Moods, Masochism, and Murder: A ConversationInterview by Mirka Hodurova
Stephen Elliott is “giving” away his latest, yet to be released book; a memoir entitled The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder .
But...with a few simple and lovely conditions attached.
A new release from Elliott is always a pleasure, compounded now by his generous, and to me, slightly counterproductive, offer to let 500 fans get their eager hands on a copy well in advance of its September release date. He's named this venture the Lending Library and participants are simply requested to read the book, sign it, and then must pass it on to the next person on the list within a week.
It’s a wonderful, magnificent opportunity, but honestly, it’s very, very difficult to give up this haunting book once you’ve read it. I wanted to read it again, lend it to friends, dog-ear and mark it up with post-its but I dutifully passed it on and added it to my Amazon preorder list.
Elliott writes beautifully, often achingly, with openness and integrity about difficult and personal subjects. He is most well known for his critically acclaimed novel Happy Baby which was named one of the best books of 2004 by Salon.com, The Village Voice, The Journal News and New York Newsday.
The Adderall Diaries kind of defies description, It starts off as a project to overcome Elliott's writer's block by covering a muder trial. It then beautifully reinvents itself as a memoir dealing with loss, ambition, family, betrayal, secrets, and forgiveness among other things. But it's greatest strength is that it's simply astonishing writing.
Stephen Elliott was kind enough to take some time to answer some questions and that led to more questions and finally to this interview.
Mirka: The Lending Library is so beautiful, so crazy and so fun, but how can you rationalize 'giving' 500 books away? Your goal is 500 readers before the book is on sale. Do you feel that those readers will purchase the book? Does your Publisher know about this?
Stephen: Hi Mirka. The purpose of the Lending Library is to allow anybody who wants to read a copy of my new book to have a chance to do so before publication. The only catch is they only get it for a week and then I give them the address of who to send it to next. I'm not giving 500 books away. It'll probably take 60 to 100 books to get 500 readers. And at some point the book comes back to me.
I hope that some of those readers purchase the book when it comes out. And I hope they tell their friends to purchase the book. And that we end up selling more books as a result, because I want my publisher to stay in business. But ultimately, I just want people to read my books. I don't really care if they buy the books or not. I've never made remotely enough to live off from any of my books, and I'm not expecting that to change. Also, not everybody can afford a $23 hardcover but most people can afford $3.07 postage.
If they can afford it, and they like the book, I think they'll want to have a hardcover copy for themselves. But who knows?
Mirka: That's probably a fantastic attitude to take. I imagine it's frustrating to put a year or two or more of your life into a book and not earn a decent income. So what's the motivation for you to keep writing?
Stephen: As far as making a living, I'm a literary writer. You'd have to be crazy to write literary non-fiction and novels hoping to make a good living. I'm 37 and I share a one-bedroom apartment. I don't have children, I'm not married. No one really relies on me, at least financially.
To be able to make art is a gift. Between my books, some articles, occasional speaking gigs and other projects, I get by. Most people have to go to work eight hours a day. I'm not complaining. Nobody owes me anything.
Mirka: Have you had interesting experiences come from the Lending Library? How many people have read the circulating galleys so far?
Stephen: Right now there's about 240 requests and probably 100 people have actually read the book. It's incredibly fulfilling having email contact with so many people who have read the book.
Mirka: Your book starts off as a non-fiction crime account and quickly turns into a memoir. When did you realize that your focus had changed?
Stephen: That's a good question. I think I was 90% done with the book before I knew what it was about. First I thought it would be about Sean Sturgeon who had confessed to more than eight murders, and who had intersected my life in a number of ways. But those confessions turned out to be false and Sean disappeared. Then I thought it would be about his best former best friend, Hans Reiser, who was on trial for murdering his wife whose body had not been found. I was just following leads. I didn't have a plan.
Mirka: I live in the Bay Area so I was following the Hans Reiser trial as well. Which is how I found the Salon article you wrote, then the Lending Library. I liked how you responded to your conversation with him. Not "liked"...approved, I guess, is more accurate. It made me want to read more. I thought it was very decent of you to change the children's names though they were splashed in the papers.
Do you have any regret that you have given Reiser even that much more exposure?
Stephen: Hans Reiser is in jail and never getting out. He's not online behind bars, so he's probably never seen the Salon article. Reiser is an evil person, one of the only evil people I have ever met. But we write about evil people all the time as we try to understand ourselves.
Mirka: There’s a part in the book when you relate how, when you were fourteen, locked up in a mental hospital and in need of clothing, that your father brought the clothes, but insisted on handing them to you personally. You refused to see him. To me you retained your dignity by refusing that demand. Which is really strong at that age.
It's in our nature to be forgiving as we grow older and wiser, but is it wise to let your Father off the hook for trying to control you and create demands that insulted your dignity?
Stephen: I don't have my father on a hook. I can't hold him accountable for anything; I don't have any power over him. We hold ourselves accountable. We're ultimately responsible for ourselves and we have to live with ourselves and the consequences of our actions.
Mirka: I agree that it's pointless to be angry, but what about this accountability you feel you share? I understand forgiveness. I don't understand you accepting equal blame. You were a child, really. How can you share responsibility for the failure of the person that brought you into this world, whose job from that point on was to protect and nurture you?
For me, it's truly beautiful and a large part of the book's appeal how you come to terms with your fractured relationship with your father.
Stephen: You know, I left home when I was thirteen and was homeless for a year. (there's a more detailed account of that here: http://therumpus.net/2009/04/where-i-slept/ ) It took me a long time to write about that year I spent on the streets because it's complicated. My father's responsible for whatever he's responsible for and I'm responsible for whatever I did. I think that drove him a little crazy with my inability to forgive him. There are lots of people who stay in worse homes than the one I left and have good relations with their parents as they get older.
Mirka: What do you consider consent? There is a passage when a friend of yours, Patty, insists that you promised to never write about her. You don't remember this, and the whole exchange is in the book. If it is important to her that you don't write about her, even if you don't remember, even if you never agreed, why did you choose to put this in your book?
Stephen: In the case with Patty I changed significant details about her to make her unrecognizable. None of her co-workers or relations would recognize her. I have my own moral line and I try not to cross it. I generally only use real names if I've showed the person the work and they've consented, or if they're public figures and have already spoken with other media outlets, in which case it would be strange if I changed their identity. After Sean Sturgeon told me I no longer had his consent to write about him I considered changing his name. But then he did a full interview with 48 Hours and I thought it would be strange to change his name now that he was a public figure. And it would be so easy for anyone to find Sean's name, since he confessed to eight murders.
Mirka: What I am asking, I guess, is what is yours to share? What is that moral line?
I like very much your reply to Sean Sturgeon when he withdraws "consent" and you basically say, 'I'm not writing about you, I'm writing about me'.
Stephen: That's true. The book is not about Sean. He's an impetus for the exploration of these murder trials and confessions, but then he disappeared and the book became about something else.
Here are some moral lines. If someone tells me something off the record, I won't repeat it, but they have to tell me it's off the record before they say it, not after. If a friend tells me a story and I want to use it, I ask their permission. If I tell someone I'm a writer and I'm writing about something they're involved in and they agree to talk to me, then they're giving consent to be written about. I don't lie to get stories out of people.
If a story happens to me, if I am part of the event, then I have as much ownership of the story as anyone else. That's my line. I'm not saying it's right. It's just what I've decided. Patty's details are definitely changed enough that she won't be recognized. She might not even recognize herself. But I'm not trying to justify anything. People make their own decisions what's right and wrong and who owns a story. There's a lot of gray area in these discussions. I try to be very honest in my dealings with people, but that doesn't stop people from remembering things differently. Patty remembers me saying I wouldn't write about her, which I don't believe I ever said.
Mirka: I joined the Lending Library and read the book, sent it off, and thanked you. You responded that I was "sweet". If my name was Christopher or Robert, would you thank me for being "sweet" or would you use a different adjective?
Stephen: I think the exact phrase was: "That's really sweet of you." I think I would use that phrase with a Christopher or Robert. I live in San Francisco.
Mirka: Good answer! Yeah, never mind. I was briefly outraged and shared that with a friend and he mildly replied 'But, you are sweet". It's funny how something seemingly innocuous can be perceived. I'm not overly PC, yet I bristle when I perceive a gender bias.
Anyway, that was a lame question because I found it very refreshing how incredibly admiring and respectful you are of the women you write about. So, are you still in a good place with the three girlfriends where it left off?
Stephen: I'm still on good terms with all three of them, but we're not dating anymore. I think one of the problems with being in open relationships with multiple partners is that they're not always deep enough. Your lives don't fully intertwine and at some point you just casually go your separate ways.
Mirka: Do you feel that your sexual predilections are political? I ask because I read your blog about Book Expo and right in the middle of all kinds of interesting information you mention that a woman slaps you. I wondered to myself that, if instead of a slap, you wrote that you got a random blow job, there would be some kind of outrage. But because you are a masochist, it seems people are less likely to criticize that kind of random aside. What do you think?
Stephen: I love that question, but I don't how to answer it. I think a slap is more like a kiss than a blowjob. So I might be willing to say that I kissed someone. I don't think I would mention that I was tied to a table, that she held my hair, and fucked me with a strap-on. That would probably be going too far.
Actually though, that instance really is political. Because it was this woman who wanted to hook up with me and she thought she knew what I wanted, but she had no idea what I wanted. People think because you're a masochist it turns you on to stub your toe. But it doesn't. It's complicated. And I was making a statement about that.
Mirka: So, do you feel that you need to educate people about alternative sexuality? Because regardless of whatever the misconceptions you deal with personally , isn't everyone kind of fumbling to get their needs met? To articulate our desires? So you blog that a women slapped your face and how she missed the mark..well why do you feel that's important enough to remark about when writing about the future of publishing? (Great blog by the way)
Did you hope she'd read it and realize how insulting she was, or was it more broadly educational/political?
Stephen: Ha. I probably hoped that she wouldn't read it. Sometimes things just feel linked. I don't know what the connection was between the woman slapping me and the future of publishing, but they felt related. I would like to educate people about alternative sexuality because people are miserable and they live their lives in shame, hiding in a sexual closet. I would like a world that was more accepting and facilitated discussion of these issues.
Mirka: Wouldn't that be nice! Besides being brutally honest in your writing, have you worked in other ways to foster acceptance and facilitate that kind of change?
Mirka: Have you attended other trials or followed any other crimes that resonated with you? Or was this more about your possible connection in whatever slim way through Sean Sturgeon?
Stephen: My connections with Sean led me to Hans Reiser, but I've written about crime before. I wrote a long essay about a child that was tried as an adult: http://www.laweekly.com/2005-11-24/news/the-child-in-hard-time/
I didn't attend that trial but I spent a long time in interviews and going through the court paperwork.
In this situation, I wasn't originally interested in Hans Reiser. I was interested in Sean Sturgeon. Sean and I had overlapped so many times. He had a very difficult childhood that at first I thought was similar to mine, though it actually wasn't. His childhood was much harder. He was Hans Reiser's best friend and after Hans had been accused of murder Sean came forward and said he, too, had murdered more than eight people.
Sean was in touch with my ex-girlfriend and ten years ago I had done a bondage photo shoot in his apartment, though I didn't remember ever meeting him. And then there was the murder that my father confessed to in his unpublished memoir.
Mirka: Ah, SPOILERS. See I wasn't going to mention that, even though it's in the first sentence of the Prologue. For me it's a delicate business to get people to read a book I love without giving too much away. So what I'm doing here is teasing people with how interesting you are, how accomplished, how well read, without talking too much about The Adderrall Diaries.
So to make that a question...what do you want people to take away from this memoir?
Stephen: I write to connect with people and I think people read books to connect, to be less alone. I read and write to make sense of the world around me. I don't know how else to do it. I've been writing my life for so long I don't know any other way.
Mirka: Your fiction is very confessional, as is your memoir. The Adderall Diaries really resonated with me on so many levels. I struggled with how to tell you how much I liked it, loved it, really.
I mean how do you tell someone that you LOVE their book when most of it deals with enormous pain and loss? How do you feel when someone tells you they love this book, or say, Happy Baby?
Stephen: It makes me really happy when someone says they love this book, or Happy Baby. Maybe I'm still a third-grader stuck in a perpetual game of show and tell. But I really appreciate it. When someone takes the time to read one of my books they're doing me a favor. There's a hundred thousand other books they could have picked up, so it means a lot to me.
Mirka : I love how you begin the portion of the book with the 'The Trial'. It's so incredibly bittersweet. Can you explain as a writer how you make these kinds of choices? The trial is about to start and you start of with an incredibly nostalgic and heart wrenching description of a mother so in love with her children.
Stephen: Throughout the writing of a book like this you're continually rearranging things, or at least I am, in a way that makes narrative sense. Nina Reiser was this innocent victim. Everything about her was amazing. She was a fantastic mother and the first person the school would call when they needed a volunteer. There was this point in the trial where Hans takes the stand for eleven days and all he wants to talk about is how awful Nina is. He gives an example of her rubbing a fat man's belly and saying, "This is all muscle." He thought she was manipulative, but she was just a nice and wonderful person. There was a line of people, teachers, parents, testifying to what a great mother Nina was. There were huge search parties formed to look for her body. I ended giving up ten percent of my book advance to a fund setup for her children.
It was easy to paint Nina in a positive light. And it's a real tragedy that she got mixed up with Hans. So I opened the trail with a brief portrait of Nina that I hoped got across just how sad it was, what an incredible loss that she was murdered.
Mirka: I have a copy of The Claire Book. It's not listed in your oeuvre. Can I read it, or do you want it back? Or both?
Stephen: Whoa, where did you get that? I printed like 20 copies at Kinko's ten years ago. You can read it, but it's just a collection of letters really between me and my ex-fiance.
Mirka : I'm resourceful. Do you still have a copy. If not, I'll be glad to return it to you. You write in The Adderrall Diaries, that you believe Happy Baby is your best novel. It's interests me that it has a glowing blurb from 'J.T. Leroy'. I put the name in quotes for obvious reasons. Did you ever meet or speak with 'Leroy'? How did you feel when you found out about the hoax?
Stephen: It didn't bother me that JT Leroy was a hoax, because JT wrote novels and stories, and I think that story collection in particular, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, is really good. I've met "JT" since then but I don't really know JT well enough to comment on her.
Mirka: Please share the five best books you've read that are written by people you haven't met.
Stephen: I'll probably change my mind about this, but off the top of my head: The Journalist and The Murderer by Janet Malcolm, Stoner by John Williams, Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick, The Shah of Shaws by Ryzard Kapuscinski, The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer.
Mirka: I'm going to have to Google those besides The Executioner's Song. I'm going to check, but Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick is beautifully quoted in The Adderall Diaries, I believe.
Stephen: Yeah, that was an influential book for me. It showed that a true memoir doesn't come to an easy closure. But your question is unfair, I can't narrow it down to five books.
Mirka: You're right, that is unfair. List away to your heart's content.
Stephen: More books I love by people I've never met:
Everything by Joan Didion
The Soccer War by Ryzard Kapuscinski
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail and Hells Angels by Hunter Thompson
Who Killed Daniel Pearl by Bernard Henry-Levy
War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges
Sway by Zachary Lazar
Lush Life by Richard Price
Ray by Barry Hannah
Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker
The Biggest Game in Town by A. Alvarez
The Places in Between by Rory Stewart
Good Morning Midnight by Jean Rhys
Disgrace by J.M. Coatzee
Edie: American Girl by Jean Stein
Darkness Visible by William Styron
But of all of those I would urge people to read Human Smoke, because Human Smoke is so stunningly different and it's all about re-evaluating everything you thought you knew.
Mirka: This website is a collection or fierce and devoted readers and/or writers. So, of course, we need book recommendations from you. What are some of your favorite novels? Can you list the ones that you believe are "must reads" and which are more personal favorites? Do you even think that's a fair way to assess books or assign importance?
Stephen: I can understand what you're saying. Some personal favorite novels would have to include The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo by Peter Orner, Valencia by Michelle Tea, Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson (which isn't really a novel), Ray by Barry Hannah (which also isn't really a novel), Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone, Play It As it Lays by Joan Didion, and The Farther Shore by Matthew Eck. I think those qualify as must reads, along with Stoner which I mentioned earlier.
Mirka: What do you think of writing programs, writing workshops? Are they a necessary evil? What's been your experience?
Stephen: I don't have much of an opinion because I didn't do an MFA or ever study writing. But then I got a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, which was a little different, but still included a weekly workshop. There were no grades. They gave us $30,000 a year and we had nothing but time to write, and it was awesome. I was the only Stegner at the time (though there were others before and since) that didn't have an MFA and I felt like I learned a lot from the other fellows. As if they had studied on my behalf. I don't think MFAs are a necessary evil. I don't think they are necessary, or evil. I guess I feel like Woody Allen, whatever works. Tom Kealey wrote a really generous book on writing programs called The MFA Handbook. I recommend it.
Mirka: Do you recommend any books on writing?
Stephen: I love On Writing by Stephen King and also The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick.
Mirka: How do you feel about books reviews or literary criticism? Do find any value in them as a writer or reader?
Stephen: Definitely. I'm glad we have book reviews and conversations about books. Sometimes I read a negative review that still makes me want to read the book. I don't understand when people get upset at reviewers. I'm happy when anyone is talking about my work, even if they don't like it.
Mirka: I'm exactly the same way. A bad review might intrigue me enough to read a book anyway. But I think reviewers should only review books that they like. Like you said earlier 'There's a hundred thousand other books they could have picked up', so my take is that reviewers should pass on books they want to share, not warn people off books. Maybe that's incredibly naive. Maybe you can tell me why do people waste time tearing down books, rather than pushing the books they love?
Stephen: Well, I think that's unfair. I mean, if you are a journalist and you're assigned a book to review, and this is what you do for a living, then you should be honest about your feelings. Even if you're not being paid, if you volunteer to review a book somewhere, and then you don't like it, what are you going to do? You might tell the editor you don't want to finish it. But if you do write the review, and they asked you to write it, they should probably run it even if you didn't like the book.
In the end, we can't control the conversation. There's not enough conversation about books, or not as much as I would like. And I think if we try too hard to control that conversation, hate too much on reviewers, we'll just end up stifling that conversation even more. I had a book come out years ago, What It Means To Love You, that was pretty much ignored. I thought that was much worse than getting bad reviews. That was devastating to me. It never came out in paperback.
On my end, it's unlikely I would write a negative review of a book because I'm not really capable of finishing a book I don't like.
Mirka : Ha! I'll go with naive, instead of unfair, if you don't mind. I have a quote from John Irving regarding reviewing that I keep near my desk.
'It is hard and it should be hard because if you're dealing with a book somebody spent two, four, five or six years on, you shouldn't turn this thing around in five or six days. This isn't college, it's not a late paper. This has been somebody's life for four or five years and you don't have to like it, but you do have to respect it.'
Do you have similar passages or quotes that you turn to for inspiration or for relief?
Stephen: I used to carry a Philip Roth quote from American Pastoral, but now I can't remember. I kept it in my wallet for a year. It was something along the lines of how watching people over the years he was amazed how often people forgot what was important to them and instead became the kind of person they would have once felt sorry for.
Mirka: Are you working on anything now that you care to share?
Stephen: I'm not really sure what my next large project is. The Adderall Diaries is my seventh book. I'm really proud of it. I think it's my best book. I have no idea what I'm doing next.
Mirka: Lets talk about The Rumpus. Does that steal you away from writing in any way? Did that start off as a blog and evolve? Or was it always meant to become an online magazine?
Stephen: When I finished The Adderall Diaries I started The Rumpus, an online culture magazine. I needed something to keep me busy and I knew I didn't want to write another book right away. I could say it keeps me away from writing, but probably the opposite is true. It keeps me writing, even if it's more short, online magazine pieces. But it also gets me into editing, which I find really fulfilling. If I rushed into the next book, just to have something ready to follow up The Adderall Diaries, I would probably end up writing something that wasn't that good.
The Rumpus was always meant to be a magazine, but we had a beta period of about six weeks where it was a blog.
Mirka: I trust your judgement, but I don't think you could write a bad book, Stephen. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. It's been a pleasure.
*Photos of Stephen Elliot by Katharine Emery
More On Stephen Elliott:
Join the Lending Library here, there's still time!
Visit The Rumpus
Mark your calendars! Upcoming reading dates!
- San Francisco, August 27, book release party at Amnesia on Valencia, 7pm
- Portland, September 17, Powells on Burnside
- Seattle, September 18, The Elliott Book Company
- Los Angeles, September 24, Skylight Books
- Boston, October 4, Brookline Booksmith
- New York, October 7, Happy Ending Reading Series (TBA)