Updated: Oct 28, 2020
The idea for the story of Mark Smithson came from reading D.T. Max's gripping / painful / sad biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story.
The book has since been held to account for dwelling too much on Wallace's genius, and not enough on his faults.
His treatment of Mary Karr in particular and women more widely is not foregrounded in the book, something Max would not have got away with if the book had been written five years later.
But no-one was more aware than Wallace of his faults, and nobody would have been more uncomfortable with his post-suicide deification than him.
Wallace's overt striving to achieve a simple goodness, to shed cynicism and to live in a true and present way led to him writing more about how he wanted to be, and how he felt people should be, rather than how he was. People mistook one for the other, the deification followed, and then the reckoning.
In later life Wallace had been struggling to write a follow-up to Infinite Jest - now regarded as an era-defining book. In coming off the anti-depressant Nardil (which he felt numbed his creative powers) the pursuit of this follow up contributed to the deterioration of his mental health and his relationship, and eventually to his suicide.
Why? What is this need that writers have to become worse people in the pursuit of something they feel is purer than themselves? And why does it tend to be a male phenomenon?
For Mark Smithson, the anti-hero in Ribblehead, It has something to do with wanting to be special, something to do with the identification and externalisation of pain, and something to do with a fear of death.
These traits are exaggerated as writers spend more and more time in the secret compartments of their own heads, reporting back from the frontiers of sanity.
The tropes are old and yet they get passed on from generation to generation in the myth of the lone creator.
Writers like this can give you pages and pages on how complex and unique every individual on the planet is. But none is quite as unique and individual as them.