Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009
“It’s a common misperception that for some reason we should be telling stories about other people instead of ourselves.”
Depression, as we all know, can be deadly. Writer’s block is lethal. Combine the two, toss in some ADD, and it’s a wonder that writer Stephen Elliott would ever get out of bed, let alone pick up a pen and paper.
Fortunately, for the past eight years he has, delivering a huge body of work since, as he explains, “I sold a couple of books and got a Stegner Fellowship at the same time and just like that I was a writer.” He’s written seven books, including his 2004 Happy Baby, an autobiographical novel about an adult who’s survived numerous juvenile detention centers. Told in reverse chronological order and edited and designed by Dave Eggers for his then-young McSweeney’s Books, it won Elliott accolades from Salon, the Village Voice and others—and marked his spot on the map as an emerging writer to be reckoned with. That same year he published Looking Forward To It, about the quest for the 2004 Democratic Presidential nomination. Elliott’s also been a frequent writer, in both fiction and nonfiction, on S&M and sexuality. Most notably, in 2006, he authored an erotica collection of short stories, My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up.
Last fall, during a time when he “couldn’t imagine writing another book,” Elliott launched an online literary magazine that is very much a reflection of his passions and personal tastes. The Rumpus boasts a healthy obsession for cultural coverage that’s typically not found on the front page of the New York Times style section.
While Elliott’s writing is both eclectic and prolific, in his life there’s been one constant: a mental state that’s terminally up and down. By 2006, at age 34, he was fully depressed. He couldn’t write, his relationships were less than stellar, he was broke, and he had a new addiction: Adderall.
Then he discovered the case of Hans Reiser, a computer genius who was charged with murdering his wife. Elliot attended the trial and became consumed with the case. It reminded him of his life, especially that of his own father, who Elliott notes in his new book, The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder, “may have killed man.” In a spirited g-chat conversation with Abby Ellin, Elliot shares his thoughts on writing, drugs, love, S&M, and how some of the worst people and most addictive drugs crawled inside his head and ultimately may have saved him.
aellin123 (Abby Ellin): So here’s the big question: Are you still taking Adderall? You say you are at the end of the book, but it’s been a while since you wrote it.
nowhere50 (Stephen Elliott): Yes. I state that in the book, near the end. I talk about all these memoirs, with their false optimistic endings. I didn’t want to do that. I know the reader wants me to get off the Adderall. That would give a much more logical narrative arc, but it would be staged and false. I still take ten milligrams a day, five days a week.
I don’t know that I want you to get off Adderall. I mean, if it helps you…
It probably doesn’t have much of an effect on me at this point, and that’s a pretty low dosage.
What do you do on the last two days? Do you rest, like God?
Not like God.
Did Adderall ever make you spacey?
No. Forgetful, maybe.
But it also saved you. You have a love/hate relationship with it.
That’s true. But ultimately I think it’s bad for you. You become dependent on it, and then you can’t do anything without it. And you have no idea who you would be if you weren’t taking the pills.
What’s the message you were trying to convey with the book? There are so many things in there—S&M, murder—which I found fascinating—your relationship with your dad, depression, relationships in general…
That’s an interesting question. If I were to boil it down to one thing: it’s really a book about writing and being a writer. And identity. And the search for the self.
Yes, and the creative process. And how brutal it is, especially when you were a wunderkind. I thought it was interesting that you threw Elizabeth Wurtzel in there. She’s 40 now…ancient!
Yeah, well, she’s not ancient, but she has an interesting story. Also, she writes these memoirs, and they end on upbeat notes, and next thing you know she was actually suicidal. And it’s interesting that she seems to have given up on writing, decided that it can’t give her what she needs.
From reading her books, it seemed like nothing ever gave her what she needed. But I don’t know if any writer is fulfilled. I suppose some are–but there is an inherent dissatisfied temperament, no?
I think you’re right. I think part of being a writer is being unhappy. But of course, you need massive bursts of confidence to do the work, to believe that anyone could be interested in what you have to say. But the dissatisfaction is part of what keeps us going. We have to keep creating our way out of this box we put ourselves in.
I wrote a book, part memoir of my experiences as a kid at fat camp, part investigation into fat kids and what makes them lose weight. And I struggled mightily on why anyone would care about my story. Who am I? Who gives a hoot about my life?
Did people care about your story?
Yes. It was fascinating–because the memoir part got excerpted all over the place. The reported stuff did not.
So people did care about your story. Your story was the most successful part of the book.
People only cared about my story, and that worried me. Because I am not that interesting. So I guess my question is–is that something you think about? Or thought about, as you were writing? Like, Who am I?
I believe that everybody has at least one story, and if it’s well written people will care. Some of my favorite books are memoirs about people whose lives haven’t been particularly interesting. Like Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick. Also, my favorite novel, or one of them, is Stoner by John Williams. There’s a lot to learn from uneventful lives. It’s the writing that’s important.
Everybody has unique experiences. And the way you process these experiences makes you different from everyone else in the world. The question is how well you access that information, and how honest you’re willing to be with yourself and the reader.
I worry–as a writer, and as a reader–that we should be telling stories about other people rather than about ourselves; that the confessional/memoir is not too easy an out for those of us who suffer from writer’s block.
To be a writer is to be indulgent. Art is indulgent, narcissistic. Those are not fair criticisms. Was Hemingway self-indulgent? Sylvia Plath? Charles Bukowski? Jack Kerouac? Yes. They were all self-indulgent. Sitting around cafes writing on napkins or beer coasters. But I’m glad for the art they created.
It’s a common misperception that for some reason we should be telling stories about other people instead of ourselves. It’s completely wrong because it overlooks the most important person, the reader. Writing a book without accessing your experiences is like building a house without a hammer. The person living in the house doesn’t care whether or not you used a hammer. She only cares if the roof leaks. The book is no more or less valuable because the writer is present within the text. It’s a false concern. It’s like when we were adolescents and we couldn’t wait to denounce our favorite band. It’s not really about anything. It’s just bitter cynicism. And it’s irrelevant.
Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys worked really well, I thought, as a movie–much better than the book. I know it was fiction, but the protagonist was a writer, and he had writer’s block, and it seemed too easy for a writer to write about that. Whereas as a film it worked great.
We have a huge disagreement when it comes to Wonder Boys. I think it’s easily Chabon’s best book. And you have to be crazy not to think Fortress of Solitude is Lethem’s best book. And certainly Kerouac never wrote anything as good as On the Road.
You could argue that On the Road was Kerouac’s best book. But that was way before we all started sharing our neuroses in public.
You’re so wrong about sharing neurosis in public. What about Catcher in the Rye? What about A Fan’s Notes, or The Sun Also Rises?
Yes, but Catcher in the Rye was fiction, as were the other two. I am talking about using the first person, the I, the solipsistic I.
The confessional question is not something that’s up for debate. It’s a non-question. You’ll never convince me that Joan Didion isn’t a genius. Or that [Nick Flynn's] Another Bullshit Night in Suck City has less value than a good novel.
And if On the Road were published today it would be a memoir.
You were influenced by Hemingway and Kerouac. Who else?
Joan Didion influenced this book a lot. It’s not as good a book as Didion’s The White Album, but that’s really what I was trying to do, to understand myself and my place in the world by connecting my interior life with the world happening around me, which, in this case, included a fairly dramatic murder trial.
Here’s a quote from Philip Lopate: “Strive for honesty, but admit that you can delude yourself as well as the next guy. Ironically, it is this skepticism that uniquely equips the personal essayist for the difficult climb into honesty. So often the ‘plot’ of a personal essay, its drama, its suspense, consists in watching how far the essayist can drop past his or her psychic defenses toward deeper levels of honesty. One may speak of a vertical dimension in the form: if the essayist can delve further underneath, until we feel the topic has been handled as honestly, as fairly as possible, then at least one essential condition of a successful personal essay has been met.”
Do you think you did that? It’ll be interesting to see what people excerpt, the memoir or the reportage.
Some people don’t like memoir. They don’t like books where they feel the presence of the author. But I like books where I feel connected to the writer. I like writers like Raymond Carver for the same reason. I prefer first person books, though I like plenty of third person books as well. But my preference is for a connection with a character. do you see what I’m getting at? Some people read to escape; I read to connect.
And regarding your question about honesty, I think I succeeded at being as honest as I’m capable of being at this point in my life. You know, our honesty is bordered by our self-knowledge. You can only be as honest as you know yourself. Being honest in your writing isn’t about just not telling lies.
I’ve always written. I’ve written since I was ten. I don’t know how else to process the world. What screwed me up, and the reason I think I was suffering from writer’s block, was because I started trying to write for other reasons.
Such as because writing suddenly became my “career.” I didn’t do an MFA or study writing. I had never approached writing as a career or thought of it as something I would make a living at. Then I sold a couple of books and got a Stegner Fellowship at the same time and just like that I was a writer. And people started asking me questions like the ones you were asking. “When are you going to write about something else? Are you going to write fiction this time?” because all my books were about group homes and BDSM and other topics of personal interest to me. I always said yes, but I never did.
Let’s talk The Rumpus. How did that come to be? You must have been pretty focused to start it. Organized! Not depressed!
When I finished The Adderall Diaries I didn’t know what to do. I had scraped myself clean. I didn’t want to write another book. I’d already written four novels, a story collection, and a campaign trail book. Everything I wrote was very autobiographical, but The Adderall Diaries went further. I couldn’t imagine writing another book. So I started The Rumpus.
You’ve come up with some pretty interesting marketing strategies.
It’s funny, I hate the term “marketing,” even though I know it’s accurate. I feel like marketing is something Starbucks does. I just want people to read my books. And so all the “marketing” ideas I have are really just about that, about getting people to read my books. Which is different from making money. Way different.
The first thing I did with this book, was my publisher gave me a bunch of galleys to send to all the journalists and other people I’ve met over the years. So I started The Adderall Diaries Lending Library, where anybody could request an advance copy of the book as long as they were willing to forward it to the next reader within a week. About 400 people read advance copies of the book that way.
It’s quite smart, even if you do hate the term marketing.
The lending library resulted in a lot of talk about the book. Interviews, blog posts, early reviews. Also a lot of personal correspondence with readers. It was one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done.
Then, a couple of weeks ago Dave Eggers told me I should go on tour–do a big tour. I was already booked into half a dozen bookstores in various cities and the idea of doing a massive tour seemed depressing to me. But then I had this other idea. I wrote all the people that participated in the lending library and asked if they would like to have a party/discussion/reading in their home. So now I’m doing like a 25 city book tour reading in people’s homes. And I’m excited about it. These are people who read the book already and like it enough to want me in their living room and to introduce me to their friends.
We ended the lending library when the book became available. But there are still fifty people with galleys who have promised to mail them to the next reader. So I put out the word that we would send free galleys to people who requested them who make less than $25,000 a year.
Doesn’t it feel good to know you have that many fans?
Does it help keep the depression away?
When you’re depressed you’re depressed. It’s really nice that people read my work, but that’s not how you treat depression. You have to work on yourself. You can’t fight depression with external validation.
Finishing a book is very depressing. Almost everyone I’ve ever known who’s published has been less happy after publishing their first book than before. It tends to be a really sad event for people. Which is too bad. It takes a while to get perspective.
What would you like to tell your happy friends at SMITH Mag?
That I love you. That you should write for yourself. That the rewards of writing are not material. That you need a through line in your lives. You can’t just go from project to project, from book to mountain. You have to have community, continuity, rituals that keep you even as you change. That’s what I would like to tell my happy friends at SMITH.
And, finally, what’s your current six-word memoir?
Be careful who you write about.
BUY The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder.
READ an excerpt from The Adderall Diaries.
CHECK OUT The Rumpus, the arts and culture magazine edited by Elliott.