Interview with Stephen Elliott

Stephen Elliott has written one of the best books of the year. I started raving about it in April. Back then I said:

Happy Baby‘s spare, sharp prose reminds me of Hemingway, and its frankness about sadomasochistic impulses recalls Denis Johnson.

The book opens as the narrator visits his first girlfriend, Maria, the love of his life. He arrives at her door sporting blistered cigarette burns from a new, dominating lover on each of his hands. When Maria asks about the burns, Theo, the narrator, lies. But Maria knows exactly what they are. She tells him she’s got a series of her own, like a row of buttons, under her clothes. She was burned, she says, by the domineering, possessive lover for whom she quit Theo some years before.

This is the first hint at what we later come to know: the relationship between Theo and Maria failed because both needed to be abused rather than embraced to feel whole.

Happy Baby‘s told from the first-person, present-tense perspective, so that we see things at the moment Theo sees them, know his thoughts as they occur to him. It’s a trendy approach, but difficult to pull off. In the hands of lesser writers than Elliott, the immediacy of the action often, paradoxically, subverts the emotional thread of the narrative. Many first-person, present-tense stories start to feel like screenplays, or worse, like adventure games: “I walk down the hallway. I see a monster. I turn to the right.”

But the reverse-chronological structure of Elliott’s book uses the point of view and tense combination to great effect. As Theo is catapulted backward in time to confront, or fail to confront, the childhood abuse he suffers at home and as a ward of the state, the reader sees how violence becomes entangled in Theo’s mind with safety and love.

Photo by Lydia LunchFull disclosure: since I formulated that opinion, Steve and I have met in person and struck up a friendly correspondence. Consequently, I’ve become less and less objective about his writing.

But I can tell you that on first and second meeting he’s not nearly as imposing as Lydia Lunch’s photo (see right) would suggest. On the contrary, he’s kind and soft-spoken and completely unpretentious.

We conducted this interview in email.

Do you write every day?

I write most days. I’m doing a non-fiction book now, so there’s a lot of research and travel and a lot of interaction with other people. The two years I spent writing Happy Baby I wrote every day. It was kind of like living in a cave. I wrote for eight hours a day, every day, seven days a week. Before Happy Baby I was never able to write for more than an hour or two.

You mentioned when we met that A Life Without Consequences is your story but that Happy Baby is another layer, that you reached inside and scraped yourself clean to write it. Do you think most writers view their work that way, as a kind of scraping?

I think authors do feel that, if they’re writing to communicate. If they’re giving us books where the protagonist is a stand-in for the author. Some authors don’t, they’re writing stories or fables. For me, I’m in the process of writing out all my problems, hopefully in a way that is enjoyable to other people to read.

I mention A Life Without Consequences is my story because it’s very close to my actual life, it’s virtually a memoir. But Happy Baby is more true even though not everything that happens to the main character, Theo, happens to me. It’s a much deeper exploration of ideas that have really driven and obsessed me. You know, why someone would desire pain, why that pain would feel so good, why someone would want to be protected by the same person that hurts them. And how to exist and stay human in spite of all of this. Honestly, I was thinking of my own sexual obsessions and trying to understand where they came from. It was two years of very heavy personal introspection. Which is different from A Life Without Consequences, which is closer to reportage on what it is like to be a kid in a group home. In Happy Baby I ask bigger questions regarding the results of those years spent in the juvenile system, and also the years before that. So yeah, I had to scrape myself clean. I don’t think I’ve recovered from writing that book. I still feel very raw and vulnerable sometimes.

I wonder about that all the time, why the best fiction can evoke emotional truths that many memoirs don’t.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying memoirs can’t have emotional resonance or that there’s even a clear line between the novel and memoir forms. One of my favorite living short story writers, Grace Paley, has argued against the “fiction/nonfiction” distinction. “I mean you’re either a storyteller, an inventor in language or event … a poet of storytelling — or you’re not,” she once said.

But I’m troubled by the way publishing houses are turning up their noses at fiction. There’s an obsession in publishing now with non-fiction. And many of the novels that are published seem to focus on dead authors or to rework classics like Moby-Dick. Those can be great books — fascinating, moving, thought-provoking — but as a group they start to seem formulaic. I’ve come to believe that writers often get at the greatest truths when they take their lives, or at least the emotional marrow of them, and bend them beyond recognition, into a new kind of non-literal truth. My favorite books are that way. Happy Baby, for instance. The End of the Affair.

God, sorry. I’m blathering on. It’s just that I think about these things all the time and still haven’t sorted them out. What do you think?

Well, thanks for the kind words on Happy Baby. I agree with Grace Paley a hundred percent. I definitely judge memoirs and novels the same way. I don’t see that it makes a difference if the story is true or not, if it’s a personal story. I’m often surprised by how many of my favorite books are memoirs though: This Boy’s Life, Jarhead, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Waiting For Nothing. Other books I love, like Valencia, Ask The Dust, and The Bell Jar, might as well be memoirs. And the thing about that is often in memoir the author no longer has to worry about being mistaken for the protagonist, because the author is the protagonist.

My favorite books are the books you refer to, the ones where authors arrive at the deepest emotional truths in moments of great vulnerability. The focus by large publishing houses on memoir is distressing because the fact that a book is a memoir has very little to do with whether or not it’s a good book. But these are marketing decisions made by marketing people.

Yeah, I think you’re right. That’s what’s distressing about it, that the obsession with memoir and nonfiction doesn’t take quality or emotional truth into account.

I think you once said in email that lots of first novels are autobiographical, but that the facts often get in the way of the story and that’s why first novels are rarely a writer’s best work. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Well that’s true. That a writer exploiting his/her own truth for the first time can get stuck trying to fit everything in and forgetting that the story is more important than the experience, especially if the experience is being fictionalized.

But that’s only one of the many reasons that a person’s first book is rarely their best. I think the focus we have on first books is just awful. People generally improve as they get older. You learn how to write from writing. I think it’s too bad for a lot of authors that the book the most people are going to read and what’s going to determine their career is their first one and oftentimes if that book doesn’t work out the author is written off. We expect way too much from first time authors.

The narrator of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, a novelist, says that most of writing “takes place in the unconscious: in those depths the last word is written before the first word appears on paper. We remember the details of our story, we do not invent them.” Does this idea resonate for you?

I guess that’s true, that’s one way of looking at it. If you write from an urge to communicate, which I do, then likely it comes from somewhere like that. But I also think it’s different for everybody. We’ve all got our reasons.

You said earlier that Happy Baby is about pain, why some people desire it and connect it with love. And you told Robert Birnbaum that an ex-girlfriend urged you to write about sex, about your sexual obsessions. Were you thinking about all of these things when you sat down to write it?

Well, this ex-girlfriend, girlfriend might be too strong of a term.

How about someone I was dating? We’d rent movies together, and occasionally go dancing. And we’d stay over at one another’s apartment because sleeping alone is such a miserable thing. At any rate, the thing about her, is that she’s an incredible writer, and I took her advice very seriously for that reason. Before Happy Baby I had never really written about sex. What It Means To Love You has an erotic undercurrent but very little graphic sex. And I have all these sexual hangups and I just wasn’t dealing with them at all. And occasionally they got me in big trouble. I guess I was in a kind of denial.

I’m being evasive here. Based on her suggestion I sat down and I started to write. Before her I had been dating a woman in late 2001, early 2002, very similar to the character of Ambellina. And you know, she would kind of beat the hell out of me. So I started writing Happy Baby trying to dissect why that was that I wanted to be abused that way. But writing the book really brought those desires to the surface, it didn’t make them better, it made them worse. And you know, it’s very hard to write about a character that has rape fantasies, fantasies of being raped, when you know people are going to associate that with you even though it’s a novel. But you can’t worry about that. If you worry about those kind of things you’re never going to write anything interesting.

Anyway, I was asking the question of why someone would associate abuse with affection, something I had a tendency to do in my romantic relationships and I came up with one scenario. Happy Baby is an exploration of that, but it’s by no means definitive.

Did you write the book intending for it to go backward in time, as it appears, or going forward? Or did you jump around?

I originally wrote it intending to go backward, but I jumped around as I wrote it. The first chapter I wrote, which was the hardest, was the second chapter, “Listen.” Then I wrote “Stalking Gracie,” which I think is the sixth chapter, then “The Yard,” which is the 10th chapter.

Some writers shy away from reading fiction when they’re immersed in writing a novel because they feel they’re too susceptible to other people’s prose styles. Others say they read books that counteract their own stylistic weaknesses. Do you read when you’re writing? If so, what do you read?

I’m one of those people that thinks reading is crucial to writing. And I do read to shore up weaknesses. Like if I’m having a hard time staying in scene or pushing a situation to the breaking point I’ll read some Raymond Carver.

I like to read books that are similar to what I’m trying write. It screws me up if I’m writing something dark and real and I read something funny and fantastical. In Happy Baby I was really focused on minimalism. So I reread a lot of Hemingway, Tobias Wolff, Denis Johnson. I was also pushing the envelope sexually so I looked for writers that had done that, Marguerite Duras, Michelle Tea, JT Leroy, Dennis Cooper, Lydia Lunch.

A really pivotal piece I read while writing Happy Baby was “I Want To Live” by Thom Jones, which is about the saddest short story ever written, but incredibly profound. When I read that I was so taken. I had been worried about writing something too dark. But after reading that I thought; Funny is bullshit, what’s important is getting at the truth of the matter.

Several years ago, I was reading Junot Diaz’s Drown while working on a short story that just wouldn’t come together. I still hadn’t managed to write even one story that satisfied me, then, and I became obsessed one of Diaz’s stories in particular: “Fiesta, 1981.”

I read and re-read it, trying to figure out how he’d managed to reveal so much about the narrator and his father’s brutality in so few words. I finally finished my story and was temporarily satisfied. A couple of years later I read it again and discovered problems galore and elements of Diaz throughout.

Do you ever find yourself borrowing unconsciously (or consciously) from your favorite writers?

For sure. My first novel (really my second if I count Jones Inn), A Life Without Consequences, turned out to be named after a line from Hemingway. I didn’t realize that until after it was published but that must have been where I got it. I think that happens and it can’t be helped. There’s a line between homage and plagiarism and I think you know when you’ve crossed it. And a lot of times you write something influenced by someone else and it’s in the rewriting that you make it your own.

I know you’re a fan of Somerset Maugham’s work. I read somewhere that he once said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” What do you think?

That is perfect, classic Maugham. So true. He is one of my very favorite writers. You can’t go wrong with any of his books, always perfect and understated. I taught a novel writing course once at Stanford and I would never do it again. Novel writing is not something that can be taught.

James Elroy writes 300 page outlines for 600 page books and he thinks anybody that doesn’t know where they’re going when they sit down to write is a fool. But Stephen King says he starts writing and goes wherever the story takes him. Kurt Vonnegut wrote a page at a time, rewriting and reworking the page until it was done and then moving forward. When Victor Hugo was asked if it was hard writing The Hunchback Of Notre Dame he said, and I’m probably getting this wrong, “My dear, it is either easy or it is impossible.” But most writers would disagree with that assessment. So yeah, everyone has a different routine, there are no rules.

Okay, now a completely frivolous question. Do you write longhand, with a computer, or some combination of these?

A little of both but much more straight onto the computer.

How’s your political book going?

Looking Forward To It (that’s the title) is totally kicking ass, even though Howard Dean screwed me a couple of days ago. I was told I could have fifteen minutes with him so I went and bought a digital recorder and spent a couple of days arranging my questions. The last-minute flight cost over $400, and you know all of that comes out of my book advance.

So I got out there and I was told Dean’s people had changed their minds. Now, journalists are not exactly knocking down Howard Dean’s door for interviews these days. When I asked why, I was told they’re “not giving interviews to novelists.” I’m not sure what that was supposed to mean and I took it very personally, especially since I had previously written two super-long and favorable articles on Dean for The Believer magazine as well as a full page op-ed for the New York Daily News. I wrote his communications director, Laura Gross, that I would forgive and forget if they covered half my expenses, $250, and gave me the interview. But I haven’t heard back from her.

But yeah, non-fiction is really fun, and really easy. It’s much easier than writing a novel. The story of a presidential election kind of writes itself. The drama is obvious. Also, because the publisher wants to be timely, the book comes out in late September, before the election, a month and a half after I turn in the last chapter. Which is really gratifying. It takes a year after you write a novel for the novel to hit bookstores, maybe longer.

Speaking of novels, when are you going to write another one?

When Happy Baby sells ten thousand copies.

Just kidding.

I don’t know. I’m so into politics right now that it’s hard to think about anything else. I’d like to spend December writing a short story. But I might also take a year off. I thought I would take a break after Happy Baby but then I was given the chance to go on the campaign trail for a year and I couldn’t turn that opportunity down.

The thing about the next novel is that I haven’t even started it so it’ll be at least a few years before anything’s ready to go. I do know that there aren’t many good reasons for writing a novel except that you really want to. It’s a very lonely pursuit, but when the urge hits it’s strangely difficult to deny it, especially if you’re childless, single, and lack material ambition.

Well, I’m selfishly holding out hope that you’ll be moved to do it again soon. Thanks, Steve.


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