I knew David as his literary agent. We met in 1985, when he was an MFA student at the University of Arizona and I had just moved to San Francisco and become an agent with Fred Hill. He had never published a story outside of college and I had never sold a book. We grew up in publishing together.
From the very beginning I knew David was smart. When he sent out the query letter for The Broom of the System, his first novel, he used the word ‘diachronic’. I didn’t know what it meant, looked it up and found it means ‘out of order’. Which made perfect sense, since he had sent the eighth chapter of the novel instead of the first. It didn’t take me long to realize that David was the smartest person I had ever met. I loved his writing and wanted the world to see his gift.
The thing is, David always wore his intelligence so lightly. The Broom of the System ends without the last word and doesn’t really have a final scene. I, with the wisdom of a twenty-five-year-old, tried to convince David to wrap up the story in a traditional fashion before I sent it out to publishers. He proceeded to explain to me, using Wittgensteinian philosophy, why it was written like that and needed to remain just as it was. I think that was when I understood that David’s mind worked in an entirely different way. Of course Gerry Howard, his editor, had the same conversation with David a few months later. The book was published as David wanted.
David had a complicated relationship with fame from the very beginning of his career. He liked the attention but he couldn’t shrug things off the way most writers can. He never read his reviews or wanted to know print runs or sales figures. Never wanted to be interviewed on TV the times he got asked, or go to parties, or meet the Hollywood producers who optioned his books. In order to write, David couldn’t be in the public eye and still function. It was simply too hard for him. David didn’t have the armour most of us develop to survive in the world. I knew this and so did his publishers Little, Brown and Company; we all protected him. Being David’s agent often meant being a shield for him.
Because David needed to keep himself apart from the noise of our culture, people would ask sometimes if he was difficult as a client – was he condescending, patronizing? Never. David was an incredibly sweet person. If anything he would offer up too much. When David was writing about talk radio in LA for the Atlantic, he called one afternoon to get directions to the nearest Koo Koo Roo. He had promised to pick up that night’s take-out dinner for the tech guys at the station. I tried to convince him that the writer from the Atlantic wasn’t the one who had to buy the evening’s chicken takeout. But I also gave him the simplest possible directions, since I knew he hated driving around Los Angeles and was going to do it anyway. And that he would then spend his time at the station sitting in a back room with these guys, eating his own take-out dinner, listening to them and absorbing everything they said.
This spring, before things got bad, David was going to write about Obama and rhetoric for GQ. David was listening to Obama’s speeches and GQ had reserved him a room at the convention in Denver. I knew David was never going to meet Obama or even get near him. He wanted to spend his time with the speechwriters sitting in Chicago sweating out Obama’s words. Everything David learned would have come from watching from the outside, from being on the edge. And if David had been well enough to go to Denver, he would have spent most of his time in his hotel room or somewhere far away from the action and chatter. But he would have shown us things we would never have noticed, people we would never have spoken to and had ideas about rhetoric and language that most of us would never have thought without him.
For twenty-three years David made me see the world through his eyes – made me think harder, feel infinitely sadder and laugh at all sorts of crazy things. We will all miss him dearly.