Seven years ago I was walking up Fifth Avenue with David Foster Wallace. He wanted to know what I thought of The Names. That one’s the key, he said, speaking of Don DeLillo’s work like it was a safe which contained its own code. It was hat-and-glove weather. Wallace wore a purple sweatshirt. Where did I get my coat? he asked. That’s a great coat, he said. It was like something James Bond would wear. Had I been to this restaurant before?
We had just walked into Japonica, a sushi restaurant on University Place. Our interview was underway, and Wallace was already several questions ahead of nearly every writer I had ever profiled. Most writers, even the most curious one, don’t ask questions of a journalist. Nor should they, necessarily. They are the ones being interviewed, after all.
Wallace, however, seemed to think in the interrogative mode. He was tall and slightly sweaty, looking like he had just come from a run. But he seemed determined not to intimidate. He was like a big cat pulling out his claws, one question at a time. See, look, I’m not going to be difficult.
Once we got going, though—and there was a propulsive, caffeinated momentum to the way he talked—he returned, constantly, to questions. Had I ever written about my life? It’s hard, right? Are celebrities even the same species as us? Is it possible to show what someone was really like in a profile?
“These nonfiction pieces feel to me like the very hardest thing that I do,” he said, talking about Consider the Lobster, the book he had just published, “because reality is infinite.” And then. “God only knows what you are jotting.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about this encounter lately. For the past fifteen years, I have interviewed a lot of writers. A few hundred—perhaps too many, but why not say yes? Shortly out of college a friend gave me a vintage set of The Paris Review Book of Interviews. They exhaled the flinty musk of a cigar smoker’s home, and were as snappy as the lining of a 1940s dinner jacket. My friend had given the books to me in the spirit of encouragement. I was writing a novel, and had gotten stuck. Reading the interviews didn’t solve my problem, however. Reading about Graham Greene’s pickled misanthropy, or John Updike’s imaginary reader east of Kansas, I didn’t want to be them. I wanted to be person who got to sit down and talk to them.
Not long after I read the books in one feverish week I interviewed my first writer, Allegra Goodman. For a now-defunct newspaper called The Cambridge Tab. It’s so long ago I don’t remember where we met. I marveled at her productivity: four novels and as many children by her early thirties. She was cheery, like somehow using time efficiently was just like doing a crossword puzzle.
It was a pretty brief encounter, but it led to others, and fifteen years later I’ve had enough of them that I have met people at parties and only realized why it’s so easy to chat with them: I’ve interviewed them before. Obviously, the best ones are very hard to forget. Lawrence Ferlinghetti looking at me like, Stop shouting at me, I’m not that old. Sitting on Doris Lessing’s futon as she talked about feeding blackbirds. Being told how to eat a scone by Kazuo Ishiguro.
I recently put the best conversations into a book, and—since it’s a book about talk—hit the road to be its bumbling emissary. My editor thought it’d be clever to have some of the novelists turn the tables and interview me, so in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Iowa City, and some cities north and south, I’ve been on the other side of this equation.
I was born in the Midwest, and so the overwhelming immediate and overwhelming sensation, when asked to talk about myself, is embarrassment. This is bad manners, I can hear my grandmother saying. Here I am, more about me. What about you? Louise Erdrich, who hosted an event in Minneapolis, wasn’t having it. She’d smile and rephrase the question. As did Richard Russo in Portland, Maine, and Geoff Dyer in Brooklyn, who said: “I see what you’re doing but you’re not going to flip this around.”
What was far more interesting, though, than this sensation of shame was how much what the novelists asked of me told me about them. Louise Erdirch asked about my family. Richard Russo, who barely escaped Arizona in the heyday of postmoderism, about the influence of bad teachers. On Martha’s Vineyard, Geraldine Brooks—who has spent time in war zones and talked to some rather nasty men—asked if there was anyone I really didn’t like. Aleksandar Hemon, who moved to this country in 1992 and made the English language his own, noticed I spoke in paragraphs.
Even though it’s the same me, often in the same clothes, traveling to each of these tour stops, each conversation has been different. With Mark Danielewski we talked so much about the novel and its capabilities I felt like two assassins talking about our guns. In Iowa City, where I asked most of the questions of Marilynne Robinson, the evening was more like a town-hall meeting. In New York, with Teju Cole, a duet played in two keys.
After a month of these events, I realized the conventions of the interview deprive us of one thing a novelist does quite a bit, which is ask questions. The German journalist Tobias Wenzel and photographer Carolin Seeliger got partway there in a series they conducted in 2007 with seventy-seven writers. They asked each one to ask themselves a question they wished they were asked, and then as the writer spoke Seeliger took a portrait.
But that only gets us partway there. A novelist’s quarry is people and relationships. What do they want to know? Putting a novelist in the interviewer’s shoes takes what is implicitly, hopefully elegantly, written into their work and makes it visible. So the unclassifiably brilliant British novelist Nicola Griffith wanted to know if I had thought of brain chemistry. And Robin Sloan mused about the ways my book resembled a data cloud.
And Wallace, well, he just seemed to want to know everything, and all you have to do is open Infinite Jest to any one of its 1100 pages to discover that he nearly did.
John Freeman is the author of How to Read a Novelist. He will be in conversation with Jennifer Egan this Thursday, November 7, at McNally Jackson Bookstore, at 7 P.M.