Stephen Elliott by Emily Nonko

The Adderall Diaries, a nonfiction work written by Stephen Elliott and out this month, is not a book about Adderall. And though Elliott’s intent was to focus on the murder trial of Hans Reiser. It really isn’t even a book about murder. While the trial lends The Adderall Diaries a focused storyline, the more intriguing parts focus on Elliott himself, as he attempts to piece together his past and his uncertain future.

​Stephen Elliott

Stephen Elliott. Photo by Katherine Emery.

What really gives the book a beating heart is Elliott’s earnest and unforgiving honesty about his complicated relationship with his father, his love life, and his difficult past. Elliott explained to me that writing has always been a way to make sense of his own life, and this sentiment is present throughout the entire book, rather than an attempt to sensationalize or overdramatize his own history. And so the reader comes to a certain closeness, or perhaps an understanding, with Elliott as he utilizes the book to look at his life in a meaningful context. By the end of the book I found myself less anxious to know the outcome of the murder trial than to simply know if Elliott would be alright. Regardless of any outcome, The Adderall Diaries serves as a sincere and moving account of a writer trying to make sense of his story.

Emily Nonko What was it about the murder trial that pulled you out of your writer’s block? After not writing for three years, what about this story made you think you could do it?

Stephen Elliott That’s an interesting question, I never thought of it that way. I don’t think the Hans Resier murder trial pulled me out of my writer’s block. I just kinda gave up trying to write it a certain way. Hans Reiser’s best friend, who also confessed to these murders—a lot of our friends overlapped even though we’ve never met. So I did have this weird connection to the trial, and I was just trying to get everything down. At some point I thought, Oh, I’ll write a true crime book, that’s what I’ll do.

EN And you were able to pull your own life into the story, in a somewhat unexpected way. Or was the original appeal of the murder trial was how it related to your own father’s confession of having murdered someone?

SE That was never the original intent. …. Even now, I’m still learning what the book is about. I’m a compulsive rewriter and have hundreds of drafts. I’ve been trying to chisel out the meaning, and just recently I realized that if the book is about anything, I would say it’s a book about writing and being a writer. I just thought of that two weeks ago, and… I finished the book a year ago.

I didn’t have a plan, you know, but I had a point in my life where I had just given up. I didn’t think I could make it as a writer, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was really depressed, suicidal, and writing has always been something I’ve used to process my experience and understand the world around me. When I had that writers block, I didn’t know how to interact with the world because I was completely dependent on that. I was stifled by the expectations of making a living as a writer. If you have to come up with something to write, then writing isn’t very fun. It isn’t very fulfilling.

I had always written what I wanted. Once I started selling books and winning some awards, then it became different. Of course, that’s my fault. No one can force their expectations on you. It’s my fault I started to internalize that and shut down. I didn’t have to, I could have just ignored it.

I didn’t sit there in college and think, Oh, I’ll be a writer. I didn’t study creative writing in college, I studied history. Then when I was 30, I got a Stegner fellowship at Stanford, and that was great. But I never looked at writing as a career, I wasn’t pursuing it that way. It wasn’t a career, it was an art form that helped me negotiate the world.

EN I wanted to talk about your writing style, and the honesty you present your life with. How do you think readers are confronting your thoughts, in a book form?

SE I don’t know. I’ve always written autobiographical works, and to me, the way I write, honesty is really important. Honesty is not just about not lying, you know? Honesty is about trying to find out the truth. I can’t guarantee the reader I’m being totally honest, I can only say I’m trying to be totally honest. That’s honest, but I could be wrong about everything. I mean, who knows? It’s all up to interpretation, because honesty is really just an effort in honesty. It’s just my best effort.

EN So how does that relate to your dad’s memoir [which Elliott receives in the mail in the beginning of the book] and your dad’s idea of truth? Did you confront these questions with his own memoir?

SE No, actually. I don’t think I approached my father’s memoir with any thoughts about what the memoir meant. No, I don’t think so.

EN Okay, well then let’s move on to the role of the Adderall in the book. I didn’t feel like the main focus of the book was the Adderall, how big of a role for you did the Adderall play, and how did you want it to be perceived in the book?

SE Well, the book is not a book about Adderall. I start writing it when I start taking Adderall again. I stopped taking Adderall for a year or two, and but I was so depressed and so messed up, I just figured I might as well take it again, why bother. It’s like if you’re suicidal, you don’t worry about eating healthy. I started taking the Adderall the same time I started writing these rambling journal entries. The book is a memoir but it’s also a diary about getting back on Adderall again and the things that happened during that time, but it’s not a book on Adderall.

EN And finishing that book, after coming from a point of feeling depressed and having writers block, what was it like finishing it?

SE It was so terrible because, when I was writing the book—and I put this in the book—it was to have a thread, a thread that runs through your life. In the book I talk about how you can’t just go from project to project, you have to have a thread that runs through your life and gives your life meaning. Even though I had written that, when I was done with the book I realized I had not created a thread. I finished the book, which I worked on for 18 months for six to eight hours a day, I never took a day off, and here’s my whole world I’ve written into this book, and I’m done with it, and I don’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t have a thread. Even though I recommended the means for it, I didn’t create one.

EN So where did you go from there?

SE I was really fucked up and sad again. And then I filled the space doing a lot of work for the Obama campaign, and then I started editing The Rumpus, an online daily culture magazine. I created The Rumpus because I didn’t have another book to write then.

And I filled the space editing this online magazine, and I really believe in The Rumpus. I wanted a magazine online that talks about culture, not pop culture. Not Paris Hilton, not even a smart article on Paris Hilton. Just an online magazine frequently updated so when you’re messing around at work, you have somewhere smart to go. And that’s what I do with my time.

EN And with this piece of your life now in print, is it a part of your life you’ve put to rest? Is it a way to deal with your past?

SE I learned a lot writing this book. A lot I didn’t set out to learn, especially about my father. If you had told me the relationship with my father was the most important relationship of my life, I would have laughed at you. I learned a lot about how I relate romantically, and why it’s so hard for me to have long term romantic relationships.

I learned about truth. I realized once you have a lie, that you think is the truth, it’s like red and yellow creating orange—they can never be separated. It can never be red or yellow, it’s just orange. I hadn’t thought about how different stories interact in our lives and how people’s stories become history and how there just are no such things as facts. I mean, there are facts, Hans Reiser killed Nina Reiser and that’s a fact. But when you try and figure out why, people have different stories.

But now the book is done and out in the world, now the book doesn’t have to attend to me. Between the book and the reader, it will take on a different life that I can’t really control.

EN Is that a scary thing as a writer, letting your book go after being so personally intertwined with this story?

SE It’s hard to put it out into the world. Once you do, everybody else owns it. It’s just the reader and the book, and the reader is the only one that matters in that case. I appreciate it, and I’m trying to communicate with people, and I want people to read it, but in the end the experience the reader has nothing to do with me anymore.

EN Are people you’re close with aware they might end up in your book? Does this change the relationships you have with people who you write about?

SE Well I had a friend say to me today, Please never write about my parents. But I can’t make that promise, to promise I won’t write about them. The only thing I can promise is to change their identity. If I do write about her, no one will recognize her, but that’s all I can do.

You’re able to change people’s physical descriptions. If they’re fat you make them skinny, if they’re short you make them tall. The conversations are real, but you can still protect their identities.

EN And you were able to use Sean Sturgeon’s real name because he was a public figure? [Sturgeon is a character in the book who unexpectedly confessed to Nina Resier’s murder, along with eight other murders.]

SE Well, with most of the characters in the book, by changing their identity you’ll never be figure out who that is. With Sean, I could change his name, but it would be so easy to figure out who he is, because he talked to the media.

EN Is it strange for you that someone can read your book and feel like they know you? Or is that something you’re used to?

SE I don’t really get used to it. But who you are changes all the time. When I wrote that book, that person died September 2008, when I finished the book. Right? I’m different than that person. For those who think they know me from reading the book, you still won’t totally know me. I’m not the same person now.

EN What do you think is our fascination with the memoir and the desire to want to know that stories are true? Why do we get so angry when we find out that these stories sometimes aren’t true?

SE I don’t really know anything about that. I’m only interested in the literary memoirs, and I care if it’s good writing. If the book gets at a deeper truth, then that’s good writing. That’s true with memoirs or fiction. But I don’t read celebrity memoirs. Why society is obsessed with these details, I don’t know that I have an answer for that.

I’m interested in work like Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn or This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff, those kind of books help me understand the world. They help me connect and understand the world around me, they’re illuminating. But I don’t think that’s because they’re memoirs, they would be just as good as novels.

EN So it’s ultimately not a question of fiction or non-fiction.

SE Not for me, it’s just not my thing. I’m not a memoir junkie. If it’s well written, I’ll be into it.

EN And what are you doing now? Are you thinking of writing another book, or have you been more focused on The Rumpus?

SE I don’t know. I never write book ideas, I just start with situations and begin writing about them. Sometimes that becomes a book, and that’s just what happened recently. I’ve got various projects, and a book tour set up. I want to give it my all, it’s my best book, and I don’t think I’ll write a book this good again. I’m not saying it’s the best book in the world, but I think it’s the best that I can do.

EN Why do you think that?

SE I spent a long time following everything and everything, and I just want people to get as much out of it, because I don’t know when and if I’m going to write another book.

EN So it’s very uncertain that you’ll be writing a book at all, then.

SE Yeah, I don’t know. You just never know; you never know if you’re going to write another book.

EN So that pressure you spoke about earlier, about writing, has that subsided?

SE I don’t feel pressure with my writing, but not because I have a lot of money—I don’t. I’m able to live off very little but I don’t need to make a living off my writing necessarily. I have no interest in writing what anyone else wants me to write, I am only interested in writing for myself. I don’t feel that pressure I felt back in 2006, 2007, where I felt I had to create a fiction story that I didn’t necessarily feel like writing.

Writing is not a good thing to do for money. Anyone who writes for money is crazy. I would rather go to business school than write for money.

EN So what is writing for you? Is it something that makes you happy? Does it more often complicate things?

SE Well, I started writing when I was ten, my walls were covered in poetry. It’s just a thing I’ve learned to do to help me understand things. It’s not a question of being happy or sad, it’s something I do to get me through the day.

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