The Self-Made Man: How Stephen Elliott Writes His Life

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The Rumpus founder has built a career telling stories about his difficult childhood. What happens when he grows up?

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Stephen Elliott is a man who can't sit still. A member of the Dave Eggers literary cult, he's the author of seven books over the past 14 years, including The Adderall Diaries and Happy Baby, the latter of which was named one of the best books of 2004 by Salon and the Village Voice. He has covered politics for the Huffington Post, followed bands for Spin magazine, and written erotica collections that appeared in Best American Sex Writing anthologies. Recently, he co-wrote and directed his first film, which stars James Franco, Heather Graham, and Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel. It will be released in theaters in September by IFC Films.

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At the heart of Elliott's brand is the story of a man coping with his childhood. In his fiction, he invents plots, characters, and conflicts to talk about the real trauma in his own life. On his website, TheRumpus.net—featuring short stories, book reviews, cartoons and sex columns—Elliott's contributions are stylized diary entries that come in the form of email newsletters. His angry father, his mother's death when he was young, the three months he spent in a mental institute—they all appear in his writing, along with tales of sexual escapades in Amsterdam, drug binges in Chicago, and his constant struggles with loneliness. His success comes from making public what most people guard privately.

"I started writing when I was 10, and I just kept doing it," Elliott told me last fall. "I didn't realize it at the time, but it was a release valve."

Elliott grew up in a middle-class neighborhood on Chicago's north side and comes from a family of writers. His father, who made his living in real estate, wrote short fiction and plays (he wrote The Autobiography of Jesus Christ, which was put out by a print-on-demand publisher in 2003); his older sister is now a health reporter for a trade publication. Elliott says he began writing in 1981—a year after his mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis—to make sense of the world.

Over the next few years—as Elliott has recounted in interviews, in his books, and in essays published on various websites, including The Rumpus—he watched his mother slowly erode on his family's couch. He and his sister would bathe her. Every day, he would empty the urine bucket she kept by her side.

During that time, Elliott's behavior wasn't entirely angelic. The year he started writing, scribbling poems and taping them to his bedroom walls, he began smoking cigarettes and weed. He and his friends grew their hair long and broke into parking meters. Elliott said he was drinking and dropping acid by 12.

His mother died when he was 13. After her death, Elliott's father became angry and his behavior appeared erratic, according to Roger Dimitrov, Stephen's childhood best friend. Dimitrov, now a psychology PhD student in Chicago, remembers Stephen's father as imposing and icy. ("When he enters the room, the temperature falls," Dimitrov told me.) Once, Elliott has written, his father shaved his head after an argument. Not long after, he handcuffed Stephen to a pipe in their basement when the teen threatened to commit suicide.

Elliott ran away after that and, as he does with most things in his life, he eventually used those stories in his work. The head-shaving and handcuff incidents appeared in his second novel, A Life Without Consequences, on The Rumpus, and more recently in The Adderall Diaries.

"I was chased away by my father's rage," Elliott wrote in The Adderall Diaries, which is presented as non-fiction memoir. "Transformed by it, perhaps. That's what the caseworkers could never understand. It wasn't the handcuffs or the beatings or his shaving my head. That was nothing. It was the terror."

WHEN HE RAN AWAY, he wrote, he first slept in broom closets of nearby apartment buildings or above the Quik Stop market near his family's home. If he was cold, he hid out in a laundromat. Stephen spent his 14th birthday drinking cheap vodka in the basement of a building he had broken into. Eventually, months after he had left home, the police found Stephen sleeping in a doorway and hauled him in. Stephen became a ward of the state, living in and out of group homes or on friends' couches until he turned 18.

Despite his upbringing, no one who knew him doubted his intellect. Stephen went on to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. During his junior year, he told me, he dropped out and moved to Amsterdam. He worked as a barker in the red light district, luring passersby on the street into live sex shows. (Theo, the main character in Happy Baby, does the same.)

Amsterdam, Elliott has written, was where he had his first encounter with sadomasochism. It was an experience he described in explicit detail in an essay on the culture and sex website Nerve.com: One night, he went home with a burly Dutch woman he met at a hostel. She had spiky hair, clay-colored skin, and called herself "mommy." He spent the night sobbing as she tied him up, gagged him, held a knife to his genitals, and molested him with a strap-on dildo. He felt oddly comforted and terrified by what she did to him.

"When she was done," he wrote, "I slept curled in a ball facing her, my forehead against her collarbone, her heavy arm across my shoulder."

Throughout his college years, Elliott kept writing. When he returned to school, he started gaining recognition for his work.

"In my senior year, I won an undergraduate competition for a short story I had written," Elliott said. "I thought, 'Crap, I can get paid for this?'"

After college, Elliott returned to Chicago and worked odd jobs as he tried to get his work published. For several months, he worked as a stripper on the city's north end. (That job later inspired Elliott's third novel, What It Means to Love You, a story of three dancers who navigate Chicago's sex-work underworld.) He also began hanging out with other writers, filmmakers and artists—bright, creative people who, like himself, had tough upbringings. With them, he experimented with cocaine and other drugs.

By the time he entered graduate school for film studies at Northwestern University, Elliott told me, he was shooting heroin. Once, he injected himself with a dose of heroin that nearly killed him. (The scene appeared in The Adderall Diaries.) It was Thanksgiving of 1995, he said, and he spent eight painful days in a hospital bed recovering from his overdose.

There is no such thing as a turning point in Elliott's life. What's clear is the role writing has played in helping him escape his circumstances, especially the agonizing ones. After his overdose, Elliott published his first professional story, called "A Coward and a Thief," which was about his relationship with his father. It appeared in a nonprofit monthly magazine called The Sun in 1996. He was living out of his car at the time, driving cross-country.

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Ashwin Seshagiri is a journalist from Oakland, California. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Bloomberg News, SF Weekly, and other outlets. Find out more at ashwinseshagiri.com.

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