Q&A: Stephen Elliott

Eight years ago, I spent some time with Stephen Elliott for a feature story I was writing. Back then, he was an up-and-coming writer with a lot of promise—he’d nabbed a Stegner fellowship, and his second novel, A Life Without Consequences, was getting positive reviews. Stephen was genial and very easy to talk to, even about his experiences in group homes, his drug habits, and his toxic relationship with his father, Neil.

In the years that followed, Stephen kept mining that history for his fiction, though he’s largely abandoned the form in favor of politically oriented nonfiction. His new book, The Adderall Diaries, is largely memoir, addressing his father, his busted relationships, his life in San Francisco’s S&M underground, his brief experience as a “search engine expert” during the late-90s dot-com boom, and his use of the drug Adderall. Its narrative spine, though, is his coverage of the trial of Hans Reiser, a brilliant computer programmer who last year was convicted of killing his wife, Nina. That it all hangs together speaks to Elliott’s talents—he finds the connections in all these stories without overstating them, or coming off as solipsistic.

Elliott is also the founder of the Rumpus, one of the best literary sites to launch in the past year, and he’s used it as a platform to get the word out about The Adderall Diaries by creating a “lending library” for it. The book comes out in September, but there are still slots open for those who want to read it via the lending library.

Elliott answered a few questions about the book via e-mail.

The inspiration for your book is the trial of Hans Reiser, but you ultimately chose to make it less of a true-crime book and more of a three-part narrative. When did it become clear to you that the book needed to include your father and your history of breakups and addictions, as well as the Reiser trial?

You know, I was just writing. I didn’t have a book advance or anything like that. I didn’t know what the book was about. I got involved in this murder trial because I had some connections with Hans Reiser’s best friend, who had also confessed to eight murders. I thought I would write a true crime book based on the two of them. But I didn’t actually know how to do that. I was coming off a long period of writers block, or what seemed like a long period, or what seemed like writer’s block, and I was just trying to get everything onto the page.

So, I tried to write a true crime book, but that wasn’t coming out. So then I thought I was writing a kind of diary/memoir of going back to taking Adderall. Honestly, it didn’t matter to me what I was writing, I was just following threads, It just felt good to write.

The weird thing is there actually is a true-crime story in The Adderall Diaries. I do end up getting a full narrative of the Hans Reiser trial. Not everything of course. There’s always more information. But there was a lot of closure that I didn’t see coming. A lot of things happened in the final two months.

You discuss your struggles with writing fiction a few times in the book. At this point, do you think it’s something you’ll return to? As you note in The Adderall Diaries, so much of your fiction is autobiographical—what itch does fiction writing scratch that memoir writing doesn’t?

Right, the struggle with being a writer and what that means is a large part of The Adderall Diaries. My problem was, I had been writing for so long I didn’t know what else to do with my life. How would I fill my day if it wasn’t spent trying to write something? I had created a structure for my fiction, a set of beliefs that I thought constituted good fiction. You can really see these beliefs in my novel, Happy Baby. There’s almost no back story in that book at all. There’s almost no adjectives. It’s all show, no tell. There are no tangents.

But the problem is, if you tie yourself too closely to a style of writing, it can get boring. I wasn’t enjoying writing fiction anymore. It wasn’t doing the same things for me. I wasn’t finding release. And, as you mention, my fiction is autobiographical. I’m not very creative.

I’ll return to fiction, if it’s the best medium to get across something. But I don’t think I’ll ever write fiction that’s not related to my personal experiences.

You mention In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song as two books you admired as you began researching the Reiser trial. Did you spend much time with other true-crime books while working on The Adderall Diaries? If so, what did you get out of them, and what disappoints you most about true-crime stories?

Those are two great books. And they were also written by novelists who were having trouble writing novels, so I could relate.

I read some other good true crime books, in particular True Story by Michael Finkle. Most true-crime books are disappointing, of course. But most books are disappointing. There are a lot of mediocre books in the world. And I’m not just talking about books that I don’t like, I’m talking about books that the author and the publisher know are mediocre, but they publish them anyway.

I keep a list of every book that I read. The books that really influenced me while I was writing The Adderall Diaries were Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick, Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer, Stoner by John Williams, and Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker. Especially Human Smoke. These are all innovative books, classics in their genre, except for Human Smoke, which I think will get that recognition long term. None of them are true-crime books.

You mention in passing a lot of the research you were doing on the trial—homicide officers, a forensic psychologist—which gives me the impression that you were dedicating a lot of your time researching the Reiser trial. How much of your time were you dedicating to the story, and how much do you think it fed into some of the compulsive behavior you describe?

I don’t really know, because I didn’t know what the story was. I was easily 90 percent done with the book before I knew what it was about. In fact, I would say it wasn’t until I met with my father for the first time in five years, at the very end of the book. That was when I realized I had been writing a book about me and my father that whole time, and that my relationship with my father had defined who I was.

I did spend a lot of time researching the Reiser trial, and I went to court every day it was in session for something like six months and I followed a lot of false leads.

As with much of your autobiographical writing, you tend to be restrained when it comes to some of the rougher periods of your life—it’s very plainspoken, unornamented writing. For instance, you write: “My stripper year ended with an overdose in a rented room a couple of days before Thanksgiving, and when I go out of the hospital I spiraled into a period of unbearable depression.” Are you careful about overstating, or overdramatizing them? Do you wrestle with how much to include, or whether to include them at all?

Yeah. But that’s part of writing, isn’t it? I’m trying to write something someone would want to read. There’s a couple of things going on here.

The first is that I’m a really slow reader myself, so I try to be very respectful of the reader’s time. I don’t want to over-explain things or talk down the reader. When I say my stripper year ended with an overdose followed by a period of depression, what more is there to say?

The other thing is that I don’t feel sorry for myself and I don’t want the reader to feel sorry for me.

I always wrestle with how much to include, or whether to include something at all. There are hundreds of drafts of The Adderall Diaries. If I didn’t edit so compulsively the book would be 800 pages. When I write I put something on the page and then start rereading it, trimming it down. I reread every passage over and over so much that it’s basically memorized and I might wake up in the middle of the night and think, “If I just moved that paragraph…” It’s like, I get the book in my head so I can move things around and cut them in my head and know exactly what that would read like and how it would affect the narrative.

I think that’s a really common way of writing for a literary writer. It’s all continuous editing, wrestling with what to include. That’s why it would never make sense to get paid by the hour for writing. I’m working for pennies. But I’m not complaining. I’m lucky.

So I pulled the New York Times article in which you’re cited as a “search engine expert,” and here’s what it says: “Stephen Elliott, director of emerging technology for the online marketing company ROI Direct.com, disagreed. ‘Spamming doesn’t make you a bad person,’ he said. ‘Spamming makes you a stupid person… You make the big gains by walking as close as you can to the edge without breaking the rules.'” You talk a pretty good game as a Web expert. Do you think you could’ve swung a long-term career in Web businesses? Would your interest in writing have changed if Catalogs2Go had taken off?

Maybe. No. Actually the answer is no.

That’s a longer story your readers are going to probably want some background on. There’s a chapter in the book where I mention that I was a temp in San Francisco during the dot.com boom and I had an idea for a search engine thing and next thing you know I’ve got a department of people working for me and I’m being quoted in the New York Times.

I was really happy when that was going on. I enjoyed creating those websites. I was in a position where I could work on and execute my ideas. Even if they were stupid, socially irrelevant ideas, like search engine marketing. It was a creative project and I was into it. But then, as something grows more people get attached. And these people are just employees, and they’re fighting for a piece of something, and they start questioning you, and soon it’s not fun at all. Every time a creative person comes in contact with a corporation there’s going to be that disconnect.

I’ve never successfully worked for someone. I’ve been fired twelve times. It’s a character flaw. I can’t take direction and I don’t particularly like making money for someone else.

For a little while I was allowed to be an artist in a business environment, until I wasn’t.

You described the process of covering the Reiser trial as “playing emotional Russian roulette” in that you were sunk into the story but worried what you would do once the story was written. What did you work on once this story was done? Was the separation from the story as bad as you feared?

It was. When I was working on The Adderall Diaries I was worried about what would carry me once I could no longer focus on this project. But I didn’t do anything about it, and that’s exactly what happened. Then I started The Rumpus (www.therumpus.net). And that’s kept me busy since.

Has your father read The Adderrall Diaries?

I don’t know. He promised he wouldn’t but we haven’t talked in a while.

As the story ends, you’ve tapered off but haven’t ended you use of Adderall. Where are you at right now as far as that and other pills are concerned?

I still take ten to fifteen milligrams of Adderall a day. I don’t recommend it, but it’s what I do. I didn’t want to say that I wasn’t taking Adderall anymore, though I know it would’ve been a more logical conclusion. But I hate memoirs that come to false conclusions and tie life up in a neat little bow.

One thought on “Q&A: Stephen Elliott

  1. Pingback: The Second Pass

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