Earlier this week Media Mob spoke to Gerry Howard, who acquired David Foster Wallace’s first novel and published it as a trade paperback original as part of Penguin’s Contemporary American Fiction line. Wallace stayed with Mr. Howard for his second book, a collection of short stories called Girl With Curious Hair, but when it came time to do something with his second novel, Infinite Jest, his agent Bonnie Nadell—an interview with her can be found here—decided the responsible thing to do was to submit the manuscript to several editors and see how much it could draw. Thus David Foster Wallace came to Little, Brown & Company, where he remained until his death last Friday night.
An editor named Michael Pietsch made the acquisition based on a partial manuscript clocking in at a mere 500 pages. We caught up with Mr. Pietsch, now the publisher of Little, Brown, while he was traveling and asked him to share some memories.
“David was extremely uncomfortable at anything having to do with success, power, competition, anyone sort of putting themselves forward,” Mr. Pietsch said. “That came through in the casual way he dressed, the way he spoke in front of an audience. … He would take loud, theatrical slurps of water and then say ‘Excuse me’ as he belched. As he wrote in ‘Up, Simba’ [Wallace’s 2000 essay on John McCain, published in Rolling Stone and later anthologized in Consider the Lobster], he always felt more comfortable hanging out with the camera crew than he did with the professional journalists he was working with. … I got him to come to my house for a cookout once, and he spent much of the time playing with my kids, who were 3 and 6 at the time. He created a game called Worm Tag, which involved reaching down into the grass and finding worms.”
Mr. Pietsch said that Wallace tried to stay as minimally exposed as possible to reviews of his work.
“He was very uncomfortable with reviews and any public response to his work,” he said. “At some point he asked us not to send him reviews of any kind, and he just said, ‘Please, just give me a call if there’s a particularly hideous review in a prominent place so I can understand why people are looking at me pityingly.'”