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An Interview with Stephen Elliott, Who's Giving Away His New Book The Adderall Diaries

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I don't remember if I caught wind of it through Facebook or Twitter, in an e-mail or if I just stumbled across a headline on the Web, but when I heard that author Stephen Elliott was sending around a limited amount of advance copies of his new book, The Adderall Diaries, for free, I kept the information to myself and e-mailed him immediately.

He calls it the Lending Library.

Asks that people read his book in a week and then send it along. Just pay for the first-class postage and don't mistreat the book for the next person.

I got my free copy on a Saturday, finished it the following Saturday, and am sending it on its way to the next cheapskate, er, reader on Monday.

The Adderall Diaries is the story of how Elliott battles writer's block and an Adderall addiction in San Francisco until hearing that an old acquaintance from his S&M community has confessed to killing eight or nine people and won't say who they are. The acquaintance is also the best friend of a man who is about to stand trial in a high-profile case, a guy accused of killing the mother of his two children, a Russian woman he met through a bride service. It's framed by the complicated relationship between Elliott and his father, who killed a man right before Elliott was born, or didn't. But probably.

It's a fast and brilliant read; it's New Journalism-y, where the writer sets out to report on an event but writes just as much, or more, on himself and his role in the event. It's a true-crime memoir. It's written on drugs, like On the Road and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The speed that Elliott is swallowing and snorting gives the book a jumpy feel, but the chronology doesn't suffer. Unlike the author at times.

The book is brutally honest.

The book is immediately current, it's eye-opening into the world of sado-masochism sex play (unless you've already read some of Elliott's best work), and it invites you to investigate the lives of your parents before they were your parents.

And the book is, if you sign up before it's too late, totally free (save for the postage).

Stephen and I e-mailed back and forth:

Greg Boose: The idea behind the Lending Library reminds me of a site I used to participate in, PaperBackSwap.com, where you list some used books on your shelf that you were totally done with, and if someone wanted it, the owner paid the shipping. Which was cool because I had too many copies of The Great Gatsby and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and I wanted to collect all the books in the Fletch series. But here you are sending out your book that hasn't been on anyone's shelf yet. For free. Could you tell me how this came about, if this was your idea or something Graywolf Press was looking to do with the right writer? And how did the second party react to the first party's proposal?

Stephen Elliott: The idea was mine. I was having a "marketing" conversation with Graywolf and they were talking about getting galleys into the hands of bloggers. They had sent me a bunch of galleys to give to reviewers and people in the literary world. And that's when I had this idea of just sending the book to anyone who requests it, but requiring they forward the book within a week.

The impression I got was that Graywolf had mixed feelings about the idea, but they didn't say no, and they had already sent me the galleys. And I think they're glad I've been doing it. I mean, I've always believed that you don't make money selling books to your friends, you make money selling books to your friends' friends (not that I've ever made any money). This is an extension of that idea.

But also, you know, I just want people to read my book. I don't frankly care if they buy it.

GB: I can definitely see how this could pay off, especially if you already had all the galley copies: People read The Adderall Diaries for free, dig it and spread the good news via word-of-mouth or through social media sites (if they're able to take a break from updating everyone about their latest pedicure or what they just ate). Do you find that you're getting more press this time around because of the Lending Library idea, more than when Happy Baby(Picador, 2004) was about to be released?

SE: I'm getting tons more press than when Happy Baby was released. I think that's partly because of the Lending Library. But you have to understand, Happy Baby didn't get any press. It was edited and designed by McSweeney's and published/distributed by MacAdam/Cage, and in the middle there was this disconnect. Because McSweeney's had designed and edited the book, there was no-one at MacAdam/Cage who had any ownership of the book, and so it fell between the cracks. Initially there were only maybe four reviews of the book. You couldn't even order it at Borders. Happy Baby ended up doing really well and made a lot of best of the year lists, which gave me a lot of faith in the system, that if you wrote a really good book it would find its audience. But there was no attention paid to that book when it came out.

By that way, I'm not blaming anyone. I'm perfectly happy with what happened with Happy Baby. If Dave Eggers had not edited that book it wouldn't have been anywhere near as good.

This time everything's different. This is really my first major book in five years. My Girlfriend Comes To The City and Beats Me Up was just a collection of short, erotic vignettes, a minor book, I think. So now I have this book coming out, and since Happy Baby I've done all this political organizing around literary events, along with politically inspired anthologies. The truth is, I know tons of people in the literary world now, and in 2004 I didn't. Plus, I've maybe built up a little fan base from my previous work.

But you know, in the end, you live and die by the work. If a literary book isn't really good, (and this is still a literary book, even if it's non-fiction) then nothing you can do is going to make the book succeed. You might sell a bunch of copies initially, but if a book is going to stick around it's going to be because of the writing. I think people think too much about marketing, and not enough about writing good books.

GB: Speaking of marketing, it's funny that one of the things I got the most fired up about in your book was learning that your father would actively try to sabotage your writing career, calling reporters who interviewed you to say you were lying about your hard childhood, writing harsh Amazon reviews for your books. How did you first react to these things, particularly when he wrote those anonymous shitty reviews? Did you contact him? And did you begin to wonder if your memories were correct, although it's obvious that they were pretty sharp in your mind?

SE: Well, yeah. That's what a lot of the book is about. I definitely questioned my memories, which is a pretty healthy thing to do. We all remember things differently. It's possible for my memories and interpretations, and my father's, to co-exist, even though they contradict each other.

The bad reviews my father left of my books (which he's still doing) are never anonymous. I mean, he always says something so that I know it's him. I've contacted him about it in the past, but I don't contact him about it anymore. He should say whatever he wants, whatever makes him feel better.

GB: Your father was a writer and author of a couple books. Have you ever critiqued his work? Is there anything of his you would suggest reading?

SE: I don't know if it would be appropriate for me to critique my father's work, but my favorite book by him is My Years With Capone.

GB: You've been published in Esquire, the New York Times, GQ, Salon, The Believer (which is where I first read your work) and in some great collections including Best American Non-Required Reading and Best Sex Writing. You also started your own culture site, The Rumpus. What drove you to start your own publication and was it easier or harder than you thought it was going to be?

SE: I don't remember what I thought The Rumpus was going to be. I look at creating The Rumpus like writing a novel. You just start, you don't know what it's going to become. The trick is focusing on creating something good. Don't worry about what other people want to read, write the book that you want to read. Same with an online publication. I created the Web site I wanted to spend time on.

I was driven to do it after I finished The Adderall Diaries. It's my seventh book, and I wasn't ready to start another book right away. So this was a creative project I could get under while I figure out what to do with the rest of my life.

GB: Well, hopefully when you start your next book you continue on with The Rumpus. I just discovered it a few months ago. You going to continue to head the site up from San Francisco or will you ever make your way back to Chicago?

SE: I don't think I'll make my way back to Chicago. I love Chicago, but San Francisco is my home now. It was an accident. I was driving around with no plan in mind. I was a ski bum, then I coasted into Moab. I ran out of money and gas in San Francisco 11 years ago. I kept meaning to leave, but I never did.

You can buy The Adderall Diaries in September 2009 from Graywolf Press, or you can borrow it now.

Keep up with Stephen Elliott until then on The Rumpus.

This interview first appeared on The Nervous Breakdown.