Stephen Elliott is a novelist, memoirist, and the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the online cultural magazine The Rumpus. His Daily Rumpus messages, which the site describes as “overly personal emails from Stephen Elliott” and readers describe as both soothing and addictive, currently land in well over six thousand subscriber inboxes every day.
Elliott has written eight books. The most recent, a collaboration with Eric Martin, is Donald (McSweeney’s, 2011), a novel that imagines the interrogation of Donald Rumsfeld at the same overseas military facilities that he approved during his tenure as U.S. Secretary of Defense under the second Bush administration. Donald was released in January, on the same day as Rumsfeld’s own memoir, and was described by The Washington Post as a “daring and risky” work of both humor and humanity. Prior to that, Elliott’s memoir, The Adderall Diaries (Graywolf, 2009) was lauded as “genius” by both the San Francisco Chronicle and Vanity Fair; his novel, Happy Baby (Picador, 2004) was named a Best Book of the Year by Newsday, Salon.com, and The Village Voice. Elliott’s stories and essays have also appeared in Esquire, The New York Times, The Believer, GQ, Best American Non-Required Reading 2005 and 2007, Best American Erotica, and Best Sex Writing 2006.
Elliott grew up in Chicago. He holds a degree in history from the University of Illinois and a master’s in cinema studies from Northwestern University. He was a 2001 Stegner Fellow and the Marsch McCall lecturer in Creative Writing at Stanford University. He currently lives in San Francisco.
In one of your Daily Rumpus emails, you talked about being at a recent writing conference and described the beginning writers there as “absurdly earnest and likable.” I’m wondering how you might have been described as a beginning writer?
Well, as a beginning writer, I wouldn’t have been at a conference. I didn’t do an MFA, I didn’t have a literary community, except that I would do open mics and poetry slams. So I knew some of the slam poets, but I wouldn’t ever have been at a conference.
As a beginning writer—you know, I started writing a lot when I was about ten—I wrote a lot of poetry, and it was really angry poetry. I was twenty or twenty-one when I started writing short stories. The poems just got longer and more narrative and became stories. Then I wrote a novel, and then I wrote two more novels, and I had written three books before I really started to know other writers and became a part of a literary community.
I don’t think I would have been described as earnest, though. Bitter. Cynical. Yearning for something unknown. That would have been the more apt description. Impatient. You know.
Bitter, cynical, yearning—how has that changed along the way?
One thing is that there are no more pedestals for me. I don’t think, “I love this person’s art, and therefore this person is superior.” I don’t put anybody on a pedestal anymore, and I don’t have any desire to be on a pedestal. Back then, I really wanted to be on a pedestal, because I thought then people would love me, that if I was—if I somehow created something that showed I had more talent than other people, that I was better at something than other people, then that would be worthy of love. I no longer think that makes you worthy of love. The things that make you worthy of love are kindness and engagement with the world. Which is not to say you shouldn’t have ambition, or that I don’t enjoy competition. [Shrugs.] I play fantasy football. But this idea of stratification, where the students are in one house and the teachers are in another house, that doesn’t have any interest for me. I don’t want any of that. But I did want that—and I’m not saying I’ve ever achieved it, I just know that I wanted it, and I don’t anymore.
How do you enact that? How do you and the other writers who you respect or hang with negotiate the realities of competition and ambition within a community?
Well, the writers that I like as people, I don’t like them as people because I like their writing. It’s a totally different thing. I mean, I became friends with Nick Flynn because I reviewed his book and I loved it so much, and that’s how we met. So there is that. But most of my friends that are writers, I meet them at some literary event or something and I don’t care if they’re a good writer or a bad writer. I like them if we have things in common, if they’re good people.
People I admire the most are people like Dave Eggers. I like Dave Eggers’ writing, but I don’t like him because of his writing. I like him because he’s such a fundamentally decent person, and he puts all his energy into making the world a better place. He’s just so good. Nick Flynn is like that, as well. Cheryl Strayed is another good example, just so full of heart. I like their writing, but at no point in the equation do I like them more or less because of their writing. That’s not a reason to like a person. That’s a reason to like a book. A person is not a book.
Your first book was in 1998, with a small press—
Yeah, it took a few years for that first book to come out. It was a very small press, and it was the only novel they ever published. That first book experience was like publishing a zine. It was the difference between publishing a short story in a zine that people hand out on a street corner, versus publishing a short story in Tin House. Which is still not the same as publishing a short story in The New Yorker.
I just met some guy at a poetry reading, and he was like, “I’m going to publish your book!” That’s how that came about. It was not very good. It should not have been published. I didn’t get any money for that book or anything. I didn’t tell people about that book for a long time, because they misspelled my name, so I was able to pretend that it didn’t exist, and to have a second first book.
And what was different about the experience of publishing that second first book?
The next two books, I sent to the slush pile at MacAdam/Cage. I’ve always been a big believer in the slush pile. That’s the way you’re supposed to come up as a writer. You submit your work to people who are serious about the slush pile, and if it’s really good and original, somebody will publish it, because these people are looking for good, original writing. I don’t know if anybody will pay you for it, but I believe it will get published. So I sent those two books to this new publisher, MacAdam/Cage, and they bought both of them. Those books were kind of okay. They weren’t that great.
At the same time, I had also applied for the Stegner Fellowship. I hadn’t done my MFA—I was a history major, and then I’d been wandering around the country for years, and then I applied for the Stegner Fellowship. I got a phone call, and I’d gotten it. So now I have these books coming out, and I have the Stegner Fellowship. And suddenly—you know, even though I was writing and submitting, I hadn’t thought of writing as a career. I was still trying to figure out what it was I was going to do. I didn’t think I was writing the kind of stuff that people were going to want to read. Not a lot of people. I wanted it to reach somebody, but I didn’t think of book advances or anything like that as part of my future.
Just like that, in a moment I went from being this person to that person. I was a writer, I was a Stegner Fellow, and I met all these people who’d been studying creative writing for as long as they’d been studying anything, who’d known they wanted to be writers. I realized there were two types of writers. There were writers that started at a young age because they had something in them that had to come out. These were the spoken word poets, people that—
[A family with two small girls enters the corridor where we’re talking. Elliott, who is sitting against the wall between two elevators, greets the two little girls and is greeted exuberantly in return. He pushes the elevator button for them and continues.]
—So these spoken word poets were writing because they had this scream inside of them and they had to get it out in such a way that someone else would receive it. That doesn’t mean they loved to read. They might. They may or may not have even been interested in other people’s screams. But this is where it came from, their urge to write.
Then there’s this other group of people that, usually in high school, first year of college, they read something that impacts them so much that they want to be part of that tradition. More often, I think you see them in MFA programs. They love literature, so they want to be writers.
One is not better than the other. People come from different places. I was coming out of a need to communicate, because I was in an abusive home and lived in group homes for years, and I didn’t have anybody to tell. That’s always been why I’ve written, to communicate, not because I loved literature.
And you were ten when you started writing for those reasons?
I was ten. My mother was dying and paralyzed on the couch, and my father was very volatile, to say the least. I started writing poems about how I was feeling. I would change the names, anonymize everything, and tape them to the wall. So there was everything that was happening, but in a code.
When I was twelve, I started going over to my friend’s house, and I would smoke pot with his mom and read her these poems. She was a hippie. She would tell me how great the poems were, and it was everything I wanted—it was maternal affection, and attention, and these poems were getting that for me. She wore tight jeans, she seemed kind of sexy because I was twelve. And that’s exactly what I wanted from the poems. To this day, that’s a pretty good approximation of why I write. To smoke pot with my friend’s mom and read her my poetry.
Was there a next person, after her, who stepped in and said, “You’re good at this, and you should keep doing it?”
No, I didn’t have that kind of person.
So you kept writing on your own and doing poetry slams, and you got those first books into the world, and then you applied for the Stegner.
Yeah. I was twenty-eight when I got the Stegner. Twenty-seven or twenty-eight. I was a history major, but I won the undergraduate short story competition at my college, and that was a thousand dollars. I would read poetry at open mics and get feedback. That was affirming. But I don’t believe in talent. Talent is a total myth, as far as writing goes. If you had talent, your early stuff would be good. You would write well immediately. Nobody ever does that. But if you write continually for a long time, say ten years, you will become a good writer.
What we think of as talent is actually just the desire to sit alone and write every day. I had my reasons for writing. Other people have their reasons. People write and write for years, and the ones who do it continually every day achieve the ability to communicate their own aesthetic vision.
You said you studied history in undergrad. You also got a masters in film studies, right?
Pretty much right after. I took a year off, then did a masters in cinema studies.
And you’ve mentioned recently a move back toward your interest in film?
I wouldn’t call it a move back, because I wasn’t ever really doing it before. I was just not ready to enter the real world, and I had a scholarship. When you’re a ward of the state, it’s very easy to get funding. The problem is, most wards of the state don’t go to college.
So yeah, recently I started screenwriting, and it’s really fulfilling creatively. I had written poetry and then short stories and then novels, and at some point novels weren’t interesting to me. I went from there to short erotica vignettes, and eventually I found creative nonfiction and that became interesting. I did that for years. Now, scripts have gotten me back into writing another form of fiction. It’s really fun. I’ll probably get bored of it at some point. I’ll certainly get tired of dealing with Hollywood people, but right now it’s energizing.
Before this, for the last couple of years my only creative output has been the Daily Rumpus emails, and I put all my creativity into those. People say, “When are you going to write a book again? What are you working on?” And I say, “I’m working on emails. This is what I’m writing.”
As long as it’s creatively fulfilling, who cares? I have the same readership as I do for my books. There’s a deep connection with the readers. It’s not like I’ve ever really made any money writing books. It’s not a thing you do for money. You’ve just got to find the outlet that is right for you, that makes you feel whole.
I read that before you launched The Rumpus, you had been talking to The Huffington Post about doing stuff for them and then thought, “Wait, why am I giving this away to Arianna Huffington? I’ll do it myself.” And that was how The Rumpus began. Thinking about what you’re doing with The Daily Rumpus emails, and thinking about how often beginning writers are asked or expected to write for free, especially online, I’m curious to hear more of your thoughts on this idea of giving it away.
People have always given away writing for free. If you’re a journalist, you expect to get paid, but creative writing has always been free or for very little money. I don’t think anyone has ever gone into creative writing thinking they were gonna make a bunch of money. It’s only later, after people start getting published, that they start to get bitter about money. In the beginning, you always do it for free.
It’s a little bit of a red herring. Money is only a good reason to do writing that you don’t want to do anyway. If you don’t want to do it, then you should get paid for it. Or don’t do it. If you want to do it, then just do it. I don’t believe in pitching. I just write whatever I want, and luckily I’ve been able to get by without ever having to work too much.
And the only reason for that is really, you know, I don’t have kids, I don’t have anybody who relies on me for anything. Until six months ago, I shared a one-bedroom apartment with two roommates. Those are the things you’ve got to do if you want to not work. People think that I work hard because I write a lot of books, but all I do is whatever I want. I sit in a coffee shop, I write whatever’s in my head, I don’t teach. The projects I’m involved in, things like The Rumpus, they’re things I want to do.
Even if I’m poor, it’s like being rich. That’s what it is to be rich. Not having to do any shit you don’t want to do.
That seems like pretty decent advice. What’s the best advice that you’ve ever gotten from another writer? Any particular wisdom that you return to in your mind?
Hmm. When I was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, a friend of mine was telling Tobias Wolff that his agent thought his book should be set somewhere else. He’d written a book about the Iraq war, and his agent said, “No, it should be this or that.” And Tobias just looked at him like he was crazy. Like, “Who cares what the agent thinks? What does that have to do with anything, what the agent thinks?”
I mean, if somebody says something about your work and it rings true and helps you make the work better, that’s good. But if it’s an agent saying, “You should do this because it will make it easier to sell, or it’ll sell for more money”—Tobias Wolf just looked at him like it was so totally foreign that he couldn’t even process it. And that seems to me like the right attitude to have about writing.
Interview by Harvest Henderson
Photo by Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo