If you like what you read in Stephen Elliott's debut novel A Life Without Consequences ( MacAdam/Cage, San Francisco, CA and Denver, CO, 2001, $25 ) , which is a fictionalized telling of his experiences in the youth group-home system in Chicago, there's more where that came from. The prolific thirty-year-old Elliott's second novel is being published next year and he has already begun work on a few different projects, one of which will be his third book. Openly bisexual, Elliott is currently living in the Bay Area, where he is a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.
Gregg Shapiro: I'd like to begin by having you say a few words about what you did during the summer of 2001.
Stephen Elliott: During the summer of 2001, I taught a creative writing class at Stanford. I went to the BEA ( Booksellers Expo America ) show. Then I went to Israel to write an article about the conflict there. I spent over a month in Israel. I came back and went to the Burning Man festival in the desert. Took drugs for four or five days and came back home.
GS: If you read the author's bio in your book and then you read the book you can detect certain similarities. There is an autobiographical nature to the fiction in A Life Without Consequences. Can you please address that?
SE: A Life Without Consequences is the most autobiographical thing I've ever written. There's fiction in there. I created characters to further the story. I invented a certain arc. But the places in A Life Without Consequences are very real. The group homes. These are the places where I spent my youth. I left home when I was thirteen, was arrested when I was fourteen. I was shuffled into the system and ended up in a variety of homes, just like the ones in the book. Homes where you have thirty kids in a room. Homes that are a little better -- maybe have two or three kids in a room. I think a lot of people don't know that these places even exist. There are something like sixty thousand children out there living in these kinds of places, without parents, without foster care, just being watched after by hourly staff. The purpose of the book, really, is to raise awareness about these kinds of places.
GS: Why did you choose to tell this particular story in a fiction voice as opposed to a non-fiction voice?
SE: I wanted to protect the identity of some people, for one thing. For another, I wanted to talk from the perspective of the fourteen year old through the eighteen year old. Beyond that, sometimes life doesn't wrap itself up so neatly into these stories. It doesn't have the same arc. I wanted to give it an arc that was more accessible to people.
GS: Would you say that the other characters in the book are as much a composite of you as the Paul character?
SE: No. The other characters in the book, with only a couple of exceptions, are all based on very real people. French Fry exists, Jay exists, Ant exists. These are real people.
GS: Another fascinating character in the book is the city of Chicago. It really takes on a persona of its own. Can you talk about your relationship with the city of Chicago?
SE: That's so true. Chicago is its own character. For me, as a kid, I was intensely involved in the city. I spent a year sleeping on rooftops, wandering through the city. In the group homes, I was constantly changed from one home to another home, so I was always in different neighborhoods. The city itself was made a tremendous impact on me. As a chronic runaway, the seasons were really important. The fact that it was hot in the summer meant that summer was the time for running away. But, in the winter, they start peeling these dead children, that have been frozen under lower Wacker Drive -- they're just pulling them out. When you're a runaway in Chicago, you have this limited time. The reality of the Chicago weather and environment plays such an important role in your survival.
GS: Do you have any contact with your biological family?
SE: Yeah, we're in contact now. I'm in contact with my father. My mother passed away a long, long time ago. I'm in touch with my father now and I think we're working through the issues ( laughs ) . It's a little difficult.
GS: Has he read the book?
SE: I don't think he's read the book. I think he read the first chapter, because it was published in Sun Magazine last year. I don't think he's read the whole thing.
GS: At one point did you know that you would become a writer?
SE: I don't think that I ever set out to become a writer. I never thought to myself, "Okay, I'm going to be a writer." But, I always wrote. Even when I was ten years old, my bedroom was covered, floor to ceiling with poetry. When I was in some of the homes, one of the ways that I survived was by writing rap lyrics for the bigger kids in the children's shelters. I didn't study writing in college because I never thought that I'd be a writer, I never thought that way. I still entered my stories in a university competition and won first place at the University Of Illinois. I've always written. I would be on the job and I would be writing and I'd lose various jobs. I just kept writing these novels. I have like eight or nine books that I've written. Now they're starting to get published and now I get a fellowship from Stanford, so now I'm a writer ( laughs ) . It was never intentional. I just write. It's what I do with my free time. It's hard for me to do other things when I feel like writing. It's been very hard to hold jobs ( laughs ) .
GS: A Life Without Consequences is being published by MacAdam/Cage, an independent press. What was the process like, for you, of getting this manuscript published?
SE: It was a slush pile, really. I would let people read it -- anybody that wanted to read it. At some point, somebody passed it along to an agent friend of theirs, because they liked it. The agent represented it for a little while, sent it to some large houses. They passed on it, because I think it was too literary. But also because I think the book might not have been done yet. I went back and rewrote it pretty extensively. A woman at Warner Brothers, who really liked the book, told me that I should send it to MacAdam/Cage. On her advice, I did. I believe they promptly threw away the cover letter and it sat in a slush pile. Somebody picked it up and liked it and they called me pretty quickly. That was it. Pretty much, everything I've ever had published has come up through the slush pile. I haven't developed the kinds of contacts to get around that.
GS: That will probably change with the publication of the book.
SE: I hope so.
GS: There is also a cinematic quality to the story. Is there interest in doing a film version?
SE: A galley copy of the book was passed along to an agent at William Morris who contacted me. She thinks there is a lot of interest and I think she's working with MacAdam/Cage. I also wrote an article about the Nader campaign, that was published in the Sun earlier this year, and a film company is trying to buy the rights to that. They started writing a screenplay based on that article. Hopefully, yeah. But you never know with film people, because film people lie so much. Or they're overly optimistic ( laughs ) . One of the two for sure.
GS: What can you tell me about your second book, which is scheduled to come out in 2002?
SE: The book is called What It Means To Love You. It's about a couple of characters that work as strippers in gay bars in Chicago. It's based on my time as a stripper which was what I did when I was twenty-one, after I finished college. I ended up stripping in the Bijou, Berlin, and The Lucky Horseshoe, as well as the Manhole and Vortex. It's really about that experience and that time. It's a lot darker, I think, than A Life Without Consequences. It explores the motivation behind people that are strippers. Unless you're really, really great looking and you're doing Chippendales or something, which I wasn't, the money is not that great. I think that men are stripping for different reasons than women are stripping. Female strippers tend to make a lot of money. The book is really an exploration of the reasons behind how these guys get into it and why they're doing it. A lot of them, maybe not most, but a reasonable percentage are doing it for emotional reasons. They're looking for something else and it's not money.
GS: You received a 2001 Stegner Fellowship - can you please say something about that?
SE: That was like the greatest thing ever. It's pretty much an open thing to apply for a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. I'm not a hundred per cent sure of the number, but I think they have twelve hundred applicants for ten spots -- five in fiction and five in poetry. It's a two year fellowship. They give you twenty thousand ( dollars ) a year ( including the summer ) , and all you have to do is write. You show up to your workshops twice a week and you meet with your professor. There are no grades. Then, if you want to continue on at Stanford, as a Jones Lecturer, you get to stay for three more years, teaching classes at Stanford. It's a program to facilitate people that they consider up and coming writers and allow them to write. Not have to worry about what other people want them to write or about having to make ends meet. It's not a huge amount of money for the Bay Area, but it's enough to live on.
GS: How do you like living in the Bay Area?
SE: I love San Francisco. It really makes you soft. There's no real ghetto in San Francisco. There are some bad areas. But there's nothing like the South Side of Chicago or the West Side of Chicago, some of the places I was in as a kid. There's nothing like that in San Francisco. The weather is seventy degrees every day of the year. It's always sandals and a sweater. It's easy. Sometimes I worry that it makes me too soft.
GS: Do you think that you might stay there?
SE: I plan on applying for the Jones position when I'm done with the Stegner Fellowship. The Stegner Fellowship is two years. That'll have me here for five years. I'm not going to leave Stanford until I have to ( laughs ) . If I wasn't at Stanford, I don't know if I would stay here. It is, I feel, like a small town. I miss Chicago a lot.
GS: Have you begun working on your next book project?
SE: Yeah, I'm over a hundred pages on a book called Seymoor. I've also got a book of non-fiction that I'm working on, and another book called The Poker Report, which I'm working on as well. I've been writing a report, every week, about a poker game that we play out here. I've been stringing it together into more of a story of San Francisco. I have quite a few books ( laughs ) going on right now. I've got boxes of writing. --