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Stephen Elliott Rises Above It All
By Cindy Bailey 10.9.06
Photo by Lydia Lunch

Considering his upbringing, Stephen Elliott should be hooked on drugs. Or selling his body for money. Or maybe even dead. That's what one might imagine of someone who left home at 13 to live on the street, and a year later become a ward of the court, spending the rest of his youth in various group homes, surrounded by chaos and violence, shooting heroin and practicing sadomasochism, among other misadventures.

But instead, Elliott rose above his circumstances. Inspite of everything, he earned a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Illinois and a Master of Arts from Northwestern University. He wrote his first novel, Jones Inn, when he was just 21 years old, and followed that with A Life Without Consequences and What It Means to Love You, all while working mostly odd jobs. Around the same time, Elliott beat out approximately 1,100 other writers to earn the prestigious Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, from 2001 to 2003, where he taught creative writing and wrote his critically acclaimed novel, Happy Baby.

He went on to write a book on politics called, Looking Forward to It: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the American Electoral Process , to edit the Politically Inspired anthologies, of which there are two, and to create the popular Progressive Reading Series, which takes place at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco every month, as well as in other select cities. His most recent book is My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up .

Now that's impressive.

I met Elliott at the Atlas Café in the Mission District. He had just biked there from his office at the Writer's Grotto, and was thankful the area had no hills. I started by explaining that I had seen him on a panel of memoirists a few years back and was impressed with the way he answered questions, saying, for example, “No, I didn't really have any trouble getting published.” He seemed not to be making himself out to be the victim writer who must struggle and suffer to make it. Instead, he was just sitting down and doing the work, and his efforts were paying off.

I found this perspective refreshing. This is what he had to say in response:

I think there is definitely too much focus on the publishing side and not enough focus on the writing side. …The most important thing to being published is to write a book. People are so worried about who they know, and who their agent is, and they haven't written a book yet. So first write the book, and then worry about the publishing.

If you write a good book, it's not hard to get it published. … There's a million people out there looking to publish a good book. That's the easy part.

I'm so glad you say that. I think there are a lot of writers out there, but there are not a lot of good ones.

And even ones that are good, a lot of times they're indistinguishable. What is it about the story you're telling that's different from the story everybody else is telling? It's competently written, but is it different enough? Do we need it? …

I think that's really important. In my first couple novels, I really focused on the group homes that I grew up in. There are very few people that come out of those places and write books about them. … It's something I know that a lot of people don't know about. I can talk about that. …

The last couple books deal heavily with S&M [Sadism and Masochism, or sadomasochism]. I approach S&M in an open and interesting way, an honest way. People rarely do that, and so it's different. I feel that for people who want to read interesting literary books about S&M, there's not that many books on the shelf, so I can contribute to that.

I read that you started writing at 10. How is it that you came to write? Did you want to be a writer?

I started writing when I was 10, and I had no intention of being a writer. But I was a very sad kid. My mother was dying. She had multiple sclerosis, and she just laid on the couch all day, dying. My father was not around very much; I didn't like him anyway. There was a lot of screaming in my house, and I started writing these poems. What I was really trying to do is communicate. I had things to say and I didn't know how to say them.

I actually believe there are two types of writers… those that love literature and the kind that like to communicate. I like to read, but that's not why I was writing.

So what I would do is tape these poems all over my wall. The walls of my bedroom were covered in poems, like wallpaper. Until one day my father tore them down, and that was the end of that. But I used to go to my friend's house and read my poems to his mom, and she made copies of them and sent me them recently, so I have a lot of these old poems I wrote when I was 12 years old. … Terrible. The worst poetry you've ever seen.

That's OK. That's how you start.

I have other friends, like my friend Mike, who says he has tons of writing that I wrote when I was 16, boxes of it. So I was writing compulsively, continually writing in these notebooks because I didn't know how else to communicate. I would be embarrassed to be so effeminate, to be so sensitive as to tell people how sad I was, so I just had to write it all the time. That's my theory. I don't really know.

When did “just writing” and compulsive writing turn into actual stories and craft?

Somewhere in college I started writing short stories. Basically, the poems just got longer. But I always rewrote them, a lot. … It's with these stories in college that I really fell in love with rewriting, and that became what I liked more. I really wanted to get something on the page so I could start messing with it.

I went to Amsterdam. I ended up staying and missing a semester of school and working in a live sex show in Amsterdam.

Yeah, I read that chapter [in Happy Baby ].

That chapter is pretty much all true. … So I write this story about that when I get back, and I enter it in the school contest at the University of Illinois, and I win. I win like $1,000. It's a big contest, right? All of a sudden I'm in with all the creative writing people, and English majors want to be my friend. But they're all thinking this is what they want to do. They want to get MFAs. They want to be writers. That's not what I was thinking at all. …At some point I started thinking maybe I would write advertising. I was thinking of what I could do to make money. I never thought I could write novels.

Then I wrote a novel. Basically, I was doing heroin and documenting this, writing about doing heroin with my friends, and then I would come in and read these pages I'd written the day before, and we'd have a good laugh. It would be interesting, and this became my first novel, Jones Inn.

So you just wrote a novel.

I wrote a novel, but really it's just a journal, just me writing, and it was not very good. I was 21 years old, and I was working as a stripper and shooting heroin and writing these notes. It's raw, but it's not a good novel, and it should never have been published.

Did you do a lot of rewriting?

I did, but it's still not of the skill level that would be required to write a good novel. I was just not there yet, you know? I had a lot of belief, like I believed I had written something new and original, and it was better than [anything] anybody else had ever written. I thought that I had written the first book ever about heroin. So that was ground-breaking.

But actually it was this awful, 100-page… It was very clumsy. Fortunately a very small publisher that I met at a poetry reading published my book, and they misspelled my name, which at the time really bothered me, but later it was great, because I never told anybody about [that book]. It wasn't until Happy Baby came out that I admitted I had this novel.

… But still, that didn't make me think I was going to be a writer. I didn't get paid anything for that [he was paid in copies]. …

Did you start to think of yourself as a writer with your next book, A Life Without Consequences ?

No. I thought that maybe I would publish it. Once you write something, you try to publish it. There's something very organic about that. … I'd send my poetry to magazines, and they'd get published, but it wasn't anything I thought I'd make a living doing. I saw the books that people were making a living writing, and I wasn't writing that kind of a book. I didn't think there was a big enough audience for my writing. [And] I was only capable of writing what I wanted to write and nothing else. …

What was different about writing [your third book], What It Means to Love You ?

It came right out [in three months]. I spent a year or two rewriting it, but the book just came right out, every day. It's the only book I've written in the third person. … It's got a really great plot. [But] people hated this book. It never came out in paperback. It got a couple of reviews and they were awful. It's very poetic. It takes a lot of liberties with the language. It's repetitive often. A Life Without Consequences is not that poetic. It's more what you'd normally read.

With Happy Baby, did you choose your writing style or voice consciously, or did you come into it organically?

I came to some decisions about writing. I got a Stegner Fellowship at this time. I sent these two books, A Life Without Consequences and What It Means to Love You , to the slush pile at MacAdam/Cage [publisher]. They bought both of them. About a month later, I had also applied for a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford and forgotten about it. It was one of those moments in which I didn't think it was that big of a deal. I never thought I'd get it. The next thing you know, I've got two books coming out and thirty thousand dollars a year to write. Now I'm a writer.

All that happened just before Happy Baby came out.

Oh, yeah. The Stegner enabled me to write Happy Baby , which was a very deliberate book. It's my best book. I'm very proud of Happy Baby . I think it's the best thing that I'm capable of writing. I don't know that I'll ever write anything better than Happy Baby . I said some things I wanted to say in that book, and I paid a lot of attention to language. What I did in that book is decide I wasn't going to be poetic. I was going to be minimal.

I got really into minimalism. I was reading all this Raymond Carver and Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson. I hated Raymond Carver when I was in college, and now I was reading [him] and thinking that is exactly what I'm trying to do. I was loving it. I was loving Jesus' Son, in which [the author] tells so much in one word. I started asking, can I do that in one sentence?... Really, every sentence in [ Happy Baby ] I was thinking about, obsessing over. …People [would ask] why, and I wasn't going to answer. It was all show don't tell.

Which I really appreciated.

…There's another thing, too. There are two rails. One was what I was trying to do … with the language, and the other is that I was trying to write about sex for the first time, which entirely changed my life in every way. …People seem to get one or the other. If you like the book, you like it because you relate to what's going on with the language, or you like it because somebody is speaking honestly about S&M—the desire and the good and the bad of that.

You handle very charged material so eloquently. … No matter how you feel about S&M, you really feel for these characters, or at least I did.

I hope so.

On the subject of voice, you've written a political book, and you said somewhere that people wouldn't recognize you as the writer behind this book, and I wanted to ask why.

It's a totally different style.

Were you deliberately writing—

Yes, and now I'm reacting to Happy Baby, which is totally minimal and very successful, I feel. People always relate to minimalism; minimalism will always work. But as a writer, as an artist, you always want to keep messing around. You want to play with language. So now [with Looking Forward to It: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the American Electoral Process, his political book] I'm going in the entire other direction. It's maximalism. … It's a continual exploration of every possible idea into its umpteenth conclusion. …

I read that you didn't dream you could make money at writing. So what aim or goal did your writing have for you, then?

It was just this thing I did, this hobby. I enjoyed sharing it with my friends. My last girlfriend said that writers are disclosure junkies, which I thought was really funny. I think what she really meant was [I'm] a disclosure junky. … But the urge to purge yourself and tell everything—it's just this grasping need, this desire for attention and affection. It's show and tell at school. It's dancing around. So that's what I did in my free time. It's fun to make a living as a writer because I'm getting paid for doing what I do in my free time, but it also puts a weird pressure on as well. I should probably be pursuing some career where I can actually buy a house or something, you know, have a family.

You can do that with writing.

Not at this rate.

It's hard work. That's one of my questions coming up. You told me your history a little. So when did you see yourself as a writer professionally? When did you say “I am a writer?”

When I sold those two novels to MacAdam/Cage was probably the beginning of it. And when I got the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, which was an anointment or—not anointment. Or this vindication or verification?

Validation, maybe?

Validation, yeah. You're now a writer. And I knew from that point on that if nothing else, I could always get a job teaching creative writing.

You've already answered this: “Why do you write?” You're just compelled to do it, right?

Right. Except that now, I'm trying to pay bills with it. As a Stegner writing Happy Baby, I probably worked on it eight hours a day, every day, and when I was done, it was like coming out of a cave. Now, I write about three hours, maybe four, as long as the coffee is good, and then I do other things. That's basically how much I was writing before when I had a job. I'm pretty sure that if I had a job, I wouldn't write less than I'm writing right now, unless it was a job that took all my head space.

So when would you say you started “making a living as a writer?”

When I got the book advance on those two novels, then I was making a living as a writer. They gave me $36,000 for the two, so $18,000 each, which was enough to last me two years or so. [The Stegner stipend would come nine months later.]

Wow, you can make money last; that's impressive in San Francisco.

You can, you know.

That's true. There's a way you can do it.

I mean, I'm not particularly frugal, I just don't buy anything. I don't worry about who's buying the drinks, I don't worry about my coffee or donuts or whatever, I just don't buy furniture. Things like that. I try to keep the rent low.

Before you were making a living as a writer, how did you support yourself? I read that you had a variety of jobs.

A lot of jobs. Yeah, I was a bartender, I was a ski bum. I was bartending up in the mountains and skiing all the time. That's when I wrote A Life Without Consequences. I was a stripper for a year. I was a barker for a live sex show. I did a lot of waiting tables. I worked in a youth hostel when I first got to San Francisco, and I temped a lot. I tutored on the law school admissions test and the business school admissions test, the GMAT. I taught logic classes, which I loved. If I could just teach logic I think maybe then I would like teaching.

When you were doing all these jobs how did you discipline to do your writing?

I tell my students a lot that writing is a great hobby. People say how do you find time to write. You know, everybody has a job when they write their first book. Every first book is written while doing something else. I don't know why you'd write a novel ever thinking you'd make a living at it. I really don't think that should ever be the point. Very few novelists I know do it. Jim Shepard teaches. … Bharati Mukherjee teaches at Berkeley. These are writers who have won awards. John L'Heureux, who wrote 30 books or something has been teaching at Stanford for the last 50 years or god knows, a hundred years, maybe. He's probably 180 years old. I mean, even Tobias Wolff is teaching at Stanford. You think they're just writing, but they're not. They have jobs.

So what would you consider to be your first break as a writer? Would it be publishing the books or the Stegner Fellowship?

The Stegner Fellowship is probably more important than publishing the books because it enabled me to write Happy Baby, which I wouldn't have written without meeting people like Tobias Wolff and mentoring. Just these talents, and these workshops with the best emerging writers in the country, like Tom McNeely, Tom Kealey, Andrew Altschul, Elizabeth Tallent. When these people critique your work it's really helpful, you know? I don't know that I'd ever want to be in a workshop ever again, but two years of it is really good.

I hear they're really brutal.

You can get your head around it. … Any great writer has to be able to accept criticism, take what they can use, not take what they can't use. If you can't do that, then you're incapable of taking criticism. You either take all of it and then your writing is destroyed, or you take none of it and then you can't grow. … [If you're offended by criticism] in a workshop, no matter how awful, …then there's something wrong with your filter, and if you don't fix that filter, you'll never be a great writer.

That's true. It's very important to be able to know which criticism will make your work stronger and which won't work for your piece.

It's a big distraction. You really shouldn't expect more than ten percent of the criticism to be relevant, but you have to go through one hundred percent to find that ten percent.

How would you describe your work process? Do you write every day?

I write every day. I also have a project. Starting is always the hardest thing. I just sit down and try. Recently, I've been doing a lot of writing in these smaller books [he shows me a small notebook with tiny scripted print in it]. I write a lot of it by hand, and then I get on the computer and transcribe what I've written in my pad. And then I start expanding it.

Recently, I've been using a live journal. …

Do you choose decidedly what topics you're going to write about or do you organically let something come up and then see what you want to build on?

I don't know the difference between those two things, right?

OK. Well, I'll come up with ten ideas, and I may choose one to write about. Or other times I may be just writing in my journal and something will just ring with me and I'll decide to expand that.

I do both of those, too. Sure. Usually I'm working on a couple of things at once, and I never really know which one's going to go.

When you write about these very charged scenes from your life, are you able to-– well, you obviously are because you've written and published on them-–take sufficient distance to be artistic about them?

I hope so.

Sometimes, does it get too close? For example, do you write a scene and then walk out of your house all depressed because of it and think, oh-my-god I've just relived this, why am I doing this?

Yeah, that happens all the time. It can be very depressing. I needed therapy with Happy Baby. There were times when I was writing Happy Baby I got in really dangerous situations because all my sexual urges, all my masochistic urges, were sitting on the surface. Before, I had buried them, and they would come out every couple of years, when I would do something dangerous. When I was writing Happy Baby, it was every day. … My last girlfriend carved possession on my side and she misspelled it. That was for me the metaphor. That said everything about that relationship and what I was doing and what was going on.

…[But] I never forget the reader. … I'm not writing for somebody that's so curious about me that they want to know everything about my day. You know, Bukowski said that. Bukowski, who did nothing but write about himself, was totally aware that the reader did not give a shit about Charles Bukowski.

So he made himself interesting.

So he fictionalized it enough to make his life interesting. He was an artist, but the only paint that he knew how to use was the paint of his life. And I'm that way too. I don't really know how to write fiction. But I do recognize that I have to make my own story interesting enough so that others would want to read it. I think that's important for a writer. Your mother's not reading this.

What have been your biggest challenges or obstacles in your career and/or writing process?

Well, I don't know. Probably when I finished Looking Forward to It. I just went into this massive depression. I didn't even recognize it. Total writer's block. I couldn't write for a long time. I was just written out.

…I felt that I had basically written a masterpiece in Happy Baby; it had gotten some very good acclaim. But had it done enough for me? Was I happy? … And then I had written this book on politics, which I think is also very good. I don't like all my books. I like three, and I don't like three. Those are not bad odds. But I was running out of money. Not only had I written on this election, but I created a whole foundation to help John Kerry win. I put together this operation in Ohio. I got all these writers to go to Ohio and do voter registration readings at colleges, and—

That is really cool.

It was really cool, but then we lost the election. And the book was done, and I had written my story. I was out of the closet. There was nothing more to say about my sexuality. It was just over, and I was blocked. I didn't care. I didn't want to write about politics, I didn't want to write about myself. I had to figure out a way to make a living.

I was in a really bad place. I couldn't write. I really didn't want to teach classes anymore. I asked myself, what do I want to do? And I couldn't really come up with an answer to that.

Now I have some answers. It didn't really seem like it was going to go away. I have an ability to get very sad. I think that millions of people suffer from that, but it can be totally paralyzing. I kept losing weight, and I couldn't eat. I didn't know how to talk to my friends about it. Basically, what happened is that I got in a very intense relationship which inspired me. I started writing about that. That's basically the new book, My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up.

…And now I've got a lot of things I'm working on, and they're going pretty OK.

Do you ever feel overwhelmed?

Yeah, sure. Mostly I just worry about who's going to pay me so I can keep writing these books; who's going to allow me to write what I want to write and give me a monthly stipend for the next five years.

That's a great perspective, because as you know, many are looking to publish something, to get the money first, and see how they can fit their writing into something that's needed.

If you're in your twenties, you should be working. You should be working and writing on the side. That's what most every writer does. At some point, if you need extra time, go do an MFA, as long as you don't have to pay for it. That'll give you two years to focus. Pat Walsh, my old editor at MacAdam/Cage, used that. He wrote a book about writing, something like 83 reasons why a book won't be published [ 78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published and 14 Reasons Why It Just Might ]. The very first point on why you won't be published is because you haven't written a book yet. This is the truest thing anybody has written about publishing and writing. Just go work and go write your book.

What advice would you give a writer who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Don't follow in my footsteps. [Laughing . ] You don't want to do that. You'll end up overdosing on heroin and having a bunch of meaningless relationships. I don't think you want to do that.

Maybe not so specifically, but you said some things already, like write the book first.

Write the book. Keep writing. The terrible thing is how many people are published and they're unhappy with it. It's really a tragedy. …There's no way you should be less happy after you publish. Publishing should be this positive thing in your life. So I just think you should always keep in mind why you're writing, why you wanted to write.

…Write the book you want to write, and keep writing as long as you want to write and it's fun. As long as it's a positive thing in your life and helping you grow, then keep doing it. And when it's not don't do it anymore.

That's great advice. So, what does the future hold for you?

I'm working on three different things. I'm working on a screenplay of Happy Baby. (I've always been interested in film.) I'm working on this very long, personal essay about suicide and depression and my generation, and the intersection of Britney Spears and someone who only dates sex workers, and all these other things.

Probably the largest project I'm working on right now is an oral history of myself. Because I grew up in group homes, I know a lot more people than average. You had friends growing up, but we only had friends. We didn't go home for dinner. It's only us and there were a lot of us. We were … much more dependent on each other than is normal for a group of kids.

… So with the oral history, it's partly about learning about myself and partly about getting their stories. I'm asking them about me, but it's always their stories that come through, and their stories are fascinating. …

That sounds like another book.

And that's the book I'm working on. It's my memoir, but it's told in the voices of other people.