Stephen Elliott

Stephen ElliottWriter Stephen Elliott‘s life has its own harrowing narrative as he was a ward of the State of Illinois from age thirteen to eighteen living in state-run group homes, which no doubt provided the first-hand experience for the stories in his latest book, Happy Baby (originally to be titled The Night Face Up). He has written three novels previously, Jones Inn, A Life Without Consequences and What It Means to Love You and edited an anthology of thirty original stories, entitled Politically Inspired. He attended the University of Illinois and Northwestern University and received a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. Stephen has regularly written a Poker report for McSweeney’s.com, and his reportage from this year’s primary season was published in The Believer and has led to the book he is currently working on—from the Presidential campaign trail—to be published in October 2004. He lives in San Francisco and has taught at Stanford.

The Village Voice review of Happy Baby aptly describes Elliott’s latest effort, "… is surely the most intelligent and beautiful book ever written about juvenile detention centers, sadomasochism and drugs. Lesser writers might be tempted to milk such material for shock value, but one of Elliott’s many gifts is his light touch. Nowhere in this, his fourth novel, does Elliott either over explain or depict gratuitous brutality… the novel’s backward structure means that rather than building momentum, it offers the sense of a mystery being slowly solved. That the mystery of why Theo, or anyone, turns out as he does is essentially unsolvable makes it no less satisfying, or, in Theo’s case, less heartbreaking."

I don’t know why somebody becomes one way and somebody else becomes another way. Say you have ten dogs, or five dogs, and you beat the dogs and you kick them, a couple of dogs are going to get really vicious and they are going to be like vicious killer dogs and then maybe one or two are going to be crazy. And one of them will be a little crazy, but always kind of looking for affection and really loyal to the person that beats them.

-JT LeRoy, epigram from Happy Baby

Robert Birnbaum: I am interested in how you see your connection to the world of writing.

Stephen Elliott: You mean how I was published? Or why I became a writer?

RB: When someone asks, "What do you do?" then what do you say?

SE: I do say I am a writer now because it’s how I make my living. But I came at it in a very strange way. I really backed into it, as opposed to—I didn’t pursue it so much as I wrote a lot, all the time. It was like this obsessive hobby I had. And then I would show my books to my friends and basically that was my audience. I would write tremendously long letters to people in different cities—this was before e-mail—and then one day—kind of overnight, I had written three books, and I sold two of them.

RB: Why do you call that "backing in"? How else does a writer start?

SE: I never in my wildest imagination thought I would make a living at it.

RB: I wasn’t really asking about at what you make a living.

SE: I mean I backed into writing as a profession, in terms of making a living at it. Not backed into writing—I have always written. I didn’t study English as an undergrad. I didn’t pursue this as a profession. It’s just something that I always figured I would do and didn’t imagine that a large enough number of people would be interested in it that I could make a living at it. [laughs] And that’s sometimes still true.

RB: You also teach.

SE: What happened was I got a fellowship at Stanford, where they fund writers. That was really cool. That was for two years. And then I started teaching there after that. But then, almost immediately, I was offered a sum of money to do a book on the presidential campaign, a non-fiction book that is something I have always wanted to do. I accepted that, so I am not currently teaching. I am taking a year leave of absence.

RB: Because of your extensive background and credentials in political science and as a political analyst—who wanted you to write on the 2004 campaign?

SE: I had written an article on Howard Dean for The Believer magazine—it was very long, ten thousand words. It appeared in the September [2003] issue, and that led to Picador making an offer for me to do a book-length work on the Democratic nomination, in a similar tone. It was a very non-journalistic, different style of writing.

RB: What would that be? First there was Timothy Cruise’s The Boys on the Bus in 1972. Also, one could arguably say that Hunter Thompson broke ground and took what was the nascent "new journalism" to another level, then self-styled as gonzo journalism. Was it two campaigns ago that Steve Erickson did American Nomad?

I feel a lot of ways better for coming through the court system and growing up in these group homes… I mean a lot of people just don’t survive, and these particular places—these places are really hard places. I was in many homes with thirty kids to a room.

SE: That would be a precursor of this book, for sure. It lapses into fiction. It’s nowhere near as dystopic and dark as American Nomad is. It’s funny, and it’s weird because my fiction is very dark, but my non-fiction is kind of light and funny. You wouldn’t recognize the two writers. But it does lapse into fiction and take liberties, and half the book is just about how do I do this, what am I doing here?

RB: That’s a troublesome way of writing the story. In fact, I think that’s the main thrust of the criticism of that kind of journalism: Who’s supposed to care about the minutiae of your process, or were you hung-over, et cetera.

SE: People can critique it for that, but I enjoyed those books, and a lot of other people did.

RB: Right. There was certainly something compelling in those books.

SE: Yeah, they weren’t for everybody, and my book won’t be for everybody either.

RB: No?

SE: One thing that is really different is that I wasn’t on assignment for some magazine, picking up my expenses. Everything came out of my book advance, and so figuring out—

RB: They’d come to you?

SE: Kind of yes and no. An agent came to me and sent out—I didn’t have an agent previously, so he wanted to send out The Believer article. Everybody had read it, and it turned out there was really a lot of interest. It happened very quickly.

RB: What alerted me to you was the anthology Politically Inspired—I was moved by your introduction in that book where you wrote, "When I originally told David Poindexter I was going to do this, we were both drunk and neither of us believed it. But people got involved right away, and I learned one of the most important lessons of my life: that if you do something good, you will quickly be surrounded by good people who will help you."

SE: It was a fun book.

RB: Let’s talk a little about Happy Baby. You did bring up the difference between the darkness of your fiction and the lightness of your nonfiction. That inclines me to try to understand what kind of person you are—from reading Happy Baby, this novel-in-stories. The JT Leroy epigram was compelling and applies to you as much as your characters. I have always wondered about people who are badly treated, some of them pass that on, some don’t. And we don’t know why. From what I know about you, you spent five years as a ward of the State of Illinois. Kids who are in families have a tough time. Kids not in families seem to be even worse off. So what kind of person are you?

SE: I feel a lot of ways better for coming through the court system and growing up in these group homes. The scholarship that I got for college, it was a result of being a ward of the courts, and it was not applied for very often, and as a result, they gave it to me. I went to school at [the] University of Illinois and then did a graduate degree at Northwestern in film. I mean, a lot of people just don’t survive, and these particular places—these places are really hard places. I was in many homes with thirty kids to a room. Paid staff that rotate-in, work their hours and leave.

RB: And deal drugs out of their workspace?

SE: Yeah, sure. I was often the only white kid in a lot of these homes, and I went to bunch of different high schools. And there was just a complete lack of consistency. I am not sure why I survived. Or if I survived, for that matter. I write continually about eight hours a day.

RB: Anyone ever mention hypergraphia to you?

SE: I don’t even know what that is.

RB: You might look at Alice Flaherty’s book The Midnight Disease, which is about hypergraphia, the obsession to write, and writer’s block, which we would say is the opposite.

SE: It’s not quite the same because I do major, major editing. I am continually rereading. A big part of that eight hours is reading the same three pages over and over. I just get lost in it, and also I think I have a really poor memory. I don’t hold onto some stuff so much. So, for whatever reason, it seems to have worked out okay.

RB: And the question I asked you was, "What kind of person are you?"

elliottSE: Yeah, what kind of person am I? I don’t know. It’s really tough. I think my friends would call me a pretty happy-go-lucky, easygoing person.

RB: You are not embittered, a powder keg who will one day beat up his dog or—

SE: I don’t know. I wonder about that.

RB: Have you ever been in a fight?

SE: I have been in a lot of fights as a kid.

RB: Since you got past the group-homes part of your life?

SE: It was probably in my early twenties, the last time I got into a fight. I tend to date violent women. [both laugh]

RB: Violent or abusive?

SE: It would depend on how you categorize things. So it’s hard to say. I think I got [sic] my damage, but it doesn’t really come into my interactions with my friends. It’s more like my private life.

RB: How do you know?

SE: My friends are these incredibly healthy, nice group of [sic] people.

RB: And how do you know that?

SE: You make your judgments [based] on the people you know. They are not writers. They [my friends] are mostly social workers and schoolteachers, and they are all very cool. The people I hang out with now, in San Francisco, not the people I grew up with in Chicago. You can take a measure of yourself by who you are surrounded. That would be one thing. And I think I have a lot of rage and a lot of issues that I internalize. That comes out in my fiction but not my nonfiction. Because I don’t act on them.

RB: I asked a young writer recently if he had had a happy childhood. His answer was that he had had a childhood.

SE: [laughs] I agree with that totally. I do think that everyone’s childhood is hard. One way or another, it’s a hard time.

RB: It must be much harder if you don’t even have the myth or fiction of connection with a family or loving parents? Or no?

SE: It probably is. The people—

RB: Was that something you thought about?

SE: I had so many things to deal with. I wasn’t really thinking like that. I was thinking, "How do I get out of this home without getting beaten up too badly?" It wasn’t, "Gee, I wish I had a closer relationship with my dad." It was [about] real survival issues in these places.

RB: Very immediate concerns.

SE: Yeah. In some way, you kind of grew up a little quick; and in other ways, of course, you don’t. So, many of the people didn’t do well. The number of people who went to college is startlingly low. And the amount [sic] who are in prison now, drug addicts—it’s amazing and even among the people that I still know in Chicago, the proportions are really bad. Still people dying every year, it seems, from heroin overdoses and stuff.

RB: You’ve maintained contact with people who you grew up within these homes?

SE: Not as much as I should, but a certain amount.

RB: And the disparity between their unsuccessful, sinking lives and your ostensibly successful life—

SE: Ostensibly [laughs]. Right.

RB: Might be too much for them to take. Are they jealous?

SE: I don’t think they know. I don’t think they realize. I am a guy who comes in from out of town, once in a while, comes into Chicago and stops in the bar and has a drink. And I’m like, "Look, I got a book out!" "Ah, this is really cool!" They don’t realize anything past that.

RB: So their world is clearly circumscribed—they haven’t the imagination or empathy to think about where you are.

SE: Ah, man. No. I mean, my friend who can’t get a job in a K-mart because he had a prison record. Totally smart guy. He has some major issues.

RB: Hmm, yeah. Did I read somewhere, maybe your website, your declaration to do anything to prevent the election of the Bush regime?

SE: I would go there, I suppose. I would back that. I don’t know if I said that, but I would stand by that.

RB: I have a sense of that from something I read by you. I bring it up because I am filled with wonder that large masses of people seem not to make the obvious connections between some things and other things. Perhaps people are distracted by their anxiety about the President and his administration? For the first time since the Johnson-Nixon years, I have a sense of wide-scale disaffection with the country’s leadership. And yet, I don’t think that anyone is going to affect the issues that we are talking about. Will anybody elected in 2004 care about and address the juvenile justice system and health care?

Any review is a good review. What’s really painful is to have three books out and not get reviewed in the New York Times. So I have no sympathy for someone who gets a bad review in the Times.

SE: John Kerry is a consolation prize. He is significantly better than Bush by virtue of not being Bush. [Is] he a knight in shining armor that is going to reform the system? I don’t [think so].

RB: Electoral politics tends to obscure the fact that we have systemic flaws, that in the words of Chomsky, the one business party is not going to address—like how does this wealthiest of countries not figure out how to provide universal health care? That it’s a human right. Where is the value system, the empathy for other humans?

SE: I agree with you 100%.

RB: So if we elect Joe Schmoe or Joe Blow, we are not going to get to that fundamental solution. I do agree with you that one group vying for power is really scary and at least the Kerry camp is not scary.

SE: You have Kerry, who wants to be president and will do anything to be president, and that’s a huge improvement over someone who actively hates trees and poor people [laughs]. There’s bad, and then there’s significantly worse. Nobody could have known that in 2000; [or] nobody could have known that then.

RB: Right, no real footprints. George Bush is a creation as Ronald Reagan was a creation despite all this revisionism of insiders glorifying Reagan’s image, saying he was really smart and so forth. George Bush appears to have been a vacuum—

SE: It’s a failure of society really. Actually of democracy, and I think the anger and hatred that so many people have—the basic goodness inside people is something you can’t take for granted.

RB: You mean what Twain called “a secret kindness”?

SE: Yeah, whether you think Bush won in the election or not, more than 45% of the people voted for him. Who are these people? How could they do something so horrible?

RB: So, what do we do?

SE: Yeah, what do we do? Kerry would be a huge improvement. In terms of universal health care. If we start to get the government involved in things like health care—that seems like the logical first step that is going to push us toward universal health care. Once you are halfway there—once the government has a role—so, there are positive things. If you stop the bleeding in the schools and have a better student-to-teacher ratio. Electing Kerry is a really a strange first step, and hopefully it will work out.

RB: It was an undergraduate sport, and still might be, to say that civilization was coming to an end. But really: Paris Hilton? Banning gay marriage?

SE: The weapons are bigger now.

RB: Right, and the fact is that the Republicans have a quarter of a billion dollars to buy a lot of beer commercials to convince people that Bush is good for them. The Republican Party managed to convince people that they are the party of the working class.

SE: It’s bizarre. I don’t know what we can do. Our little piece, you know, each person’s little piece—the book I am writing on the election comes out in October, so it comes out before the general election. My small contribution.

RB: You said something about it not being a book for everyone. I wonder what that means. Happy Baby would indicate a very strange cultural turn if it were a best seller.

SE: [laughs] That’s not going happen. It’s a depressing, sad book, really. It has a lot of un—what’s the word?—nonconsensual, violent sex. There are people who are interested in that, in reading about that. And there are people that aren’t. The important thing is that they know what the book is about. The book is very clear and obvious in what it is. So that you can look at it and say, "Yes, I want to read it." or, "No, I don’t." And the publishing companies aren’t always committed to that. They market books as something that they [the books] are not, and that’s unfair.

RB: Tell me about the arrangement here between MacAdam Cage and McSweeney’s?

SE: Happy Baby was actually kind of perfect for me because McSweeney’s editing and designing it and MacAdam Cage distributing it, printing it was a really nice fit.

RB: The cover looks like the cover for a sweet, little, happy-go-lucky book. And it, of course, isn’t. Also, no dust jacket, which takes you back to the nineteenth century. What does the book’s design tell us?

elliottSE: You have a hand over a face. Well, if you look at the cover, you’ll see the hand is going into the face as opposed to the face going into the hand. So the person is pushing his face into someone else’s hand. Which I think is great. Dave Eggers designed it and did all the editing. He’s just a genius, I think.

RB: Probably, it’s best not to talk about Dave Eggers here.

SE: [laughs] Okay.

RB: Dave seems to be a hot-button topic in contemporary literature. I don’t think it will add to our conversation. I think he does good work, and I am happy he’s doing what he is doing, but I find the discourse about him to be tedious.

SE: As an editor, he is great.

RB: When Hemingway and Fitzgerald were writing, it seemed apparent that Hemingway had it out for Fitzgerald. A couple of generations later, there was Mailer and Capote or was it Vidal? The level of professional animus and bickering whatever is like a high school cafeteria. When I read the literary news, I find I am frequently wondering, " What was the point?"

SE: I don’t understand it, you know. It’s hard to write a book, and it takes a lot of time, and we should appreciate it.

RB: Right. If you are going to be insulting, be insulting in a substantial, upfront way, not this catty kind of gossipy, Page Six way. I am not so shocked or aghast at the story that Richard Ford spit at Colson Whitehead at some Poets and Writers cocktail party. Sure, it’s rude, but it’s honest.

SE: I’d have to read Whitehead’s review before I took a position on that [both laugh]. For me, Richard Ford needs to take a step back. Any review is a good review. What’s really painful is to have three books out and not get reviewed in the New York Times. So I have no sympathy for someone who gets a bad review in the Times.

RB: I don’t think Ford is asking for sympathy.

SE: They [the NYT] are actually going to review Happy Baby. But I had three books before that they didn’t review, and I resent that.

RB: You resent that?

SE: You know, you just want your basic chance. You don’t blame anybody for a book not selling. But you want to get your basic review. I am so over getting angry at bad reviews. I don’t get angry at bad reviews. I want to be reviewed. That’s just what you need, I think. That’s the minimum you should have.

RB: Except—

SE: And then the book has to carry itself.

RB: Except there are big numbers of books published every week. I don’t know how much you look at the published trade periodicals and publishers’ catalogues—

SE: I don’t.

RB: There are a lot of books. So, how do even fair-minded editors decide what to review?

SE: If you look at just the awful way the NYT goes about deciding which books it’s going to review, you know, which is pretty obvious—Who got the big book advance? That’s who we are going to review. They can afford to do a better job than that and look deeper than that.

RB: Can I extrapolate from what you are saying that your beef is that everyone reviews the same few books/people?

SE: Yeah, exactly.

RB: The same small cluster of new books is what gets attention as opposed to a larger possible sampling.

SE: How many books are being reviewed twice in the NYT—in the daily and Sunday editions—because [for example] it’s Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s big marketing book. That’s not fair.

RB: What is your belief? That these reviews correlate to sales?

SE: I don’t know anything about selling books. Probably not so much.

RB: Publishers must—else why the full-page ads that seem to synchronize with the review?

SE: I’m not sure MacAdam/Cage works that hard.

RB: What about your heavily funded book tour?

If you don’t write during your ’20s you are never going to write a decent book. Most of people that write a good book do it when they are around thirty. They have been writing the whole time. They figure their own writing style out.

SE: I just bill them for the plane ticket.

RB: Maybe there are large changes coming in the dynamics of book publishing. There seem to be many voices out there. I am not sure the NYT is necessary. I think they are followers and that it is possible to create enough "noise" or "buzz" so that they have to pay attention to a book. You have the right idea: get out there, go to the bookstores, and meet readers. Talk—

SE: I also think, in the end, good books—I have this blind faith, and it might not be true, that a good enough book will just continue on its own. And when a writer’s book isn’t selling well enough, the best thing for them to do is say, "Okay, I am not happy with the way my book is selling, I should sit down and write a better book. Otherwise, I won’t learn anything from the process."

RB: Is Happy Baby a good book?

SE: It’s the best book that I have written. It’s not for everybody, but it’s the best I have been able to do, you know. I think of, like, [Denis Johnson’s] Jesus’ Son, which is one of my favorite books—which is hugely influential and may be my favorite book. That book was not a huge book when it came out.

RB: It appears to have achieved cult status.

SE: It was too good to go away. And that’s what I think about writing. That’s what I want to write. And that’s my goal.

RB: Let’s speculate that there may be at least two arenas of book publishing. One is the traditional mega-congloms, big media, NYT, Oprah camp, and the other is this fairly new, subterranean one, of new young writers and new lit magazines and weblogs and small presses and young booksellers who operate in a different cultural dimension and with a different model. After 29 years, a used bookstore [Avenue Victor Hugo] closes in Boston, a wonderful bookstore, but they cannot do business anymore. In Cambridge, two young people have opened a used bookstore [Lorem Ipsum]. How is that possible? And it may be the irritating truth about Dave Eggers: He has figured out how to do business in a way he is comfortable with, and he can put out unlikely books that the congloms won’t touch and, fundamentally, he is making the large companies nervous. Plus, the criticisms, that he is the target of, are from people who haven’t done a thing—or written a book—they just clatter away on their keyboards. So, there is lots to be hopeful about. Swink, Ominivore, The Believer

SE: All you can do is just concentrate on your work, and, of course, everyone who writes a book wants to sell their books and be reviewed. Still, it’s way down on the list of concerns of what’s important. What’s important is doing the best work you are capable of doing. That’s all that you can really do.

RB: And hope that your work allows you to be in a position to do the next one.

SE: I want to write whatever I want to write.

RB: You thanked someone in your acknowledgments for help in writing about sex?

SE: Tamara Guirado. I was dating her and she said, “You are really messed up; you need to write about sex.” In my first two novels, there is not that much sex, and what there is of it is very below the surface, erotic but glossed over. It’s not graphic, and that was when I wrote a short story that would become the second chapter of Happy Baby. And it was like opening the floodgates. It was like a whole thing I never explored. Once I started writing about sex, especially through my history and the group homes and all the stories I had heard in the group homes—molestation is so prevalent, just prevalent among wards of the court. It was just a whole area I hadn’t even looked toward.

RB: Is that writing about sex? Or writing about molestation?

SE: Yeah. You could define it however you want but to me, that’s what it [sex] meant: molestation. But also desire—the erotic impulse —which is not always intercourse. The erotic impulse comes across in many different ways. I was really exploring that in some pretty heavy depth in this book.

RB: Steve Almond seems to catch a lot of crap for writing fairly explicit sexual stories. Any concerns that you will be pegged as a "dirty storywriter"?

SE: It’s not really something I think about. I’m not Levi’s, worried that people are going to think that Levi’s are second-hand jeans. Like branding. The stuff I do is all so different. When people read the political book, that comes out later, they’re not even going to recognize [that I’m the author]. I write this poker report for McSweeney’s site. It’s a funny, tongue-in-cheek report of my home games in San Francisco, that for sure, has more readers than anything else I have written. People will recognize me, "You’re the guy who writes Poker Report," you know. And I just write whatever I want.

RB: I hope, by the end of our talk, that we have come closer to understanding your connection to the writing world. My sense is that it is not a traditional connection to a traditional world. But one way it is, is that you are ensconced at a well-known liberal arts university. What’s it like for a kid like (note my silvery gray hair) to be in front of a classroom with a bunch of students who are well off and seemingly well-educated?

SE: I should defend Stanford a little bit.

RB: [laughs] Are you going to use the word ‘diversity’?

SE: They have a pretty amazing financial aid system—so it’s needs-blind admissions. If someone gets into Stanford and they can’t afford it, Stanford is going to pay for it. So, you do have more of those kinds of students than you would expect. I don’t know where Princeton and Harvard come in, but I can’t imagine they are as good. It’s pretty impressive. But that being said, most of the kids went to private schools, and it’s kind of neat. They weren’t expecting to walk into class and see some guy with earrings, and they of course go out and read my stuff. And then they go, "What the …" It’s actually great. I love interacting with the kids.

RB: When you were a Stegner fellow, who were your classmates?

elliottSE: My classmates haven’t really broken big yet. Tom Kealey, Thomas McNeely, a couple guys who have amazing, amazing books forthcoming. Just before me was kind of like the superstar class: Adam Johnson, ZZ Packer, Julie Orringer, Angela Newman.

RB: Superstar class?

SE: Yeah, it kind of was. Four out of five of them got like $80,000 book contracts. One of the differences, when you talk about my relation to writing is like; John L ‘Heureux gives me so much grief for it. He can’t stand that I write a book, get it out, and want to get to the next one; he’s going, "You are not getting paid enough." I didn’t want to be bothered with that, I just want to put my books out, to know that they would be published. Which is a very different way of doing it. Then, I am putting out books [while] knowing that I am going to write five more books, in addition to the five books I’ve got out. It’s kind of panicky, when you feel like you only have one or two books in you. And so it’s very important that those books do well. I felt like I [could and] can just keep going.

RB: Isn’t it more the case that there is a very definite careerist imprint on writers? If you went to Iowa, I wonder if you would have that attitude? Somehow, the galaxy of your values wouldn’t seem to mesh—

SE: I didn’t do an MFA. I never did that literary degree.

RB: How do you get a Stegner without an MFA?

SE: It’s very rare. But it’s not in the rules though. There is no rule you have to have a MFA.

RB: So this is just the continuation of your finding a scholarship that wasn’t applied for?

SE: Yeah. But that they [my classmates] did the MFAs is really good for me. I felt like I was pooling all of their knowledge and all of what they had forgotten. I was in workshops with these guys once, and these guys are amazing writers, and they are the best of the MFAs because that’s what the Stegner gets. I was getting the stuff that they had taken, so I was glad they had done MFAs. I learned a whole lot from them.

RB: Good attitude. So, I am picturing you in front of a class. What do you teach?

SE: I lead fiction workshops.

RB: People who aspire to be writers. And what do you tell them—when they ask you—careerist type things?

SE: I tell them to keep writing, because the main things that kids do with MFAs, is it keeps them writing in their twenties. And I did that anyway. If you don’t write during your twenties, you are never going to write a decent book [laughs]. Most of the people that write a good book do it when they are around thirty. They have been writing the whole time. They figure their own writing style out. Mostly, I talk about that. Beyond that, I give them my theories, which are: quality is more important than cocktail parties, and the best place to make connection, if that’s important, is to do volunteer work [laughs]. I think that’s true. You don’t need to go to cocktail parties. If you go to cocktail parties and you don’t have a good book, it can’t do anything for you.

RB: It seems like in the arts and entertainment world you get a lot of credit for good attendance, for showing up. Apropos of nothing, who is Donald Trump, or Paris Hilton, or whoever these people whose names we keep seeing?

SE: I am not entirely convinced that works for writers. But I don’t know what works. I still think writing a good book is the point.

RB: So I can surmise that you are going to keep writing and everything else is up for grabs?

SE: It’s kind of an unstable existence. I’m not super inclined for teaching creative writing to be my primary source of making a living. I wouldn’t mind doing it once or twice a year. Honestly, the writing is just so bad [both laugh]. Which, of course, it is. It’s better than you would expect from twenty-year-olds. I am always impressed by them. But it’s not great writing. I feel like reading bad writing—

RB: Interferes with your own?

SE: Yeah, I need to read good writing to be inspired to write.

RB: What have you read lately that is inspiring?

SE: I loved Old School, by Tobias Wolff.

RB: That’s kind of a hometown favorite.

SE: I loved that book. I should have a better answer to that question.

RB: It’s okay; I have the same problem, when asked.

SE: I know I have read really good stuff recently. I can’t remember. A non-fiction book, Chasing the Sea, by Tom Bissell. American Nomad by Steve Erickson, we mentioned.

RB: Is your [political] book a road book?

SE: It is, kind of. A travelogue within the world of the electoral process. I love JT Leroy. What was Steve Erickson’s second book? I was just reading it the other day.

RB: Steve Erickson’s name came up at a magazine launch and according to one report I read took seemed to take to task Michael Ventura’s bad manners for saying that best writer not present at the event was Steve Erickson, who is the editor. I was wondering why everyone is obliged to be so well behaved.

SE: You know, I am not going to go out and criticize guys that are writing novels. You know what I mean? It’s easy to criticize [within] the industry because there is a lot to criticize about it. But you just work too hard and get so little in return. I just can’t see myself going out and saying nasty things about a novelist [laughs] or writers in general. I can’t understand that ethic.

RB: Well, good.

SE: I’ll be around in October for the political book.

RB: So, let’s call this part one, and who knows when we meet again.

SE: Thanks for having me—

© 2004 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

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