The Stephen Elliott Interview

Today is the day to play Donkey Kong.

Today's interviewee is the author of four novels, the most current of which is a semi-autobiographical novel called Happy Baby, about growing up in a series of group homes as a ward of the State of Illinois (he attended Northwestern University and the University of Illinois.) He also writes regularly for McSweeney's and was active with MoveOn and the 2004 Presidential campaign.

The Stephen Elliott Interview: Just Under Twenty Questions

Happy Baby was not originally titled as such. What made you change the title?
The original title turned out to be the name of a famous short story.

Do you miss the Midwest much?
Not really. I've been in San Francisco for a long time now.

This seems like a good time to be a fan of Illini basketball; are you on the bandwagon?
I'm in! I'm with the winning team!

You say that you didn’t study English as an undergrad. What were you studying, what were you hoping to pursue?
I was studying history. I was interested in modern revolutions, particularly Soviet history.

Do you approach your nonfiction differently than your fiction? It seems like it’s more daunting to write full-length nonfiction, if it’s not a memoir.
Non-fiction is way easier than fiction.

When you set out to write Happy Baby, did you intend to write it in reverse chronological order?
I didn't have any plans. I hadn't thought that far ahead. But that's how I ended up writing it.

You were very involved with and the election. Will you stay active through ’08 or are you going to take a rest?
I'm going to stay active.

Who would you like to see make a run for President in ’08?
I like Eliot Spitzer and Barrack Obama, but I don't think either of them will run in '08.

You say in an interview that you hadn’t read Andrew Sean Greer’s book because you don’t want that to possibly hurt your relationship. Is that a policy you have, not to read your friends’ work?
No. It's an ongoing joke between me and Andrew.

Another Chicago writer, Nathan Rabin, is an ‘alumnus’ of Campbell house although you two seem to have had very different experiences. Do you think there was something in particular about that home that spawned writers or just coincidence?
I think it's a coincidence.

From what I read in your interview with Identity Theory, you wrote three books almost by accident and then sold two of them. It was never difficult to spend so much time working on such large works without thinking about if they were going to be published, let alone a success?
I was really writing them for my friends. I didn't think I was publishable.

You worked as a stripper in Chicago. Had you been to a female strip club before you began stripping? Did your stint change your mentality towards them?
Yes, I had been to strip clubs, but not excessively. I had actually worked for a live sex show in Amsterdam and at a dirty bookstore in Chicago before becoming a stripper. I don't know if it changed my mentality toward strippers. I don't think I ever looked down on strippers.

You say that you do a lot of editing and re-reading of your own work. Do you ever let your work sit for a while before you go back to it? That’s like tip #8 on the ‘how to write a novel’ pamphlet they hand out.
Sure. But sometimes I let it sit and then I forget about it and it never gets finished. Each book has its own pace and of course what you're doing in life has a lot to do with it too.

Do you still lead fiction workshops? What do you do to keep them flowing? Are they mostly positive or do the students snipe at each other much?
Yes. I teach at Stanford in the continuing studies program and the undergraduates. I've never led a graduate workshop or been in one so I don't know that much about the competition. I don't find much sniping. The adults just want to get back to being creative. A lot of people stop being creative in their twenties as they chase careers. And the kids don't compete in my workshop, primarily because I don't grade them on their stories. I grade them on their participation.

Is there anything pleasant about sleeping on the roof of a convenience store?
No. Well, I take that back. When you're young and homeless you can stay out as late as you want. You can drink and do drugs and crawl onto the roof at three in the morning. The only thing that's going to wake you up for school is the sun.

Who are your favorite fiction and nonfiction writers?
Can I name all of them? I always feel like I'm leaving somebody out so I've been keeping a list. How about David Amsden, Michelle Tea, Ryzard Kapuscinski, Cormac McCarthy, Tobias Wolff, Dave Eggers, V.S. Naipaul, Hunter Thompson, Arthur Neresian, Alicia Erian, Julie Orringer, J.M. Coatzee, Gina Kolata. Nick Flynn, Jim Shepard, Phillip Gourevitch, Zak Muncha – especial Zak Muncha (check out his book, The Beggar's Shore), Denis Johnson, Tom Bissell, Adam Johnson, Jane Ransom, JT Leroy, Dorothy Allison, Andrew Vachss, Charles Bukowski, Hemingway (of course), Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar), George Orwell, James Ellroy, John Fante, Kevin Canty, Knut Hampson, Marguerite Duras, Mary Gaitskill, Maxim Gorky, Michael Chabon, Nelson Algren, Paul LaFarge, Dennis Cooper, Somerset Maughan, Thomas Friedman (yes, the New York Times columnist), ZZ Packer, Jennifer Traig, Anthony Swofford, and Vaclav Havel

How does it feel to be the 117th person interviewed for
It feels good. Like I've finally made it.