Sam J. Miller interviews the questioning Stephen Elliott

Sam J. Miller, a writer, blogger, and community organizer, came to my attention thanks to his blunt, obsessive, darkly sexual Rumpus essay, “Sex, Death, Facebook.”

Learning that he was a fan of Stephen Elliott’s equally obsessive The Adderall Diaries, I invited Miller to interview the author for this site.

His thoughts on Elliott’s writing, and their discussion about it, follow.

I first found Stephen Elliott’s work on a rainy Saturday, in the third-floor reading room of the Mid-Manhattan Library. Week after week I spent hours in there, surrounded by homeless men and immigrant students and the lonely old, reading through stacks of the literary journals I dreamed of submitting to, but could not afford to pay for. I read Stephen’s story “Where I Slept,” about the year he spent homeless at the age of thirteen, in Tin House. Finishing it, I looked around at the people around me, knowing that some terrible gulf had opened up between me and them. My face felt flushed. By stripping himself bare, Elliott strips the reader.

Reading his recent essay “Why I Write” I got the same eerie feeling, like he was saying the things I didn’t have the courage to say. A key source of his strength as a writer is his ruthless honesty with himself. Over and over again, in excruciating detail, in sentences no less devastating for being beautiful, he examines his flaws and questions his motivations. Pretty much every page of his latest book, The Adderall Diaries, shows off this skill.

“We all like to think we know why we do what we do.”

“Drugs didn’t make us loveable, they made us capable of love, gave us the ability to forgive, which had eluded us previously.”

“Because even though she’s not touching me back, rejecting me several times a minute, we’re leaning against each other.”

“What would I do if I stopped writing? How would I make money? Who would know I was alive?”

No writer is as good at asking himself the questions we’re all afraid to ask ourselves. So as we emailed back and forth, setting up this interview, I was nervous. How could I hope to ask productive questions of someone who has already asked himself everything imaginable? What did I have to bring to the table?

And yet, as I re-read The Adderall Diaries and looked through other interviews Elliott has done, I realized — his ruthlessly interrogative approach is cyclical. Each marvelous new insight raises a whole new set of questions. This vulnerability, this unceasing commitment to asking oneself the hardest questions possible, is the structuring principle of The Adderall Diaries. As we read the book, we watch it take shape. We watch it figure itself out. It’s fundamentally a narrative about how writing happens, how a writer uses writing to understand himself, how a reader uses a book for the same purpose. The Adderall Diaries is “its own weird hybrid,” in the words of the LA Times.

Work this fresh and risky demands fresh promotional tactics, and Elliott basically invented a whole new kind of book tour to promote it. Most of the readings take place in people’s homes and rely on the hosts for promotion and sales. While writers everywhere wring their hands over the vanishing audience for good writing and publishers scale back marketing campaigns, Elliott has figured out a promotion strategy as innovative and exciting as his writing.

You’ve said, “I hate memoirs that offer this false closure or conclusion.” And in The Adderall Diaries you write, “We expect our bards to survive, to figure things out,” and go on to brilliantly demolish that expectation – and some specific bards who perpetuate it. Yet there’s this breathtaking moment at the end of the book (and this is where the blogs write spoiler alert) where you’re speaking with your father and realize “that I love him and my relationship with him is the most important relationship in my life.” I found this passage incredibly moving, like it was this thing you’ve always been trying to say but weren’t able to. Was this a revelation, a kind of closure that the book helped you to achieve?

That’s an interesting question. It’s true, I found a certain peace and closure with my father, and that’s held. But when I started writing The Adderall Diaries I had no idea the book would have anything to do with my relationship with my father. I think you do come to conclusions if you’re honestly exploring your motivations, but they’re not the ones you think.

For example, narratively, it would have made sense for me to stop taking Adderall. But I still take it. Who thinks of a book about drugs ending with, “I cut down”? So it’s interesting what you find and you don’t. Someone at a reading the other day asked me about my romantic life. He was unsatisfied with my relationships with women. But there’s no closure on that issue in the book because I haven’t solved that issue in my life. I’m still fucked up. I’m still incapable of having a sustainable, nurturing romantic relationship. And that’s what I mean about coming to false conclusions. I could pretend that I figured that out. And I did honestly try, I am still honestly trying. I just didn’t make much headway.

So yes, that’s the wonderful thing about writing (because it isn’t the money), that you achieve moments of insight and you realize things that are important, that you might not have known were important to you and who you are. Realizing that I loved my father was one such insight. Realizing my relationship to writing and what it means to me to be a writer, was another.

In your fabulous essay, “Why I Write,” you say, “The drive to write and the drive to publish are virtually the same thing, at least for me. They both come from somewhere deep. Like the drive for sex, they can be explained but the explanation is always incomplete.” What are some of these explanations? (For the writing, not the sex… although if you wanna take a stab at the explanations for sex I think those would be fascinating as well.)

Ha! The drive to write is so complicated. Most writers want to be rock stars. Many writers get off on reading their work aloud. And the MFA teaching complex preys on the author’s desire to be in front of a crowd as well.

There are two types of writers, the kind who start writing at a very young age from the urge to communicate. I started writing poetry when I was ten, wallpapering my room with it. I’ve always written. There’s another type of writer, the typewho writes because s/he falls in love with literature, usually in their first year of college but sometimes earlier if they went to a good high school. These writers want to participate in a tradition. It’s very admirable, but it’s not why I write.

Similarly, there are readers who read to connect and readers who read to escape.

So those are a couple of ideas. Sometimes I think writers are stuck in a perpetual game of third grade show and tell, but then I realize I’m replacing the first person with the third person, and that I’m maybe stuck in a game of show and tell. I will say this, I’ve learned to really appreciate my readers. Readers are doing writers such a huge favor.

In Old School, Tobias Wolff has Ernest Hemingway say, “The stories you have to write will always make someone hate your guts. If they don’t you’re just producing words.” Is this at all accurate?

I think that’s some level of accurate. People say you can write about them. They encourage you to be honest, and what they mean is you can write about their good side and their bad side, but not about a side they didn’t know they had. People don’t see us as we see ourselves. I think Janet Malcolm put it best, that being written about is like failing a test you didn’t know you were taking.

At the same time, I go out of my way to conceal identities whenever possible, and I don’t try to upset people I’m writing about. In fact, I work on being generous. I work on being actually generous and honest in my feeling toward people. I try to be non-judgemental. And if I can really be that way then I can write about people better. Being a writer is not an excuse to be a jerk. It’s not even an excuse to be late for dinner.

Describing your writer’s block in The Adderall Diaries, you say you started a novel every day. Some people might think that’s a contradiction.

I just mean that every day I sit down with a blank page and hope what I write down will bloom into something that people want to read, that I will create something beautiful, and that the next book will be my best.

Your father gave you your first typewriter when you were ten. What kind of impact did your father and the fact that he was a writer have on your own drive as a writer?

It’s funny. I didn’t want to be a writer specifically because my father was a writer, and I hated him. But the typewriter was key. I learned to type very young and it felt good.

It bothers you when “people refer to their family’s hardship as their own, when they sit on their porch holding a cocktail in the early afternoon reminiscing on how hard daddy worked.” What do you think is going on there — when people do that?

I guess it’s that thing about privilege. Rich people are always trying to justify being rich, so they talk about some relative “working for everything he got.” As far as I’m concerned, that fact that your relatives worked hard doesn’t entitle you to anything. But there’s a part of me that’s a communist.

Why is Happy Baby your best novel, as you say in “Why I Write? (I happen to agree, but I’m curious about your thoughts.)

I was just a better writer when I wrote it than I was when I wrote the other books. I go deeper. It’s a ruthlessly depressing book but it’s unafraid in that way. “Unafraid” is a strange term for me to use to describe my own work, since I am in fact a coward.

Happy Baby has tighter sentences than the books that came before it. It’s leaner. And it’s more difficult in that every chapter also stands alone as a short story, if you wanted to read it that way.

The book tour has been taking you to some off-the-beaten-track places. Was that intentional?

Well, I didn’t actually want to do a book tour. I only decided to do this one a couple of weeks before the book came out, when a friend asked me if this was my best book. I replied that it was and he said, “Then if you don’t go on a huge book tour you’re a fucking idiot.”

Prior to the book coming out I did this thing called the “Lending Library,” where I allowed anyone who wanted to read an advance copy of the book to get one. The deal was they had to agree to forward the book within a week to the next reader. 400 people signed up for the lending library. So when I decided to go on tour I contacted them and asked if anyone wanted to host a reading or an event in their home. I said they had to promise to get at least 20 people to attend. A bunch of people signed up, and more people are signing up all the time. I have readings scheduled through December 18.

So the short answer is, these are mostly people I’ve never met and I’m going where I’m invited. I’m not making a conscious decision to go anywhere.

Judging by your Daily Rumpus updates, the book tour has led to many good experiences. Is the book-selling part of it going as well as you’d hoped? Would you say this unconventional approach is more or less effective at selling books?

It’s clearly more effective. In every town I read there is someone who is responsible for the reading, someone who will be embarrassed if nobody shows up. Also, if there’s demand, I can do two or three home events in the same town. I could never do that if I was reading in a local bookstore. I’m not a famous author; for me to get 25 to 40 people out in Lincoln, Nebraska or Las Vegas or New Orleans, places where I don’t know anyone, is a really good turnout. The people hosting the events also often convince the local media to do coverage of the event. Also, the readings go much longer, the discussions often go past midnight, so there’s a much deeper connection.

I find book sales are more class based. The readings are a reflection of whoever’s home I’m in. If the person is more affluent than many of their friends will be more affluent and I’ll sell more books. I had an event where I sold more books than people in attendance. People with money will come to a reading and buy extra books to give as presents. In other places, where the average income is much lower, I sell a lot fewer books.

I can see this trap that people fall in, where artists end up as dancing monkeys for the rich. I don’t want to be a dancing monkey.

What is the role of The Rumpus? How is it of service to the community of people who enjoy good writing?

When I finished The Adderall Diaries I didn’t know what to do next. I knew I wasn’t going to write another book right away, I had just scraped myself clean. So I thought I should go into editing and I was talking to Arianna Huffington about starting a book page on The Huffington Post. I would meet with her and I would have sheets of ideas. But it was obvious they weren’t going to do any of the things I wanted to do, like highlighting overlooked literary works, ignoring publishing deadlines. Also, if I had so many ideas, why wouldn’t I just start my own web magazine?

One of the things we do at The Rumpus is treat every book as new for a full year after it comes out. After that we’ll still do appreciations if we come across books we love. In fact, one of our best features is “The Last Book I Loved” column. When people are writing about books they love they tend to go deeper than reviewers, get more personal, really get into their personal connection with the work.

The Rumpus is literary but it’s really an online culture magazine. One of our founding principles is that we’re a pop culture free zone. We’re not even going to write smart essays about Paris Hilton, or Obama for that matter. The point of The Rumpus is to introduce you art, books, and movies you haven’t heard of before. And to update frequently, fifteen times a day. Our target audience is over-educated temp workers killing time when their boss leaves the office.

You’re a politically engaged writer, working on stuff like LITPac and rent control. Is it a challenge for you to keep politics and literature separate?

That’s not really a challenge to me. I basically just focus on whatever’s interesting me at the time. Sometimes the politics intersects with the writing and sometimes it doesn’t. I never pitch articles or books because, for me, the process of writing is the process of figuring out what I’m going to write about. That attitude has kept me poor. I never know what I’m going to write next.


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