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Looking for One New Value But Nothing Comes My Way: An Interview with Film Critic Glenn Kenny About David Foster Wallace

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Looking for One New Value But Nothing Comes My Way: An Interview with Film Critic Glenn Kenny About David Foster Wallace

One doesn’t need to dig deep into his body of work to see that the late novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace had sincere ambivalence about mass media—his much-heralded 1,079-page novel, Infinite Jest, features a science fiction conceit where a lethal videotape known as “The Entertainment” is so addictive, its viewers lose interest in anything other than endless repeat viewings of the film.

But his fascination with pop culture extended beyond a critique of hyper-consumption, and always found its way back toward what it means to be a real human being despite our grotesquely materialistic culture. And his work was often incredibly funny. The three pieces Wallace wrote for Premiere Magazine in the mid-to-late 1990s, about subjects as diverse as David Lynch, Terminator 2, and the Adult Video News Awards, offer wide-ranging commentaries on their subjects. Within the notorious high word count is a mosaic of diverging thoughts and feelings, and an attempt to reconcile them.

The editor for all three pieces was Glenn Kenny, who had what he describes as a “generally positive and indeed collegial working relationship” during their first line edit. Some of the Wallace pieces sparked internal controversy at Premiere for a variety of reasons, and Kenny is able to provide a firsthand account of what happened. He and Wallace had mutual interests in film and literature, and Kenny was given the opportunity to not only have a back-and-forth on the shaping of each piece for the magazine, but also went into the field with Wallace to do research during the A.V.N. Awards.

Even after he vowed never to write for Premiere ever again, Wallace and Kenny maintained a friendship and correspondence until Wallace’s suicide on September 12, 2008. Now that some time has passed, I asked Kenny if he would be interested in sharing some memories of Wallace. He spent a fair amount of time laughing, since Wallace was an incredibly funny guy, though he still feels stunned by this sudden loss of one of the great writers of our generation.

How did you find yourself editing David Foster Wallace’s article about David Lynch’s Lost Highway at Premiere Magazine?

In May of 1996, there was this piece that had been in the inventory for a while by David Foster Wallace about David Lynch. It had been commissioned by Susan Lyne, a very prescient editor who kept up with what was happening in the literary world. At that time, Premiere was publishing works by literary authors, like the set visit to Robocop 2 by Martin Amis. Susan had commissioned Dave to visit the set of Lost Highway. He turned in this gargantuan 25,000 word manuscript which kind of got lost in the shuffle after Susan left. Then it landed on the desk of Kristin van Ogtrop, a senior editor who made the first pass at the piece. Her first aim was to cut the piece down to a more manageable magazine-type size. She worked with Dave and hacked away at it with his knowledge. That’s why on the acknowledgments page of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Kristen is referred to as “The Blunt Machete”. Kristin is, by the way, very bright—a very capable editor—there was no malice on her part. She had to fit the piece into a certain amount of space—and that’s it. The magazine was not counting on something as long as this. Dave would often be commissioned to do pieces at 5,000-7,500 words so he understood that at a certain point in the process it was quite possible this would happen, but in a way he was constitutionally incapable of keeping to a word length. It was a tacit agreement you had with him when you commissioned a piece that you were going to get something long. But if you can run a piece that long, he’s one of the cheapest first rate literary writers out there—you pay him X amount of dollars per word, but you get five times the words.

It wasn’t a problem for Premiere that the piece had laid around for as long as it did. Their policy with set visits was to publish them at the point where the film was coming out, which could take anywhere from six months to a year. Once there was some idea of when Lost Highway was coming out, the magazine was then able to slate it for a particular issue. Our editor-in-chief, Jim Meigs, had seen me carrying Infinite Jest into the office every now and then, and said, “It’s probably a good idea for you to edit this piece, since you’re familiar with his style.” His understanding was that Dave was somewhat apprehensive—to use one of several possible words—of how much cutting had been done to or needed to be done with it. Jim’s words to me were: “You should call him up and try to mollify him.” I don’t know how good I am at diplomacy, but Dave was not the kind of person it behooved you to be slick with. In one of our first conversations, I told him, “The guy I’m working for said I should mollify you about this, but let’s see if we can work together and come up with something that we’re both happy with.”

That article has become one of those “best written pieces about David Lynch”. Why do you think that is?

For me, what makes it exciting is not necessarily his discovery of “the Lynchian,” as he put it, but his illumination of the Lynchian in everyday life. That is what makes it so great and so funny. The examples of the hypothetical things that could happen to a person, or the little autobiographical or objective realist details of the Lynchian in everyday life. There’s also the painstaking detail—the descriptions of what happens on the set, the descriptions of the scenes in the film itself, his very astute grappling with what exactly is going on with Lynch at any given moment in the film, what the imagery is doing. What’s great also is he’s not interested in symbols or symbolism, that he takes Lynch at his word that Lynch is not symbolic. He appreciates Lynch as an intuitive artist, and it leads into things about Lynch that Dave was ambivalent about—the scenes with Richard Pryor that he felt were exploitative. In the sprawl of the essay, he demonstrates how it’s all of a piece. He does it in a way that is incredibly sophisticated but there’s this conversational tone in his essays that doesn’t come out at all as pompous. It’s an earnest voice.

A lot of people have misinterpreted Dave as a kind of postmodern ironist, which is the last thing he was. His work is deeply sincere and concerned with human values; searching for them. The thing that makes it seem like it is postmodern or ironic is because he never sees things as being quite that simple. There’s always this kind of doubling-back, always a reexamination of his position, but he’s always trying—not as an attempt to undercut anything, so much as it really is a search, a quest. People really liked the Lynch article, but you didn’t have a sense at the time that it was a paradigm-shifter in movie writing. It was one of those things that’s so in and of itself sui generis that you can’t emulate them. The interesting thing about Dave doing work at Premiere is he probably wasn’t the best fit for the magazine, but at the same time nobody else was going to publish a 20,000 word piece on David Lynch. And of course the title “David Lynch Keeps His Head” was something which he unshakably would not change his mind on. Not that I tried, I thought it was a great title, but you have these things when you’re in a magazine situation where you do the headline meeting or something and you say, “Well, let’s see if we can come up with something!” At a certain point I told Jim, “Let’s not even try to think about alternates for this. Let’s just go with that.” And it was fine.

Could you describe the process of working with Wallace?

It was fun. And funny, because he was soft spoken but had that very definite tone of voice—it was almost paradoxical—where you knew he was speaking from a rock-solid position in terms of his beliefs and inclinations, but by the same token he was in many ways deferential. It took some time for me to convince him that he did not have to call me Mr. Kenny, and that, in fact, it made me incredibly uncomfortable to be called Mr. Kenny.

Do you think it’s strange that he had rock-solid beliefs, but in his writing he was constantly circling around ideas, or backpedaling? Do you think that the tenets were the fulcrum of a wheel, and the wheel kept spinning around?

You’re right about the wheels and so on, and one of his major preoccupations in the fiction and essays was the very simple idea that you should not lie—and yet it is possible and likely that a person will very casually tell up to a dozen lies a day. He reflected on that quite a bit. But in terms of his way of dealing with people, he tried to stick to a very strong ethic of being sincere, well-mannered and respectful. In that way, to a certain extent, being formal is also a way of being guarded. You don’t give too much away. As we got to know each other, that gradually sloughed off. We had a series of conversations, working with this jigsaw puzzle structure where I was trying to restore certain things in the piece that he was very attached to and seeing what we could lose. We worked very specifically on the line edit, which was always [pretty] funny. He had strong feelings about the serial comma, for instance, which was not in our style-book—he was not so big on the sequential comma. Many of our sessions were spent taking out commas that the copy edit people would put back in, or putting back commas that the copy editors had taken out. Our copy chief at the time, Andy Webster, who is a good friend, and is now at The New York Times, was a real stickler for the style book. He was morally outraged over the serial comma issue, and it took persuasion from me and the managing editor at the time, Leslie Lewis, to allow that to go by. After a few conversations, Dave got the gist that I was pretty well versed in cinephilia, so he came to trust me on film references and so on. He said he’s only seen a few Bresson films so he’d say, “I don’t know how firm ground I’m at when I refer to such-and-such as Bressonian” and he would leave it to me to edit.

What was the common ground, or mutual things you enjoyed about films?

It wasn’t his main concern—literature to him was the alpha and the omega. But he liked films an awful lot. When he was in college, like any person going to a reasonably good school, he was able to see a good number of films there. He enjoyed the Bresson films, but on the whole, he usually wasn’t interested in foreign films—he was more drawn to American films as pop culture. They reflected his concerns, which have to do with the condition of being American, particularly during his writing after 9/11. I spent most of my youth as a cinephile almost shunning American film. It wasn’t until I was a little more mature, despite my readings of Andrew Sarris, that I started taking American film all that seriously. For him, it was always about that—about things like Psycho, real touchstones in the development of cinema itself and that represented seismic shifts in the overall culture.

Did your tastes converge on literature?

I remember trying very hard to convince him to read Georges Perec, who he was suspicious of because of what he considered to be his formalist tendencies. I got him to read W, or the Memory of Childhood, which I think brought him around. We were both big fans of the publishing house the Dalkey Archive. We got into impassioned discussions about Harry Matthews, Raymond Queneau, those kind of guys. There aren’t a lot of people who can talk about that, or like talking about it. When we were working together, that was a kind of side-light of our exchanges.

What happened with the second piece commissioned by Premiere, which did not get published?

1998 was the 20th-anniversary of Premiere, so we had a package piece about ten movies that defined our decade. The whole idea was that we were gonna spend a shitload of money, get name writers who would completely violate us in terms of how much we would pay them, and have them do these small 300-500 word essays on films which we just arbitrarily picked. I was in charge of negotiating all the deals with the writers, going through all their agents. We had Martin Amis on Goodfellas, Rick Moody doing Pulp Fiction, Tony Kushner on Wings of Desire, that sort of thing. I mentioned this to Dave, and he was like, “Well, I have some things to say about Terminator 2.” I responded, “I’ll bet you do!” We went through Bonnie [Nadell, his agent], we did the paperwork, and everybody else was turning in 300-word pieces to a letter. I don’t even speak to certain people; I think I faxed Martin Amis a thank you note or something. With most of the writers it was very removed, which was fine, because they all did exactly what they were asked, it was pretty terrific, and cost a lot of money.

But Dave sent 2,000 or 3,000 words on Terminator 2 and why it was a betrayal of the first film because it was so reliant on special effects that it basically heralded in the age of what he called “FX Porn.” The objection was not that it was a negative write-up. It was just too long and we couldn’t shoehorn it into the format. If you have nine essays that are 300 words each, you can’t tack the 3,000 word essay on at the end. Theoretically, you could, but there are all sorts of considerations that come into play. After a fairly long process of—not even negotiation, because what was there to negotiate? Just sort of mutual soul-searching on both our parts we finally understood that this was not something that would distill into either 300 or 500 words, so we paid him the full fee, and it was sort of like, “Well, sorry.” There was a stipulation that we might try and publish it as a stand-alone essay, but then what’s the tag? So we released it and it ended up getting published at Waterstone. It’s available online (ed note: see introduction). I went over to Christopher Buckley, who handed in 300 very good, professional words on Terminator 2, which he liked. Kingsley Amis, Martin’s father, was a big fan of Terminator 2. He said it was an unimpeachable masterpiece. If you’re someone who believes in the sentimental idea of the afterlife, it’s amusing to imagine Wallace and Kingsley Amis arguing about it.

Dave had a pretty strong line on himself as a magazine writer. He was capable of writing very short things, very short stories, and so on. With magazine stuff, he was going to go his own way. I think the idea was if you go to him asking him to do something, he’s going to do it his way. If you want an investigative piece about the Adult Video News Awards, you send an investigative journalist—maybe Evan Wright or Mark Jacobson. You send a reporter. If you want a David Foster Wallace piece on the AVN Awards, you send Wallace. That’s what led to some of the problems that occurred during the editing of [his third piece for Premiere,] “Big Red Son”. It wasn’t a matter of “could he do it,” it was more of a matter of why would you ask him to? He’s not that guy. He’s not the guy you want, if you want 300 or 400 or 1,000 tight words with sourced backup, the stuff of conventional journalism or even gonzo journalism.

It seems like there were a great deal of behind-the-scenes struggles with running “Big Red Son” in Premiere—what’s the story behind this piece?

It was the most fun and the most painful thing, really. I guess it was summer of 1997 when we were talking about porn. He was in the middle of writing Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, because I know that his short story “Adult World” directly came out of his porn research. “Big Red Son” and “Adult World” complement each other. I guess he had been approached by Spin and he suggested writing about the AVN Awards under a pseudonym, because he had told his agent he wasn’t going to do magazine work for two years. But he was interested enough in this topic that he was willing to go back on it, and didn’t want his name plastered all over magazine covers looking like he had lied. Then he remembered he had discussed the idea with me, and wanted Premiere to have a crack at this piece. That’s where it started. Spin didn’t get the piece, which is sad for them, but the thing that I had, which was great for the piece, was knowing the Hustler writer Evan Wright, and I also knew Scotty Schwartz, the former child actor who had gone into porn, sort of, and these guys were going to be able to introduce us to all these porno people. We definitely brought some more research mojo to the table than Spin in that respect, I guess. We ended up buying quite a few porno videocassettes and shipping them off to Dave in Normal, Illinois, where he’d take notes, send them back to us and we’d keep them because eventually we’d have to fact check. AVN was very excited about working with us, so they ended up sending us their magazine for quite some time. That magazine had the best ads in the history of magazines.

Such as?

“Watch out for…COCK-ZILLA!” There was this gay porno film called The Black Brigade that was based on Glory that actually featured a guy playing Abraham Lincoln. THAT was a heck of an ad! Anyway, the time came to actually go out to Vegas itself. It was kind of a lost weekend for me. I was having a lot of personal and money problems at the time, and about to descend into a slough of despondency that I didn’t emerge from until 2002, though that’s neither here nor there. I had only met Dave a couple of times when he came to New York for readings and stuff, and we had lunch once. I knew Evan Wright was going, and [one of the first things we did] I arranged a dinner with Scotty Schwartz, who had been a fairly prominent child actor. He was in The Toy with Jackie Gleason and Richard Pryor. He plays Flick, the kid who gets his tongue stuck to the flagpole, in A Christmas Story. Like a lot of child actors of his day, once he hit his teens he started running with a pretty fast crowd that included Ron Jeremy. Ron Jeremy’s hobby at a certain point was introducing kids like Corey Haim, Corey Feldman and Scotty to porn stars, which was pretty seedy.

Now I knew Scotty through a friend, who was his driver during his younger days when he was in the Broadway production of Frankenstein. I had a good social relationship with Scotty, who was an interesting little fella. He got involved with the porn scene as a social thing, and around this time, or a couple of years before, both Haim and Feldman were garnering attention because of various drug scandals. Scotty had remained a relative straight arrow, but it occurred to him that if he built a scandal around himself, he would be able to get some attention too. He didn’t factor in that this attention didn’t actually include anything in the way of real paying work with any kind of dignity. Haim and Feldman are completely stuck in that trench of being reality stars rather than performers, so it didn’t have any long term payback. Scotty’s manufactured scandal was to do a sex film, Scotty’s X-Rated Adventure.

How did that first evening with Scotty go?

On the first night we were there, that was the night we had dinner with Scotty and Dave. Scotty was kind enough to take us to a party at the Rio where we met Jasmine Sinclair, and there’s that moment in “Big Red Son” when Dave gets outraged about Tom Byron, “who has precisely one attribute, offering his hand Godfather-style expecting the gesture of obeisance.” That’s an example of Dave’s inability to lie, because the whole account of the dinner with Scotty Schwartz is just ... fucking ... devastating, and arguably not very nice, but also pretty accurate. I remember talking to him about it and, without even considering asking him to soft pedal it, I was like, “Pretty harsh on Scotty there, aren’t you?” Scotty has never spoken to me since. If you read it, it’s actually couched in a footnote and is not entirely devoid of sympathy, but also doesn’t let up. Dave ties the observations in this whole weird self-regard of the porn star tendency that he perceived, but he also disliked Scotty personally. I remember the night of the awards, Dave was like, “Yeah, I noticed that Scotty really didn’t like my bandana at all, so I’m gonna wear it again tonight.” It was kind of adolescent, but you know, we both had a laugh over that…

We had an awful lot of fun and it was interesting to watch him work. It’s not fair to say he came to the event with an agenda, but by the same token, there are certain things he left out. Evan actually took Dave to a radio interview that was being conducted with this porn star named Chloe a/k/a Chloe Nicole who was a recovering drug addict, and her statement was that porn and Alcoholics Anonymous saved her life. An interesting line, which Dave could have used to a certain advantage in the piece but actually didn’t talk about at all, so there was a certain selection process involving the material that he got out there, which always happens, but it was definitely weighted towards one thing more than another. In the essay, he was very much trying to acknowledge the attraction to porn while being deeply repelled at the same time, and in the arm wrestling match, repulsion handily wins.

This was the first time you had gone out into the field with Dave and saw how he worked. Can you describe what that was like?

Dave could just walk around, getting as much out of the environment as possible. After 45 minutes of looking, he’d go out into the hallway in the convention center, sit up against the wall and write in his legal pad for 20-30 minutes, which was a good thing for him, because then he could zone out and not notice anything that was happening around him. I think the reason he had such an aversion to severely urban areas was the sensory overload of having to perceive that much. When you were walking around with him on the floor of the AVN Expo, you got the sense of him being overwhelmed. Part of his way of dressing was, when he wasn’t wearing the bandana, trying not to be noticed. He said he wasn’t a reporter, and he didn’t do reporting per se. He didn’t go up to people and start asking them questions. I think this is where Evan and I helped him, bringing him to a situation where he could converse. The thing about someone like Paul Little a/k/a Max Hardcore is you don’t need much to get them talking, which was part of his problem. There are all sorts of stories of him being on a plane, first class, getting drunk on free cocktails and showing his portfolio of anal sex extravaganzas to the woman sitting next to him—who would immediately get horrified and request a seat change. It wasn’t difficult to get Max Hardcore to talk—or anyone in the porn industry, really.

So what happened after this lost weekend?

He wrote the piece, which didn’t take too long. Premiere didn’t know where it was going to be on the schedule, it was really long, and we had to see what we were going to do about it. At a certain point we settled on the September issue. Despite the fact that the AVN Awards had lost their “news” value, this was not a news piece. Then we got into this whole process, which seemed to go fine. We cut way less than we did from the Lynch piece. This one actually ran somewhere like 25,000 words, very close to the original word length. We worked very hard on the cut, and then there was the whole matter of legal, which was very weird, because there’s a lot of stuff in there that’s invented, starting from the dual pseudonym which he then expands into a conceit of first person plural narration. There are the characters of Dick Filth and Harold Hecuba, who were invented characters that were also composites of myself and Evan. Legal was like, “Oh-kay ... Harold Hecuba’s trifocals winding up in cleavage of Christy Canyon and then never being seen again?” Obviously, that’s not what really happened. It was more like, Jasmine St. Clair got Evan into a choke hold at a party one night. But we said they should let it go because: “Neither Evan or I care about the fact that we’re Dick Filth and Harold Hecuba and ... the writer’s a very big deal!” Our legal department was very good about that, actually. As long as it wasn’t actionable, if we wanted to do it, they figured it was our funeral. Then came the fact checking, which involved watching a shitload of porno movies. “Oh and 13 guys spit in Stephanie Swift’s face…” (mimes a fact checker counting off the number of spits in S. Swift’s face)

Jim, the editor-in-chief, was concerned about how relentless the article was. When you’re the editor-in-chief of a magazine, obviously you want to back up your writers, but then there’s also the overall tone of a given issue, and how everything works together. In his opinion something needed to be done. At the time, I was prone to acting out and being belligerent, so I don’t think I actually helped the situation, saying, “We have to do what the writer says!” Not that I don’t think I was right, I just didn’t go about making my position felt in a constructive way. What wound up happening was the profanity of the piece was hyphenated a couple of days before we shipped, which made Dave very angry. He was somewhat angrier still when the piece ran and it leaked out that he was the author, although that was going to happen anyway.

He’s done that other times, though, using a pseudonym for pieces in McSweeney’s.

Yeah, but he hadn’t come out and said Mr. Squishy had been bowdlerized! For that to be leaked, to him, was adding insult to injury. I don’t blame him.

What was your relationship was like with Premiere at this time?

I had threatened to quit, and Dave had made it clear that I should not. He called me up and said, “Look, I am mad about what happened to the piece. I will not write for Premiere ever again. I’d love to work with you if you’re ever at another magazine. I don’t think you should quit, though, because you’re doing good work over there.” I was just about to start writing the film reviews there and actually was going to change my identity. I became a film critic, but before that I had been an editor and an occasional feature writer. But he said, “No, don’t quit on my account.” This was a measure of the kind of person that Dave was. If it had been almost any other writer, he probably would have encouraged me to quit and then not returned my phone calls! But yeah, I was on shaky ground at the time. I’m actually mildly surprised that Jim didn’t fire my ass.

After Wallace had not written for Premiere anymore, what was the nature of how you guys stayed in touch?

We’d call each other up every now and then. Something would happen, or he’d want to ask me about something, or he’d be in town. We’d talk every couple of months—“What did Mickey Rourke do to his FACE?,” or “I was in the video store and I heard this voice on the P.A. system and I couldn’t figure out who it was, and then I thought it was Franzen, and then I was like, why is Franzen on the P.A. system of this video store? And then I realized it was you and they were playing this DVD of Jules and Jim with your commentary on it! How did you wind up doing that—that was pretty cool!” There were a lot of things going on in our personal life simultaneously that we found pertinent to talk about. I had met the woman who I would later marry, and when he was out here in 2002, we all had tea together, and he really liked Claire, which I thought was pretty great. Shortly after that he met Karen and they got married. The last few years of knowing each other, we were like two men as uxorious husbands, essentially.

I tried to get Dave to write for a book I edited about Star Wars called A Galaxy Not So Far Away and he wasn’t that interested. “I’m more of a Lord of the Rings man. Let me know if you ever edit a book about that.” I did get feedback from him when the book was completed, and I know Todd Hansen was happy that Dave enjoyed his piece best of all. Todd wrote this very long 20,000 word piece about the inevitable anticlimax of The Phantom Menace which was very impassioned and questioning and tortured in a way that recalls Dave’s work, so he liked that.

You brought up very early on about his post 9/11 writing. Do you feel like there was a shift?

In the way that Infinite Jest deals with certain species of disaster or catastrophe, 9/11 was a natural subject for him. But it’s funny the way certain events put prior perceptions into relief. I always thought that what Dave did after Infinite Jest was really smart as a career move. He had published this pre-millennial, huge home run novel in a tradition that includes Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Pynchon took a very long time to follow that up, and I think part of the reason was because it became expected of him that that was the kind of thing he was going to do for the rest of his life. In certain ways the work Pynchon has done since then has been both in that vein and trying to refute the idea about being the kind of novelist who only writes the Big Novel. I thought what Dave did after Jest was brilliant by not doing another novel—by doing these essays, doing Oblivion and Brief Interviews—the latter of which can function as an unusual novel if you read it in a certain light. It was a smart way of keeping out there, staying vital, maintaining his position as a writer and being so productive in a way where nobody is going to say, “Where’s the next big novel?” Especially when you find out some of the things that were contributing factors to his depression had to do with his inability to get a novel done. So I’m thinking, “What a brilliant strategy!” And he’s thinking, “I’ve just abandoned my third try at a novel. What am I going to do?” He did not tell a lot of people about his depression; only those very close to him.

But if you read his work, it was impossible to deny that he was grappling with these things.

I remember reading Brief Interviews and thinking, “I’m a little worried about Dave.” But then seeing him read the most harrowing portions of the book in New York where it became the funniest thing ever, I thought, “Oh, all right!” We talked about things like addiction. He was always solicitous of your own condition, your own health. I know he had some very profound struggles in areas like that. Even had he not been depressed, I don’t think Dave was adverse to happiness but I think he was incredibly suspicious because of all of the false things in the culture that are proposed to simulate happiness. He looked at the concept askance because of that. Part of his personal struggle was to find a form of happiness that was not ersatz. Certainly, to as much as an extent as possible, he found that in his marriage.

He reacted so strongly against contemporary writers who we might perhaps generalize as nihilistic. I don’t know if I’d call it “happy” but certainly the earnestness of his writing—like Chekhov is perhaps unsparing of his characters, but not unsympathetic. It’s like a doctor looking at a symptom. I don’t think that’s happiness, but at least regarding a human being with empathy gets us going in the right direction.

It was all about the Sisyphean struggle as it were. To put it in a different way, without making it a pop song, “I’m looking for one new value but nothing comes my way.” That’s not how Dave felt, but “happiness” is such an amorphous word. There’s such a huge strain of philosophy that says happiness should not even be what we are, what we should seek, and Dave being incredibly learned in philosophy was no doubt familiar with that. But looking for a value, and not stopping. What stopped him was the disease. Infinite Jest is very interesting in his sections about AA, the whole idea of the intellectual, the non-believer embracing the 12 steps even though he doesn’t necessarily believe them, and how to reconcile that. I don’t think he believed in an afterlife. He thought Belief or Faith were values in and of themselves. It’s the kind of attitude you find, albeit in a somewhat less sophisticated intellectual form, in some of Tarkovsky’s films, like Stalker. I wish we’d talked about it more.

Someone said “the imperative that runs through DFW’s work is the intimate connection between humility and wisdom.” Do you agree with that?

It’s an imperative; it’s there—it was there in the way he carried himself, calling me “Mr. Kenny” and all that. He started from a place of humility. As relationships form, it becomes different. But he was never pompous or overbearing as a person, and his wisdom, well, you know? Once he settled on a certain position, morally, he settled on it. And he was very definite. But there’s a never-ending struggle there, too. That’s something I think all writers are well advised to bear in mind.

Jeremiah Kipp’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications.