Writer/filmmaker Stephen Elliott stares his tumultuous past straight in the face and jumps in, head first, emerging time and again with material that burns like a red-hot iron. Readers don't find sugar-coated happily-ever-afters in his pages. Regardless, his fans are hooked.
A suicidal teen runaway who became a ward of the court, Elliott made his way out of his troubled life in Chicago's North Side and eventually into the sex-worker industry before struggling with addiction that almost left him dead from a heroin overdose in 1995. Now with a successful career as a writer, Elliott has a dozen books to his name, including the brutal Happy Baby and a gripping murder mystery-meets-memoir, The Adderall Diaries.
The founder of the popular online literary magazine The Rumpus, Elliott has pushed forth from the underground and continues to gain mainstream attention, especially with writers like Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond contributing pieces to the magazine.
Yet even before his all-revealing stories made their way into the lives of readers across the nation, Elliott applied a certain level of sensitivity to what and how he chose to write, admitting, however, that some relationships suffered and even ended as a result of his blatant honesty.
"You need to have your own moral code, to be morally comfortable with the choice you make in your writing," says Elliott. "But I think that probably a lot of people don't draw those lines."
Sometimes, as a reader, it is hard to see if the lines exist in his writing at all. But within this context—Elliott's refusal to filter out the rough edges and S&M rope burns—his readers get hooked and keep turning the pages, seeking more.
Elliott not only provides detailed narratives of drug use, sex work and loneliness in his novels, short-story collections and memoir, he also sends out daily emails via The Rumpus that are often highly personal and self-reflective. The emails sometimes have the flavor of diary entries mapping out his process with coming to terms with everything from politics to making his first movie and, of course, his past relationships.
Yet his worldview isn't strictly channeled through words on paper and computer screens. Elliott recently steered his creative focus in another direction, writing and directing About Cherry, starring James Franco, Heather Graham and Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel. The film, which debuted at last year's Berlin International Film Festival, looks at just one of the varied perspectives of working in the porn industry. It will be screened as part of Elliott's appearances in San Jose sponsored by the Center for Literary Arts.
"A lot of people don't understand it. Sex work is not the result of coming from a bad home," he says. "A lot of people in the industry are really sweet. A lot aren't. They're just like everybody else."
If there is a sweeter side to the porn industry, About Cherry certainly portrays it. The film, based loosely on the life of porn actress Lorelei Lee, who co-wrote the screenplay with Elliott, About Cherry delivers a story of one young woman's experience in what appears to be a supportive and easygoing work environment—which just happened to be on the sets of porn flicks.
Questions may come up for viewers of the film, like, "Why didn't I dabble in the high-paying sex-work field when I was young and perky enough to pull it off? It doesn't look so bad!"
"It's not a recruitment film," says Elliott with a grin. "But it does ask, 'What are the reasons for not doing sex work?' Its a legitimate question."
Talk of the sex-worker industry aside, Elliott, at a young 40, seems to have the life most writers envy: an artist's loft in San Francisco, a popular magazine, several books authored and sold, and James Franco holding the film rights to The Adderall Diaries.
Next March, production starts on the screen adaptation of Happy Baby—Elliott's fictionalized autobiography, which was written, in part, under the guidance of Tobias Wolff during Elliott's 2001–03 Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. The film production will operate under a limited budget, co-produced by Dave Eggers' McSweeney's publishing company.
"Happy Baby is so dark. I'd like to see an end to this darkness," he says, adding, with a laugh, "After it's done, I want to make a comedy."
If his track record is any indication of where he'll go from here, readers can count on whatever comes next to be brutal and magnificent and heart-breaking.
"I'm not sure what comes next," he says. "I'm always racing against my own enthusiasm."
Reading, Nov. 13, 7pm; King Main Library
Film screening, Nov. 14, 8pm; SH at SJSU