Stephen Elliott, the author of seven books including The Adderall Diaries, and the Editor of the online literary site, The Rumpus http://therumpus.net, sat down with 12th Street’s Jennifer Sky to discuss the politics of writing and the lure of the website for the literary world. This is the premier interview of 12th Street Online’s monthly author series. Enjoy – Liz Axelrod, Editor in Chief
12th Street Online: What was the catalyst to starting your online literary magazine, The Rumpus?
Stephen Elliott: I was done with The Adderall Diaries—that was my seventh book—and I didn’t really have the urge to write another book. I wanted to do something else. I thought, “Well, I should get into editing,” because that’s kind of what I know how to do. If you write long enough, eventually you learn how to edit because editing is such a huge part of writing. So I thought I would start editing somewhere.
I was actually talking to Arianna Huffington about joining The Huffington Post. I had all these ideas—pages and pages of ideas—about how I wanted to build a book section for The Huffington Post and all these cools things I wanted to do with it. Then at some point I thought, “Well, it’s just a website. If I have all these ideas why am I giving them to Arianna Huffington?” You know, I’ll just do it myself. So I started The Rumpus. I didn’t know if I was going to make any money or if anyone would read it. That’s the same way I write. You start it and see what happens. It’s like I do everything.
12th: The Rumpus has already carved out a pretty invaluable place in the online literary community. How do you account for its popularity?
SE: Huh… “invaluable.” I don’t know about that description. Can a literary website really be invaluable? The Rumpus is good. There’s a lot of good content. It’s updated frequently. So if you have some shit job and you want to distract yourself and you want a website that is updated all day long, there are a lot of options, but there are also not a lot of options. There’s Gawker, which is really mean and kind of spiteful. There is The Huffington Post, which is so stupid, so full of so much overwhelming idiocy. There’s Slate and Salon, which are pretty good but they are writing about the same things. They’re chasing clicks all the time; they rarely introduce us to something new. They always have stories about Obama or whoever else is the popular person for that day. They are kind of always behind what’s happening, as opposed to setting the agenda. There are not that many options for somebody if you want a site that is about literature, smart, updated frequently, and is going to introduce you to new people—that strives to have some integrity. We never do any pop culture on The Rumpus. We never do any smart essays about Britney Spears. It’s a Britney-Spears-free zone. There’s no Paris Hilton on The Rumpus, ever. And even though we love Obama, we don’t do anything about Obama because he’s over exposed. We try to introduce people to new culture, to culture they wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. We are trying to take that role of curating a little more seriously than I thing people are currently taking it. And so I think that’s why The Rumpus is popular.
12th: Does The Rumpus have a mission statement? Do you operate under any specific guiding principles?
SE: If you go to the website, there’s a post describing what The Rumpus is, which is available from any page on the site. It talks about that, while the web was supposed to diversify content, it hasn’t; it has just focused attention on the same few things. It has become the lowest common denominator, in a lot of ways, and that The Rumpus is the place you can go to get away from pop culture. It’s okay if someone’s popular. We will write about Dave Eggers, Malcolm Gladwell, Joan Didion—these are popular writers—but we won’t write about mass-produced culture, culture that is created by marking executives.
12th: Sounds a little like a better-curated version of the Oprah Book Club, in a way.
SE: I don’t think The Oprah Book Club is a bad thing. In the past, they have chosen a lot of really good books. They chose As I Lay Dying, for example. And they have chosen a lot of literary books, so I’m not against The Oprah Book Club.
12th: And The Rumpus has a book club.
SE: The Rumpus does have a book club, but it is an entirely different thing. With our book club, you pay a monthly subscription fee; it’s not like we are just recommending a book and writing about that book—we are actually ordering the book, collecting the copies, mailing them out to our members. A lot of websites are doing book clubs, but it’s just a…
SE: Yeah. They are all reading the same book, and they’re usually really popular books; they are all best sellers already. Our point is to choose books you would never have found otherwise. If we said, “Okay, we are going to go talk about this book,” and left it to you to go buy the book, I don’t think you would go buy the book. But if we said, “Okay, there’s a membership here. You pay this much, you get the book in the mail, we talk about the book all month, and then we host a discussion with the author for book club members.” Now you’ve bought in. You’re only paying what the book would probably cost anyway. But that gives use a lot of leeway. We are about to choose Tao Lin’s book, and a lot of members of the book club didn’t like that book. But they really enjoyed the discussion around the book. Sometimes you choose a book because it will lead to a really interesting discussion about literature and the direction of literature and so forth. It’s neat. Nobody else was doing a book club like this when we started it. Now a couple people have followed our lead.
12th: You’ve referred to the October selection as, “thicker than a can of beer.”
SE: That’s The Instructions, a new novel McSweeney’s is putting out next month. It’s 1,024 pages, but it’s a big 1,024 pages. It’s kind of a monster of a book. It’s tight. If it was formatted the way a lot of current books are, it would be around 1400 pages. We thought it would be interesting to tackle something like this. We do the book a month before it comes out, so the members of the book club get it early. They are not reading reviews or anything of the book. When people say, “What books have you chosen?” I’m always thinking, “Well, you wouldn’t have heard of them; we choose them before they are released, so you get the book a month ahead of time.” So then if the book becomes popular, we have already done it.
12th: Do you think literary discussions online owe much to the old guard, like, say, Gertrude Stein’s salon in Paris and the kind of coterie of the Lost Generation?
SE: Yeah, except that these aren’t writers; these are readers. No one is trying to get ahead or make connections or anything like that. It’s just people who like to read. It’s not the salons it’s replacing; what’s happening is that you have all these book stores that are closing, and the media landscape is so fractured—you’re reading books in a vacuum. So if you’re reading some literary book, you don’t have anyone to talk to about it. That’s what the book club is replacing. We are saying, “Here’s a group of like-minded people, and you can talk about the books here. You can talk about interesting, independent, literary books that you wouldn’t have heard of otherwise,” whereas once upon a time, these books would have come out and people would be familiar with them. Now there are a lot of books, fewer readers, and all these different platforms. Some people are reading on Kindle, some people are reading on iPad, on the Nook, people are reading books on their phones, they are listening to books. Other people are reading blogs instead of books. So this is enabling people to have community. When you read a book, you want to talk about it with people. The salons that Gertrude was doing, I think they were something else. It sounds like the people in those salons were very ambitious. Our community is just people that want to talk about books that they have read.
12th: Do you feel that running a literary website is a different kind of job from writing?
SE: Editing is what it is. It has a lot in common with editing a magazine. When you’re editing, you’re in charge, so that’s nice. The writer gets all the glory, but the writer rarely gets paid. The editor gets paid. If you run a website you’re still probably not getting paid. It’s different. When I’m in someone’s piece and I’m editing it really closely, those are the same tools that I use when I’m writing, so I’m not writing that day. I’m using that energy on someone else’s work. So there’s that.
12th: And is that fulfilling to you?
SE: Yeah, that can be really fulfilling.
12th: What inspired you to start The Daily Rumpus?
SE: The Daily Rumpus was just supposed to be an email that went out with a series of links to articles on The Rumpus. That was all it was supposed to be. I would be putting them together, and I would just start writing a little bit, and it just grew into something else. People would sign up to get some links, and they would end up with, “Oh, here’s my sex life,” and “Here’s this girl I met,” and “Oh, I’m really sad today.” And people were like, “What the fuck? I didn’t sign up for this.” It just became where I would do all my creative writing. So now I write a little personal essay almost every day. It just grew into that; it wasn’t planned. It was only a month and a half ago that we changed the header so now it says, “Sign up for The Daily Rumpus and receive overly personal emails.” So people have a better idea of what they are getting.
12th: You seem to be very forward thinking in a lot of ways, ahead of the time, what would you classify that kind of email? A blog?
SE: It’s not a blog; it’s epistolary. People used to write these giant letters to people. The letter has kind of disappeared because it’s such a waste to write someone a really long, beautiful email that most people won’t read, but if you can get enough people reading it, it starts to make sense to write a real letter as an email. So they are literary, epistolary; I think it’s kind of a new form, which is part of what really interested me about it. This idea of a literary email, a literary essay, or sometimes it’s short fiction. And so I think that’s different, I don’t think anyone is doing it. I haven’t heard of anybody doing this. I’m very interested in what’s next, what—in this fractured landscape—happens to literature. So I don’t know if The Daily Rumpus email is an answer, but it leads me in a direction that I think is interesting.
12th: How much of what you write in The Daily Rumpus is true?
SE: I don’t know. Sometimes The Daily Rumpus is fictional, like when I told a few stories about Peter Pan. Sometimes, I’ll say I overheard some people talking, but it’s really something I was saying that I’m not ready to let people know was me. Or I was having a really hard time at one point, and I was writing about a super hero that had the ability to cry at will. He could cry anytime. But what I was really writing about was, “Hey, I’m having a breakdown right now.” I wouldn’t call it exactly true.
12th: What do you think compels people to confess their feelings or truths into the oblivion of the Internet?
SE: I don’t look at it as confession. I heard this phrase, “Discloser Junkie,” which is an interesting phrase. But I don’t think it has anything to do with literature. Literature is about what happens between the reader and the writing. Once the reader is reading what is on the page, the writer becomes irrelevant—whether it’s true or not doesn’t really matter. The more important question is, “Is it well written?”
If I’m using my life to create art, it’s just another color, it’s just paint, I’m just using it on my canvas. But whether or not you like the painting has more to do with whether it appeals to you aesthetically? Does it make you feel less alone? Does it grip you intellectually? It is compelling? People’s lives are not inherently interesting. It’s only interesting if it’s well told. You could put your entire life online, but I don’t think people would read it if it wasn’t well written. So it’s not really about disclosing or confessing; it’s just about writing, and if this is the medium that you are inspired to work in, it’s no different then any other medium.
12th: What does that word “literary” mean to you?
SE: In general, literary means character-driven. That’s the most basic definition of “literary.” You can also say it has to do with whether the writing matters. In other words, if the plot is more important that the character or the writing, it’s not literary. The care with which the sentences and the characters are created has to be more important than the plot for it to be literary. You can have a strong plot, but it can’t be more important then the character.
12th: Your friend Jonathan Ames uses his name for the main character in his series Bored To Death, stemming from this fantasy he had about being a private eye. Would ever want to do anything like that with your work?
SE: I don’t really have any urge to write another book. Maybe that will change. I can imagine writing a TV show. Bored to Death is great. I love it. It’s great television. It’s so multi-layered. I could definitely see doing a TV show like that; I just don’t think I would name a character after myself. For me, that would just be redundant; everyone knows that everything I write is basically about me so, why bother naming a character after myself? It’s already there. It’s the kind of thing I would think was interesting if it was not so common.
12th: What would your TV show be? Which pieces of your work could/would it be based off of?
SE: I have really thought of that. The Adderall Diaries is in theory being adapted into a movie. In theory. It’s optioned. I think like most things that are optioned, it probably won’t happen. But it has been optioned.
12th: What was your process of writing The Adderall Diaries? And how long did that take?
SE: I had been blocked for about two years, and I think that was part of writing The Adderall Diaries. Those two years of not getting anything on the page. Things were welling up. And then when I did start, I just started writing whatever was coming into my head; it was very disorganized, and I didn’t know I was writing a book for a long time. And then when I got started, I took about a year and a half, but it was seven days a week, eight hours a day.
12th: The book seems to mix memoir and fiction—what parts of that are true?
SE: The Adderall Diaries is true. To lie really requires intent. I’m sure there are parts of The Adderall Diaries that other people, who were present at the time, don’t think are true. That’s the nature of any event: no two people are going to remember the same event in exactly the same way. There is nothing in The Adderall Diaries that I know is untrue, that is intentionally untrue. I’m sure there are plenty of things that people disagree about. But that’s fine. They can disagree all they want.
12th: In The Adderall Diaries—and in a lot of your fiction and short stories, you talk about your involvement within the S&M domination world, you have a lot of sex workers that are friends and unionizing that and bringing attention to that…what can you share with us about that world?
SE: I was a sex worker in my early 20’s. I was a stripper and stuff; that’s why I end up knowing a lot of sex workers. There aren’t very many straight men in that world, so it’s kind of a strange position to be in. I don’t know what to say about S&M and sex work… it exists. There’s nothing anyone can do about it, it’s going to exist. And it’s better for people to be out of the closet about it, because you have to stop being ashamed of your desires. Otherwise, it’s going to take up all your space. You’re not going to think about anything else. You just have to like putting it out there.
12th: Is it surprising to you that so many people seem intimidated by that kind of subject matter?
SE: A lot of them are only pretending to be intimidated because a lot of people do this stuff in their homes, behind closed doors. So someone says “that’s weird,” and they agree, “Oh yeah. That’s really weird.” I remember working for this guy—he was such a scum bag—he would refer to his beard as a flavor-saver. He had all these terrible ways of talking about women, and he would just assume that we were all on the same page. But we’re not. Everybody’s sexuality is so different. So when somebody says, “Yeah, that’s really weird,” what else are they going to say? They are kind of put on the spot.
12th: Your political action committee, LitPAC, puts together literary events to support progressive candidates. What was your inspiration behind starting the organization?
SE: I was very political, and I wanted to raise money to help people that I supported—I didn’t raise that much money. It was very easy to get a bunch of authors together to do a reading and support our candidate.
You know, all literary authors are liberals. It’s just a fact. Some might call themselves libertarians, but they are really liberals, none of them are conservative at all. You can’t find a serious literary author that voted for George Bush; they just don’t exist. Some people say Cormac McCarthy because he was described as conservative in a Vanity Fair profile, but obviously, they weren’t even talking about politics. Maybe this guy Mark Helprin. He’s the one name everyone brings up. They say the same guy over and over again. So if there is only one that’s as good as there not being any.
12th: Are you planning on having anything for this election cycle?
SE: I don’t think so. First off, we do a monthly fundraiser for The Rumpus, so I’m tapped out; I can’t get people out to a second event. We need the money to run The Rumpus.
12th: What part of today’s political climate do you specifically disagree with?
SE: You know what I hate? It’s that we have the good billionaires and the bad billionaires; there’s George Soros and the good guys, and then you have all these other evil, conservative billionaires. The problem is that it’s billionaire versus billionaire, the problem is that there are billionaires. We don’t need billionaires. There shouldn’t be billionaires. There should not be anyway to acquire that kind of wealth. There’s no honest way to make that kind of money. That’s the problem. I don’t care if some people are good about it. I don’t care how good you are—we should take all that money back from these people.
12th: Do you ever interweave politics into The Rumpus? Or is that not really the place?
SE: All the time. All the time. And into The Daily Rumpus as well.
12th: How much responsibility to social and political discourse do writers have?
SE: I don’t know if they have any. If you’re a writer, you just do whatever you want. Write what ever you want. You don’t owe us anything, and we don’t owe you anything. Nobody owes a writer money. If you’re a writer, you’re entitled to health insurance, only because everybody is entitled to health insurance. And maybe a small apartment. And then do whatever you want, write whatever you want, and if nobody relates to it, nobody will read it. If it’s not political, if that’s not where your art is coming from, then it’s not political. The stakes are small.