GUY RAZ, Host:
M: Thanks, Guy.
RAZ: Also with us is Wallace's longtime agent, Bonnie Nadell. Welcome to you as well.
M: Thank you very much.
RAZ: First, to you, Michael. By way of explaining briefly what the book is about, I will say that it comes out on April 15th, officially, in the bookstores. Can you explain why, Michael?
M: We chose to publish on April 15th as a way of casting a comic light on a novel that has a lot of darkness surrounding it. And that comic light is that the book is set at the IRS tax return processing center based in Peoria, Illinois. It centers on the lives and work of a group of IRS tax return processors.
RAZ: We're going to - obviously - return to some of the themes in the book later. But first, I want to ask you, Bonnie, David Foster Wallace called this book - and I'm quoting here - the long thing. He compared writing it to trying to carry a sheet of plywood in a windstorm. Do you think that the struggle, his struggle in writing this book, contributed to his death?
M: It partly did. I mean, there were a lot of things that contributed to his suicide. Part of it had to do with fighting depression. Part of it comes from going off his medication. But it was a hard book for him to finish, and he never did finish it.
RAZ: He had been - Bonnie, he had been married in 2004. By some accounts, he was in a kind of a happy - at least personally, he was in a happy place in his life; decided he was going to go off one of the antidepressants that he'd been taking for many years. But what? I mean, what happened?
M: Well, he was in a really happy place. I mean, I knew David for 25 years, and I had never seen him as happy and as mature in his life. I mean, he was teaching at Pomona College, which he really enjoyed. He liked living in California. They - he and Karen had bought a house.
RAZ: Karen was his wife, of course - Karen Green.
M: He was very settled. Part of the reason why he decided to go off the antidepressant he was on was because he was happy and settled and felt if there was a time to do it, it was now. Unfortunately, the best intentions that he had didn't work out that way.
RAZ: Michael Pietsch, you are usually used to sort of being in the background, one of the quiet geniuses who makes great writers even better. You did that with David Foster Wallace. First of all, can you describe what he left behind?
M: What David left behind was nearly 3,000 pages of draft in various forms. Some of them were handwritten; some of them were neatly typed; some of them were on computer discs. They were tucked away in various folders. They were spread all through his office. It was this - massive material.
RAZ: Just a pile of things. And in no particular order, just like puzzle pieces.
M: It was a puzzle piece. And within the book, there were repeated references to tornadoes - and in notes he had written to himself, to a tornadic structure that suggested that he wanted this book to be kind of a whirling. high- wind, massive material coming at the reader that way. So those were some of the guidelines that I followed.
RAZ: Michael Pietsch, what was he getting at here?
M: The book attempts the greatest challenge I've ever seen a novelist take on, which is to write a novel about the boring parts of life. Every other novelist in history is compressed around the exciting part.
M: David's goal, from the very start, was to make people look at the parts they usually skip. There is a chapter written by a character named David Foster Wallace, and he begins by saying, go back and read that fine print on the copyright page of the book. His goal was to make people look at the parts of life that they don't usually focus on, and understand that this is where life is really happening.
RAZ: I mean, he has scenes where he's talking about characters auditing tax returns.
M: By doing that, then you can get to joy and to love, and to the meaning of life. So the book deals with boredom, but it's because it wants to deal with joy.
RAZ: Bonnie Nadell, David Foster Wallace researched this book by taking accounting classes. Can you describe what else went into his preparation?
M: And he - and there is a whole section in "The Pale King" where he has characters talking about the tax code, and how the tax code has changed and why it's changed. You remember that part, Michael.
M: Of course. Also, just to respond further to your question, Guy...
M: David was using this book as a way of trying to write about people, and then try to arrive at meaning that connected to people in a really big, deep, heartfelt way.
RAZ: There are parts of this book that are - I think it's fair to say - a bit of a slog, even boring. And I'm wondering if that was deliberate.
M: I think that's a question that is going to be wildly debated, for good reason. Are those chapters that might be called boring, boring because he didn't finish them? My argument is yes, there are chapters that he did not revise as tightly and as forcefully as he revised some. I imagine this novel, if David had continued working on it, would not have been boring for a second. But I'm prejudiced.
RAZ: Bonnie or Michael, as both of you talk about this book in the coming weeks and months, I imagine you're going to get this question: Do you think that he would have wanted us to read this, all of us, even unfinished?
M: Bonnie, what do you think?
M: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think he did. He left it in his office for people to find. Our only hesitation was to know if we thought it was good enough and publishable enough. And that's why it actually took us a number of months before any of us made that decision.
M: So - and as I read these pages, I had no doubt at all. This novel contains writing and thought as great and as deep as anything David ever did. It's heartbreaking that it's not finished, but it's absolutely exhilarating for those of us who loved his work. And how can we not show that to the world?
RAZ: Bonnie, Michael, thank you so much.
M: Thank you for talking to us.
M: Thank you very much.
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