A Brief (Crowd-Sourced) Interview with Michael Pietsch

Michael Pietsch

Thanks very much to Michael Pietsch, Chief Executive Officer of Hachette Book Group and David Foster Wallace’s editor, who was gracious in his participation and thoughtful in his answers to our crowd-sourced questions.

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Because we are each, in some way, manifestations of all of our past relationships, one might suppose that your relationship with Wallace and also your work on Infinite Jest, a novel that has profoundly impacted many of his readers, helped to shape you as a person in ways that perhaps weren’t immediately evident but may be so in hindsight. Can you reflect on this?

Thanks for this big tough question! To say how my relationship with David shaped me as a person is more than I’m able to do here. I certainly knew at the time I was working with him as he completed Infinite Jest, and with Little, Brown as we published it, that it was an important publication. How often do you get to work on what is clearly a work of genius?

I know now, much more than I could appreciate in my middle 30s, how lucky I was to be working with people who cared about publishing Infinite Jest well. The president and editor-in-chief at Little, Brown who let me sign the book up based on a partial manuscript took a chance on my judgment. The publisher, copy editor, jacket designer, and most of all the marketing and publicity people all saw the opportunity and came up with creative ways of making sure the book stood out vividly.

Infinite Jest is peppered with a huge number of seemingly minute details that eventually recur or connect different scenes, characters and storylines. How did you (and Wallace) keep track of these details throughout the editing process to make sure they stayed consistent? Did you have a system?

David kept track of the million details himself. I believe he had every little piece in his head, and knew how every point connected with every other point. I made long outlines and pages and pages of notes to help myself track plot lines, characters, points of view, time lines, and everything else I could track, and raised my questions and suggestions by letter–many of them available to the public at UT’s Ransom Center–and on phone calls.

In an interview with Michael Silverblatt, Wallace mentioned that the structure of Infinite Jest is like a lopsided Sierpinski gasket. Were you both adhering to and thinking of a fractal structure when working on the structural edit of Infinite Jest or can you describe how you perceived the structure?

David never talked with me about Sierpinski gaskets! And I wouldn’t have wanted him to. My role was to be kind of a designated knucklehead–an early normal reader, not coming to the book with any special advance explanation. David wanted Infinite Jest to be enjoyable by readers with no knowledge of formal structure, or philosophy, or literary history. He asked me once what I perceived the structure to be and I responded that it seemed like something that had been smashed to pieces and somewhat haphazardly put back together, and that this structure seemed suited to a story about people trying desperately to fix their broken lives. We discussed the fact that the story doesn’t narrow to a dramatic conclusion, and that some readers would find its ending frustrating. He was content with this.

At the end of his book, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, David Lipsky discusses how the publishing industry has changed since the mid-90s, noting that many of the independent bookstores at which David appeared during the book’s promotional tour are now shuttered. What do you see as some of the impediments and opportunities posed by the current publishing climate when it comes to the kind of work David wrote and that you consider valuable? Do you think work that deserves an audience more often than not finds one?

The business is definitely different twenty years later, just as 1996 was very different from 1976. We do miss those independent booksellers, and the four hundred Borders stores that are gone. There are always challenges in publishing. But my belief is that Infinite Jest, published today, would be an even earlier and bigger success than it was. Independent bookstores today are much better communicators with their customers, and modern online marketing and social media amplify the kind of powerful excitement that IJ generated to a much louder volume than was achievable in 1996.

The extent to which any work deserves an audience is a complicated question. A vast number of works of fiction are published every year, and it is not unusual for books of great craft and art and insight to get less attention than its creator and its publisher strive for. It’s very hard work to get the attention of a large number of readers, and innumerable factors can interfere. There are countless entertainments clamoring for readers’ attention, not just books. One concern in bringing out Infinite Jest was that its great length would make readers extra reluctant to take it on. We were fortunate that enough influencers–other writers, reviewers, magazine editors, book editors, librarians, booksellers–had enjoyed his first novel, The Broom of the System, and story collection, Girl With Curious Hair, that there was quickly a wave of anticipation and acclaim that swept past that obstacle and made finishing the novel a kind of Gold Star of literary seriousness.

What was Wallace like to work with? What did you enjoy most about your relationship, and what do you miss most about him, both as a writer and as a person?

Working with David was incredibly fun. You won’t be surprised to hear that he was playful, funny, modest, kind, and self-effacing. He didn’t come to New York often, and as a result our encounters could be somewhat awkward–there was so much to try to pack into a meeting! He was especially awkward under the attention of senior executives who wanted to make much of him, and preferred talking with the assistants who get the work done. (The story “The Suffering Channel” is in part a paean to those assistants.) I miss everything I ever knew about him.

I’ve never missed David’s writing more than now. The political rise of the baby-monster Donald Trump–infantile, narcissistic, willfully ignorant, entertainment morphed into malevolent power–is a terrifying realization of the America foreseen by Infinite Jest, Johnny Gentle and the Giant Baby in one. I long daily for David’s voice to help us see and understand and project where this is all heading.

I’m curious about the number of editions, translations, and total copies sold of Infinite Jest in the twenty years since its publication. Given that these numbers are probably not insignificant, and that scholarly interest in Wallace has been exploding over the past few years, is there any possibility of producing an unexpurgated “writer’s cut” Infinite Jest with all of the material that was cut from the original version? (The D.T. Max bio said they cut 250,000 words or so to get it to the 550,000 published). Was there any talk of including some of the cut material in this anniversary edition? Or maybe as some sort of electronic book extra?

Infinite Jest has been published in the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Brazil, with translations forthcoming in Russia, Poland and Hungary. Worldwide sales exceed one million copies.

I don’t know where Mr. Max got his estimate of the number of pages David cut in the editing process, but 250,000 words strikes me as wildly overstated. My own memory is that around 150 pages were cut. David put a lot of words on a manuscript page, so call it 75,000 words. Perhaps David cut many more draft pages before sending it to me. I recall him saying in interviews that 250-300 pages were cut, and it struck me at the time that he might have been exaggerating for effect.

For this twentieth anniversary edition, with the approval of the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust, we reviewed the collection of David’s papers at the Ransom Center to see if there were any sections that he had removed in the editing process that might be included in an Afterword. There are no such sections in the collection. At the end of the publication, we returned the draft manuscript to David, as was standard practice, and he doesn’t appear to have kept it. (This was still in the days of Xerox copying, long before email attachments and Track Changes and version control.) This doesn’t trouble me. The cuts David made were all intentional–the version we have is the version he wanted, not something imposed on him. It is the Writer’s Cut. Reading some Deleted Scenes would be fun, but I don’t believe they would add to our understanding of the novel.

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3 thoughts on “A Brief (Crowd-Sourced) Interview with Michael Pietsch”

  1. Very interesting reading, and I like his explanation of the final version being the Writer’s Cut, not the Editor’s cut.

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