Stephen Elliott’s new book
expertly weaves together the story of the author’s writer’s block (a byproduct of his relationship with his abusive father) with the trial of Hans Reiser — a computer programmer accused of murdering his wife, Nina. The linchpin: Sean Sturgeon, Hans’ former best friend, Nina’s former lover, and a former member of San Francisco’s underground S&M scene. Now a born-again Christian, he claims to have committed eight and a half murders. Could this be one of them?
Channeling one of his literary heroes, Norman Mailer, Elliott decides to write a true crime book and begins to obsessively follow the case. He realizes that there are some interesting parallels with his own past, and the project becomes an Adderall-fueled creative marriage between the two. After the jump, Elliott talks to Flavorpill about the act of writing, the problem with assuming motive, and the current state of things with dad. Note: If you live in San Francisco there’s a release party at Amnesia on Thursday night where Tobias Wolff will also be reading. Admission includes one hardcover copy of The Adderall Diaries per guest.
Flavorpill: How much did growing up in Chicago shape you as a person?
Stephen Elliott: I was definitely forged in Chicago. In particular, being an inner city kid and growing up originally in Rogers Park, which is one of the most multi-ethnic neighborhoods in America — it’s the entry point for all immigrants in Chicago. It’s black, Hispanic, Arab, everything. It starts there, and then at 13, I’m sleeping on the streets for a year. I’m really soaking up the city, you know? Then I get put in these group homes, and the group homes are in a variety of locations, but most of those locations were hard places and very heavily populated areas.
There were things that were happening in Chicago then that were big cultural movements that I didn’t even realize were important. Like house music. The whole Nike shoe phenomenon. Michael Jordan. You see it happening and you don’t know that it’s happening anywhere else. When you’re poor, you can’t see what’s happening outside of your backyard. You don’t have a view of the rest of the world when you’re poor.
Chicago definitely shaped me in a lot of ways, both good and bad.
FP: Before you began this book you had long bout of writer’s block. Can you describe what that was like for you?
SE: Writing is not just how I see myself. It’s how I interact with the world. That goes back to when I was 10. There are two types of writers I think, maybe three. One of those types is the person who writes to communicate, who really needs to get things off their chest and doesn’t know how to do that any other way. To be stuck, and have writer’s block like that, is to feel totally bound up. Things are happening inside you, but you lose that place where you used to put them, where they used to go. You start to fill up and feel like you’re going to burst in a very uncomfortable way because you don’t have an outlet.
It was kind of devastating for me in a way. I was thinking today that this book is about many things, but if I had to sum up it really quickly, I would say that this is a book about writing. If it was only about one thing, I would say it’s about that: being a writer. I finished it a year ago, and I’m still figuring out what it’s about. [laughs]
FP: There’s tidy overlap between the murder trial and memoir portions of the book. Was that kismet or clever editing?
SE: It’s editing. That’s how writers write, I think. Anybody writing literary non-fiction is editing a lot. I edit extensively. I don’t intentionally alter timelines or lie about sequence, but presenting things in a way that makes sense is a matter of continually re-reading the material and getting rid of things that might confuse the reader. One of the main things that you’re trying to do when you’re writing is simplify. Not simplify the ideas, but make it easy for the reader to understand what it is you’re trying to say.
Making it smooth so that the reader can understand how my life is intersecting with this murder trial is not kismet. I have hundreds of drafts of this book. Hundreds and hundreds. And they are different. I worked on this book for 18 months and I worked 7 days a week, six to eight hours a day, and spent the rest of the time recovering. I’ve spent longer on books, but I’ve never more total hours on something. This is all I did. I never took a day off.
You just sit there all day chiseling at sentences and trying to make sense of things. And when you’re working on something so personal, you’re also trying to make sense of your life. Not just for the reader, but for yourself. What are the stories? What are the through lines? How do I make sense of myself? That’s part of the rewrite process, too.
FP: One of the books I read right before yours was David Carr’s The Night of the Gun. I think the fact that he chose to doggedly report his life story says a lot about his strengths as a writer. What does The Adderall Diaries say about yours?
SE: When you read The Night of the Gun — which to be clear, I really enjoyed a lot — I don’t think that he gets closer to the truth than Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn or This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. Everything is memory and interpretation. There are some details that are factual, but you have to explore the memories that you have, and the interpretations that you have, and look at them really honestly and skeptically. You can’t just trust your own memories, but those memories and interpretations are what make you who you are. That is you. That’s why “memory” and “memoir.”
The memories aren’t necessarily true. I can say, “I was arrested August 30th, 1986 and thrown in a mental hospital for three months.” That’s not exact, but I can get the exact dates. There are facts. It’s a fact that Hans Reiser killed Nina. But if I was to tell you why I was in that hospital — if I was to say what led up to me sleeping on the streets, being arrested and put in a mental hospital? There are no facts about things like that. You can’t take two facts together and create a third fact. It almost instantly goes into a place of interpretation. Your friends can analyze those facts for you and give your their opinions as well, but to write a good memoir, I think you have to take a hard look at the events of your life and the stories you’ve been telling yourself. Ask yourself why you told that story and try to get at some deeper truth of who you are.
That’s not to say I wasn’t interviewing friends. I was. Their stories are important. My father’s story is important. My father’s interpretation of events is as important as my own. It’s just as valid, I might add.
FP: Did writing this book make things better with your father? The memoir ends with a conversation that made me think it might have.
SE: I hate memoirs that offer this false closure or conclusion. “Things are going to be better from now on.” I hate that. A book that tries to get at some kind of truth, and then at the end, chickens out. You give the reader what you want. That’s not reality. We give ourselves that everyday. We tell stories about our lives that make sense and have narratives. That have a start, middle, and end. We think we know people’s motivations, and why they do things. They don’t even know their motivation! People have a thousand reasons for every one act that they do. We pretend to have some kind of insight into that. The quickest way to be wrong about anybody is to think you know why they do something. That’s one thing I want to avoid.
But there’s definitely been a shift in where my father sits in my head space. I think a lot of that was through the process of writing the book. I have a better perspective I think of where my father fits. I’m a lot less angry at him. I would say now, I’m not angry at him at all. I don’t really feel any anger or animosity toward my father. I never think of him and get angry anymore. I’ve really embraced the fact that I love my father, even if I can’t always be in contact with him. I want him to be happy. I’m absolutely certain that I’m not interested in him suffering at all. So in those ways, but I don’t think that came from the conversation so much as spending so much time thinking about our issues while writing the book.
Would you like to read The Adderall Diaries? Check out the cool Lending Library project Elliott has set up.