ever going to read a 1,200-page novel?”
I wrote some pieces, too. It was fun to be an editor and a writer. If you wanted to write something, who could stop you? And I liked writing the headlines. Gish Jen wrote a Philip Roth-type story cycle about being Chinese American but feeling guilty and leaving her family’s heritage. My headline was “Goodbye, Confucius.”
So your first book—
In 1998 I met an editor at The New York Times Magazine named Daniel Zalewski. Daniel was the first editor I really clicked with, and I suddenly understood what editors could do. He’s still my editor after fourteen years. [Zalewski has since moved to The New Yorker.] The first piece I did for him was on Raymond Carver and Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish, who rewrote Carver’s early work. That was a cover story, thanks to Dan. It got tremendous attention, and people began to look at my work differently.
Dan did everything an editor can do for a writer—he got me space, he got me money, he got me attention, he edited me wonderfully, he made my writing better. I’ll never forget when we were looking at what I had for this Raymond Carver piece. I was so used to writing short so I had this pile of letters from Carver and I’d only alluded to them.
He wanted you to quote.
Yes. I thought there were copyright limitations, and Dan said, “No, we have to use these letters,” and he was right. They made the piece so much richer and deeper. So that was another thing an editor could do for you.
So from there, I did a bunch of pieces for Dan at the Times Magazine, and one of them is the basis for The Family That Couldn’t Sleep. I found the story of this really weird illness, and I was interested for personal reasons as well as non-personal reasons. [Max writes in the last chapter of the book about the similarities and differences between the sleeping disease of his subjects and his own neuromuscular disease. ] The pleasure of writing that book was immense. I could make myself an expert. It could have been a number of different books. It could have been a book about sleep, but it was really a book about prion diseases, which struck me as the more intellectually fascinating.
And you had some great subjects in the family, in the scientists.
The disease was interesting and in its own way significant as it played out. But it is a disease we’re still learning so much about. It really was more than a curiosity. Although it certainly had that aspect, that it’s about people who can’t fall asleep, which is so weird.
You received a lot of reviews that talked about your being able to take complex science and make it easier for the layperson to follow. Did you consider becoming a science writer?
No, no, I didn’t. I never saw myself as a permanent science writer. And I don’t really see myself as a permanent biographer. Both of those stories have an intense human urgency, and they’re quintessentially human stories. That said, one thing I pride myself on is not abandoning the battlements when there’s pressure to push everything toward the middlebrow. I think I successfully resisted the pressures to get rid of the science. I tried to make the science interesting, but I never got rid of it.
And then with Wallace, there was pressure to limit the literary criticism and to turn him into a celebrity. I felt really strongly that that was the thing I absolutely could not do. It was about how you knit it all in without sending the reader – as Wallace would say – for the bathroom.
When did you begin reading Wallace’s work?
I always read Wallace. But I read the wrong Wallace. I read The Broom of the System, which was his Amherst thesis [and first book. Max learned Wallace was later dismissive of Broom, likening it, in a letter to his friend Jonathan Franzen, to something written by “a very smart fourteen-year-old” ]. I just loved that book for all its high wire look-Mom-no-hands. Nothing made me happier than reading and rereading it. I love first novels in general. I would rather read Robert Stone’s beautiful first novel A Hall of Mirrors than Dog Soldiers, although Dog Soldiers won the National Book Award and is arguably the stronger book. I’d rather read This Side of Paradise than The Great Gatsby. I’ll throw down the gauntlet to your readers on this one. I’d rather read In Our Time than The Sun Also Rises. I love that first emergence of a voice. And I love the imperfection in the voice when we first hear it.
[Several months after David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008, Max’s 12,000-word tribute essay, “The Unfinished,” appeared in The New Yorker.] After I wrote that piece I moved on to writing the book.
At your Montclair reading for Every Love Story, someone asked whether you were worried about Wallace’s writing eclipsing your own. You answered, “No, I already have a form of expression.” Were you talking about voice?
You write differently for different magazines, and it gets a little schizophrenic. I think by the time I started writing entirely for The New Yorker, I had an editor and an editor-in-chief [Dan Zalewski and David Remnick] whom I knew. I also knew myself a little bit better.
It’s not that I don’t think it would be fun to break out of the voice. But in the case of Wallace, we both deal with the utter uncontrollability and immenseness of the world—and we have opposite points of view. He’s a great expresser; I’m a great represser. His approach, which had a lot of art in it, to be sure, looks like he throws everything against the wall. He doesn’t. At all. But if he has room for five examples he puts in ten. He would like to put in fifty. Whereas if I have room for five, I might put in three and hope that each detail is going to stand out.
One of my favorite details in the book is when Jon Franzen and David Foster Wallace drive to Swarthmore together, and it’s raining. Jon is astonished by the amount of wiper fluid David uses. So I mentioned that at a reading, and someone said you know that’s very metaphorical; it’s about the ability to see. I never thought of it that way: David trying to clear the windshield of his brain to see. I’ve never written a biography of Jon, but I’d intuit that he also has a different relationship with the vastness of the American Experience, that it doesn’t overwhelm him in the way it did Wallace.
I wouldn’t even know how to write like Wallace, to be honest. The style is so heavy and so distinctive. And I’m so aware of the issue of giving up your own style to another writer. I think it’s something you do when you’re very young, like when you first meet other writers. I may have a Jamesian story tucked in a drawer somewhere. But you know, if it was going to happen with Wallace, it was going to happen with Broom of the System. I don’t remember ever trying to write a 600-page comic extravaganza full of postmodern, media-saturated themes. For fun sometimes I’ll write things that sound like David. They’re really not destined for publication. It’s just occasionally I see what it would actually feel like to look around and give a David-type impression of the room.
You’re very generous with the amount of Wallace’s voice you use in your book.
Oh, I love his voice. I just loved to hear him talk-write, like everybody does. The more of his voice I could leave room for, the more pleasurable writing the book would be.
You refer to him as Wallace throughout the book. But, as I’m sure you’re aware, in most of your interviews, he’s David. Is that a silly thing to point out?
No, not at all. Look, one of the central facts of David is his death, which isn’t all that long ago. To call him Wallace is putting him like a body in the morgue. To call him DFW is, for me, too much like forgetting his death and the fact that it wasn’t so much fun being DFW. So he winds up as David, like a friend in my brain.
The funny thing is even his friends didn’t all call him David. His college roommate, Mark Costello, calls him Dave. To his girlfriends he was David and kind of droopy-eyed. David was his softer side—obviously the side I prefer. I can’t imagine calling him Dave. He and I weren’t snapping each other’s asses with towels in the Urbana High School locker room in 1977. It’s not how I see him. I like the guy who came along later.
You started to think of him as a friend, even though you never met him?
Yeah, I think I probably felt that. We’re contemporaries. He’d be one year younger than me. When someone says he stood in front of the mirror for forty-five minutes examining his skin for pimples, I understand completely. David is self-conscious about his acne, and when he goes into the classroom he believes he’s going to be teased. And he’s watched a lot of media with perfect skin, so he thinks perfect skin is attainable, and he’s lived after small pox so most people do have good skin. He’s immediately comprehensible to me. If he were a 17th century Cavalier poet, I would not know exactly why he stood in front of the mirror. I would not know the expectations of the culture around him. Why did he pull out that puff and apply facial powder the way Robert Herrick may have done? If David lived hundreds of years earlier, pimples would have been the least of his problems.
With David I always know what’s going on in his mind. I’m not saying I was always right, but I always knew, which is a slightly different thing. So even when I’m wrong I’m not surprised to be wrong, so that helped a lot. It’s the long way of saying why he is David to me. He couldn’t be Wallace. Wallace is so distancing. Wallace is what your professor calls you before he gives you a C.
Do you find Montclair a good place to be a writer?
Writers have always left the city to write. You can go back a hundred years, and writers left the city to write. You leave it when you’ve done enough that you feel you won’t be forgotten. Or you hope you won’t be forgotten. And you try and arrange a life so that you can get in to the city so that you’re certainly not forgotten. There’s nothing like being celebrated in New York, if you’re going to be celebrated. I’ve had only a small amount of that, but you can see when they celebrate you, they really celebrate you. The crab is moister and the brioche fluffier.
Interview by Patricia Berry
Photo by Flash Rosenberg