A Conversation with Stephen Elliott

By Kimbel Westerson

When The Coachella Review spoke with Stephen Elliott, author of The Adderall Diaries, (Graywolf Press) he was in Chicago where he grew up, spent a year on the streets and lived for four more years in group homes.  Though Elliott had written several books before this one, he had gone through a period of writer’s block that lasted a couple years.  Finally, the news of computer programmer Hans Reiser’s arrest for the murder of his wife inspired him to start writing a true crime book.  The result was The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism and Murder. It is not only a memoir, but an invitation into the mind of a writer struggling with the elusiveness of truth.

At the time of this interview, Elliott was in the midst of an unusual book tour.  Instead of the typical bookstore reading under fluorescent lights in front of people who have probably heard of him, readings are held in people’s homes by those who may or may not be familiar with his work, attended by individuals who are there at the behest of the host.

What’s the deal with the tour? How did you devise this?
I’m doing this thing where I let anyone who wanted to read an advance copy of the book, but the deal is they have to pass it along to the next person within a week.  Since I was forced to do a book tour, which I really didn’t want to do, I contacted those 400 people and asked if anyone wanted to host a reading in their home.  So I’m traveling around and doing about 80 events – all in people’s homes.

How’s the attendance?
I tell people if I’m coming to their house, they have to promise at least 20 people.  So the people attending these events are not your fans or even people who have heard of you.

What was your inspiration for doing it this way?
I was being told to do a book tour.  This is my seventh book; I know how book tours work. It sounded miserable.  It’s different if I’m in cities where I have a reputation.  But a lot of times you’ll show up and the stores haven’t done any promotion.  I did a reading in Lincoln, Nebraska.  There were 25 to 30 people there.  Same in Vegas.  In Orlando, they have one independent book store, but I did two events in Orlando.  You can do as many homes as people want you to do; (the events) don’t cannibalize each other.  I’m stepping into the other side of America – they’ve never been to a literary reading before.  They’re being fed a diet of fast food. They don’t read The New York Times – so how do you reach those people?  I was just doing this out of avoidance.  This was my idea to avoid doing this other thing.  And now I keep adding more homes and events and stuff.  I’m scheduled through December 18 (started September 15) and I’m considering doing the month of January as well because I’ve had a lot of requests now.  Events are really fun. It’s not like a book store reading, either.  It’s really kind of fun.  If I can get enough people, I’ll do January.  But I have to do like two things in each city.  I have to do enough.  Graywolf paid for airfare originally, but now they’ve cut me off.

Are these readings always at someone’s home?

It’s better when you’re in someone’s home.  Sometimes people try to schedule out of the home, like at a local café or something.  But it doesn’t work as well.  They’re thinking that if they schedule they can advertise and get more people.  For whatever reason, people who turn out to the event, you lean on them to come.  Don’t make me look like a jerk.
This is a giant sociology study – you learn all these things about crowds and how you get more people in a home – and the people attending are a reflection of the home you’re in.  Vegas – I read at the home of an artist, and everyone there was a hooker or an artist.  Rock and roll kids, in their 20s.  Socioeconomic, too.  If you’re in someone’s friend’s with a lot of money, their friends will have a lot of money.  I realized why so many artists are dancing monkeys. What’s the point – making art for rich people.  You think you can maintain your integrity, you’re just going to give up a little bit – but you can’t.  You slide a step and pretty soon you forget all the reasons you wanted to make art.  You quit connecting with the people who mean something to you.

Speaking of not connecting, there’s a point in The Adderall Diaries where you feel as though you’re disappearing from your own life.  That’s frightening.
Yeah, I think the phrase was, “I began to disappear.” Because I was questioning my own story, there was somebody out there saying it wasn’t true.  So I started to question my story.  Of course it’s good to take a hard look at who you are and why – but it can also be just debilitating if you allow someone to nullify your identity.  For me to accept my identity, I had to accept my father’s version of events.  I had to accept that there were versions that contradicted events.  It’s OK if my father remembered things differently.  To lie takes intent.  People are reading too much intent into other people.  If people remember differently, you just have different truths.  When you accept their truths, you stop fighting.  What makes people crazy is trying to force their truth on someone who’s never going to accept them.

How has the book affected your relationship with your father?
My father had a heart attack not too long ago, so that’s something. But the writing of the book got us most of the way there.  I did not start out to write a book about my father.  But he came through.  If you’re trying to write an honest memoir, you’re trying to get at a real truth.  You’re on this quest, you’re trying to find answers – who are you, what is your place in the world.  The readers follow because it’s a treasure hunt.  But you have to be really searching; you can’t just pretend to search.  What happens is, you search but you don’t find everything.
At a reading the other day, they felt very unsatisfied with my relationship with women in the book. I was trying to figure that out.  And I didn’t find it out.  Other things that I didn’t even think were going to be important, I came to a lot of closure, like how our conflict had shaped my identity.  You find some things, but not others.  But with my father, I came to a lot of acceptance.  I realized how much I loved him.  These things that are so fundamental, my history.  I was homeless for a year, all of eighth grade, and four years in institutions.  He moved when I was sleeping in the streets and started a new family.  None of it mattered.  Holding these things as evidence against him wasn’t helping me at all.  So who cares about it – why bother with it?  Some would say it’s justified.  That doesn’t help me.

It’s almost as if the Reiser trial became a side story, which wasn’t your intention when you started writing this, was it?
I thought I was going to write this true crime book and that wasn’t working.  But in the end, those two crime stories come to a remarkable closure.  Sean disappeared but contacted me again. Hans confessed and led police to her body.  At first I was just jotting notes and then I thought I was writing a true crime book, and then I thought, no, I’m writing a memoir.  When I start, I never know what I’m writing.  I was 90 percent done with the book before I knew what it was about.  In fact, a year after I finished the book, I was doing an interview, and they asked what the book was about and I said, “It’s a book about writing and being a writer.”  For me, writing a book is the process of figuring out what it’s about. I don’t sell things I haven’t written yet.  It would be very boring for me to do it that way.  It’s an exploration.

Product versus process?
There are literary writers who are artists and then there are people who are just packaging things.  Whatever they’re doing – self-help, the next big children’s book – whatever they’re doing, they’re not artists.  We’re not in the same business. It confuses people sometimes. … Someone who gets a half million dollar book advance?  That has nothing to do with you.  You have nothing in common.

What was your favorite part of the book?
I’m very fond of it.  I open it and read it.  It’s my favorite book that I’ve written. It’s my best book. I’ve been doing these readings all over the country and read something different every time.  I’ve gone over the book so thoroughly I feel comfortable reading any part of it.  It’s combed over.  It’s heavily edited.  I’ve thought about every word.  There’s only one or two sentences that I would cut. I can defend every sentence as being necessary for some reason.

The work is never done?
I understand that.  The only other book that I’m happy with is Happy Baby.  I think the book I wrote about the presidential campaign is incomplete because I allowed the publisher to get me to make decisions.  My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up, that’s just short erotica.  I’ve done two books that I’m really proud of.
The only thing that keeps people writing, I hope, is the idea of “this is my best book.”  Why would you write a book that you didn’t believe was that?  I couldn’t have written The Adderall Diaries without writing the six books before that.  I was coming out of a closet and then there was another closet.  I needed to come out of those closets in that.  It would have been impossible to write The Adderall Diaries as a first book.  I would have gotten hung up in the shock value.  I’ve already shocked people. And get deeper into the meanings of things.  It would have been a big deal to come out of the closet sexually, that was a big deal but it was done already. So that left me able to talk about drugs and depression.

There are parts of the book that are pretty explicit, and you’re reading all over the country.  What are the reactions from middle-America?
You tailor your reading.  I always try to read something relevant.  I read three sections.  I read a short section and take questions and read the second section based on the questions because you can usually answer questions by reading something that’s relative to the questions.  Then there’s a third reading.  When I was at Stanford, I read the part about the Stanford student.

What have I forgotten?
So much of the book is about being a writer and writing – but then, you put your own context on it.


Stephen Elliott is the author of seven books including The Adderall Diaries (September 2009) and Happy Baby, a finalist for the New York Public Library's Young Lion Award as well as a best book of 2004 in Salon.com, Newsday, Chicago New City, the Journal News, and the Village Voice.  Elliott's writing has been featured in Esquire, The New York Times, GQ, Best American Non-Required Reading 2005 and 2007, Best American Erotica, and Best Sex Writing 2006. He was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and is a member of the San Francisco Writer's Grotto. He is the editor of The Rumpus.

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