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A Brief Conversation with Stephen Elliott

David Shook

Adderall Diaries

Elliott is the author of four novels, including Happy Baby, two books of nonfiction, and a collection of S&M short stories. Elliott has been both an adolescent ward of the state and a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, and he is now the editor of The Rumpus, a website of cultural commentary. His new memoir The Adderall Diaries has been almost universally praised; Booklist even named him a “poet of pain.”

We connected by email a few days before he began his 25-city book tour. On 24 September Elliott will read in Los Angeles, at Skylight Books.

You’ve published nonfiction before, and your own experience certainly informs your fiction, but I don’t feel like your writing has ever been as personal or intimate as in your new book. Was writing it different?

Yes, it was different. I think every time you come out of a closet there’s another closet waiting to be explored. So each book has been a journey closer to the elusive “self.” The Adderall Diaries is definitely my most personal book. I didn’t think I could go further than my novels, but I was wrong about that.

I feel like The Adderall Diaries is in some sense a memoir about writer’s block. Maybe more about the struggleto understand yourself as a writer, your impulses. Of course it contains a murder, some S&M, real and imagined encounters with your father. Now that it’s done, do you feel like you’ve emerged from that space, like publication in some way ended that chapter? Did anything in the process surprise you?

Everything was surprising. I had no idea what I was writing when I started the book. I was 90% done before I started to get my head around what the book was about. I agree with you 100%. If I were to sum the book up in the shortest possible space I would say it’s a book about writing and being a writer.


In 2007 you went without using the internet for a month, as a sort of social experiment. In January you started The Rumpus, an online magazine of cultural commentary. You’ve clearly done some thinking about this stuff. How will the internet continue to affect the future of literature?

I think that’s still an open question. There’s this idea that we’re all moving online but I would dispute that. I think a large percentage of the population will never really go online. Or, if they do, they’ll never want to “social network.” I think the majority of demand for art and goods is still driven by old media. You’ll never be a bestseller because you get a review in a blog. On the other hand, the old media is paying close attention to the new media, so people are being taken seriously in radio and newspapers because of what they’re doing online. It’s an interesting loop.

In the near future almost all book reviews will move online. The 800 word reviews in the regional paper will almost entirely disappear. We’ll only see reviews in newspapers if the book is already huge, say the next Malcolm Gladwell book. One result of that will be almost all reviews will be written from passion, people that read something and just have to write about it, negatively or positively. There will be very few “assigned” reviews of serious literature. Which is kind of a shame.

What are you reading now? What are you working on?

I’m just writing all the time but I don’t know if it’ll add up to anything. I’m thinking a lot about the nature of crowds and the intersection of art and the artist persona. Reevaluating my beliefs, like I always do. And I’m reading Nog and occasionally paging through 2666, a book I love but will probably never finish.

September 2009

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