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