Back in January I told you about the launch of The Rumpus — an exciting new literary magazine that plays by the Internet’s rules — and I’ve been a big fan of Stephen Elliott’s online baby ever since. But a Web site cannot subsist on quality cultural content alone, which is why Stephen is joining forces with Smith Mag and McSweeney’s to bring us You Are Not Alone, an evening of comedy by Todd Barry and Eugene Mirman; music by Matthew Caws of Nada Surf and Amanda Palmer; and readings by Anthony Swofford, Jessica Anthony, James Hannaham, and Amy Tan; all at the Highline on May 30. After the jump Stephen chats about why he’s giving away copies of his upcoming book for free, what still irks him about Gawker, and why he’s not so worried about the future of publishing.
Flavorpill: So what have you learned over the past few months of running your own Web site?
Stephen Elliott: Wow, that’s a good question. There’s been so many surprises. You learn a lot about Internet habits and what people will and won’t do on the Internet, and what people like. And you have to decide when you want to play into that or when you want to ignore it. For example, people like reading about Obama, even though they’re already inundated with fluffy articles about Obama. But we’re not going to start running fluff pieces on Obama.
FP: Right. I remember you were very anti-Gawker. Do you still feel as strongly?
SE: Am I anti-Gawker? Yes, I guess I am. I find some good stuff on Gawker, but ultimately they’re meaner and dumber than they need to be. I’m more interested in media topics than I was when I started. So we’re running more media stories. But we’re running just as many book reviews as we were in the beginning. About five a week. I thought if we let good writers pick their own books to review we would get better book reviews that way, but it turns out reviewers often like to be assigned books. Media stories are more popular, but that doesn’t change our mission. We’re going publish lots of book reviews because nobody else wants to. We have to pick up the slack. Book reviews are important. The traffic is going to come from other places, sex and media stories, for example. Though both sex and media can also be written about smartly.
FP: I’ve actually adopted your policy of not only reviewing new stuff.
SE: I hate that policy of only reviewing new stuff. It doesn’t make sense, either. People don’t care. Most of the books we’re reviewing our readers haven’t heard of yet, so what’s the difference if they’re just coming out or six months old. Our official policy is that if a book is less than a year old it’s new. And if it’s more than a year old we’ll still write about it, but then it’s an appreciation, as opposed to a review. But literally, we see no difference between a book out a week and a book out 11 months.
FP: I read over on Galleycat that you’re doing this strange pass along thing with review copies of your upcoming book, The Adderall Diaries. What inspired that?
SE: I’m letting people who request an advance copy of my new book borrow it. They get it for a week and I send them the address of the next person they’re supposed to send it to. What inspired that is that I want people to read my book. Some people have said that I might sell fewer books if I let people read it for free. But I don’t think that’s true, and I don’t care anyway. I write books to be read. I’m 37 years old, I’ve written seven books and I share a one bedroom apartment with a 27-year-old hipster. Obviously I’ve made choices in my life that weren’t about getting rich. Whenever I speak at a school or a creative writing class people ask me about making a living as a writer and I tell them only a crazy person would go into creative writing to make a living.
FP: Can you talk a little bit about what the book is about?
SE: The book is part memoir, part true-crime. It’s a very intense, very dark book. I’d had writers block for over a year when I started it. I was plugged up thinking about all the wrong things. I didn’t want to write the kinds of books I’d already written. I was tired of the rules I’d set for myself, like “show don’t tell.” And I had written six books based on personal experience and I thought I should write a book that had nothing to do with me. But I wrote a memoir instead. At about the time I started to break out of that block, I heard about a guy that had confessed to 8 murders. He and I knew a lot of people in common through the San Francisco BDSM community. My first thought was I would write a true-crime book. I hung out with him for a while, but then he disappeared. But he was best friends with Hans Reiser, a famous computer programmer, who was on trial for killing his wife. So I started attending that trial. And, as a sidebar, my father had intimated in his unpublished memoir that he had killed a man the year before I was born. So there you have it. Ultimately, everyone’s confession was false, even Hans Reiser, who did in fact kill his wife. The book isn’t about murder, it’s about what you can’t know, how the lie and the truth mix, like red and yellow paint to create orange, and you can never separate them out again. It’s about identity.
FP: So, the upcoming event — You Are Not Alone — how did you curate it?
SE: Well, it’s happening during the Book Expo America. I wanted to have a big event for that, so I teamed up with Smith Mag and McSweeney’s. We wanted to have a fun, positive event at a time when the publishing industry is feeling a little blue. That’s why the name of the event is You Are Not Alone. Then I just thought who I knew that I would like to see perform. I know Amy Tan and Anthony Swofford. The McSweeney’s people asked Todd Barry, who I think is great. Our comedy consultant Christina Lee asked Eugene Mirman. Then I asked Matthew Caws from Nada Surf. Also, and this is newsworthy, Amanda Palmer is going to play. We’re also introducing two new McSweeney’s novelists, Jessica Anthony and James Hannaham. The thing about these events is it’s the only way I can figure out to fund The Rumpus. We’re doing them monthly in San Francisco starting in June. I really want to hire someone to work with me full time, but I don’t want to run the stupid content that would drive a lot of traffic to the site and I don’t want to sell ads. We’re considering going non-profit.
FP: Fight the good fight.
SE: We will!
FP: Your launch party was nutty. Particularly the James Frey working the door.
SE: That was great. James Frey is totally down to earth that way. He was a great doorman. And that was completely unplanned. I just forgot to get volunteers, so I had to ask the performers to work the door. The other door guy was Davy Rothbart. We’ve actually sold a bunch of tickets already, but the Highline is a bigger place. Maybe I’ll see if I can get Amy Tan to work the door.
FP: How do you know her?
SE: Well, I met her briefly a year or two ago, and she did a Progressive Reading. We’ve gotten to know each other much better recently. She really liked The Adderall Diaries and gave it a sweet blurb. I didn’t ask her for a blurb; I try to avoid asking for blurbs. So that was a nice surprise. I don’t know, I look at her like my aunt. She’s so nice it’s ridiculous. She couldn’t work the door because she would just let people in. I’d have to get Anthony Swofford to work the door with her. Get a former Marine at the door, that’s how you make sure people pay.
FP: I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve only seen the film adaptation.
SE: Jarhead is one hell of a memoir. A real literary work. I met Swofford years ago. We used to play poker together. He’s not the best poker player but he’s a bunch of fun.
FP: OK, final question — you guys are doing a great job of covering the “future of publishing.” At the end of the day, do you hope to help change that future?
SE: Wow, that’s a tough one. I don’t think we know much about the future of publishing. We love books, we love reading, and we’re big supporters of those things. We love small presses that print quality literature. We don’t have any regard for multi-national publishing corporations that say they need to publish more celebrity memoirs in order to publish the quality literature. We don’t believe in giant book advances, especially for first books. So, I guess the way we’d hope to help shape the future is by spreading our love of books. And art. And culture, as opposed to pop culture and mass produced culture. Hopefully that’ll catch with more people and we’ll see more celebrations of art and fewer analyzations of Paris Hilton’s wardrobe. But I’m not really worried about books. We’ll always be driven to read and write great books. Even if all the big publishing houses fade out, there’ll always be publishers like McSweeney’s and Graywolf. Publishing will be done by publishers, and it’ll be all they do, and they’ll do it from love, because there’s no other conceivable reason.