As I say in my initial question, I met Stephen Elliott sometime around 2002, 2003. I believe I contacted him via seeing his email attached to his name on McSweeney’s. I was very new to writing, had probably published one or two, maybe three or four, pieces on very small (Opium, Sweet Fancy Moses, Pindeldyboz, Eyeshot) lit sites. I think it’s human nature and a mostly subconscious instinct to want to meet those more progressed in whatever field or art you are attempting to establish yourself in, dabbling in – to meet artists you admire, who have work out there, work others also admire. Not even in a ladder climbing way/instinct. But more just a desire to have contact w someone you perceive as having “made it,” to gather information, to study them up close, to have them see you also.
I don’t know. But we met. And it was interesting. Which is what I was after: an interesting interaction with a writer whose writing I liked. End story.
After that I didn’t think much of Stephen Elliott except when a new book came out, to read it, until the Claire Vaye Watkins’* essay. And after that, the Shitty Men in Media list.
My interest in conducting this interview is my interest in mob behavior. Given my own experiences with mobs in the literary world. Also, my interest in the aforementioned human instinct to meet and have an experience w someone more advanced in your field/the art/literary world.
Anyway, I would hope it is of interest, of value, to hear Stephen’s experience, as he views and understands it. Anyway, here it is.
Hi, Stephen! Thank you for agreeing to this interview. I’ve decided to do no research and just shoot the shit/ask q’s as I would if we were in person and I was intoxicated and you were open to answering anything (as you said you are!). first off, do you remember us meeting long long ago in Ann Arbor? I think this was something like 2002? And you did a … talk or something at the University of Michigan? And we had emailed or something… you had spare time so we maybe went and got to go coffees and sat in the campus grass somewhere and you asked if you could put your head in my lap? I think you napped a bit like that, head in my lap, while I read. Then we parted ways. Never to be seen in the same room, or lawn, again! I bet you don’t remember this.
Thanks Ellen. I most certainly do remember that. That was really nice.
When I was starting out as a writer, abt that time, 2002, 2003… you were a huge name. Happy Baby was a cult classic. Everything McSweeney’s was cult classic. You and J. T. Leroy were my favs!! What was it like then? in the lit world? In McSweeney’s world? And do you still talk to Dave Eggers today? Were you ever really close w him? Were you close w anyone in the McSweeney’s universe?
It's interesting because I didn’t see it that way. I never realized that I was a “huge” name or that someone might look up to me. I’ve written a lot about this, and maybe it’s moot now that I’m 50, but I was raised in group homes and I was very much an outsider in the literary world, or I felt like I was, though at some point I suppose I wasn’t. I published four books before I even had an agent. I just had no idea what I was doing or how things worked. I hadn’t done an MFA, I just wrote a lot. I never actually thought I would be a writer.
Initially I sent two books to a new publisher which they bought, and a month later, almost randomly, I was awarded a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford in my late 20s. I say almost randomly because obviously I had to apply for it. But I had forgotten applying for it, so it was a shock. And I was the only one there that hadn’t already studied writing.
While I was at Stanford, living in San Francisco, Dave Eggers started 826 Valencia, and it was so inspiring to me. I started volunteering there. And I met Eggers and I just thought he was the greatest person in the world. And I still have enormous respect and love for him. He really is that good of a person; it’s not an act. That guy is pure. Just a beautiful, generous human being. And a brilliant editor. Whenever I spent time with him I felt better about life.
He edited Happy Baby.
I did become very close to many people in the McSweeney’s universe. A lot of those people were great, and a lot of them were just ambitious people with no integrity whatsoever.
How did Happy Baby happen? I don’t even know – did you get an MFA somewhere?
I wrote Happy Baby while in the Stegner program at Stanford University. The Stegner program was amazing. Like finding a big pile of cash on the street and someone says just hang out in this comfortable space for the next two years and meet with really smart, talented people once a week and read each other’s work.
All the other Stegners had either MFAs or literature PHds, we weren’t graded. It’s like a post doc for writers, I guess. Actually, a college degree wasn’t even a requirement.
It was my first time in a writing workshop, I was learning a lot fast. And one thing I noticed was that in a workshop, if someone didn’t have much to say they would ask, “why?” You were supposed to know the exact reason why your character did everything they did. And I realized I didn’t know why I did half the things I did. I still don’t. Motivations are mysterious. We think we know why we love people, why we do the things that we do. But we don’t.
And I realized that all that mattered to me was that it was plausible a character would do the thing I was having them do. As long as it was possible within the constraints of their character and circumstances, that was enough. I was against explaining anything, because explaining things seemed phony.
(Ah youth and our infatuation with authenticity!)
There’s a way of reading Happy Baby as a work of literary fundamentalism. Everything is in present tense, nothing is explained. There’s no narrative and no back story and almost no adjectives or adverbs. That’s what I was trying to do. I would write one story, and because there was never any explanation each story raised questions, so I would write another story, at an earlier time in the character’s life to answer those questions, which would lead to more questions.
Happy Baby is a novel in stories told backward. Each story is earlier than the previous one. It’s the best thing I’ll ever write. You start with a character in his mid-thirties and you peel the onion back until he is ten years old. You could say the book ends on page 16.
Anyway, Happy Baby was really a reaction to the former MFAs always asking me why a character was doing something and me not wanting to tell them.
After becoming a definite cool kid in the lit scene post Happy Baby and My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up, you started the Rumpus, correct? The literary journal or magazine or … in, what year? And how long were you chief editor, running it? you brought on Cheryl Strayed (as Ask Sugar) and others? Talk a bit abt the inception of the Rumpus.
Yes. And again, I would have to say I really didn’t realize I had become the cool kid. But I had become very political (I’m not anymore) and was doing a lot of political organizing and fund raising and in this way I was meeting many people. After I wrote The Adderall Diaries, which I turned in late 2008 for a 2009 pub date, I realized I didn’t have anything more to write. The Adderall Diaries was a memoir, but also a true crime thriller. A pretty hard book to define, probably my 2nd best (some of my books honestly weren’t that good and should never have been published).
I really scraped myself clean writing The Adderall Diaries. I wanted to start editing instead of writing. And I met with Arianna Huffington about joining the Huffington Post. I had so many ideas for a literary page, local pages, art pages, etc. She didn’t have any of that stuff yet. We spent the day together and at the end of the day I thought, why am I giving her all my ideas? It’s just a website. What’s so hard about starting a web site?
So I started The Rumpus. And The Rumpus was very popular. We launched the careers of Cheryl Strayed and Roxane Gay, and of course Isaac Fitzgerald who was this sweet McSweeney’s hanger-on who helped me with all my political organizing, like stopping American Apparel from opening on Valencia Street. Isaac of course turned out to be a soulless monster, but I gave him this great job and paid him considerably more than I paid myself. I hired him 11 months after I started The Rumpus and made him the managing editor and we worked together for three years.
We were really diverse, and of the moment. Made sure to have a good balance of genders, etc.
I was good at coming up with ways to fund the magazine, since the magazine itself didn’t make any money. We had monthly events. Then I started a successful book club where members got books a month before they were released and we talked about them together and then interviewed the author at the end of the month for a $25 subscription. Then Letters In The Mail where we would mail you actual letters from authors for $5 a month, etc. I just had a knack for starting these businesses on The Rumpus coattails, so we did great for a while. But also, I got bored of it, which is a problem I have.
After that, I’m not quite sure of the chronology of events. But at some point these three things happened. You published one of my fav books, The Adderall Diaries, you got name checked on the bad men in media AWP list along w Tao Lin and some others?, and Claire Vaye Watkins wrote an essay on pandering in which you were the focus of the opening. What were these years like? How did you handle the various accusations heralded at you? did “friends” and literary acquaintances make fast exits?
Right, it was The Shitty Media Men List, not bad men in media.
On The Shitty Media Men List I was accused of rape. Multiple rapes actually. It’s very telling that you know about the list but don’t know that I had been accused of rape. It’s a thing most people didn’t mention when writing about the list, because everybody knew the rape accusations were false. I don’t even like penetrative sex with women and I’d written openly about my sexuality. But that didn’t really matter. The Shitty Media Men List was a foundational document of the #MeToo movement and if there were false rape charges on the list then it put the whole movement into question. Which is too bad.
The fundamental problem with #MeToo was that it insisted on a false choice. You either believed that sexual assault was a widespread, underreported, massive problem. Or you believed that many people were falsely accused of rape and that the presumption of innocence is an important principle.
Of course it should be possible to believe both those things, both of which are true! But #MeToo insisted you believe one or the other.
The Shitty Media Men List was the perfect false accusation machine. Sent around by Moira Donegan and a few others who were helping her to literary editors and magazine writers who were asked to make anonymous, untraceable accusations. At no cost to themselves they could easily ruin someone’s life. And potentially move up a ladder or take revenge.
Apparently Moira Donegan entered the first three names on the list herself and they were just people she didn’t like, who she had heard things about, not people who had harmed her personally.
It wouldn’t surprise me if half the accusations on the list were false or exaggerated.
But I remember people writing very negatively about me after the list came out and I filed a lawsuit against Moira Donegan as the creator of the list. Roxane Gay wrote about it. My publisher and editor made public statements on twitter against me. None of them mentioned that I had been accused of rape. But of course if I hadn’t been accused of rape there wouldn’t have been a lawsuit.
Many formerly close friends made public statements about me and in support of the list without bothering to call and find out more information.
They excused themselves by saying I brought all the attention on myself by filing the lawsuit. Which has some truth to it. People knew about the list but not necessarily that I was on it. And when I filed the lawsuit it just blew up. Massive public pile-ons. Good friends were literally going around checking to make sure that mutuals had unfollowed me on social media platforms. People saying things like, “He helped me get my first book published which blinded me to what a monster he is.” A bunch of stuff like that.
But even though the lawsuit certainly did bring much more attention, I can guarantee you that being falsely accused of rape on an anymous list that the literary world takes seriously has a lot of consequences whether you file a lawsuit or not. Prior to filing the lawsuit, but after the list was circulating, I had a book come out and all the reviews were cancelled. Many friends turned away from me. I was uninvited from lots of speaking gigs, etc. People called bookstores to complain if they allowed me to do a reading. And also it was just wrong.
Oh, and there was a one-year statute of limitations so I basically had to file the lawsuit or never file it, and I just couldn’t stand that.
And like I said, I wasn’t the only one falsely accused on the list. But I was the only one who knew with absolute certainty that there was no person in the world that believed I raped them. I knew for certain the accusation was malicious and made by someone I had never had sex with who knew the accusation they were making was false.
To get back to your question. Yes, people made very fast exits. My editor Ethan Nosowsky wrote a post supporting the list. Rob Spillman, the editor of Tin House, wrote a Facebook post raising money for Moira Donegan’s legal defense, though Moira was represented pro bono by Times Up co-founder Roberta Kaplan. And there are hundreds of examples like this. My agent Bill Clegg fired me.
That’s really the thing that hurts the most about getting mobbed/canceled, losing people you thought you were very close to.
Now keep in mind, both Ethan Nosowsky and Rob Spillman expressed to me that I was not the only person on the list they believed was falsely accused. They were supporting a list of anonymous accusations where multiple close friends of theirs, they believed, had been falsely accused. That’s wild!
Someone told me you sued whoever wrote the bad men in media list? How was it found out who wrote it and what happened legally?
Moira Donegan and I settled a few months ago for six figures. I would have preferred to continue the lawsuit, but it had been five years and it would take five more years. Their strategy was just to continue forever and wear me down. Moira could have just apologized in the beginning, and I would have dropped it, but she didn’t want to apologize, which she insisted on in the settlement. And that was fine with me. I don’t want an apology from anyone who doesn’t mean it.
They wanted me to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which I refused. I thought it was a very Harvey Weinstein thing to ask for.
I don’t think the money was a big deal to her, she comes from a wealthy family.
I kind of won the narrative. But most of the people who had participated in the mob quickly forgot their involvement. There were 100 stories against me when it started and maybe 5 stories all in my favor when it was over. Nobody remembers participating in a mob.
Did the bad men in media list say what each alleged person’s offense was? Or just had their name on it? I don’t, obviously, believe in this tactic of bullshit/gossip/ostracization but if we’re going to operate purely on gossip, can we add others to the list? Eileen Myles? I’ve heard they used their power to lure younger writers, female, and were shitty to at least one of them. so fucking what? Cancel Eileen Myles? I mean. This is ludicrous. And I’m only using this as a (bad!) example of how NOT To operate. On gossip. Hearsay. Etc. also on the fact we are all of us humans and have all been shitty to ppl, esp ppl we’ve been in romantic relationships w!
There were specific accusations against each entry on The Shitty Media Men List. Like my entry said “multiple rape accusations, snuck into Binders” (a Facebook group that I had no idea of) and “made unsolicited invitations” to my apartment. The list was live online for 12 hours and anyone with the link could fill in a name with accusations. Moira herself edited the list, outlining in red rows like mine that contained multiple accusations of violent assault. I have images of Moira editing the document. It is possible someone else also did some outlining. Some of the accusations were phoned in, from people who didn’t want to actually touch the list themselves. One person phoned in an accusation to Moira then later asked Moira to remove it, which she did.
The list was only supposed to be written on by women, and only accusing men. But of course, anyone with the link could have made an entry so it’s very likely some of the entries were written by men. It was just a google document. When Buzzfeed wrote about it the next day Moira took it down. Someone had already done a screenshot.
Moira likes to claim the list was never meant to be public but that’s a pretty obvious lie. The list was always meant to have consequences. Long before she came out publicly as the creator of the list she would tweet about it, and retweet other people promoting it. Encourage people to find it. Retweet people pointing out how the list was turning out to be all true (it wasn’t).
The only way to judge The Shitty Media Men List is the obvious way. It’s a media blacklist full of anonymous accusations. History has shown us over and over that these kind of lists are never good. People defending a media blacklist full of anonymous accusations are defending something indefensible.
But like I said, people don’t remember joining a mob, which to me is one of the most interesting things I learned. The people who participated and supported the list, most of them, have no memory of doing so. And I know this because I’ve confronted a bunch of them. You might think they’re lying when they deny their participation but I’m certain they’re not. I’m certain they have no memory of it.
How did you feel abt the CVW essay? Did you feel it was a fair representation of what happened? Why did a university ask a student to put up a visiting writer in the first place? In their one bedroom apt??? cheap, cheap, cheap….
So the Claire Watkins essay preceded The Shitty Media Men List, and actually set the ground work. The Watkins essay was ostensibly about her offering to let me stay with her (a grad student) when I was doing a reading at Ohio State.
That night I asked if I could sleep in her bed (instead of an air mattress on the floor) and assured her I just wanted to cuddle. Which was true. I’m 1000% certain I didn’t want to have sex with her.
I think my behavior was kind of creepy though. I wish I hadn’t misread the situation so badly and asked to climb in bed with her. But one thing that is absolutely true is that I never touched her in any way. And she says things in the essay, like “I’m not accusing him of rape” or stuff like that. Which is just nuts. I really did just want to get off that crappy air mattress.
I tried not to make too big a deal of it at the time. I thought it was unfair and ungenerous, but well written. It had power. What I didn’t realize though was that essay was extremely viral, the most viral thing Tin House had ever published by a wide margin. And people who I thought were my friends looked at me differently. And people who were trying to get ahead started taking notes.
Like Sari Botton, this writer I had always been close with, I thought, after the list she confronted me with all these notes she had taken on our interactions and it really sounded like she thought I was trying to have sex with her. She had documented that I offered to let her stay in my apartment in Brooklyn, and that I had said when introducing her at an event that she was a great person instead of saying she was a great writer. Sari is like 70 years old. I thought of her like a mom figure. People get weird.
I think after the Watkins essay I was seen as being a bad person, a person on the other side. And people started making their case. So when the list came out and I was accused of rape it was all really easy for them.
Are you still friends w Michelle Orange? I published his first book, The Sicily Papers, and we used to be pretty close but I haven’t spoken w her in ages/years….but I remember her speaking of you, maybe traveling w you?
I’m not still friends with Michelle Orange. But we used to be very close.
You also made a movie, Cherry (not the Cherry movie the Russo Bros made!). w James Franco’s involvement? How did that come abt/go? Do you still/ever speak to Franco? Who has, himself, been on a bad guy’s list.
James Franco bought the rights to The Adderall Diaries but it was taking them a very long time to make the movie. And I had always wanted to make a movie so I wrote a script, with help from Lorelie Lee who I gave co-writing credit and made this movie About Cherry which James Franco agreed to be in. It also featured Heather Graham and Dev Patel.
I haven’t spoken to Franco in a long time. But I have a lot of affection for him. I have affection for just about anyone who has been the target of a mob.
As I said, The Adderall Diaries is one of my fav books. Paired w More, Now, Again by Elizabeth Wurtzel (and to an extent, How to Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell)… did you know/meet Wurtzel/admire her writing?
I only briefly met her. I really wish I had gotten to know her. She had a certain genius, an artist’s soul. And I don’t think I really respected her writing and where she was coming from the way I should have.
Advice for my husband trying to get off Adderall (he gets the Vivitrol shot monthly for opiates/alcohol but no such shot for amphetamines yet)? Do you ever take it anymore? Do you miss it (if not)?? (isn’t it ironic lol I would meet a man/marry a man w a heavy Adderall addiction, given for years now my fav/most read book has been More, Now, Again???? And then Adderall Diaries. Lol. some cosmic joke on me!!) (am I a loser/failure as a writer for not stealing my husband’s Adderall ever/once?!! Prob have more books written…)
I still take a very small amount of Adderall sometimes, less than 5mg. It actually helps when I’m getting very depressed, which is something I have a problem with. I don’t know what to say about Adderall. In general I advise against it, the way I advise against going on twitter. But what do I know?
How is your life – writing and personal – today? Post everything that has happened?!??! Do you feel…ostracized still? Any old friends that turned away turn back? New friends? New beginnings? How is your literary “career”? do you have an agent? Book deal? What’s up??
I mean, when I filed the lawsuit against The Shitty Media Men List, I think I was the first person to publicly push back hard against #MeToo. I lost all my literary friends just about. Like, I think I kept maybe 5. And I was so disgusted with the community it made me not want to be a writer. At one point I kind of stopped going outside for about a year. I just stayed inside and smoked a lot of pot and managed two properties, making just enough. I didn’t take many phone calls and I lived in a city where I didn’t know anyone. It’s strange to think about now. Obviously something was wrong. And I mostly stopped writing, but I still do it sometimes.
Whenever I meet someone I haven’t seen in a long time they say, I hope you’re still writing!
I wrote an essay in the beginning of the year when I went to Thailand and I thought it was very good, and very publishable. I learned a lot writing it and it was the kind of essay I used to publish. But when I was done I didn’t want to. I didn’t feel like baring my soul to strangers the way I used to. The writing I like is dangerous. Monstrous writing from monstrous people. If you’re going to write honestly you have to be willing to show the world how awful you are inside. Everybody has that part of them if they’re being honest and honesty is bordered by self-knowledge. But the incentives now are so stacked against baring that part of yourself. What would I get out of it? I don’t have a literary career to promote.
I showed it to a few friends and that was enough.
I manage and rehab properties now. I started doing that after I lost my agent and publisher and it became obvious I could definitely not make a living as a writer/teacher/lecturer. I used to teach at Provincetown every summer, they didn’t invite me back. I had to do something entirely different.
Some people tracked down my house and spray painted SCUM on the front of it. A couple months later they spray painted RAPIST on my car. It was validating in that it really reaffirmed for me that I was right in filing the lawsuit. At the same time, it changed me kind of.
I’m not sure if I’ll write again. I tend to avoid literary gatherings and literary people. And I’m really busy with this super mundane contactor work I’ll tell you about sometime if you’re ever having a hard time falling asleep. To really write again I would need to find a break from the work I’m doing which occupies a lot of mind space. Though it has its benefits of course.
PS didn’t realize The Adderall Diaries was made into another Franco film w Amber Heard!!! Did you meet/become friends w Amber? I watched every day of the trial…now it makes sense she was in the elevator w Franco…. Lol what was the making of that movie like?
The movie is so different from the book and I think they were a little embarrassed by their embellishments. I didn’t think the movie was great but I’m certainly glad they made it. It’s great when someone creates something from something you’ve created.
Recently I’ve been in touch with my biological children (I was a sperm donor) and one of them was planning to watch The Adderall Diaries movie with their friends. That alone makes it all worth it.
Oh crap! Meant to ask how the Rumpus got taken from you or why you let it go??? How does it feel to see it up and running? Under new management lol so to speak…. Most young writers today don’t have any awareness, I’d imagine, you created it!
I never look at The Rumpus. I sold it to Marisa Seigel, who was the definition of a person without enough talent to start her own stupid website so she had to instead purchase something created by someone else. I had just gotten so bored of it. Looking back, there are lots of things I would like to have done with it. But I have this tendency to start projects and move on to the next thing. I don’t think she owns it anymore and I hope the new owners are doing something interesting with it.
Oh, hey, I realized I come off very negative in some of these answers. Sometimes I dance. I’ve been dating someone who is a latex designer and she made me a pink dress to wear with her to see the Barbie movie. Everything is not terrible.
*Hobart published Claire Vaye Watkins’ first short story.