Conversation: Juliet Linderman Talks to Stephen Elliott

Full disclosure: Stephen Elliott and I are hardly strangers. In fact, we’ve known each other for many years. I was sixteen, working as a student editor of the Best American Non-Required Reading Series and taking writing classes at 826 Valencia Street in my native San Francisco. One day, Stephen walked into the little back room where we had our meetings, to drop off a copy of his new book, A Life Without Consequences. It was 2002, I think. I asked someone at 826 if I could borrow it, took it home and read it in a matter of days. And so I became acquainted with Stephen Elliott, who would steadily become my friend, my writing instructor, my literary mentor and one of my favorite authors. I have had the rare opportunity to read Stephen’s books as each comes out, and watch his memoirs evolve. The Adderall Diaries is something different than the others, but no less direct or emotionally honest, at once brutal and strikingly tender. Though Stephen and I have been friends for a long time, this is our first interview.

Juliet Linderman: So, how’s the book tour going?

Stephen Elliott: So good, so posi—I’m selling thousands of books at every single reading, and sleeping with at least three women that come to each. What I do, is I ask them to wait. I’ll go off with one for a couple of hours, then I come back and go off with the other one. Then I usually go back to their place and shower and stuff. It’s really everything you thought a book tour was, but never actually heard of it being that way.

JL: Ah, livin’ the dream! So, a few months ago, at one of your readings, someone said that you’re writing the same book over and over, because all of your work is autobiographical and essentially tracks the same periods of your life. But, the Adderall Diaries is very different than your other books. When you set out to write it, were you at all surprised that it turned back in on your own life, rather than exist as a wholly true crime novel? Was it always meant to be a memoir?

SE: It was never meant to be anything. I started writing with no intention of publishing. I had totally given up on that idea, of publishing another book. I was coming off of a long period of writers block and I had started taking adderall again and I was just documenting getting back on the adderall. I wasn’t thinking about publishing. I was just so suicidal that I just wanted to start writing again, and get back to the reasons I first began writing when I was ten years old, which is just to express, to connect, to figure out how I feel about things. Then, this murder trial entered my life quite randomly, and I started following the trail. For a while, I thought I was writing a true crime book because of this murder trial—and there is a true crime book somewhere in the Adderall Diaries, a fully-fleshed true crime book, but it’s probably like 80 pages because I’m brief. I didn’t mean to write anything. I think I’m probably at least 80 or 90 percent done with a book before I even realize what it’s about. And then: I didn’t really realize what it was about until the book was just about to come out and I was giving an interview, and I realized that the book is about writing, and about being a writer. There’s this memoir, there’s this diary, there’s this true crime story. But really, it’s a book about writing and what that means. I don’t pitch articles, I don’t pitch books, I don’t sell things I haven’t written yet. For me, the process of writing is the process of figuring out what I’m writing about. The narrative momentum in the Adderall Diaries is that quest. It’s a detective story on a couple of levels. A memoir is an exercise in extreme, radical honesty. And if you’re honestly trying to figure out who you are, and what your place is in the world, and you’re going really, really deep and examining yourself and the world around you in an intensely honest way, the reader will follow you. Because that’s the detective story. It’s a treasure hunt. Most memoirs fail because they fail to be honest. You have all these false memoirs that end with, ‘and then I found the love of my life,’ or ‘and then I figured out that things were going to be ok,’ or ‘and then I quit drugs.’ There are all these neat conclusions, people are unwilling to go all the way, and write something that’s as honest as it can possibly be, where the only boundaries are the limits of their own self-knowledge. People chicken out.

JL: Do you ever look back at any of your previous memoirs and think that you chickened out?

SE: Yes. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I look at my first book, Jones Inn. It’s not very good. I think A Life Without Consequences is pretty good. What it Means to Love You is deeply, deeply flawed. Probably the one where I most failed myself, when I look at it now—and I didn’t know it at the time—was Looking Forward to It. It had the opportunity to be a really, really good book, and it wasn’t because it ends at the democratic nomination, and it should go through to the end, and even past, until the end of the election. The footnotes, which were a really important part of the text, were put in the back as endnotes. My editor told me they couldn’t do it that way. I later found out that that was total bullshit. My mistake was listening to my editor and publisher—because nobody in publishing knows anything. Just because somebody tells you it can’t be done doesn’t mean it can’t be done. There are good things about that book, but I can’t really recommend it. It’s an incomplete work, and that’s a shame. Books that are pretty good don’t stick around, even if they have a big push and get a bunch of coverage and you sell a bunch of them right off the bat, if a book is mediocre it won’t stick around. If a book is really good, it may stick around, it may not. But books like John Williams’ Stoner go out of print three times, but then there it is, it’s on the bookshelves. It’s a classic. You write a book that good, and it’ll find a way to keep effecting people.

JL: So, how is The Adderall Diaries doing?

SE: I’ve never sold a lot of books, or gotten a lot of money for anything. I have no idea how to make money, or sell books, or what’s important. The Adderall Diaries has gotten written up a lot, and it’s gotten a bunch of great reviews across the board—they were overwhelming, much better than I ever imagined I would get. How much do reviews matter? I don’t know, I don’t know what matters, or what sells books. Long term, the only thing that matters is people passing the book along and telling people, this book is amazing; read this. And that doesn’t really start happening until you’re paperback. So, all these things, like the lending library and all the readings I’m doing, and all the effort I put into the book itself—it’s too soon to know what, if any of that, is important. It’s impossible to say, I don’t have the information yet. It’s certainly doing better than any book I’ve ever written before. It’s out there, and it seems to be having a real impact on people and I’m proud of the book. I feel it’s my best book. I feel I’ve only written two books I’m really proud of, and that’s this one and Happy Baby.

JL: You’ve written four autobiographical novels now. Memory and fact are two very different things. When you talk about being honest and writing memoir, do you find that as you recall those moments in your life, that your memories evolve and change?

SE: Everybody’s memories evolve and change. Memories are really the only truth we have. Facts are like, I was put in a mental hospital August 30th, 1986. That’s a fact. That’s about the only fact associated with that event. I can’t tell you for a fact why I was put in there. Why I was in the mental hospital for three months and not two. Even though there are facts based around that, still there is no fact. There is a therapist with a version of that story, there’s a bureaucrat with a version of that story, there’s my father with a version of that story. Why was I there? Why did it take so long for me to get out? Facts are really small things. If you put two of them together you’re almost immediately launched into the realm of interpretation, which has no relation to fact at all. To find out that a memory is wrong is really just a re-interpretation of events. There might be small facts that come to bear, but really the only rule of memoir is that you believe what you’re saying; that you don’t intentionally make things up. If you really believe these things, you have these memories, your memories and interpretation of those memories is what makes you who you are, and that’s what a memoir is. I’ve been mentioning David Car’s memoir, Night of the Gun a lot, which I enjoyed. I think that is a really fun read, and it’s an interesting way to write a memoir, but to think that that memoir is more true than any other is ridiculous. To interview your friends whose memories of events are not as accurate as your own memories, because the events weren’t as important to them as they were to you, and then to cherry-pick from those interviews as if that is somehow, some kind of objective truth, is just ridiculous. It’s no more objective than any other memoir. In fact, I’d say it’s probably further away from the truth.

JL: When you remember certain things that you’ve written about in the past, are your memories the same? Did you learn anything new about yourself, or did you remember anything that you didn’t know you knew?

SE: Oh my god, so many new things came out when I was writing this memoir. For instance, if you had told me when I was starting to write this book that my relationship with my father is the most important relationship in my life, I would have laughed—I would have said that’s ridiculous, and not even remotely true. Only through actually writing the memoir did I realize that it was true. A lot of times, in the process of writing something—I was thinking about identity a lot, and how my father woud attack my identity by leaving bad reviews on, and denying my story as I thought I knew it. In the process of thinking and writing about that, I came across the core disagreement that we have. When I left home when I was thirteen I was on the streets for a year, sleeping on the rooftop, and then I was arrested and the police asked me where my parents lived. I told them I didn’t know because my father had moved—which is how I became a ward of the state. My father has always said, you could have come home at any time. That’s the lynchpin for him. For me, it’s no, I couldn’t—I didn’t know where you lived. As I was writing that, I realized that no, he never did tell me where he lived, I found his house a year after I became a ward of the court. That memory came rushing back, and it was so strong. I could remember the weather, I could remember everything about that night. I didn’t even know that was an important memory, but the fact that I could remember so much of it informed me that it was important. There were a lot of those kinds of moments. Things you remember strongly are important, and worth writing about and exploring.

JL: Has your father read this book?

SE: Yes, he likes it, he says. Which, is a function of his mood. If my father is in the mood to like something, he’ll like it. But it’s because our relationship is in a better place, not because he actually likes the book. It has everything to do with the process of writing this book, and coming to understand my father, and really accepting that his memories and interpretations are every bit as valid as mine. In order to accept my version of events, and who I am, I really had to accept his version of events and who he is. It’s the key, otherwise I’m locked in an argument with him over my identity, and I could never be secure in who I am. It was much more important to learn to accept his version, than he ever accept my version. You have to give up on trying to convince other people, if you are really going to accept who you are.

JL: I read an interview with you recently, and one of the questions had to do with writing to reclaim your memories—memoir as a way to hash out your own experiences and reclaim them. But, you also write openly about your sexuality and your role as a submissive. Can you compare the act of writing as a means to take control, and your role as a submissive—and maybe even your penchant for substances, like adderall—in terms of personal agency?

SE: Well, I couldn’t have written this book if I hadn’t written the six that came before it. I don’t think anyone could—I would have gotten too hung up, I would have lingered much longer on my sexuality, and exploring S&M if I hadn’t already done that in other books. Because I had, I was able to move through it and get to other issues, like pharmaceutical abuse, issues of identity that I had never really grappled with before. I spent all my life writing—I started writing when I was ten—but I had never written about what that means, and how that has grown to become so much of who I am. If I hadn’t moved through other stuff already—that I grew up in group homes as a ward of the state—because of written about it all, I can move through it now. The key is to build on previous work, that enables you to write something better. The writer always owns the story. So, is writing a way of reclaiming control, or finding order within chaos—the answer is yes.

In terms of my sexuality, I feel like I’m always in control. But, being tied up is the only time I can really relax. I feel at ease.

JL: I remember when we met, eight or so years ago—I think I was fifteen—and I read A Life Without Consequences, it had a huge effect on me. It introduced me to creative nonfiction, and opened up all of these possibilities of what nonfiction writing is, and can be. Can you recall any books that you read, any early influences that helped shape the kind of writing you do now?

SE: There are different books at different points in my life, but the biggest one was when I was a teenager and I came across Charles Bukowski for the first time. I had been writing poems since I was ten, and I never imagined that what I was writing was something anyone would ever want to read or publish—certainly not a large audience. That seemed impossible. Then, Bukowski, who came from a very similar place—I always felt I was writing as an outsider, because I didn’t have any connections. I didn’t study writing or do an MFA. I still, despite knowing everybody, feel like an outsider for a number of reasons.

JL: But, you’re a literary populist—you do the lending library, you host events, you’ve launched The Rumpus, which serves as a forum for writers to read, and to get involved. So, it’s interesting that you say you feel like an outsider because in reality, you’re at the center of a lot.

SE: The things I’m at the center of are counter-culture and below-ground. How much attention do I get in the mainstream media?  I didn’t do any interviews on NPR or gotten an arts grand from the Guggenheim. And it’s not for lack of applying. I still feel like an outsider, and that I’m treated like an outsider. At the same time, I’ve done so much political organizing around literature and I’ve met so many people. Before this book came out, I thought to myself: I’ve all of a sudden become this hyper-connected person, just through all this organizing I’ve gotten to know so many people. But after the book came out I realized, that’s true and it’s not true. I do all of these political fundraisers and events, but nobody pays a lot of money to go to these things. But, I can’t complain though—the book has gotten great coverage. The mainstream media take care of their own though.

But, when you write a book and you feel strongly about it you always want more, so I don’t have any right to complain. The book has gotten a lot of attention, certainly more than anything I’ve written previously. And ultimately, you got to believe in a meritocracy—that people will read your work and pass it along and recommend it and connect with your readers, because I’m a writer who writes to connect and communicate. You have to believe that in order to keep doing it. Even if you’re unsure you have to convince yourself that you believe it. At the end of the day, it’s just cynicism, and then you have nothing left. I was recently talking to my editor about how a lot of getting older is realizing that the things you believed when you were younger are true. When you’re 25, the greatest thing in the world is to be published in McSweeney’s. When you’re 30 you want to get paid for your writing—you want to be in the New York Times! Then, when you’re getting closer to 40 like I am, you realize, wait! The greatest thing in the world is to be published in McSweeney’s! That’s the real, funny joy about getting older. Is to realize that those things you believed when you were 20, honest and hopeful and good, a lot of them turn out to be true.

JL: Wow, that’s really good to know!

SE: Yeah! But, there’s a stage in the middle that’s kind of uncomfortable.

The full conversation between Juliet Linderman and Stephen Elliott will be available in the upcoming issue of the Singer Reader, available in Feb. 2010 through Julius Singer Press.