A prescription for a crazy life
Stephen Elliott started playing around with drugs at 10 and ran away from home when he was 13. He spent most of his teens in and out of group homes; as an adult, he stripped at gay bars for a year while shooting heroin. It came to a crashing conclusion when he overdosed.
“People tell me, ‘Oh, you’ve had a hard life,’ ” the San Francisco writer says at a shady cafe in Los Feliz on a recent trip to Los Angeles. “But compared to the kids I was in group homes with, I know their stories are worse than my story. If writing was just a competition as to who’s had the hardest life, that’s not a contest I want to win.”
Blond and stubbly, Elliott is in town from San Francisco to discuss his bracing new book, “The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism and Murder.” At 37, he seems remarkably well-adjusted given the life he’s led.
“The Adderall Diaries” is neither a Kerouac-like brag, nor an “Oprah"-ready, James Frey-style record of suffering and recovery. Rather, it is its own weird hybrid, a painfully honest and meticulously crafted memoir wrapped around a true-crime story that gets to the very essence of its time and place.
The book has drawn acclaim from Vanity Fair and writers such as Amy Tan and Jerry Stahl, who described it as “phenomenal” and credits the author’s “jittery finesse and a reformed tweaker’s eye for detail.”
Growing up, Elliott depended on writing to center him. His mother was diagnosed with MS when he was 8 -- she died five years later -- and his father was, in the author’s phrase, “a tsunami of rage,” the sort of guy who rarely left the house without a gun and bail money, just in case.
“I kind of wasn’t raised,” Elliott says, with no hint of a boast. “I did not have an adult role model.”
Elliott managed to quit drugs and graduate from high school, then college. The author or editor of 10 previous books -- including a collection of S&M; erotica memorably titled “My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up” -- he’s been making a living from his writing for almost a decade. The world of small presses, fellowships and spartan living have kept him afloat.
A few years ago, however, it all went bad. “I was so used to living on the page,” he says; “it’s just how I learned to process my feelings, interact with the world. And then I couldn’t anymore.”
He ended up with a debilitating case of writer’s block. This made him suicidal, which reinforced the blockage. Then, while hopped up on Adderall -- a prescription amphetamine that resembles Benzedrine and Ritalin -- he found that a local character named Sean Sturgeon, whose path Elliott had crossed, had confessed to eight murders but refused to offer names.
At the time of his confession, Sturgeon was a secondary player in the murder trial of Bay Area computer programmer Hans Reiser, who was accused of killing his wife, Nina, who’d left him for another man.
This was the impetus for “The Adderall Diaries,” which begins with the single-sentence paragraph: “My father may have killed a man.” From here, the book winds through San Francisco during the tech boom, the Bay Area’s S&M; scene and the tangled saga of Elliott’s life.
“It’s much less about murder and much more about how you can’t know anything,” Elliott says of the way his story, his family’s history and the murder case kept complicating each other. “The lie mixes with the truth, it’s like red and yellow paint -- it mixes and can never be just red and yellow again.”
Part of what makes the book gripping is its unpredictable structure: It would be impossible to describe in a Hollywood pitch meeting or a moving elevator.
“My elevator pitch,” says Elliott, “is ‘Go watch a movie.’ I kind of hate that everybody has to sum up a book in a sentence.”
Po Bronson, a writer who knows Elliott through their offices in the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, says that what might seem like a mishmash is something “The Adderall Diaries” has in common with its author’s life.
“The thing about Stephen, he wears all those hats, without agony,” says Bronson, who is the author of “The Nudist on the Late Shift.” “It’s no problem for him to go from politics to porn to his experience as a Wallace Stegner Fellow to his incredibly searing childhood, to his relationship with women. Those elements are contained largely at peace.”
These days, Elliott is spending much of his time touring to support the book. It’s not your standard author tour: A few bookstores aside, he’s appearing mostly in living rooms and staying with people who know him only from his prose. The idea grew out of another eccentric move: Before the book’s release, he sent galleys to people who wrote to his website and pledged to send the book to another reader, who promised to do the same. Many of these events are in small towns that don’t typically host literary events.
“It’s a totally different readership than you get at a bookstore,” Elliott says.
But he is “surprised that people who’ve read the book would allow me to stay with them. I’m still as [screwed] up as the person in here!”
As for the rest of his energies, they go into the Rumpus, the online culture journal he founded earlier this year. Among the contributors are Stahl, Rick Moody and Steve Almond. The Rumpus is both boho and high-minded: “Basically, we’re not opposed to things that are popular,” its manifesto states, “but we have no interest in ‘art’ created by marketing executives.”
As unconventional as Elliott’s life has been, he’s almost zealously old school about the integrity of literature:
“As a writer, you’re entitled to a small apartment and healthcare,” he says. “It’s a great way to live; I’m not really complaining. I’m basically retired: I do exactly what I want -- I sit in a coffee shop and doodle in my notepad. The fact that I can do that at all is a blessing.”