Introduction by Dennis Widmyer
I have a confession to make. I haven't read Stephen Elliott yet. I first heard about Stephen through our ol' pal Craig Clevenger. And I wonder if Craig is getting sick and tired of being referred to as our "ol pal" - like he's some trusty ol' German Shepard who still chases the Frisbee after 11 years - rather than being recognized for the talented fucking writer that he is.
So Clevenger the talented writer who happens to have already recommended this other little known author named Will Fucking Christopher Baer throws me another name: Stephen Elliott. And of course, I'm intrigued from the get-go. Elliott seems like my breed of writer. The type of guy who enjoys writing about the slanted but enchanted people in our society. The depraved, kinky, and beautiful.
Then Clevenger goes on up to Portland for a reading at Powell's Books and Stephen Elliott accompanies him to read from his new novel Happy Baby. And wonder, shock, awe... I find Clevenger's fans pleasantly delighted. Here they went to see their man Craig read from his upcoming novel D'mophoria (or however the hell he's spelling it) and instead, the sucky opening act turns out to be not so sucky after all. In fact, everyone who hears Elliott read instantly seems to become a fan. Sort of like going to see your favorite band and then going home with the opening acts CDs. I think we've got the makings of a buzz.
And this is where I come in. (yes, it's not all about Craig and Stephen. They may be the participants of this interview, but I'm the unfortunate bastard who has to write these witty intros). Pat Walsh, Clevenger's man at MacAdam & Cage goes and sends me two of Elliott's books. And now I've got an interview before me and two novels burning a slow acid hole in my night table. So what they hell am I waiting for!? Let's get this bitch into gear.
Craig Clevenger: Let's start with the basics; can you give me your background prior to writing? You were a runaway and then a ward of the court in your early years. Care to divulge any specifics?
Stephen Elliott: Sure. I ran away when I was thirteen and while I was on the streets my father moved. So, when the police grabbed me a year later (I was sleeping in the entryway to an apartment building), I didn't know where my parents were. As a result, I was made a ward of the state of Illinois and spent the next four years in different group homes in Chicago. But I was always writing in that time. I wrote a lot of poetry as a kid, I mean tons.
Craig Clevenger: It sounds like your writing was a reflexive response to your surroundings and your life. Is that accurate? And at what point did you understand that the writing was something you could do not just for yourself, but to be read by others? I mean, what was the transition between the kid writing poetry and the adult author?
Stephen Elliott: I don't know. That's a tough question. I was definitely writing in response, to communicate. My room walls by fifth grade were covered in poetry I had written, and I would read it to others. I was dying to connect with someone. I was at heart a very needy, sensitive kid, and I still am. Every time I finish writing a book I think to myself, "Well that's it, it's all out there. Now I will get all the love and attention I need, people will understand me, and I will be whole." Of course, that doesn't happen.
But I never thought I would actually be able to write for a living anyway, or publish books that people might want to read. I figured in order to get published you had to write what other people wanted you to write, not what you wanted to write. So, I was very surprised when people started publishing my writing. I really kind of backed into it. I wrote three novels before I ever received a check.
I don't know if that answers your question. In my case the difference between the child poet and adult author is probably not much except that I think I'm a better writer now. Which is really just a matter of practice. If you write all the time you'll become a better writer, that's just the way of it.
Craig Clevenger: You're pretty diverse in terms of your output. You've done short fiction, essays and articles, reviews, poetry and, of course, novels. This might seem like a silly question but do you consider yourself a novelist, primarily? Or does everything have equal weight in your mind? In other words, what do you enjoy writing the most, and what do you concentrate on the most?
Stephen Elliott: I consider myself a novelist, that's what I've put the most work into. I used to be a poet but I really don't write that many poems anymore. I write maybe three or four a year. Right now I'm working on my first non-fiction book, Looking Forward To It. It's about the 2004 election and it's going to come out in October of this year from Picador, and I'm really excited about it. But I still think of myself as a novelist writing non-fiction, and often the fiction just sneaks right in. Nobody would call me a journalist, I don't even try to be objective.
Craig Clevenger: What writers inspire you? Specifically, who have you learned from and who have you tried to emulate in the past, if anyone? Which writers do you consider your role models? And who are you reading right now?
And while you're at it, give me your “desert island” list of books... there's no limit, but tell me which books you'd want to have in your stronghold at the End Of The World.
Stephen Elliott: To think of all the writers that inspire me… that's such a long list. I know this is probably cornball and cliché but Charles Bukowski and John Fante played a major role in my development as a writer. When I first read Bukowski in college, it changed everything for me. It was my first time having that experience of, "Oh, you can get away with that." I think most writers have that early on. I know you did with Steve Erickson (who is great). I've also heard it in response to Chuck Palahniuk and in recent years from younger people in response to Dave Eggers.
Anyway, for me it was Bukowski. He was so irreverent, so funny, and so raw. He wrote from experience but he never took the reader for granted. He wasn't just out to tell a story, he wanted to confess his sins. But he was keenly aware that the reader didn't care about him at all. So he offered up something of a bargain. In exchange for listening he would keep the reader entertained. In this way he was able to be completely open, to turn his insides out. Which is probably the way a transvestite feels the first time s/he leaves the house in a dress.
That was huge for me because I've always written to communicate. And there's no doubt that Bukowski was my most important literary influence even though I don't write like him very much and I don't read him very often any more. But up to that point I had been writing all this poetry, I mean I had boxes of it. And Bukowski made me think it might have some kind of value.
Fante was also influential, but to a lesser degree, because I read all of Bukowski first. I mean I read all of it, often several times. John Fante was a precursor to Bukowski, but people weren't ready for him. On some basic level it's clear that Fante was a "better" writer than Bukowski. His prose was considerably tighter, and his sentences were perfect. Also, Fante wrote Ask The Dust, which is a literary classic. And I don't think Bukowski ever did that. I don't think any book Bukowski ever wrote could stand alone as a classic.
Some later influences included James Ellroy, who really started me thinking about the short sentence and the death of the adjective. He also appealed to me because he was so rhythmic. I used to write listening to loud music and you could actually tell, if you knew the song and were reading the page at the same time. That seems ridiculous to me now. I think I have a lot of old poems set to the tune of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.”
Dennis Cooper, J.T. Leroy, and Michelle Tea all helped me to start thinking about writing sexually transgressive material, so were very important to Happy Baby. Tobias Wolff and Raymond Carver showed me the importance of staying in a scene, keeping a conflict or situation going as long as possible, keeping the actors in the room. So many young writers end their scenes too early. That's why so many first books are “ensemble books,” because the writers haven't learned how to stay in scene, yet. My favorite book is Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson. My second favorite is probably Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, but Blood Meridian screws up my writing for weeks every time I read it.
I hate pushing books that people are already reading, that have already found an audience. An important part of being a writer is also finding influences outside the mainstream. I really believe that. Several great books (in my humble opinion) that never received their due are BYE-BYE, by Jane Ransom, The Beggar's Shore by Zak Mucha (published by Andrew Vachss), Waiting For Nothing by Thomas Kromer, and Valley by Mike Dailey.
My next book, Looking Forward To It, is non-fiction so I've been reading a lot of non-fiction this past year. My favorite is Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail '72 by Hunter S. Thompson. Some other great non-fiction books are The Biggest Game In Town, by A. Alverez, and anything by George Orwell (but read Homage To Catalonia, first).
Which brings me to my Desert Island list, right? Let's include everything I've already mentioned and add You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon (though Wonder Boys is technically a better book), Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, Because They Wanted To by Mary Gaitskill, Platform by Michel Houellebecq, everything by Nelson Algren, Desperate Characters by Paula Fox, Moon And Sixpence by Somerset Maugham, On The Road by Jack Kerouac, all of Hemingway, and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Can I also bring the erotic cartoon art of Eric Stanton?
Craig Clevenger: It’s your End of the World library, man… bring whatever you want. I’ve got a special place in my heart for Nelson Algren, as well. Any writer that had to appear before a judge for stealing a typewriter earns special points, in my book. And he’s had a much larger influence on literature and culture in general than most people realize.
Tell me about your process. Do you outline heavily or wing it? And has your process changed over the course of several years of writing books? Do you have a particular regimen?
Stephen Elliott: Yes, process… For Happy Baby, I got into the habit of spending long hours writing. I'm an early riser so I would often start about six a.m. and go until about two p.m. I rarely write at home, I almost always write in a coffee shop. I can't write anywhere near an internet connection because if I'm really going deep then I need to not break my stride at all. I'm a hugely compulsive rewriter. I considered every sentence in that book. It's the rewriting that takes so long, which is why though Happy Baby is a fairly short book, just 60,000 words, it took me two years at eight hours a day, seven days a week to write it. Once I write a chapter I just start rereading over and over, hundreds of times until the thing is memorized. I'll wake up in the middle of the night and know just what paragraph needs to be cut on page 58.
My writing process was different on other books. For one thing, I was able to devote my life exclusively to Happy Baby because I had a two year fellowship at Stanford University. That made a big difference. But I also reached a point where I could write for that long non-stop. I would rarely spend more than four hours a day on What It Means To Love You. And A Life Without Consequences was much more haphazard because I was on the road so much when I wrote it.
I rarely outline and when I do, I don't even use it. But it's a good thing to do for focus, to bring myself back in the process. I'll always think I'm going to use the outline but, once I start going, the writing seems to take its own course. But outlining works really well for some people. Every body is different. That's the trouble with process questions, what works for me doesn't necessarily work for you. James Ellroy outlines heavily; Stephen King writes the book straight through and then starts rewriting; Kurt Vonnegut finished every page before moving on to the next one. And Victor Hugo, when asked if it was difficult to write a book like Les Miserables, replied, "It is either easy or it is impossible." So it's different for everyone.
Craig Clevenger: Your most recent novel, Happy Baby, was co-published with MacAdam/Cage and McSweeney’s, and you worked with Dave Eggers as your editor. Eggers has become a considerable force in modern literature, perhaps even spilling over into popular culture, a bit. What was it like working with Dave Eggers as an editor?
Stephen Elliott: Well, he's great. He's an awesome editor. Without his encouragement I wouldn't have had the guts to tell the story backward. He doesn't waste a lot of time on the small details. I have a lot of respect for him, more so because he lives his life in a very kind way and does so much for other people. But that's another topic.
Craig Clevenger: As I move toward wrapping this up, let’s talk about how you’d pass the torch on to new and aspiring writers. Tell me, what’s the biggest mistake, in your mind, you’ve ever made as a writer? Conversely, what’s the smartest thing you’ve ever done as a writer?
Stephen Elliott: Wow, that's a tough one. I don't know if I have a torch to pass. I think you'd have to ask someone with a lot more readers than I do. My biggest mistake would have to be not changing the name of a high school teacher I had fictionalized in A Life Without Consequences. I made him out like a jerk, which he wasn't, and for some reason forgot to change the name. It's really important to disguise people in your work. Of course, if they're family you can't really do that, since the family relationship is part of the story. But if they work in the gas station you can change their name and their ethnicity and age and all sorts of things without injuring the narrative, and you should. At the minimum your characters should not be recognizable to anyone who would know them.
Craig Clevenger: Any advice for the aspiring writers out there?
Stephen Elliott: All I would say is that the only good reason to write is because you want to. Don't expect lots of fame. Definitely don't expect money. If you want money go to business school. Write what you love because once you start writing the way other people want you to write it won't be fun anymore and if the writing isn't fun then there's no point. Never feel bad if you don't write something that day. Don't let writing become a source of aggravation for you.
Craig Clevenger: Care to add anything in conclusion?
Stephen Elliott: Thanks for interviewing me dude. I hope I don't come off as pompous, and if I do I'd like to apologize to your readers in advance.
Craig Clevenger: Thanks, Steve.