The movie “The End of the Tour” is based on writer David Lipsky’s book “Although of Course You End Up Being Yourself,” which is itself based on transcripts of the tape-recorded interviews he made with acclaimed author David Foster Wallace, towards the end of Wallace’s promotional tour for his novel, “Infinite Jest.” Lipsky laughs when he’s asked if it’s okay to record the interview:
“Oh no, of course,” he says. “Jim, you’ve seen the movie, so how can I answer anything ‘but of course’ about recording a conversation?”
In a slightly squirmy scene in the movie, Lipsky, played by Jesse Eisenberg, is seen dictating notes as he goes through Wallace’s medicine cabinet. Did he really do that?
“I know in the movie I did, and in the book I know that I note a tube of Topol, the smoker’s tooth polish, so I know I must have been in the medicine cabinet. In the first couple of pages of the book I note that he had like a had a Barney towel, that’s a real thing, it’s in the movie, hanging as a curtain in the bed room… And it isn’t in the book, but he had a bunch of copies of ‘Cosmo,’ on like his reading side table, by his reading chair. He said ‘I left those there so you can see how I’m living and what I’m like.’ He made a great joke about the ‘Cosmos’ too. He said reading ‘I Cheated, Should I Tell?’ twelve times a year to be fundamentally soothing to the nervous system. I think he wanted me to see what his life was like.”
To us, the audience, “The End of the Tour” is a movie, but to Lipsky, it’s a memory. Does the movie look and sound like what he remembers?
“I was calling and asking how Jason [Segel, who plays Wallace in the movie] was doing because I had written the book as a way to preserve the David Wallace who I had met, and who had just written one of the best new novels by somebody in a quarter century. I gathered from people who were there [on the set] that he was great, that he was doing it, that he had listened to the tapes that David and I made, that he had read all his stuff, that he’d watched all the clips on YouTube to try to get it right. The thing I was looking forward to most, after seeing how Jason had done, was being back in that house. I had thought about those conversations for seventeen years, and I loved being back in that house, and seeing David there again.”
And how does it feel to see himself played by Jesse Eisenberg?
“It’s all very exciting. We had talked about who would play me after they had gotten the screenplay done and they had gotten together where they were going to shoot and I had really pushed for Jesse. Jesse is a writer. He writes plays and he writes pieces for ‘The New Yorker’ and I thought it was important for someone who was talking about words with another person whose whole life is their words, I thought it was important that it be somebody the audience could tell lived and worked with words. That was very exciting to me.”
This was not a profile of an unknown writer. Lipsky’s time with Wallace came at a time when Wallace was already being catapulted to celebrity. How did Lipsky’s own first impression of David Foster Wallace dovetail with his expectations?
“I had been hearing from people in New York that he was the most charming and funny and gallant person. When he would go to New York to edit features in Harper’s magazine that they were running, people would brag not just about reading the features, not just about editing him, they would brag about talking to him, about getting a soda with him while he was there editing. He called sodas ‘pops’ because he was from the midwest. He’d go out and get a pop. So I heard just how electrifying it was to talk to him.”
And yet Lipsky maintains that unlike many writers, whose speech and conversation are very different from their writing, Wallace spoke the way he way he wrote. The lines Wallace speaks in the context of the movie are his. All of the dialogue in the movie is directly from Lipsky’s book. My own daughter, a fan of Wallace’s writing, had asked me to specifically ask if Wallace was as articulate as he seems in the movie, where even when he’s awkward he’s awkward in a magnificently literary way. Did it seem to Lipsky that Wallace’s sentences were planned? Lipsky says no, and refers one to the transcripts of his interview, and the book based on them. He also notes what an uplifting presence Wallace was to be around:
“He was funny and smart in a way that said to you ‘If I could just try to pay more attention, if I could just try to stay more awake, maybe I could have as much fun being alive as this guy’s having.’”
Which is an amazing impression for someone whose long struggles with depression eventually ended in his suicide to make, quite frankly. Did Lipsky see any evidence of the depression which in hindsight clearly haunted the man?
“He talked about it. He talked about it as something he’d overcome.”
In the movie, Lipsky is shown giving Wallace a copy of his own novel, “The Art Fair,” which Lipsky confirms happened. Did Wallace ever give him any feedback on it?
“No, he gave me back my shoe,” he says, referring to a shoe he accidentally left behind at Wallace’s home. “I never heard if he liked the book. One of the things I heard that I did very much like was that I told him to read a book by a “New Yorker” journalist named Renata Adler. She had written a book about a New York-based journalist called ‘Speedboat,’ and I saw that he had read that book, and that he taught the book. It was a treat to see that DFW had written sentences about his New York-based journalist Skip Atwater in the flyleaf: Skip Atwater is the main character in his long short story ‘The Suffering Channel.’ I checked, and on page 216 of the book [Wallace] makes me a kind of book-swap deal: ‘It’s in like the first twenty pages. The Screwtape Letters is really—it’s weird cause it’s a very childlike, simple book. But Lewis is incredibly smart.. . . I think you would find that book intensely interesting. ’Cause it’s weird, I read it for the first time when I was thirty. I swear to God, I’ll read Renata Adler and Nabokov’s letters if you will check that out. I think you’d really like it.’ I read ‘Screwtape Letters’ – and then listened to it, walking back and forth between barracks and the Plain at West Point; he was right, of course, it was great, and intensely interesting. ”
On their road trip together, David Foster Wallace told Lipsky that he thought “Infinite Jest” takes at least two months to read well. How long did it take Lipsky?
“I read it fast the first time, because I’m a fan and had been waiting for the book so long. It took about two-to-three weeks. The other times are about the same – and now I read it the way you’ll skip ahead to sections you especially love in a Netflix video. Head right to certain tennis scenes, or a great moment when Don Gately is eating M & M’s. Or a great and funny school cafeteria scene.”
He also notes that Jason Segel started a book club to read “Infinite Jest,” and that they did about one hundred pages a week, putting them pretty close to Wallace’s two month mark.
There’s a telling moment in the movie about Wallace’s view of success. As Lipsky describes it: “Jesse turns to Jason and says ‘Doesn’t it feel good to have people say something you did was good, that people like what you wrote,’ and Jason says, ‘It’ll be interesting to talk to you in a few years – my own experience is that it is not so.’”
David Foster Wallace has been gone for nearly a decade – his books will be with us much longer – but if David Lipsky had a chance to ask him one question now that he didn’t back on that road trip long ago, what would it be?
Lipsky answers this one quickly, with no hesitation: “I would ask him what I should read.”