Illustration by Adam Grano
In Conversation with Stephen Elliott
Stephen Elliott does not sit around and wait for things to happen. Since releasing his debut novel Jones Inn in 1998, the author/filmmaker/editor has built a reputation for exploring tough and deeply personal subject matter—child molestation, bouncing in and out of group homes in Chicago, scraping out a living as a male stripper, overdosing on heroin—in a way that’s brutally honest, funny, and sympathetic. He’s been compared to literary heavyweights like Bukowski, Denis Johnson and Joan Didion. Like Bukowski, Stephen writes in abundance and primarily about his own life, constantly blurring the line between fact and fiction. Whatever’s on his mind, people love to hear about it: His one-way email correspondence, “The Daily Rumpus,” attracts more than 16,000 readers.
His best book, according to him, is Happy Baby, a novel about a troubled man in his 30s coming to terms with his abusive childhood. His most popular work is The Adderall Diaries, a blend of memoir, true crime, and drug addiction. My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up, a short story collection centered around sadomasochism and explosive relationships, is every bit as hilarious and heartbreaking as its title suggests. In 2009 Elliott founded The Rumpus, a literary website that features interviews, pop culture essays, original fiction, and weekly columns by the likes of Ted Wilson and Rick Moody. His first foray into filmmaking, 2012’s About Cherry, starred Heather Graham, Lily Tomlin and James Franco. He’s currently directing a film adaptation of Happy Baby and writing a four-person play called Independent Cinema for the Dying. Like I said, he keeps busy.
I spoke with Stephen on a rainy fall afternoon at The Pony Bar on East 75th Street in Manhattan. That morning he had launched the first issue of The Weekly Rumpus, an online magazine that bundles the best articles from the site with original fiction, essays and poetry. Stephen ordered a big bowl of red chili and talked to me about the thrill of finding himself in the director’s chair, the time he nearly got locked up by a psychiatrist in San Francisco, and why he’s always in a race against his own enthusiasm.
I. A DOG NAMED RUMPUS
THE BELIEVER: How did The Rumpus start?
STEPHEN ELLIOTT: Originally I was talking to Arianna Huffington. I’d just finished The Adderall Diaries and I wanted to do something but I didn’t know what. I didn’t want to write another book. So I thought, well, I’ll get into editing. Because I figured that by doing all this writing I’d learned how to edit. So I was trying to get into that, and I was talking to Arianna about starting a book page on The Huffington Post, because they didn’t have one yet.
BLVR: This was before they had their Books section?
SE: Yeah, and I would meet her, and I had all these ideas. But at some point I was like, Why am I giving her all these ideas? I thought, it’s just a website. I can launch a website. How hard can it be? So I just started my own website. And then, a friend of mine was working on a book, and the dog in the book was named Rumpus. And that’s where the name came from. It was really random. And I didn’t know then what it was going to be.
BLVR: But you knew it was going to be a literary site.
SE: Yeah. But I didn’t know how it would ever pay for itself, that it’d be kind of a full time thing. For at least six months I just worked on it, twelve hours a day. First we started putting content up, then we designed the site around the content. But I approached it kind of like I’d approach a novel. When I start writing a novel or any book I don’t know what it is. I figure it out as I’m writing it.
BLVR: How many readers are there now?
SE: I don’t know. We get about 800,000 page views a month, something like that. It goes up and down a bit. And then there’s like 16,000 subscribers to “The Daily Rumpus,” but I don’t know how many of those people actually read "The Daily Rumpus.” It’s hard to say.
BLVR: What’s the idea behind The Weekly Rumpus?
SE: I think it’ll be easier for people to read. We’ll put the best stuff that came out on The Rumpus that week. You know. And then we’ll put something that’s really good that’s coming out the next week, that you can’t get online yet. We’re also going to have short fiction and original short stories that will only be on The Weekly Rumpus. I think that’s going to be cool.
BLVR: Do you often feel that you have too much on your plate?
SE: Yeah, because I’m working on The Rumpus, and I want The Rumpus to be good. And I’m editing the Happy Baby movie. I’m also working on a new play. It’s called Independent Cinema for the Dying.
BLVR: What’s it about?
SE: It’s about a guy who’s dying, who’s a writer. He’s written all these books and decides he has to make a movie. It’s pretty autobiographical. All my work is pretty autobiographical.
BLVR: Are you dying?
SE: We’re all dying. I mean, that’s the thing, right? We’re all dying.
BLVR: Slowly, hopefully.
SE: And, it’s meaner and funnier than most of the things I write. I don’t know how to feel about that.
BLVR: What made you want to write a play?
SE: I didn’t decide. It’s just something I started doing, I started following it. And now I’m halfway through it, and it works. Sometimes I find that by changing the medium, it kind of breaks me out and inspires me. With this I’m able to kind of able to fit all my thoughts on making independent movies and celebrity culture, which was so important to my first movie. And also the medical profession. My mom died of multiple sclerosis. Which doesn’t happen as often anymore. She had extreme multiple sclerosis. And so she got diagnosed, and she was dead five years later. Paralyzed right away, then dead. But they don’t know what multiple sclerosis is. It’s not a disease—it’s a symptom. You have lesions on your brain. That’s multiple sclerosis. But they don’t know where the lesions come from, and there’s probably a hundred different diseases that are causing that, and they’re calling them all the same thing. The same thing with migraines. You know, migraines have been a big thing for me. I get a lot of migraines, and it’s really sidelined me a lot of times.
BLVR: You still get them now?
SE: Yeah, it’s really a thing in my life. And you know, I see the doctor, and they’re like, “We don’t know.” Or they call it migraines. You know, a migraine is a doctor’s way of saying he has no idea what’s wrong with you. It’s bullshit. Of course there’s a reason why I’m getting this migraine.
BLVR: What do they give you for them?
SE: Yeah, what do they give you for it? It’s bullshit. I don’t know! I don’t know what they give you.
BLVR: So that’s what this play is about?
SE: Yeah, it’s kind of about that. It’s about sickness and it’s about celebrity.
II. THE FRANCO EFFECT
BLVR: How did you get into directing? The story goes that when you started filming About Cherry, you took over because no one else could.
SE: Yeah, it was really accidentally. When we started we didn’t have a lot of money.
BLVR: In the back of your mind, did you always want to direct it?
SE: No. In the back of my mind I wanted to find a director. Then I realized I wasn’t going to find a director at that budget. Not somebody proven. If you’re that good and you’re proven, then you’re not doing that low-budget of a movie. Also, it was about sex work and I had been a sex worker, and at some point I said, “Ah, screw it, I’ll just direct it myself.”
BLVR: Talk about how About Cherry came to be.
SE: James Franco had optioned The Adderall Diaries. Then I wrote the screenplay for him. I asked him if I could write the screenplay, and he said yes. I thought that that meant we had a business deal, but it did not. It just meant, Sure, go ahead. So I wrote the screenplay and I was waiting to hear back what they thought of the screenplay. I’d spent a month or two working on it. It was taking them a little while to get back me. Not really that long, but I’m a really impatient person. So I was just like, Well, I’m going to show these people how to make a movie. You know, it’s not that hard. So I kept going. I wrote another script with my friend Lorelei. She co-wrote it with me. Then I asked James if he would be in it. He said yes, and then I got some other celebrities like Heather Graham, Lily Taylor, Dev Patel. We had a pretty all-star cast.
BLVR: I’m wondering how you got that together.
SE: Basically it starts with James saying he’d be in it. Though, honestly, I didn’t know until he showed up that he was going to do it.
BLVR: You had a verbal agreement?
SE: Also over email. But we kept sending him the contract and he would just never sign it.
BLVR: He’s probably got a pretty good wall around him.
SE: Well, I don’t know if that’s true or not. But his manager is hilarious. His manager wouldn’t know how to tell the truth. Just wouldn’t know how. It would be amazing if he ever told the truth. If James Franco’s manager tells you it’s sunny outside, you bring an umbrella. You know? It’s just so deep, and I really don’t think I’m insulting him right now. I think that he knows this, and he thinks it’s funny. You know I’ve certainly—I’ve called him a liar. And I still like him.
BLVR: He’s a nice guy?
SE: He’s a nice guy. We see each other, we talk, and everything’s fine. But he’s a liar. He’d say things like, “Oh, yeah the contract’s coming,” and this and that. First I told him I needed James there for four days, because he plays the male lead in the movie. And then eventually, after alongtime of not answering phone calls or anything, he invites me to his office and says, “You can only have James for twodays.” And then, as we’re getting ready to shoot, we still don’t have a contract, and he says: “You can have him for one day.” And then we still don’t have a contract. And it was so hard to get in touch with his manager and everybody else. And at one time it seemed like his manager and his agent were trying to get him out of the movie. So I didn’t know if he was going to show up or not. So then he did, and we had him for seventeen hours.
BLVR: Did you have a backup actor?
SE: No. I was the backup.
BLVR: No way.
SE: We didn’t have a backup. I mean, all of the money was there because James Franco was in the movie. The money was only there because of James Franco. So if James Franco doesn’t show up, what do you do? Because now you’ve got $500,000 in cash. You’re already spent at least $100,000, $150,000 of the cash. At least, even prior to shooting. And a lot of the work that’s being done in trade, like building sets and stuff, that’s already done. So what do you do if James Franco doesn’t show up in that situation?
BLVR: Eventually he showed up.
SE: He did. He showed up for a day. And his manager had said that we had him for 24 hours. But after fifteen hours, they were trying to leave. And I wouldn’t let him leave.
BLVR: James Franco was trying to leave?
SE: The manager was trying to leave. Manager said, “Ok, we’ve got to go at midnight.” And I said, “You’re not going to leave until we’re done shooting.” I told him, “Don’t worry about it, we only have five more setups.” And he said, “The producer told me there was only four more setups.” I said, “Really? Because she told me there were six more.” That’s how bad it was. Just so reflexively dishonest.
We were shooting in the San Francisco Armory, in the parade ground. And I told [Former Rumpus editor] Isaac [Fitzgerald], “Just watch the door, don’t let anybody leave.” And I told the other people at the gates not to open the gates under any circumstances. So the manager wanted to drive James out. And James wasn’t saying anything. But the manager was trying to get him out. And I basically just held him hostage, and we kept going until two in the morning.
BLVR: You got every part he did in the movie in one day?
SE: All of it. He’s the male lead in the movie and we did it in seventeen hours. It was crazy. He hadn’t read the script, so everything was nuts. He was great. He’s an amazing actor. Just amazing. And he did me a real favor. Even though I was stressed out wondering, would he be there, would he not be there, he really did me a favor. That movie would not have been made if he had not done it. So on balance, he’s done a lot more for me than I’ve done for him.
BLVR: When you wrote it, did you have him in mind?
SE: Yes I did. But also, I thought originally that he owed me something. Because I gave him The Adderall Diaries, I let him option that for very cheap, like $2,500. Then I wrote the script for him, which took like two months. So I’d done all this work for him, and he’d never paid me for that script. But then I realized, actually, a day of his life is worth more than two months of my life. You know? A day of his life is worth seven-hundred and fifty-thousand dollars. If you put together all the money I’ve made in my lifetime, it’s not even close.
III. QUALITY CONTROL
BLVR: With so many people involved, do you ever get frustrated by the process of making a movie? Writing is so much more streamlined.
SE: I love the process of making a movie. I like working with actors and the artistic collaboration. I find writing to be really lonely. And I get sick of sitting in front of a computer. I am so fucking sick of computers.
BLVR: And actors bring your script to life.
SE: Yeah, but they’re also on the creative edge. I’ve never met an actor that wasn’t a serious artist. Whether they’re a good artist or not is not really the question. But they’re all very serious about making art. And it’s so beautiful. I’ve never met an actor who’s not gonna do a part he or she wants to do because the money’s not right.
I know it’s weird, but I love actors. I was talking to a director recently complaining about an actor on a movie, saying that the actor was giving him a hard time. The actor was saying things like, “I don’t think my character would say that.” And the director was going nuts.
BLVR: [Laughs] Does that happen to you a lot?
SE: That happens all the time, and I love that. If you don’t think your character would say that, I want to know that. And I don’t want you to say it if your character wouldn’t say it. An actor, especially if they’re good, they should know the character better than you do. A good actor can show you things about your character that you could never imagine.
BLVR: When you’re directing, do you give people free rein on the script?
SE: Not people. Actors. It’s not like I let everybody on set rewrite the script. But if an actor has ideas for their character I take them very seriously. And sometimes if I don’t agree with them, I’ll say, “Ok. We’ll shoot it your way, and then we’ll shoot it my way. And then I’ll figure it out in the edit.” And usually, I use the actor’s way.
BLVR: Do you really believe the actors know the part better than you, the guy who wrote it?
SE: Isn’t that amazing?
BLVR: Many times authors gripe about their books being turned into movies.
SE: Whatever. When you sell the rights to your book, you give up control over that book. It’s no longer your project. And I don’t think it’s very cool to criticize somebody else’s art project. You took the money. It’s not yours anymore. They’re making a movie of The Adderall Diaries.
BLVR: Is James Franco doing it?
SE: He’s producing it. He gave the movie to a college student at NYU, and she’s making it.
BLVR: That doesn’t keep you awake at night, wondering whether or not some stranger will bastardize your story in a medium that has far more reach than a book?
SE: No, I don’t give a shit. Nobody’s going to judge me and my book based on my movie. You don’t judge a book based on how good the movie is. Never once have I worried about what they’re going to do with the book.
BLVR: Are you worried about the Happy Baby film being compared to the book?
SE: I’m worried about Happy Baby being really good. That’s my only concern.
IV. CLEAN GRAVITY
BLVR: Happy Baby is largely based on your childhood.
SE: Based on it, but it’s still fiction. It’s not a memoir.
BLVR: How much would say is true?
SE: A lot of stuff that’s in there didn’t necessarily happen to me. Almost everything that’s in there happened to somebody. Happened to me or somebody I knew. So in that way it’s all true. But it’s all compressed into one character. I’ve never presented Happy Baby as anything other than fiction. I’ve never said that it’s a memoir, a true story, or anything like that.
BLVR: Do you still keep in contact with most of the people who inspired the characters in the novel?
SE: My old friends? Yeah, most of them. We’re all on Facebook together.
SE: Of course.
BLVR: What about the guy who influenced Mr. Gracie?
SE: Nope. Don’t know where he’s at.
BLVR: Where do you draw the line between memoir and fiction? In My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up, you say in the intro that it was almost a memoir.
SE: If there’s anything there that you know is not true, and you say it anyway, then it’s not a memoir.
BLVR: There’s nothing in The Adderall Diaries that isn’t true?
SE: There’s nothing in The Adderall Diaries that I don’t think is true. That doesn’t make it true, but that whole book is true to me. That’s an important distinction. Different people have different memories. But the one rule in writing a memoir, the one rule I have for myself is: you can’t intentionally lie.
BLVR: If you do, it’s fiction.
SE: Exactly. But with a memoir, you’re dealing mostly with memory and interpretation.
BLVR: And as a writer you have the liberty to interpret things as you remember them.
SE: We all have that liberty. It’s our truth. We walk around with that truth. And it impacts our lives in myriad, major ways. What we think of as being true kind of defines us. It’s not exclusive to writers. But what I was saying is that there’s interpretation, and there’s memory, and that’s most information in the world, right? And then there’s facts. The facts are the vast minority.
BLVR: Facts like … the rules of gravity?
SE: [Pounds wooden table] This is a wooden table. That’s a fact. This is a clean wooden table. That’s an opinion. You see? Almost any time you add an adjective of any sort you’re already there. But those types of things, interpretations and memories, if you’re reading through literature, only a fractional percentage of it is going to be factual. In terms of fact. Like, “I was in jail from this day to this day.” That’s a fact. Either you’re there or you weren’t there. And you can check it. There are records.
Most of the problems with memoirs, it’s usually because people interpret things differently. And then people think you’re a liar. And they think they know your motivation. They think they know why you’re saying what you’re saying and doing what you’re doing.
BLVR: That happened with you and your father when you first started publishing.
SE: Yeah, that happened a lot. My father would contact any journalist I’d talk to and say, “That’s not true.” Whatever I would tell the journalist, he’d call the journalist and contradict what I was saying. He definitely felt that I was lying about him. And it took me a long time to realize that he has his own version of the truth. What’s true for him is true. Just because my father and I have entirely different memories of my childhood doesn’t mean that he’s intentionally lying. We can have two memories that completely contradict each other and both think we’re telling the truth. Even though the two memories cannot be completely accurate. And that’s wild.
V. RAISED BY WOLVES
BLVR: Why did you decide to tell Happy Baby in reverse chronological order?
SE: It started with a short story. I had this fellowship at Stanford called the Stegner Fellow.
BLVR: Yeah, and Tobias Wolff was heading it at the time. He called, but you weren’t home.
SE: Yeah, they almost gave my Stegner Fellow away. They couldn’t find me. It was so out of the realm of possibility that I would actually get something like that. I hadn’t done an MFA, I hadn’t studied creative writing, and I didn’t think much of it. But for some reason I applied. So anyway, I’m in this workshop for the first time. And a lot of times, people are saying, Why? Why this, why that. And I realized that I didn’t want to answer those questions. I wanted to write stories that were entirely in scene. And I don’t feel this way anymore. This was a phase.But at the time, I wanted to write stories that only were in scene: no backstory, no explanations, no narrative.
So I wrote the first story. But because I had written it that way there were all these questions that were brought up that were never addressed. So I wrote the earlier story, and then it brought up more questions. So I kept having to go back and write a story that was earlier. So I wrote it backwards, basically, for that reason. But I was just writing stories. I didn’t think it was going to be a novel.
BLVR: Are you a big fan of Tobias Wolff?
SE: I am. He was really influential to me, but I didn’t start reading him until I was in my late 20s. Him and Carver. I hated Carver when I was in college.
SE: I used to think it was so fucking stupid. I was a history major, and all of the creative writing majors were reading Raymond Carver. And I was like, “This is bullshit. Who gives a fuck about this?” Intellectually I developed very late. I was raised by wolves, I went to Chicago public schools, and I just didn’t understand these kinds of things. But in my late 20s I’m reading it and I think it’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever read. I mean, I love Raymond Carver, and I love Tobias Wolff. And Joan Didion, eventually. So I took a long time. It was only in the past year that I’ve started listening to Blue by Joni Mitchell. It’s taken me a long time.
BLVR: You have to find things on your own terms. It’s like in high school, when they force-feed you stuff like 1984 and Grapes of Wrath. You hate it at the time.
SE: People influence you more at different times. It’s just good to be influenced. Once you stop taking it in, you’re old. You stop learning.
VI. TRAPPED IN THE CLOSET
BLVR: In an interview with Columbia Journal you say that every time you’re writing a book it’s like you’re coming out of the closet.
SE: For me, writing is an exploration. I don’t know what I’m writing when I start writing. I’m exploring, figuring out how I feel about things. And I realized that my first book, Jones Inn, is about doing heroin. So, even though it’s a novel, people read that and go, “Oh, he’s done heroin.” Obviously the guy who wrote that had done heroin. My next book, A Life Without Consequences, was about group homes. And then people would read that and go, “Oh, this guy was in group homes.” And then my third book was about male strippers. And people would read that and be like “Oh, this guy was a stripper.” Things that might’ve been hard to talk to people about, I’m writing about. And then you write about them, and you realize that it’s not a big deal. It enables you to accept these things about yourself.
Happy Baby was the first time I’d ever written about S&M. And none of my friends knew I was into that. It was completely closeted. Then they read the book, and they’re like, “Oh, that’s what he’s into.” And you know what you find out? It’s like that saying: When you’re in your 20s you worry about what people think about you, when you’re in your 30s you don’t care what they think about you. But when you’re in your 40s, you realize that they weren’t thinking about you at all. And that’s kind of what happens. You write these books and you tell these people all of your secrets, and you find out that nobody really cares. It helps you to kind of accept who you are.
BLVR: In The Adderall Diaries you said that you started writing poems when you were ten as a way to get your thoughts out and say things you couldn’t say.
SE: I lived in a household where communication was very difficult. My father was a very angry person. He was very explosive, kind of violently exploding all the time. And you never knew what was going to happen. And you certainly were not going to talk back to my father. That never happened. So there was no give and take. There was no, hey you hurt my feelings when you said that. That was not going to happen. and so I had all of this frustration and I just started writing poems. And it was like a code, kind of like a secret language. And I could say anything I wanted because nobody else could understand what I was saying. And I’d write these poems and I’d tape them to my wall, and it was like I was communicating. and that’s how I started writing.
BLVR: Taping them to the wall, did you hope that—
SE: I didn’t have any hopes. I was just taping them to the wall. I was ten years old, what the fuck do I know why I was writing? That’s just what I was doing.
And then at some point I started going to my friend’s house. I was probably 12 or something. And I’d go there and smoke pot with his mom and I’d read her my poems. She was a woman, and she wore tight blue jeans, and she thought my poems were so great. And suddenly I’m getting this female, motherly, sexual attention. And it made me want to write more poems. My own mother was dying. She was on the couch uncognant, unable to move. She was in bad shape. And here’s this sexy mom who’s going to tell me that she loves my poetry. It was everything I wanted out of poems, and so I just kept writing them. Eventually they became short stories and then the short stories became novels.
BLVR: Do you still have that same impulse when you write today? That same desire to put your flag out and communicate with the world?
SE: Yeah, mostly. I think that’s what "The Daily Rumpus” is about.
BLVR: In that same Columbia interview, you say: “What I’ve written down, those are the things that I remember.”
SE: I think that’s pretty accurate. I think I have a really poor memory. I write to figure out how I feel about things. And at the same time, I try to be honest. But honesty is bound by self-knowledge. You can only be as honest as much as you know yourself. But you can never be perfectly honest because you’re always changing. If you’re not lying, that’s easy. To not lie, just don’t know anything. But to dig deeper and be honest about things that are real, you’ve got to really know yourself. But you’re always changing, so you have to stay on top of that and keep tabs on yourself. I wake up in the morning, and I’m like, “How do I feel about things? Who am I?” Recently because I’ve had so many projects I felt like I’d really lost track of knowing who I am. I feel completely divorced from my emotions.
BLVR: Do you suspect you keep busy to get away from knowing yourself?
SE: I don’t know.
BLVR: But why not just write in a journal and keep things to yourself?
SE: I don’t know.I don’t know why it’s more fulfilling to send it out to 16,000 people than it is to write in a journal.
BLVR: “The Daily Rumpus" makes people feel like they know you. You must get a mountain of responses.
SE: It depends. There’s definitely things I don’t feel like I can say in "The Daily Rumpus.” At least not while they’re happening. When you’re writing a book you’re writing about stuff that’s already happened, so it’s easier. But a lot of times with "The Daily Rumpus” I’m writing about what happened yesterday. In a lot of those situations I feel like I can’t put that out there. For example, in early 2011, from February through April, I was having a complete breakdown. And I’ve written about it in “The Daily Rumpus” since then, but at the time I couldn’t write it down. I knew I couldn’t. I started crying one day, and I had no idea why.And I thought, I’m glad I got that out of my system. And then I cried the next day. And suddenly every day I’m crying and I have no idea what’s going on. And I would just ignore it. I would be working, or doing the dishes, or showering. I wouldn’t even stop whatever I was doing, I’d just be crying. And I went to see a therapist at this cheap place—because I don’t have any money—like I always do when I go to see a therapist. And first you gotta see a psychologist, a psychiatrist, and so I’m doing that. And the psychiatrist tried to lock me up.
BLVR: They tried to lock you up?!
SE: Yeah, I was telling her what was going on and I was crying. It was like six o’clock in the evening. And she said that she thinks I should go to the hospital. And I would’ve gone, but I’d just gotten a phone call from Spin that morning. And I was running out of money at the time, in real bad shape financially. And they wanted me to do a cover story on Stone Temple Pilots. And it paid like $5,000. I don’t know why they wanted me to do that, I’d never done anything like that. But they said they wanted somebody more literary. But the editor was great, one of the best editors I’ve ever worked with. So the psychiatrist is like, “You have to go to the hospital.” But I couldn’t go to the hospital, because I had to go to Detroit in the morning. So she says, “Ok, I’ll talk to the secretary, and we’ll see you when you get back.” And then she left the room. And I was waiting, and she didn’t come back. And I just knew the cops were coming. So I left. And I went to the cafe for a while, and I came back home later and my friend’s roommate was there, and we hung out for about fifteen minutes, and then he says, “You know, the cops came by.” They’d sent the police after me.
BLVR: That sounds like some paranoid delusion.
SE: I know! It sounds paranoid, but it wasn’t paranoid. It was accurate. I’m not a paranoid person. You could just tell what was going on. But yeah, I was completely losing it. They was clearly something really wrong with me, they just couldn’t figure out what it was.
BLVR: Do you suffer from depression?
SE: I guess so. But I couldn’t really attach it to anything. I’d been on the road a lot on the Adderall Diaries book tour, travelling around and sleeping on people’s couches. Maybe that was impacting me more than I realized. And I think that depressions pass. I think the best thing about drugs for depression is that they give you hope, and so you wait it out. And even if the drugs don’t work the depression just goes away anyway.
BLVR: Do you still take Adderall?
SE: Yep. Because, when I was going through that depression I had quit taking Adderall, which might also have been a part of it.
BLVR: I took Adderall for two years. It really wrecks your brain if you take too much of it.
SE: Yeah, so I take seven and a half milligrams a day, mostly to just avoid going through withdrawal.
BLVR: Are you familiar with the phrase Imp of the Perverse?
BLVR: It’s about the impulse to do things you know are bad for you. And that idea is so predominant in your work. I’m wondering what drives your fetishes… .
SE: Yeah, who knows, right?
BLVR: Do you eroticize your childhood abuse as a way to cope with it?
SE: I don’t know. There was definitely, for a while, when I was writing My Girlfriend Comes to the City, I was in this relationship, and we were doing a lot of S&M. Huge amounts. And I was totally re-living all this childhood trauma. I was playing this movie in my mind about all of these terrible things that had happened. And I was doing it while we were having sex, and it was really cathartic. And then one day, we were doing it, and instead of thinking about my father or something, I just started thinking about like a hamburger or a milkshake, and how good that would taste. I was just over it. I was enjoying the sex the same, but I was no longer conflating it with trauma.
BLVR: Is your sex life still like that, now that you’ve solved that trauma?
SE: I mean, I’m still wired that way. I don’t have normal sex. I only do BDSM. For the most part. I haven’t had what most people think of as sex in years. I have not penetrated a woman, or seen a woman naked, or been with a woman who’s naked, for years.
BLVR: You think your sexual drive is rooted in childhood?
SE: I have no idea. Nobody does. Nobody knows. I’ve read these books, nobody has any fucking clue. It’s all bullshit. People trying to tell you why this, why that. And they don’t have any idea why. Who knows why. You know, two people come from the same circumstances. One person becomes one way, and one person becomes the other way.
BLVR: You’ve claim that in the literary community it’s frowned upon to continue revisiting your youth or writing about your past after you do it once. You’re supposed to write your memoir and you get out, move on.
SE: I think that’s true, but you can’t worry about that. You just gotta write what you feel like writing. When the words are really flowing, thats a gift. It doesn’t matter what the words are. Whatever your paint is, just use it and paint. Whatever you feel like writing, you don’t ever want to worry about whether or not it’s important, or whether or not people will like this kind of writing. The fact that the words are flowing, you just have to go with that. I don’t teach very often, but when I do, I always talk about the importance of easy writing. If it’s coming easily, that’s not a bad thing. Don’t let that inhibit you. Go there.
BLVR: That was a big thing with Bukowski. Don’t try.
SE: I was 18 when I read Bukowski. It changed my life. It changed my way of looking at literature. I wasn’t that literary of a kid. It wasn’t like I read a ton of books. Most writers I know, they read a lot of books, they loved books, that’s why they became writers. But I wasn’t like that. That’s not why I became a writer. I mean, I read a reasonable amount of books. I was not illiterate. But prior to Bukowski I had not fallen in love with a writer. And you know, whatever you feel about Bukowski, I don’t really care. At the time, it gave me permission to write a certain way. I said, ok, it is interesting to just write your experiences. And valid to write your experiences. As long as you don’t bore people, as long as you don’t make the mistake of thinking the reader actually gives a shit about you, then it’s ok. It changed my life. I read everything he wrote multiple times. I still read his novels. I read Women a few weeks ago. I’m actually talking to a class at Brooklyn College about it tomorrow.
BLVR: Did Bukowski help to validate the idea that you could write about your life, even if it wasn’t particularly eventful?
SE: It’s the writing that I was already doing. I mean, I’d been writing like that every day since I was ten years old. Guys that I was in the group homes with tell me that they have dozens of notebooks I’d filled. I was just always doing this. But this was the first time I realized that this was ok.
BLVR: Had you tried to get published at that point?
SE: No, not before that. I didn’t really have ambitions as a writer. I didn’t think I was going to be a writer. I certainly didn’t think I was going to publish books or anything like that.
BLVR: How do you respond to criticism?
SE: Poorly. [Laughs] I don’t know. What kind of criticism? Book reviews?
BLVR: I don’t know. Anything. Your books have gotten really good reviews. About Cherry got not very good reviews.
SE: That was so painful.
BLVR: Did it motivate you to make another movie?
SE: Kind of. It’s so stupid, but it kind of makes you feel like you’ve got to prove something. That was just so hard, to work so hard on something, putting this huge thing together, and then having it just torn to shreds. And by who? By people who just want to make movies, but don’t have what it takes to make a movie.
BLVR: Are you happy with About Cherry?
SE: I have mixed feelings. You know, it’s really hard when something just gets torn up like that. I really liked it, and then it just got torn to shreds and I started to have second thoughts. With Happy Baby, I will never read a review of the movie. It will just never happen.
BLVR: Do you ever worry that you’ve run out of things to say?
SE: I worry about that. I’m always in a race against my own enthusiasm.It’s like I have to finish something before I lose my enthusiasm for it. Which is kind of the same thing as what you’re saying. As long as I’m enthusiastic I’ll have things to say. Twice I’ve worked on a novel for an entire year, where that was the main thing I did for that year. And twice, at one point I just looked at it and said, “Ah, fuck it.”
BLVR: How do you give it up with just a shrug after a year?
SE: You just give it up. You walk away. There’s nothing I can do here: I don’t give a shit about this story.
BLVR: What’s next?
SE: Right now I want to do more directing. I would direct television, I don’t care. I just want to work with actors.
BLVR: What do you think it is that drives you to connect with other people?
SE: I think that we’re herd animals, right? If you walk down the street you notice that there’s way more people in couples than there are alone. To be alone all the time is weird. I don’t think it’s our natural inclination. I spend the majority of my time alone. And so I’m grateful for all of the human interaction I get.
BLVR: So directing is more satisfying to you than writing right now?
SE: Right now. But nobody’s going to let me direct anything. I have to write the story. Nobody’s going to give me a story and give me money and say, “Direct this.”
BLVR: I don’t feel like that’s out of reach for you.
SE: Nobody’s knocking down my door. I’m here, waiting for the phone to ring.
Lane Koivu is a Brooklyn-based writer originally from Indianola, Washington.