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A look inside the complicated life of David Foster Wallace

Book cover for D.T. Max's bio of David Foster Wallace,
Book cover for D.T. Max's bio of David Foster Wallace, "Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story."
Penguin Books
Book cover for D.T. Max's bio of David Foster Wallace,
Author David Foster Wallace reads selections of his writing during the New Yorker Magazine Festival in New York September 27, 2002.
Keith Bedford/Getty Images

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When David Foster Wallace committed suicide four years ago at the age of 46, his death shocked the literary world and beyond. He was seen as the voice of his generation, perhaps a title he would have rejected, while at the same time partly craving it.

His complicated relationship to fiction and his complicated personal relationships are told in a meticulously researched new biography by New Yorker writer D.T. Max. “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story,” chronicles David's life from growing up in the Midwest in the 1970s to his unexpected suicide four years ago.

D.T Max joined Madeleine to talk about writing his struggles in writing the biography, getting to know David Foster Wallace posthumously and the importance of the book's title.

Interview Highlights:

On how he came up with the title of the biography:
"It came to me quite late. I'd been working on the book for three years and I couldn't quite think of what to call it. And all of the obvious titles like "Infinite Fire," I could just imagine David groaning. I was looking at his correspondence and over the course of the research I had hundreds and hundred of his letters, and I kept seeing this phrase popping up at wildly separate times in his life. Early in his life he attributes it to Virginia Woolf on the Merv Griffin Show, I have no idea what the joke was, but there it is in the letter. Then later in his life he attributes in to Johnny Carson Show, so I guess, he was just playing with it, it pops up in his fiction a couple of times as well."

On why the title fits so well:
"One thing I loved about that phrase is it could mean so many different things, and it could have meant so many different things to David. What it meant to me, of course, is the basic act of biography. You're chasing a ghost, even if the person is alive you're chasing a ghost fundamentally."

On David Foster Wallace's biggest addiction:
"Well, frankly, David was addicted to television. So for him, television was his North Star, almost everything he wrote or thought somehow negatively or positively related to television. He would say, although he was technically more formally addicted to marijuana, and formerly after he went through a halfway house, he would say that television was his real addiction."

On the conflict between DFW's genius and his inner demons:
"David was a complete genius … I think nearly everybody who knew David Foster Wallace would say that he was the smartest person that they ever met, just so much smarter than an ordinary smart person. Just not the same thing at all. But he was also, he had severe ongoing mental health difficulties. One thing I discovered in researching the biography was an old medical report about David, which I think he was about 9 or 10 when he first experiences acute anxiety and phobias."

On how TV was therapeutic to him:
"He always used TV as some sort of calming agent. So it wasn't just that he enjoyed watching "McHale's Navy," although he probably did, it was that he used TV almost to sort of moor himself to the Earth, because that incredible brain of his would have just taken him off on some sort of a wild flight if there wasn't something to calm him."

On why DFW hated being labeled as a postmodern writer:
"David had a lot of issues with any kind of attempt to label him. I remember he said in one interview, he would describe himself as working at the computer instead of writing, and if anyone called him a writer it would make him run straight to the bathroom. For him, these dry literary terms were symbols of something much larger, he didn't want to be postmodernist because he associated postmodernism with a kind of inability to feel and to really reach out and give the kind of nourishment in fiction that [he] desperately wanted to give people, as much as anything because he desperately wanted it for himself. And so anything that spoke of literary theory for him was really saying you're not writing for the purposes you need to write for, you need to write to reach people.

On what DFW believed to be the purpose of fiction:
"He would say that the job of fiction was to make you feel less alone. There's a phrase much-quoted which I guess cannot be entirely relayed on the radio, which is that 'fiction's job is to show you what it is to be an effing human being." He wants you to care, and in reading 'Infinite Jest,' difficult as some parts of that book are, you do end up caring enormously, and you care enormously about him, and if the book exceeds, which I think it does, you end up caring more about yourself in a very positive kind of way.

Every Love Story Excerpt