By David Duhr
For a man who equates his life to that of a retiree, Stephen Elliott has had a cyclonic year. Since publishing The Adderall Diaries in late 2009, Elliott has gone on a 33-city house-to-house reading tour, created his own iPad application, formed a lending library for 400 readers, and is currently adapting his book into a screenplay. All the while he has continued to serve as Editor-in-Chief of The Rumpus, his popular online literary magazine, and every day of the week he sends a personal email to nearly 5,000 subscribers.
These are also the things he feels he needs to do to get his books into the hands of readers. In an era during which even the large publishing houses struggle to reach readers, Elliott’s brand of Do-it-Yourself publicity hints at a future in which writers will become increasingly accountable for their own success or failure. “You should market your book with the same integrity as you put into writing the book,” he says. “Use things nobody else is doing. Don’t be boring.”
Boring he is not, but chatting with him on the phone isn’t quite the roller coaster ride I expected. Stephen Elliott is notorious for catching people off guard — his writing is raw and confessional almost to a fault, his outspoken personality and fringe lifestyle have earned him labels like “bad boy” and “cult figure,” and he has a reputation for being dismissive and quick to judge. The overriding sentiment is best summed up by a friend of mine, a Daily Rumpus subscriber: “Don’t say anything stupid,” she told me, “or he’ll hang up on you.”
But the Stephen Elliott I talked to wouldn’t hang up on the most persistent of telemarketers. The Chicago-bred writer speaks with a laid-back Midwestern accent, is quick with a chuckle, and takes the time to provide complete answers to even the most inane of questions. He’s a renowned depressive, but it’s clear that he strives to create a balance. “I am a depressed person,” he admits, “but I’m also a happy person and a funny person.”
Elliott, 38, lives in a writer’s co-op in San Francisco’s Mission Hill District, sharing a communal bathroom and bringing in about $25,000 a year. He has no dependents and no employers, but takes occasional lecturing gigs and makes a trickle of income from book sales and The Rumpus.
The roots of this outsider existence can be traced to his childhood and post-adolescence, of which he’s written about many times. In and out of state homes and mental hospitals as a suicidal teen, stripping in gay clubs in his twenties to support a heroin addiction, his sadomasochistic sexual proclivities — all of this has become fodder for his writing, just like the Adderall addiction that plays a role in his most recent book, a mix of true-crime and memoir. Even The Daily Rumpus, the 5,000-subscriber email which was originally intended to be little more than a list of links, has become an outpouring of “Thousands of words about everything in my life.”
(And he does mean everything. The November 16th edition requests that readers submit photos of themselves wearing latex; the November 19th reads, in part, “My father walked around naked during the day and recounted stories to us of his sexual conquests while our mother was paralyzed and dying on the couch.”)
Elliott’s fiction — four novels and a story collection — is no less autobiographical than The Daily Rumpus, but it’s in works like The Adderall Diaries (subtitled: “A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder”) that he really lays himself bare. On the surface the book is a journalistic investigation of a 2007 Bay Area murder trial, but what it’s really about is Elliott’s continual battle with his own demons. In typical Elliott fashion, when asked if he considers his writing to be too confessional he compares his experience to that of a blossoming cross-dresser; every time he writes a new book, he says, “It’s like the first time you’re a transvestite and you want to wear a dress, so you wear the dress. Then you want to go outside in the dress, so you go outside, and the next thing you know you’re dancing in a dress every night. Things that were such a big deal are no longer a big deal.”
What is potentially a big deal is the recent news that actor and producer James Franco has optioned the rights to The Adderall Diaries. Franco, star of such films as Pineapple Express and the Spiderman series, is a self-professed fan of Elliott’s work, and plans to write, direct, and star in the picture. Among the more literary of Hollywood’s heavy hitters — his story collection Palo Alto was released by Scribner in October — Franco has nonetheless asked Elliott to write the first draft of the screenplay. “He’s not just some Hollywood guy,” Elliott says. “He can make a movie happen.”
Perhaps he can even make two movies happen. Franco is in the process of optioning Elliott’s novel Happy Baby as well. “I don’t have a signed contract,” Elliott tells me, “but it’s pretty much a done deal.”
Although realistic about the chances (less than five percent of optioned novels make it to the big screen), Elliott says, “There’s no downside to James Franco optioning your books.”
If either film does make it all the way, Elliott is in line for a financial windfall. He says that with the money, he would hire full-time technical support for The Rumpus, which he launched in January, 2009. Updating at least ten times daily, the site features regular columns by writers like Steve Almond and Rick Moody, book reviews, artwork, interviews, and a blog that details literary events around San Francisco and New York City.
Originally supported by donations only, The Rumpus has since launched a book club that has swelled to over 400 subscribers. For $25 a month, members receive a forthcoming title and a forum in which to discuss and debate it. The selections mostly come from small presses, but Elliott did try to procure a book from Little, Brown & Co. for the December selection. He put in an order for 400 copies of Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’s Harlem is Nowhere, but Little, Brown was unable to change their publishing schedule to accommodate the request. “It’s not really that hard to print a book a month early,” Elliott says, “but larger presses can’t react. Which is to a severe disadvantage.”
Rhodes-Pitts was devastated, according to Elliott, but if she follows his dictum, she’ll find new ways to sell a few books on her own. Before the release of The Adderall Diaries, Elliott created a “Lending Library” wherein he sent numerous free galleys to readers on the condition that each person within a week mail the book to the next reader on the list. Nearly 400 people signed up.
After the book’s release, he went on what he calls a “D.I.Y. Tour” in which he gave readings and answered questions at 75 stores and houses in 33 cities. Elliott funded most of the tour himself, right down to the books he sold, which he bought wholesale from the publisher. Often he would give a reading at a home, chat with the attendees into the early-morning hours, and then sleep on a stranger’s couch before jetting out to the next event.
Elliott’s latest idea in D.I.Y. marketing is the iPad application of The Adderall Diaries. The app comes with a cover graphic — a feature missing from most e-readers — and contains interactive extras, like a discussion board and RSS feed. Elliott created the application to address what he considered shortcomings in the original e-book published by Macmillan which lacked a cover and interrupted the reading experience by including links and videos embedded in the text. (The extras in Elliott’s self-produced app are amended to the text, like the “bonus material” on a DVD).
With all this time spent on publicity, Hollywood, and The Rumpus, Elliott has little time to spare these days for long-form prose. “My focus isn’t on writing another book,” he says. “I’m just trying to stay creative and keep things interesting.”
So what does Stephen Elliott want from his writing career? When I ask if he has any hopes of one day writing a bestselling book, Elliott — for the only time during the entire conversation — scoffs. “That’s not the kind of writer I am,” he says. “I just want my books to be good enough that they’ll become someone’s favorite books. And that they stay in print.”
As long as Elliott continues to hold himself accountable for their fate, they should stay in print.
David Duhr is Fiction Editor for Fringe Magazine and a freelance writer. He is also co-founder and instructor at WriteByNight (www.writebynight.net), a writers’ service in Austin, TX.