Stephen Elliott: Interview

Monday, April 1, 2013

Stephen Elliott has seven books under his belt, he's directed a feature film, published dozens of essays and magazine articles, and founded a highly regarded literary website. Yet at age forty, he still lives—and quite happily, he says—like a poor college student, staying in a rented room in a San Francisco artists’ co-op with a shared bathroom down the hall. Though many of his novels and nonfiction books have been critically acclaimed, they haven’t made Elliott much money. And he’s okay with that.

Elliott says he’s never been driven to write for money. If he can make a few bucks creating art, that’s great. If not, so what? He’s not just saying that, either. Elliott once turned down an advance from a major publisher that would have put ten thousand dollars more in his pocket than an offer from a smaller press. People thought he was crazy. But Elliott didn’t like the prospect of his book being lost among the hundreds of titles churned out by the bigger house. It’s attention and connection that he craves more than money.

“I think a lot of people forget why they become writers,” says Elliott, who began writing when he was about ten. “We all change; the things you want from writing, at a certain age, become different from the things you want later. I’ve avoided any obligations, and I still live like a child. I don’t have a wife and kids. I’m on my own. It’s a choice.”

His choices have taken him from writing literary fiction to filmmaking. By exploring a new form of expression, he hopes to avoid becoming creatively stagnant. Filmmaking is, of course, much more costly than writing a novel, and even if he can fund his bare-budget films, Elliott is hardly guaranteed a paycheck for himself. Despite his indifference about making money, Elliott needs money to fund his latest creative pursuit as a filmmaker, and recently found himself in the sometimes uncomfortable position of asking for cash to fund an adaptation of his novel Happy Baby. He wants to direct and produce the film on his own terms rather than have big outside investors call the shots. So he started a Kickstarter campaign in November seeking $85,000 through small investors, and wound up getting $93,775 from 1,013 backers. Since then others have pledged to invest, bringing his budget to around $150,000. Shooting is scheduled to begin in New York in May.

The screen version of Happy Baby will be Elliott’s second film. He co-wrote and directed About Cherry, financed by private investors and released last year with an impressive cast including James Franco, Lili Taylor, Dev Patel, and Heather Graham. Elliott got friendly with Franco after the actor optioned Elliott’s 2009 memoir, The Adderall Diaries, which remains unproduced.

Elliott recently took some time to speak with TriQuarterly about his vision as a writer and filmmaker, how the two creative forms intersect, and what he’s learned by doing both. Following is an edited transcript of that interview.

TriQuarterly: How did you move from writing novels to screenplays?

Stephen Elliott: After James Franco optioned The Adderall Diaries, I asked him if I could do the adaptation and he said 'yes'. I thought that meant I was getting paid, but it didn’t. I hadn’t written a book in a really, really long time, and this was a different format. I had read screenplays, but I don’t read a lot of them. I approached it not thinking I had to write the three-act structure. My assumption was that a good screenplay would read like a novel. Philosophically, I just thought a screenplay should read well. What I found was that the rules of writing a screenplay are all action and dialogue. There is no fluff. I found that a challenge similar to when you’re going from writing poetry or novels to writing a memoir—the rules actually bring out a lot of creativity. I found it extremely invigorating. I wanted to keep going and write another one, so I wrote About Cherry with my friend Lorelei Lee right away and launched right into it. I was waiting for Team Franco to get back to me on The Adderall Diaries. But then I thought, "This is not going to work, I don’t want to be waiting around for other people. I can do something."  I thought I would get the actors and directors and try to raise some money.

TQ: Writing a novel is a solitary act; directing a film isn’t. How do you adapt to that?

SE: With a book you have total control, and with a movie it’s like you’re pushing water. You’re just trying to guide it, because you can’t control it. I think writing is very lonely, and it’s really invigorating to work on stuff with other people. You find out that with collaborators you can do more than you can do on your own. When the actor shows up, they know a role and they know it better than you do. They literally know more about this character.

TQ: Why did you decide to adapt Happy Baby for the screen, and how did you go about it?

SE: I’ve tried writing screenplays a dozen times over the years, and they’re no good, they’re horrendous. And the craziest thing happened. I was out one night with Dave Eggers having a drink—we’re friends but we don’t go out that often—and I was complaining that it had been a year since I made About Cherry and I wanted to write another screenplay, but I didn’t know what it would be about. And he said, “Happy Baby.” I said, “No, no, I’ve tried it, it can’t be done.” He said, “Do it like this: start the story backward like you do in the book, and do this, this and this.” And I said, “It will never work.” I woke up the next morning and did exactly what he said, and it just opened up. It was ridiculous. I wrote it in three days, and it was good. I knew it was. Dave had edited the book, so he knew all about it. The script came in at a hundred pages, a little longer than he wanted it to be. I’m pretty concise. You have to remove a lot of stuff. There’s no way to put a whole novel into a movie.

TQ: Artistically, does it feel different? Is it literary enough?

SE: To me it doesn’t feel a whole lot different from what I was doing before. I want to create something artistic. I want to do a movie that hasn’t been done before, as opposed to just telling another story. To tell a good tale, I would like to do something a little different.

TQ: What do you take away from screenwriting that you can bring to novel writing?

SE: I think writing screenplays is really good practice for writing novels because you have to be concise, to move faster. Screenwriting requires me to work in the present tense with very short sentences. On the other hand, anyone who can write a novel can write a screenplay. I mean, writing a screenplay is much easier, twenty times easier. It’s not even in the same league. If you’re good enough to write a published novel, you’re good enough to write a screenplay.

TQ: A lot of people make money writing screenplays for movies or television. Had you ever considered doing that?

SE: Someone said, “Why don’t you just do it? You can make a million dollars and don’t have to worry about this shit.” I couldn’t quite explain to him why that wasn’t possible. Yeah, writing for TV is relatively easy, but the sacrifice for me would be massive. Even if it was only a year or two, I might never come back. Why go make a lot of money at something you are mediocre at? A mediocre TV writer will make a lot more money than a truly great novelist.

I don’t have any interest in the things that could make me any money. I want to create new things. Like when I created the Rumpus, I said I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know if I would make any money at it. I like to start things, see what happens, and let them become something else. Because it can always become something else.

TQ: So do you subscribe to the old adage to do what you love and the money will follow?

SE: It’s not true, because the money doesn’t always follow. Do what you love, tighten your belt, and learn to live on less. I’m not complaining at all. I’ve taken my resources, and what I’ve been trying to build, to make this movie, make something that’s really different. I want to try to do a movie that’s structurally different, maybe even distributed in different ways. Because of that I may have a very small audience. I published The Adderall Diaries with Graywolf Press, a small publisher. Norton and HarperCollins had offered ten thousand dollars more. They are bigger publishers than Graywolf, but I went with the smaller publisher. I’m a little crazy like that.

TQ: Your website, The Rumpus, has evolved over the years into a very popular place with top-notch writers. How has that fit into your plans?

SE: We’ve been really lucky. I don’t know. I didn’t know what The Rumpus was going to become. I’m really excited that it’s become this thing—a jumping-off place for ideas that has grown. Now the Rumpus is a place that is producing my movie. I didn’t have any plans for it when it started. We’ve got really great writers. It’s been super weird in that I’m more well-known for The Rumpus, and it’s hard to get used to that. What about my books?