Remembering David Foster Wallace: 'David Would Never Stop Caring' Says Lifelong Agent

Leon Neyfakh
The New York Observer

Sep 17, 2008 05:02 EDT

In Pub Crawl today we have an item about the book David Foster Wallace was working on at the time of his death. Bonnie Nadell, the literary agent who discovered Mr. Wallace in the slush pile when she was a 25-year-old rookie and who continued representing him until the end of his life, told us what little she knew about this unfinished work, but explained that Wallace never really showed anyone anything until he was done with it.

She told us a lot of other things too, and because we couldn't fit it all into the paper, we thought we'd share it here.

This was Monday night when we spoke—around 8:30 PM New York time, so 5:30 PM in San Francisco—Ms. Nadell had just picked her child up from school and was back in the office fielding the unforgiving stream of phone calls that had been coming through since Saturday night.

"It's been the most insane day," Ms. Nadell said. She sounded almost winded. "Hundreds of emails. People from all over—people in London, people here. It's very nice. People are incredibly kind. It's very touching but it's been sort of insane."

We asked about the circumstances that brought her to DFW and his first manuscript.

"I've been David's agent essentially our entire adult lives," she said. "We met when he was an MFA student in Tuscon, Arizona, getting his MFA at the University of Arizona. I was a very new agent in San Francisco. We were both just starting out at that point. I had no clients so what I did was I answered the phone and I read the slush pile."

The agency, led by one Fred Hill, was about six years old when Ms. Nadell came to work there. Before that, she lived in Manhattan, where she'd spend her whole life, and worked for a few years under Susan Kamil (now publisher of The Dial Press) at Simon & Schuster. She moved to California, she explained, because apartments had gotten too expensive in Manhattan, and because plopping down in Brooklyn was unthinkable, she went to the only other place a New Yorker would ever think to live.

"It was the mid-'80s in New York and it was sort of the 'Go-Go 80's,' and I ran out of apartments to live in," Ms. Nadell said. "it was 1985 and things were different. The joke was that I moved from apartment to apartment and I was sort of a nomad."

She had only been in San Francisco a few months when she discovered a piece of Wallace's first novel in the agency's submissions folder.

"He sent a chapter in the mail, and I started to read it and I thought the book was amazing," she said. "So i asked for the rest of it and since I didn't have a lot to do I could read it a lot faster than the other people he sent it out to. I read the novel very quickly even though it was 600 pages. I still have the original manuscript here... I remember reading it in the fall, and sitting in cafes reading it, making comments and stuff."

The ending of the book bothered her, Ms. Nadell recalled, though when she raised her objections with Wallace he was able to quickly convince her to back off.

"The way Broom of the System ends is sort of in the midle of a sentence," she said. "It's a very Pynchon thing to do and I remember saying to him, 'Who do you think you are, Thomas Pynchon?' And he proceeded to explain the entire Wittgensteinian philosophy behind why it was what it was."

She couldn't quite follow the whole thing but the explanation dazzled her. Later she'd have to replicate it to the editors at Penguin, who published Broom of the System in paperback as part of the Contemporary American Fiction series.

Ms. Nadell spoke to Wallace for the last time about a week before he died.

"It was incredibly mundane stuff, like, 'Have you signed the German contracts yet?'" she said. "It was really nothing earth-shattering in any way. It was sort of me being an agent and saying can you talk to so and so from such and such a place. And he said, 'No, not this week.'"

Wallace was never not wary of interviews, Ms. Nadell said, but this summer, he was particularly interested in avoiding them.

"I knew he was not in good shape and it was more a matter of keeping people away," Ms. Nadell said. "He'd had a very bad summer and my job was to keep people away. Because everyone wants a quote from David. Ny job was to say, 'No, not at the moment.'"

Journalists would call, according to Ms. Nadell, as would people looking for blurbs: "You'd be amazed what people ask writers."

It had been like this ever since Wallace became well-known in the mid-90s, and whenever anyone approached him with some or other request, he would politely tell them that they'd have to ask his agent first because she was the one who made all the decisions. According to Ms. Nadell, this was Wallace's policy, not hers.

"That was his invention," she said, laughing a little as if she were pulling the curtains back on a long-standing practical joke. "Sometimes I would say yes and sometimes I'd say no."

When she said yes, she'd go back to Wallace and try to convince him that whatever it was was worth doing.

"Sometimes it was [tough], sometimes not," she said. "A lot of American writers tour and a lot of am writers go speak overseas. He just wasn't someone who enjoyed doing it. I had a lot of favors coming so sometimes I could call one in, meaning I could say, 'I need you to talk to the French such and such,' or, 'The Italians really need you to talk to so and so.'"

This past summer Ms. Nadell held back on that stuff, because she could tell Wallace was not in the mood to deal with it.

"He had good patches and bad patches, but he had always come through them before," she said. "And I thought that he was going to come through this time too."

Despite the funk Wallace was energized by the election, Ms. Nadell said.

"We used to talk politics a lot. You know, as you would with any friend, you'd talk about what you think about the news or the world... We would talk about the election and politics and 'What'd you think Obama's doing?' It was all the usual."

A politics junkie Wallace was not, though.

"You're talking about someone who barely has the internet and doesn't have a TV," she said. "He has, like, dial-up. By the time you see something you've aged 5 years."

Still, he kept up, Ms. Nadell said. "He probably read the newspapers and magazines like everyone else." He remained engaged with the world to the last despite his inclinations towards solitude.

"David would never stop caring," she said. "He would never stop caring about the world. He was not a public person, in that he wasn't living in New York or out every night or someone people would see... He chose a different kind of life. He'd chosen a life that was away from all that, but he never disengaged from the world. You can choose to live apart from the world but never disengange."

Source: The New York Observer


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