Are all novels autobiographical at heart? In Stephen Elliott’s new release Happy Baby, the protagonist watches his mother dying agonizingly of multiple sclerosis. As an adolescent, he flees a household marked by addiction and abuse. He becomes a ward of the court. Having learned to associate pain with affection, he grows into a young man haunted by sexual confusion. He works as a sex-show barker in Amsterdam and strives to figure out how the whole mess started.
To say that Elliott graduated from the school of hard knocks is more than just an understatement.
First of all, he left home at the tender age of thirteen, fleeing his abusive father. Then he spent what would have been his last year of junior high school homeless. Illinois state authorities eventually picked him up, but because his parents had moved he had nowhere to go except group homes. And because he kept running away, he was put into homes with problem kids, many of whom were prone to violence. So — escaping violence, he encountered more violence. That’s bound to leave its mark on an impressionable teenage mind.
Today, Elliott lectures at Stanford University and has written five books, including fiction and nonfiction. Released last October was Looking Forward to It, his political analysis on the 2004 presidential race. “I never thought I’d make a living being a writer,” he says. “It sort of just happened.”
Another understatement? Elliott has written incessantly since he was ten and has displayed seemingly inexhaustible perseverance and determination. “I was a really depressed kid, and I wrote poems to communicate,” the author says. “I have friends from the group homes who still have boxes of my poetry. I left notebooks wherever I went.”
Of course, there was the little matter of getting an education. Elliott says he flunked two years of state high school before buckling down. After graduating, he used state money set aside for wards of the court to attend a university. He also got some help from his dad, with whom he’d regained contact — and with whom he maintains an uneasy truce of a relationship.
But Elliott had a few more hard knocks coming his way. After college, “I didn’t go out and become an investment banker,” he says. Instead, he worked as a stripper in Chicago, among other occupations, and got hooked on heroin.
In spite of this — as well as an overdose that triggered a stroke and left him paralyzed for eight days — he made his determined way to Northwestern University, where he earned a master’s degree in film.
After grad school, Elliott started traveling. Seven years ago, he stopped in Northern California in need of a rest but with no intention of staying too long. “I basically just ran out of gas in San Francisco,” he says. Which is why he’s still there.
In 2001 Stanford awarded him a Stegner Fellowship, one of ten given out each year. When he completed the fellowship in 2003, the university offered him the creative-writing teaching position he now holds.
“Now I know I can do anything,” he says.
Elliott has lately entertained offers from Esquire, GQ, Harper’s, and Details, and recently visited Nevada to work on a profile of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid for The Progressive.
In Happy Baby, he confronts some harsh themes that mirror his life. Its protagonist Theo grew up in the Chicago foster-care system and returns in his thirties to visit an ex-girlfriend and learn more about himself and his past. Elliott wrote the book in reverse order, with each chapter representing another step backward in time.
Sadomasochism is a recurring theme, but it’s not the “safe, sane, and consensual” flavor that’s so popular these days. “Nobody does anything safe in that book,” Elliott says. Theo’s girlfriend, for example, is a brutally domineering fortysomething who burns the backs of Theo’s wrists with lit cigarettes when she learns of his plans to visit Chicago. The scene isn’t negotiated, and Theo takes no enjoyment from it, but he lets her do it nonetheless. That said, the act — like other painful situations in the book — is implicitly something both characters need, or at least are drawn to perform together.
Whether what happened to Theo while living in chaotic and violent foster homes created the desire for pain or not is never made clear in the novel. “It’s a case study of one,” Elliott says circumspectly — that is, one person’s relationship to pain.
He says that writing Happy Baby helped him confront many of his own fears surrounding sex, intimacy, and S/M. “I learned a lot. … I could never write a book like this again. It’s discomfort that creates art,” he notes, and discomfort is something this author has put behind him, at least as it relates to his sex life. Everything is a little easier now. For example, in one recent relationship, Elliott and his girlfriend negotiated dominant and submissive roles and maintained them 24/7.
“That’s light-years from anything I could have done before,” says Elliott, who will read at Stacey’s in San Francisco in early March. “Writing has always been therapy for me.”