Mastery

I just read this great interview with David Foster Wallace that was printed by Amherst Magazine in 1999. I knew that Wallace was a terrific writer but here he proves to be a great interview subject as well. How does he do it? He changes the structure of the interview to suit his strengths.

This interview was conducted by mail: Wallace was sent the questions and was able to draft his answers in his usual writing style: an original draft, two rewrites and two typed drafts. Rather than forcing himself to adapt to an unfamiliar structure Wallace makes the interviewer adapt to a format that works best for him. The lesson here: don’t just play to your strengths, make others play to them as well.

Not only does DFW control the format of the interview, he makes this format explicit within the interview itself. I’m guessing that many interviews I’ve read in magazines are conducted over email, or over extended periods of time, and then presented as short conversations between interviewer and subject. Wallace refuses to buy into this conceit and, to her credit, the interviewer (or editor) follows suit in the way the interview is printed. Example: when asked a question about the limits of entertainment as a means of communication DFW answers “Unanswerable within the constraints of a condensed back-and-forth like this (see Q14).” This answer would be impossible to give in a conversational interview since the subject would not know the content of future answers. Here Wallace calls attention to the structure of the interview in a way that expresses his own style. So lesson number 2: After establishing a favorable environment, exploit its features as much as possible.

These insights seem more akin to the teachings of Sun Tzu than the practice of a literary master. I guess it never hurts to have an edge, and David Foster Wallace was sharper than most.

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