The David Lynch piece that David Foster Wallace wrote for Premiere, about life on the set of Lost Highway, was commissioned well before the world met Infinite Jest. This was in late 1995, and it was Susan Lyne, Premiere‘s founding editor, who made the prescient assignment. Not long after Wallace turned in his first draft, however, Ms. Lyne left the magazine for a job at Disney, and the piece fell to her successor, Chris Connelly, who gave it to an editor named Kristin von Ogtrop. Ms. von Ogtrop — now the editor-in-chief of homemaking magazine Real Simple — went to town on the thing, cutting huge chunks out of it for space and thus inspiring Wallace to nickname her “The Blunt Machette” in the acknowledgments page at the end of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, in which the piece was anthologized.
Whether or not Wallace would have accepted those cuts we will never know, because the Connelly era at Premiere ended amid scandal two months after it began, and Ms. von Ogtrop subsequently decamped for a job at Travel and Leisure. Wallace’s piece got lost in the shuffle, and was left to gather dust on the cutting room floor until the next editor in chief, Jim Meigs, gave it to a freelance editor named Glenn Kenny after hearing that he was a fan of Infinite Jest.
“He wanted to do something with it but he really wasn’t sure,” Mr. Kenny said in an interview today. “Wallace was kind of unhappy about the fact that so much had to be cut from the piece, so Jim told me, ‘The first thing you should do is call him up and say you’re taking over the piece and mollify him about this.”
Mr. Kenny, then 37 or so, did as he was told. In the acknowledgments to “Fun Thing,” he is listed as “The Mollifier.”
“We started out just talking about, you know, our mutual enthusiasms regarding film and such, and he came to feel that I had a knowledge of film that he could kind of fall back on in certain cases,” Mr. Kenny said. “I remember at one point he was like, ‘There’s a use in the article of the word Bressonian,’ and he was like, you know, ‘I’m not sure how solid ground I’m on calling something Bressonian, because I’ve only seen a couple of Bresson films — do you think this is right?’ I said yeah.”
From there, the duo went to work reassessing the cuts Ms. von Ogtrop had made and restoring some sections that she had excised.
“Aside from most of the back and forth involving space cuts, it basically became a game of taking the latest version of it, submitting it to the copy desk, having the copy desk put in all these [joining commas] that weren’t there to begin with and then getting on the phone with Dave and taking [them all],” Mr. Kenny said. “The copy chief was very, very upset about the eschewance of [joining] commas. Copy editors are kind of … what’s the phrase? They’re bred in the bone. They’re born, not made, and even if they understand that there’s a certain style you want to give to the author, they’re still gonna do it.”
The piece was put to bed in July 1996, according to Mr. Kenny, and appeared in Premiere right around the time it was supposed to, despite all the starts and stops it suffered during gestation.
Almost immediately, Wallace and his editor started talking about what he was going to write next.
“He mentioned porn,” Mr. Kenny said. “He said someday I’d like to do something about porn, and maybe do something about the adult film awards.”
The following summer Spin Magazine happened to ask Wallace to write a piece on that very topic, offering to send him to the 15th Annual Adult Video News (AVN) Awards in Las Vegas so he could do to whatever he found there what he’d done to the Illinois State Fair for Harper’s a few years earlier.
The trouble was, Wallace had decided not to take any magazine assignments for a while so that he could work on other things. Plus, he felt like he if he wrote about the AVN Awards, it should be for Premiere. So he called Mr. Kenny and asked if he’d let him do the piece under a pseudonym.
“His exact words were, ‘I don’t want to look like a douchebag,'” Mr. Kenny said.
Pretty soon the project was green-lighted and Wallace started doing his research. Namely, he wanted to see as many of the films that had been nominated as possible. Problem was, Wallace lived in Normal, Illinois, where there was no abundance of outlets for that sort of thing. So Mr. Kenny helped.
“Periodically, I would go and buy a bunch of tapes and they’d be expensed and I would send them to Dave,” he recalled. “Dave would watch them, take notes on them, and then send them back to Premiere because, as he said, he didn’t want them in his house.”
About 30 videotapes later, it was time to ship out to Vegas. Wallace convinced Mr. Kenny to accompany him, and the two of them — along with Generation Kill author Evan Wright, who was working for Hustler at the time — set off on the journey that would eventually become “Big Red Son.”
“Dave had the flu, but he was working very, very hard,” Mr. Kenny said. “It was interesting to see him work, to see him in action observing things. I always compared him to that character in that Roger Corman movie X: The Man with the X–Ray Eyes, because his perception was so acute that it was almost painful to him.”
“We’d be on the floor at the Sands Convention Center during this whole porno expo, of which the AVN Awards were the ostensible climax. All these boobs and porno stars giving autographs, this whole sub-Fellini spectacle. He walked around with me and Evan on the show floor, and he’d do that for about a half-hour and then he’d go outside, out into the hall, and sit up against a wall and write in his legal pad for about 45 minutes. … Of course this was all filtered through his imagination, because there were huge substantial bits of the AVN story that are fictionalized. The characters of Dick Filth and Harold Hecuba [identified in the piece as Wallace’s “guides and docents”] are obviously not real people. They’re fictionalized versions of me and Evan.”
It was a fun weekend, Mr. Kenny said. About a month later, he received Wallace’s 25,000 word draft.
“Dave was the greatest bargain in magazine publishing,” Mr. Kenny said. “This used to drive [his agent] Bonnie crazy, because he would accept not really middling fees but what would be considered for an author of his stature extremely low fees, and he’d accept a word count in theory. In terms of the AVN piece, I think if you do the math, given what we paid him at a strict word rate, he probably got around 25 cents a word.”
The draft was a tour de force, Mr. Kenny said. Unfortunately, some of its particulars did not sit too well with his boss, Mr. Meigs.
“Dave really wanted very badly to create a sense of deep revulsion, I think, and he succeeded,” Mr. Kenny said. “It was strong in a way that nothing that had ever been published in Premiere had been before. It was not, from an editor in chief’s point of view … a total fit with the rest of the magazine. And this clearly bothered Jim, and this was where the problems came in. Jim really did like the piece very much, but he had this sense that it was almost too strong.”
More importantly, Mr. Meigs had some issues with the content of the piece — the profanity, in particular, which he said could not appear in the magazines unless the middle letters were replaced by hyphens (“s–t”, etc.).
“This was decided about two days before we shipped,” Mr. Kenny said. “Dave was not happy about it … and he said, ‘Look, I’m not gonna write for you guys again — if you were really so concerned about content, you should have sent me to a Mormon convention.’ And I said, you know, ‘I agree! I’m fucking quitting!'”
He added: “I wasn’t very helpful to Jim Meigs when he was grappling with the piece. Of course an editor has to take a stand for the writer, but I was pretty self-righteous and belligerent, and at the time very prone to acting out. I made noises about quitting…but really, I was very fortunate not to have gotten my ass fired.”
It was Wallace who convinced Mr. Kenny not to quit, leaving him a phone message telling him that while he appreciated the support, he didn’t think anyone would be better off if he actually walked out on the job. Though he held to his promise never to write for Premiere again, he let the piece go to press and told Mr. Kenny that there were no hard feelings.
The two never worked together again — Mr. Meigs made Mr. Kenny Premiere‘s chief film critic in ’98 and he stopped editing — but they remained friends.
“It’s just that fucking thing with friends you don’t talk to all the time,” Mr. Kenny said. “You have this inner assumption that they’re just gonna be around, you know? And then, you know. Now you’re never gonna hear that voice again.”