The Chance to Be Called “Dickbrain” by the Writer You Most Admire
David Lipsky talks about David Foster Wallace and The End of the Tour
In March of 1996, Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky drove in a rental car to interview a young David Foster Wallace. Wallace, 34 at the time, had just released his novel Infinite Jest, the 1,079-page magnum opus that has endured as one of modern literature’s most prolific critiques of American culture, pleasure, and addiction. (The book is known for its lengthy footnotes and 20-page descriptions of tennis games, as well as beautiful, dazzling passages and rich characterization. Its challenging nature means that finishing it has become a badge of honour for any intrepid reader.) Lipsky’s account of his five-day road trip with Wallace toward the end of the Infinite Jest book tour would end up being adapted three times over. Although his original article was never published (a heroin epidemic broke out in Seattle and Lipsky was sent to cover the story; by the time he returned, too much time had passed since his Wallace assignment), he would end up writing “The Lost Years & Last Days of David Foster Wallace” for Rolling Stone after the author’s suicide in 2008. His recorded conversations with Wallace in 1996 became the source material for his acclaimed 2010 non-fiction book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, and, later, the inspiration for James Ponsoldt’s 2015 film The End of the Tour, in which Lipsky was played by Jesse Eisenberg and Wallace by Jason Segel.
On April 17, David Lipsky will introduce The End of the Tour in person and conduct a post-screening Q&A as part of TIFF’s Books on Film series. We spoke to him over the phone to find out what it’s like to spend five days with a genius, and how Wallace’s writing helps us to understand what it means to be a person in the world.
Based on your encounter with him, how do you think David Foster Wallace would’ve found The End of the Tour, as well as Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself?
That’s an interesting question. He kept teasing me when I was interviewing him, saying, "I don't know how you're going to boil this down." One of the things that made him uncomfortable about being journalized, being written about, was that he couldn’t control the presentation of himself.
One thing that I think he would've loved was that I designed the book to be just “here's everything he said for five days.” Towards the second half of our time together, David had the tape machine. If he thought, "Okay, my answer's pretty good but I really want to think about this,” he would stop talking, turn the machine off, think about what he wanted to say, and then turn it back on. One of the great things about the movie being composed of 95 per cent of stuff from the book is the fact that this is what he wanted people to know about him.
When your book was being optioned, was there anything about your work that you wanted to protect? In all the hypothetical ways that this could've been the worst film adaptation ever, what were you afraid of?
It would've been a film that didn’t work the way the book does. [The screenwriter] Donald Margulies came to me pretty soon after the book came out; and I had seen the play he won the Pulitzer Prize for, Dinner With Friends. He and I had a bunch of meetings talking about the material because it was really important to me that it was kept as the trip, that it would not be watching David grow up. The films starts when the tape recorder goes on and it stops when the tape recorder goes off. Director James Ponsoldt was a student in Donald's playwriting class at Yale. When Donald recommended James as a director, we got on the phone. James had been reading David since he was in high school and said, “I don't want this to be anything even close to the worst-case scenario. I don't want this to be the thing where you say, ‘Hollywood always gets it wrong.’”
In the film, you, or the version Jesse Eisenberg plays of you, becomes the central protagonist of the story. Do you feel like Jesse’s David Lipsky is different from you, or similar?
(Laughs) Well, I wrote this book as a fan of David’s writing. You'll notice that the parts that are of me asking questions are edited down as far as possible. David had a funny thing about his non-fiction, which was him saying, “My essays are like a floating eyeball, which is how you experience lying around in my head for 20 pages or 40 pages.” I wanted the parts that were about me to only suggest his answers, so the reader would feel like they were having that trip with David.
What was great about the film is seeing how exciting it was when David's work was first being published. Once Jesse parks his car at David's house in Illinois, it really is about being with David. Both the book and the movie are designed to let you see, “Here's this person who's brilliant, he’s thinking about all the things that you’re thinking about, so how does that kind of person live their life?”
In the film, more so than the book, the arc of your character is a guy who encounters someone who is not only a more famous and successful writer than him, but also a genius. What about David Foster Wallace did you have to contend with?
I mean, that feeling was true in the book and it was true in real life. In the book David says, “I know I'm gonna miss you because it's a kick to have somebody with a tape recorder writing down everything I say.” He said this great thing about what he called “the fuss.” What he meant was that he had just spent three years writing Infinite Jest. All of a sudden, people were saying he was a genius. There's a greasy thrill from that, but he told me “that part of me doesn't get to drive.” The point he’s making is that it gets in the way of actually doing valuable work. In the movie and in the book, it's a real thing where he keeps saying, “I'm not smarter than other people.” Jesse [Eisenberg] says what I said, which is: “I don't think that's true. I wouldn't be reading a 1,000-page book by someone who is just a regular and nice person. I'm reading it because the writer is brilliant.”
The degree to which you think about yourself as being super smart or brilliant means you stop listening to the world around you. Like, if David was saying, "Well, I'm really smart, so I shouldn't be at Denny's." If you don't enter into any real relationship with the world, you can't do good work. If you let yourself think about yourself that way, you can't be a genius. All you’re listening to is the applause, coming from inside yourself. He was really, really cautious about that in a great way.
I always think about this thing he said about "stomach-level sadness." That feeling he describes you get in the grocery store where you just get a wave of despondency, and how part of being human is contending with that stuff.
That's from the Kenyon College speech, right? That's why I love that there's a scene in the movie set in a 7/11, where he's grabbing all that terrible food. He said this great thing: that he doesn't think writers are smart people, they're just more compelling in their stupidity and confusion. He told me what writers have is the licence to sit, make their hands into fists, and just think really hard about the stuff we're otherwise only aware of on a certain level when we're going throughout our lives. That’s what we can forget when we think someone's a genius.
In fact, him being able to do that great work was a result of being willing not to silence the anxiety when he's in the grocery store — to actually feel it and think about what it means, so he could communicate it. That's one of the things he thought writing was for. He said what writing does is give you a chance “to leap over the wall of self.” When you see that another consciousness like yours exists, beyond being a reader, you just feel, suddenly, warmly unlonely. Cutting out that loneliness for someone else is really why he was willing to sit, make those fists, think so hard, and make books like his.
I think it’s so interesting how you encountered this writer who was so singular in their worldview. Who, through their writing made you feel less alone, like this person understood you and that you could understand each other. Suddenly, you gained total access to him. You hung out with David for five straight days, saw him in all kinds of different situations, also with the responsibility to paint this portrait of him. I mean, that's a very complex relationship to have with someone.
It's such a weird thing to jump into somebody's life that way, the way that you're jumping into my life now. I'm sitting here having an American Spirit and I'm two-thirds the way through a Mountain Dew I opened up on Friday. I was very happy to see it.
I loved David’s writing and had just read the cruise ship piece he'd written for Harper's Magazine. I read it on the phone to people and forced to them to buy the magazine. I read Infinite Jest, he had just been in New York; it was so exciting. Then, I suddenly find myself in his house, sleeping in the room next door to his, hearing him say to his dogs, "Shut up!" He called me a dickhead about two days later because a) my watch was set wrong, and b) we had been talking in this really exciting way, so I thought it was still about 10:30 at night and it was 2:30 in the morning. So he said, "Yeah, it's 2:30, dickbrain." The chance to be called “dickbrain” by the writer you most admire was kind of great and, in a way, is what the movie is about too.
In both the movie and in your book, you guys talk a lot about sex and relationships. Early on, David complains of the lack of groupies on tour. It’s this weird “locker-room talk” between two very cerebral men. What drew you and David to have those personal discussions?
I think about that moment with the tour-sex thing. Later, we have a much better discussion about what it is to be married, to be with someone. He says this great thing — it's in the movie too — that it would be nice to be in a hotel and be able to call somebody because you're having this great experience. To share it and to be a little bit stupid with somebody; he didn't have that at that moment. When he was talking in the beginning about how he wished there were groupies he could be getting with, I think he was trying to see if I would be dumb enough to fall for that as his personality. My not falling for that, by the way, I'd like to think is one of the reasons why he started to be very honest with me. I knew his work really well, the kinds of things he thought about, and that didn't seem to be the way he was experiencing his life.
I often think about how if David Foster Wallace was still alive today he would relate to the things Infinite Jest almost premeditated, like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. These abstractions of the self designed to keep us alone, but feeling connected to people at the same time.
Yeah, it seems like his world, doesn't it? The way he guessed certain things is thrilling to me. In a way it answers why it's valuable to have people who are willing to stop and say, "Here's what life feels like now." There's that thing in the book where he says, "where the technology is going, it's going to keep going farther and farther and get better and better at doing what it does, which is having us be alone in rooms with screens, looking at images given to us by people who do not love us but want our money." By the way, we didn’t avoid that! But the fact that someone else is saying there's something wrong with this, or the disquiet that you sense is not just something you're experiencing, is thrilling. It helps you to carve out that space to be a person in.
Is there a moment in the film that stands out as being exactly true to your own real-life experience?
A lot of it does. We were very careful to get a lot of things right, like his house. I had thought a lot about that house, then he moved in 2000 or 2001 and there weren’t any photos of the interior. We spent a lot of time talking to people who had visited there, I drew pictures for the set designer because we wanted to get that stuff right. What we were trying to say was, “You have an idea of what it is to be a great writer, here’s what it actually is." It's about Pop Tarts, watching a John Woo movie, and having a shark doll on your bookcase. It’s about having your dogs there chewing up the rugs. The first moment where Jesse Eisenberg goes into Jason Segal's house, I was thrilled to see that they had gotten the house correct.
The moment where David says goodbye to Jesse is almost exactly right. You know, it's March, there's been a snowfall but it's melting, these two men have come to know each other and they're saying goodbye. Seeing that was just great because I got to be back there again. There's also another moment, the first night after they've had pizza. They're sitting on the sofa and David is talking about how much he'd like to be in love with somebody. That late-night vibe of talking to somebody who you really like talking to was very much like the real experience. And when his dogs are going through our McDonald’s plates of french fries and eating our burgers also seems very thrillingly correct.
Looking back now, how do you think those five days with David Foster Wallace have influenced your whole life?
One of the things I know when I watch the movie and read the book is that David is always being honest. He refers to it as a "tactical honesty,” but I don't think there are as many tactics as he’s saying there are. David’s saying: "here's how it feels to be me." When he was writing Infinite Jest, he felt in one second that “this is the best thing that's ever been written,” and a second later, he would also feel that “this is the worst thing that's ever been written.” What he reminds me of, as a person and as a writer, is that there's so much stuff that isn't honest you're doing in any given day, even with people that you love. What is thrilling for me, as a reader and as a person, is when someone says, "Look, this is just how it feels to be me."
That reminds of this essay by Jonathan Franzen called "Why Bother?” He talks about how the act of reading teaches you how to be alone with yourself. I think writing is about communicating loneliness in a way that it makes it okay. Like, if you can articulate your own expression of the world and really authentically share something of yourself, you can help someone embrace their own loneliness. Do you think cinema is like that too?
Movies present the same version of the problem of what we like and what will matter to us. It’s really much bigger because movies can bore us much more quickly. You'll forgive a book for being boring for five or 10 minutes, even 50 pages, but if a movie is bad for 20 minutes, we will turn our backs on it. One of the things that makes books special is that they can keep our attention in a way that movies can't. Books seem to match our pace more. Hemingway once said a very funny thing to F. Scott Fitzgerald: "What you have to do is be as honest as you can about cheating." By cheating, he meant making compromises so the narrative will work. It seems like movies have to do more cheating than books have to do.
One of the things I loved about what Donald and James did with the movie, about the book of David and I driving around, is that they didn't have that kind of cheating. I mean, they couldn't give us 300 pages of David and I driving around the Midwest, but they didn’t put in any fake story stuff. The plots in our lives tend not to be as immediate as the plot in Jurassic World. Our plots are more like: "you or I are working on a piece.” Or, “you or I may or may not like certain friends of ours." It could take a year or two for that plot to come together, but that is the pace we live our lives at, and that's what only books can capture.