Stephen Elliott's Journey from Sadomasochism to Stanford

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Everybody has a hard childhood," said local author Stephen Elliott in an interview with The Daily Californian, but few have had a childhood quite like Elliott's. From growing up in abusive state-run group homes in Illinois to driving cabs in high school, to being a stripper out of college, Elliott's journey to become an author has been quite a remarkable one.

"Happy Baby," Elliott's fourth novel, details the life story of Theo, a boy subjected to physical, sexual, and psychological violence as a ward of the court in Illinois.

"Happy Baby," recently released in paperback, merited praise by "The New York Times Book Review" as "surely the most intelligent and beautiful book ever written about juvenile detention centers, sadomasochism and drugs."

So how did Elliott overcome such obstacles placed by the state of Illinois and become the successful author of four novels, a non-fiction work accounting the 2004 presidential race, editor of a political anthology, and a Wallace Stegner Fellow and lecturer at Stanford?

Perhaps it is because of Elliott's talent that author ZZ Packer referred to when calling Elliott "the most amazing autodidact I know."

Interviewed in Muddy Waters Café in San Francisco's Mission District, Stephen Elliott told The Daily Californian about his motivation to start writing when he was 10 years old: "I was writing because I was very unhappy with my home life ... And I had a violent father who was not open to me expressing it. The one time I told a school counselor that I got beat up by my dad, the counselor contacted my father, and so that didn't work out. So my only real way to express these things was to write them."

Most of Elliott's craft is self-taught. "I learn through immersion. I just have total ADD, I can't just sit and listen to someone and learn," he said. As one of very few Stegner Fellows without an MFA, Elliott said that when immersed in the program with great writers he was a "kind of a chameleon."

Although Elliott's non-fiction book "Looking Forward to It" is quite funny and light-hearted, Elliott likes his fiction to be dark. "I like writing that gets to the core. And I think a lot of times you can't really get to that core if you're trying to be funny ... I'm trying to write something true, something honest," Elliott said.

Honesty is indeed a hallmark of Elliott's work. When asked about his writing about doing drugs and practicing S&M, Elliott responded, "It makes me just much more comfortable being open. People can't hurt your feelings by finding things out about you if you just put it all out there. And what you find too, when you write about doing drugs or having weird sexual encounters with bizarre women and putting yourself in dangerous situations: nobody cares, nobody is really going to think badly of you."

Furthermore, when asked about why he likes San Francisco, Elliott told The Daily Californian: "You can be a total weirdo in this city, and it doesn't bother anybody. Even while the rest of the country is going to hell, people in San Francisco can do whatever they want ... We can dance around naked and nobody cares. We can smoke pot if we want to. San Francisco is years ahead of the rest of the country."

Elliott continued, praising San Francisco's intellectual society. "There's a literary culture in San Francisco that I don't think anywhere can rival: look at [Dave] Eggers, J.T. Leroy, Michael Chabon, Andrew Greer, Julie Orringer, ZZ Packer, the list goes on forever ... There's very few publishers, it's not like New York...It's all just writers who want to live here, and there's no reason for them to do it professionally, except that it's a good place to write. You have to sacrifice a lot to live here, but it's worth it," he said.

And Stephen Elliott sacrificed a lot to get to where he is. He will never forget the emotional source of his fiction: the brutal state homes of his youth. The first page of "Happy Baby" ominously reads, "Dedicated to the state of Illinois."


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