Stephen Elliott on Domesticity, Queerness, and Britney Spears
By Lee MataloneNovember 8, 2017
Graywolf recently published two of Elliott’s books: a new collection of essays, Sometimes I Think About It, which will be his first book since 2009’s The Adderall Diaries, as well as a rerelease of his 2004 novel, Happy Baby. When I ask him how it feels to return to this book after his forays into a wider range of media, he says that for him, his life is one continuous work of art. “When you’re a full-time creative person — especially when you write a lot about your life and you’re inspired by your life — everything you do is just part of the same project.”
LEE MATALONE: Are you in California right now?
STEPHEN ELLIOTT: I am. I’m living in Los Angeles. I’m feeling very much like I live in Los Angeles … I bought a T-shirt that says Los Angeles upside down and then spelled again in Arabic.
What brought you there?
I broke up with my girlfriend in New York and the day after we broke up, I was like, what am I doing in New York? Why am I not in L.A.? I know some of the reasons. One of them being the kink community in New York is amazing, and the other being that, in general, I hate Los Angeles. But in all the other ways, in all the practical ways, Los Angeles makes so much sense. I came out here for a month and it seemed to be working out, and I went back and saw my ex-girlfriend, and the minute I saw her, I was like, yeah, I’m moving to Los Angeles.
Was the move practical because of the web series you’ve created and directed, or for your other projects?
All the other things. After Adderall was the closing movie for Slamdance, so I met all these film people who lived in Los Angeles, which gave me a film community here. I work with Epic Magazine, and they’re in Los Angeles. If they don’t see me for a while, I feel like they forget about me. [Laughs]. And when I started making the web series, I really got into serialized storytelling because I get so depressed between projects. When you’re doing something serialized, you’re always writing something, you’re always on a project. The idea of doing a TV show really started to appeal to me, and I thought, I’m never going to be able to get into that anywhere else. I’ll have to be living in Los Angeles to do that.
Then, in addition to that, it’s so much cheaper for me to live in Los Angeles. It’s like getting a $10,000 a year raise, just moving here, because of the rent and everything. I live in a gigantic loft downtown, and it’s literally $700 a month less. I can fit two of my New York apartments in this apartment. Also, my health insurance is through Epic, so in California I have health insurance, and in New York, I don’t. I have every reason in the world, except that I’ve always disliked the culture in Los Angeles. I always felt like people in New York were smart and ambitious, and people in Los Angeles were ambitious.
Your forthcoming essay collection, Sometimes I Think About It, will be your first book since 2009’s The Adderall Diaries. What have you been doing since 2009?
When I finished The Adderall Diaries, I felt like I was scraped clean. There was just nothing left for me. I really felt like I had said everything in The Adderall Diaries, and it was going to be a while until I had something to say again in book length. I wanted to start editing, and so I started doing The Rumpus. That grew into a place for a certain kind of feminism, a really inclusive, diverse, literary environment, incredibly progressive without being pedantic.
Then I started making movies, the first one being About Cherry, which was released in 2012. Then I did an adaptation of my novel, Happy Baby, which was difficult. I thought I was done making movies. Then, in 2015, I saw James Franco’s adaptation of The Adderall Diaries, and that inspired me to make a third movie, After Adderall, which was a fictional movie about James Franco making a movie about me.
In other areas, I moved to New York and then I moved to Los Angeles. I got heavily into rope bondage. I became much more open about cross-dressing. I got into a serious relationship that ended. I bought a house in New Orleans with the money from The Adderall Diaries, which was a big thing. Then I wrote a couple of essays, which are in the collection. I wrote, “Sometimes I Think About Suicide,” which is the main one, and “Silicon Is Just Sand,” the most recent one for Epic, that’s being made into a television show by A&E.
The collection is divided into three sections. The first, “In Country,” starts off with a first-person account of your time as a homeless adolescent and ends with your father’s account of that same period of time. Why did you choose to give your father the last word?
I don’t know. It’s funny, so much of writing is just like jazz or music … it’s really hard to say why it had to be that way. I felt like the book had to to open with “Where I Slept,” which is a description of all the places I slept the year that I was homeless, in eighth grade. That essay is really special to me — the whole thing with that essay is trying to stay on track, not trying to blame people, not trying to talk about how the system failed me, or how cold it is outside. I just want to figure out where I slept that year. [Laughs.]
Until that essay, I had never been able to write about that period of my life because it just felt too complicated. I knew I was homeless for an entire year, and I slept on the streets and all sorts of good and bad things happened. Of course, when it was over, the state took custody of me and I was thrown into a variety of facilities and institutional homes, so it had repercussions. Up until my 30s, I think I really defined myself by that year as a homeless kid, a group home kid. That was my entire identity. But I couldn’t quite get my head around it because of the inconsistencies. Like, I went home three times during that year. Even if I didn’t see my father when I went home, I still went home. I stayed in my old house for a couple of days, or I’d sneak in when he wasn’t there. I’d break in. I guess for me, for my personal story, that’s where it all starts.
As far as my father having the last word, I’m okay with that. [Laughs.] I don’t have a problem with my father having the last word. I don’t have to have the last word. That’s not really important to me.
Has that always been true with your story, or at least in regards to your father?
No. I think that much of my conflict with my father was actually a conflict over story, who had the right to tell the story. We disagreed on all these things that happened when I was growing up. Like, I’d say I was homeless, and he’d say you could come home anytime you wanted to; I’d say, you moved and I didn’t know where you lived, and he’d say, I left the forwarding address with the post office, and if you really wanted to find out you could’ve found out; I’d say, you abused me, and he’d say, you were just a spoiled child, you don't know what abuse is. We had such a different idea of what had happened.
What was great about interviewing him for the oral history project was listening to him tell his side of the story. I only edited it for clarity; it’s all his words. I thought he would be really upset by it, because when I read it, I think he sounds like a crazy person. He read it and thought it was great. That says so much about how differently we see things. I thought he would read it the way I did, and think, this person sounds like an awful monster.
He died a year and a half ago and that sort of changed everything. I didn’t know how I was going to feel when he died because we had all this conflict. It was kind of the great conflict of my life. It started when I was kid, when he was abusing me and handcuffing me to a pipe, but it continued all throughout my adult life. He’d leave bad reviews of my books on Amazon. He’d leave comments anywhere something was written about me. Then he died, and it didn’t feel complicated at all. I was kind of glad that he died. I didn’t think I would ever have the chance to be in this world without him.
I also felt that we had really worked through everything we had to work through. I hadn’t spoken to him in about six years when he died, but we had done everything we could do. I felt I’d given every chance to the relationship and fully processed it. It helped me see him in a more forgiving light, too. Now I’m glad that there are those bad reviews of my books that he left on Amazon because to me it all feels part of the story. Weird, you know? I never know how I feel until I feel it.
Does writing help you to understand, or at least identify what you feel?
Definitely. So much of writing is figuring out how I feel about something. Or I’ll know I feel strongly about something — like when I saw The Adderall Diaries, the movie, I didn’t know how I felt about it. Two weeks after watching it, I had written an entire film script about that movie. It just flew out of me. I was like, oh, I must have had really strong feelings about my life being turned into a movie because I wrote all this stuff about it.
A number of the stories in your collection focus on childhood homelessness and itinerant living. You live in Los Angeles now, for a while you were jumping back and forth between Los Angeles and New York, and you have a home in New Orleans. You refer to yourself as the most inconsistent person you know. What do you think about the idea of a home?
It’s funny — not that anybody cares — but on a personal level, I’m really into domesticity and crave stability. And yet, I ran away when I was 13 and just never stopped being that runaway. Something happens, and I leave places. I keep doing that over and over again. I can always justify it. All the reasons I told you about why I moved to Los Angeles, those are all justifications, and they’re all true, yet that’s not really why I moved to L.A. [Laughs.] I moved to L.A. because there’s something about me that keeps me always having to move to some other place. I don’t want to do to this, and yet the pattern is too strong to ignore for me. If I’m trying to make sense of myself, and I’m the only person who’s going to make the effort to do that, then I have to look at the patterns. I’m always looking at myself from the outside, trying to see myself as someone else sees me.
Let’s talk about Happy Baby, which was released in 2004. How do you feel about revisiting this novel at this point in your career? How did it come about that this book would be rereleased?
I’ve published four novels, and Happy Baby is really the only good one. I never wrote another novel after Happy Baby because I felt so satisfied with it.
But it never got the release that it might have gotten. It was published by McSweeney’s, in conjunction with this other press, MacAdam/Cage, and it kind of got lost in between the two presses. There was no marketing, no distribution. It wasn’t available at Borders, and that was a thing that used to matter. [Laughs.] I thought it would just disappear. It did okay. It was nominated for awards but it never got any kind of a push. So it’s nice for that book to get a second chance and a second life.
Happy Baby adopts a reverse chronological order. How did that structure come about?
I was doing a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford and reading all this MFA fiction, like Raymond Carver, stuff I had never read before. I was with all these people who had done MFAs or literary PhDs; I was the only person who hadn’t. In the workshops, the MFAs would always ask why. Why does this character do this? They were always looking for direct causation. I was always like, I don’t know why. To me, it was because it was possible that they could do this, and if it’s possible, then that’s enough. I started to rebel against the idea of explaining everything, and to write stories where the character’s actions aren’t explained. They’re all in present tense and the action only moves forward in scene, with no narration or explanation. But every time I’d write one, there’d be questions left open, and so I’d write the earlier story. I kept writing these stories, and they kept going earlier than the one before it. That’s just the order I wrote the stories in.
When I turned it in to Dave Eggers, who was editing it at McSweeney’s, I had made it linear; I turned it around. He’s said, “What if these went backward?” Without knowing that’s how I had written them, he suggested that. That’s a great editor — Dave Eggers is such a genius. It’s an unpeeling. At base, who is this character? How did this person become the person he is now?
Did your time writing the piece on Silicon Beach startup culture for Epic Magazine inspire your interest in the gig economy, which is the concept for the web series, Driven?
Actually, I had the idea for a web series set around a car-share like Lyft a long time ago, when I first saw High Maintenance. I love that structure where you have this guy that delivers pot, but what he really does is deliver you into a story and leave. I thought that would be great to do with a Lyft driver in San Francisco and you would see the whole tech world. That was years ago, but it didn’t quite work. I didn’t feel it. Then, on Election Day, I realized that the driver was me — a writer who’s tired of being a writer and doesn’t want to be a writer anymore. And Trump is now president, and the vehicle is a metaphor for exploring the new political reality of this world. That’s what Driven is. Not every episode is really political, but most of them are. Ultimately it’s an exploration of the new environment.
What interests you about the web series format?
It’s doable. I make each episode for $800 maximum, so as long I’m able to get a little bit of money together, I can do it. That’s a big part of it. You have these little eight-minute shorts and shoot them in a day. Those are the constraints. I love that I start writing and know the world already. I’ve established this world, and so the next one is always easier because I’m writing about a place that becomes more and more familiar to me.
In the first episode of the web series, your character quotes another writer who says, “The key to life is figuring out how you’re fucked up and rolling with it.” How do you relate to that idea?
I stand by that. Ben Greenman said that. He writes for The New Yorker. He’s an incredibly smart guy. He says basically, you can’t change all the ways in which you’re fucked up. Especially the older you get. I’m 45. At some point, you have to accept these things about yourself. Like your sexuality. It might not be the sexuality you would choose — I wouldn’t choose to have my sexuality because it gives me a very small dating pool — rather than fighting it, you make the best of it.
I have to ask you about the Britney Spears essay. In your prefatory note you write: “Sometimes I didn’t feel that an essay represented me anymore but decided to keep it anyway. That’s the problem with writing things down; we change, the person who wrote is no longer there.” Do you still stand by the fact that Blackout is a “sex-and-drugs masterpiece”?
Oh yeah. I do think that Blackout is Britney’s best album. I think it’s a great album. It’s funny. If you want to look at it from a feminist perspective, it’s like, why do we think of Elvis as a genius, but not Britney Spears? Elvis didn’t write his own music, so why is he a genius? He’s just a vessel. He’s a guy who’s really good at moving his hips and delivering emotion, as written by somebody else. If Elvis is a genius, then Britney is definitely a genius, because Britney has the exact talent that Elvis had.
The reason I got so into that album is because it was a time when I had all these distractions. I lived in a very loud house with a very loud roommate and very thin walls, so I was listening to Britney Spears because it was perfect background noise. I realized that even if you haven’t heard these songs, you have heard them. They’re written to be so similar to things you’re familiar with that they don't challenge you in any way. They’re really a pleasure to listen to, depending on the state you’re in. It’s an incredible train wreck. It’s a car crash, but at the same time you want to dance to it. It’s rhythmic and the melodies are phenomenal. I’m into that album.
You’re not into the rest of the Britney oeuvre?
There’s nothing else by her that’s as good as that album. Because in every other album I’ve heard of hers, there are weak spots. But that’s true of most artists. To have a perfect album where every song works is pretty rare.
You talk about the “cluelessness” of her music and its “deliberate ignorance of larger societal issues” as a good thing. In 2017, do you still think cluelessness is something one should strive for or value?
You can’t aspire to be Britney. You shouldn’t, right? I think she’s a musical genius but that doesn’t mean you should aspire to cluelessness, which she typifies. Remember that Elvis Presley went to meet Richard Nixon wearing a half cape and told him he wanted to lead the war on drugs. Elvis was pretty clueless too. I’m not saying you should aspire to cluelessness certainly. At the same time, I think what you’re suggesting is something that I maybe disagree with, which is that we live in a time where the artist has a responsibility to be political. I don’t think I would say that the artist has a responsibility to be political. For the most part, art is inherently political.
So what is Britney saying with her music, politically?
Maybe Britney is not a good example of art being political. [Laughs.] But a woman being able to express herself and her feelings is an inherently political act. For her to reclaim the mantle after everybody saying she’s crazy and for her to be in that and say, well, maybe I am crazy. That’s political. Obviously you get into a harder space when it’s a white male. Like, why is a white male expressing himself politically? That becomes a much tougher question.
That’s certainly applicable to your life. Your story is something you use repeatedly in your own work — how do you envision the relationship between your life and the lives of your characters?
It’s tricky. The sexual stuff I do is really resonant and political. I don’t identify as transgender, but I claim the right to be a mainstream person who tweets pictures of myself tied up in a pink dress. That’s not weird to me; that’s expression, and I think it’s good for everybody that we express that way because it makes all of us more open. But at the same time, why should anybody care about a white guy writing about suicide and depression? I don’t really know the answer to that, and maybe as a society we don’t. But you have to write for yourself. I write the things that I’m moved to write, not what I think the time wants or what is marketable. These are the things that come out of me and need to come out of me when they come out of me. I write them, and I hope that people respond, but they don’t have to. That’s not the litmus test.
I’d argue that your version of the white male depression story is a little bit different, in that the idea of masculinity you present is distinct from what we normally get in those narratives. Maybe it’s freeing for people.
Maybe. It’s a weird thing for me. On some level, I feel like I’m obviously queer. My whole sexuality is tied up around male submission and BDSM and cross-dressing. I don’t have “normal” sex at all. And yet somehow it feels like a cop-out for me to say I’m queer. It’s like, am I going to claim this label, hide behind it, and say what I have to say is okay because I’m different sexually and therefore I have a right to be heard? That’s fine for other people, but I don’t feel like doing that. It’s really complicated. I’ve certainly been discriminated against and dealt with people not respecting my sexuality.
But at the same time, I walk down the street and I see a police officer and feel safe. Or, I was in the movie theater with a girl friend earlier this week, and I just wanted to put my hand on her leg. It’s what I felt like doing. I couldn’t do that for obvious reasons, but I also realize that even to ask her if I could do that would also possibly be oppressive and unfair. There are so many advantages to being a white guy that it doesn’t feel right to me to then hide behind being queer, because I still have all the advantages. Of course I bristle when people call me an insider. But nonetheless, I don’t really feel good about using those terms because I don’t feel the reason those terms were created was for me.
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