One thing we’re going to try to do here this week at Media Mob is talk to some of the people who got the chance to edit David Foster Wallace over the course of his career.
Who knows how many of them we’ll actually track down—there are lots, because DFW wrote pieces for so many different magazines—but we begin today with Doubleday editor-at-large Gerry Howard, who acquired and edited Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System when he was at Penguin in the mid-1980s, and his first collection of short stories, Girl With Curious Hair, a few years later at Norton.
The reason Mr. Howard received the “Broom” manuscript in the first place was that he was acquainted with Mr. Wallace’s rookie agent, the San Francisco-based Bonnie Nadell. The two of them met in Manhattan, before Ms. Nadell left her job in Simon & Schuster’s subsidiary rights department and relocated to San Francisco to become an agent.
“[Bonnie] knew that I was all over Bret Ellis like white on rice when [Less Than Zero] was being published in hardcover,” Mr. Howard said, explaining that at that point he was responsible for acquiring paperbacks for Penguin, and so watched what all the other houses were issuing in hardback so he could lunge for the rights to the good stuff before all the other reprint editors did.
The book came to Mr. Howard’s attention at a moment when American literary fiction was ripe for upheaval, as Raymond Carver’s influence was fading and the “Brat Pack”—Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis—was sliding from dominance.
“In the middle of this comes The Broom of the System, which was a total throwback to, you know, late ‘60s, early/mid-70s type fiction,” Mr. Howard said. “It was meta, it was imperial, it was linguistically adroit, to say the least. And you could smell Pynchon and Coover and Elkin all over it. And so I just flipped, and we acquired it for a decent but not crazy sum.”
The book was published as a trade paperback original as part of Penguin’s Contemporary American Fiction series. (1,500 suddenly very valuable hardcovers were also issued, according to Mr. Howard.)
“It was a wonderful experience, because everybody lined up and all the critics lined up and said all the things we hoped they would, including Michiko Kakutani in the daily Times and Caryn James in the TBR, and elsewhere. And David was wonderfully well launched.”
Shortly thereafter Wallace flew to New York from Arizona—where he was closing in on an MFA degree—and met Mr. Howard for the first time.
“I remember that he was exceptionally young,” Mr. Howard said. “He was a very young young. He was the first person who ever called me ‘Mister’… I thought of him as a newly hatched chick, you know? He didn’t have a lot of defenses. He seemed abashed by everything. And I liked him very, very much.”
Editing Mr. Wallace was not always a straightforward thing.
“He was very polite in ignoring me,” Mr. Howard said. “I’m sure I may have changed a comma to a semicolon or maybe fixed a couple of words in Broom of the System but yeah, he knew what he was about, David, even if I didn’t.”
There was one section in particular, towards the end of the book, that Mr. Howard wanted changed, but by the time he was done reading the letter Wallace wrote to him in defense of the way it was, he backed down and left it alone.
“What happens towards the end of the book is that David has herded all of the main characters in the novel into one room and all of the tangled plotlines of the novel are converging at that point,” Mr. Howard said. “And so you’re sitting there waiting for this thing to go off, just as a spectacular piece of comic vaudeville. And instead of doing that he just throws in this line of dialogue: “Hey!” and that’s the end of the chapter… In other words he just sets you up for a spectacular set piece and then pulls the rug right out from under you. So I said to David, in a letter, I said, ‘Come on, you know? You have all the chops to really pull off something spectacular here!’ And you know, ‘You just don’t give over, you just don’t do what’s expected here, and I think you should! Come on, you know? This is too cute,’ is the way that I felt. And he wrote a five or six page, single spaced letter in which he told me that, yes, I was absolutely right in my suggestion and he knew that he really should do this, but here’s why he can’t. And won’t. And the explanation was so convoluted but so heartfelt that at the end I just said, ‘Oh, alright!’ This wasn’t something I was gonna win.”
Mr. Howard received many letters like that from Wallace. “His letters to me were just incredible, page after page,” he said. “Single-spaced, typed out, no typos, no grammatical mistakes.” Those letters are now sitting “somewhere in the Viking Penguin archives.” Mr. Howard said it was much too early to think about whether anyone would ever publish them.
Ms. Nadell said in a separate interview that she also has a lot of Mr. Wallace’s letters, including a ‘thank you’ note he wrote to her parents for feeding him and keeping him company the first time he came to New York to give a reading after the publication of Broom.
That reading—a showcase for the Contemporary American Fiction series at the McBurney YMCA—is on Mr. Howard’s list of favorite publishing-related memories.
“The four readers that we selected were Frank Conroy, Laurie Colwin, TC Boyle, and David Wallace,” Mr. Howard said, audibly bracing himself for a long, obviously cherished story. “We flew a couple of those people in, and this was in fact the first public reading that David would ever do… I remember that before the reading we had a nice dinner at Shun Lee Palace and David just looked very, very glum and I later found out that he was heading off to the bathroom to throw up from nervousness because he was just suffering the tortures of the damned at the prospect of doing this reading before a pretty large crowd.”
The order of the reading was alphabetical, which meant Mr. Wallace, around 25-years-old at the time, was reading last.
“The thing you have to understand is that the first three readers were really experienced literary campaigners,” Mr. Howard said. “Tom Boyle was a total entertainment, rock ‘n’ roll literateur, and Laurie Colwin was urbane and funny in her New Yorker mode, and Frank Conroy who’d been around forever and, you know, ran the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was like Perry Como or Tony Bennett: He was just smooth as silk.”
As these three veterans read, Mr. Wallace looked on and grew more and more frightened.
“You could see it in his face,” Mr. Howard said. “And what I was thinking was, ‘What the hell have I done to this kid? What have I done?’ And especially as each one of these people got up and was just so practiced and terrific, and it just got worse and worse.”
Finally, it was Mr. Wallace’s turn to go up. Mr. Howard introduced him and then stepped aside to watch nervously what happened next.
“He got up and he walked very, very slowly up to the podium,” Mr. Howard said, slowing down for effect. “Then he turned around, away from the podium, and very, very slowly poured himself a glass of water. Then he put the pitcher down and he picked up the glass, took a long drink of water, put it down, and went ‘Aaah.‘ And he said, ‘You know, I always wanted to do that.’ And we just started laughing. It was perfect. It was just a perfect moment. And then he read this section from The Broom of The System… which was a total tour de force, and David read it with complete command and kind of headlong enthusiasm, and people were literally rolling in the aisles.
“It was maybe the best reading I’ve ever seen.”