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David Foster Wallace’s biographer tackles author’s battle with depression

Biographer D.T. Max says that David Foster Wallace’s pain had ‘big elements of depression to it.’

Before he hanged himself in 2008, David Foster Wallace established a reputation as one of the most brilliant writers of his generation. Although depression figured prominently in his fiction, Wallace never published a single word about his own struggle with mental illness.

On Saturday, his biographer, D.T. Max – author of The New York Times bestseller Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace – will be in Toronto as part of a salon looking at depression through the eyes of artists. Hosted by the Necessary Angel Theatre Company, the event will be followed by a performance of 4.48 Psychosis, Sarah Kane's play about clinical depression. Max spoke to The Globe and Mail from his home in New Jersey about Wallace and the role of mental illness in the late author's work.

Depression comes up in Wallace's fiction quite often, but he never discussed his own history with it. Why was he so private about it?

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The obvious answer would be that he was ashamed of it, but I think that's probably not quite right. For much of David's life, he was treated. So I'm not sure that his whole life he thought about himself in that way, as a member of that group particularly. During the period when he wrote Infinite Jest he had a fair number of troubles; he tried to commit suicide, he was in a ward. It wasn't like these troubles were that far from him. But he didn't really write about himself very much at all. If you look at all the interviews with David, he's actually more willing to discuss addiction than he is depression.

Yet when he discovers writing fiction during his time at , one of the things that draws him to it is its redemptive possibilities.

I think that's what he's saying when he talks about how, when he's writing well, he can't feel his ass in the chair. What he's really saying is that writing well relieves him from the pain of being who he is. And that pain certainly has a lot of big elements of depression to it.

One of Wallace's biggest concerns is the difficulty and importance of human empathy. Is it unfair to say that's rooted in his depression? It doesn't seem like a giant leap that someone who suffered the pain and isolation Wallace did in his adolescence would value human connection as paramount.

The thing that makes him an interesting or successful artist is that while those things are rooted in the particulars of his growing up – fear of addiction, suspicion of entertainment as a kind of palliative – they also apply to all of us. So what he does is universalize that depression. David was very intent on turning his depression into a metaphor.

He could also be wickedly funny.

Humour as an antidote to depression is a pretty good tool, and he certainly used it early on and often. I think he felt pretty strongly that humour was going to be the way he dealt with the world.

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So much has been written about the link between mental illness and creative genius. Do you think he would have been uncomfortable with being seen as another example of that linkage?

He might have been. He was very frightened of the diagnosis of bipolar condition, which is the classic productive literary personality. He was very uncomfortable with it. He much preferred having a diagnosis of atypical depression. I think that may suggest that he didn't want to identify with those people. If you think about the people he identified with – Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo – I don't think there's even a whiff of such a condition in those people. He identified with these straight arrows who produced every day.

You mention in the book that later in life Wallace considered giving up fiction and running a dog shelter. A lot of times, he seems downright tortured by how hard writing is. Why do you think he kept at it?

Part of it was this idea that it kept him sane. He was also very ambitious. He wasn't writing for therapy. He very much identified with a high-art tradition.

Is there any worry for you that people will overemphasize the role depression played in Wallace's work?

It's a powerful way to understand him. I also think it's powerful to put him next to a writer [Kane] whose work was so directly about depression. David's a big literary figure. You can't read Infinite Jest, and understand everybody, through the prism of depression. I'd be more worried about Infinite Jest becoming a textbook about addiction. The depression thing strikes me as smart and agile and so far under-thought-through in writing about David. I'm quite frankly in favour of it.

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The interview has been condensed and edited.

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