The Making of Stephen Elliott

How a product of Chicago's group homes became a local literary cause célèbre

Stephen Elliott is perched on a stool at the Uptown Bar, a roomy, frills-free joint on 17th and Capp streets that does everything in its power to remain inconspicuous. Most of the place's color and noise comes from the jukebox, which Elliott will scrutinize later, punching out the numbers for Elvis Costello's "I Want You" -- six minutes of seething bile that he considers the best breakup song ever written. But for now he's at the bar, where he and the bartender talk about writing. Elliott explains his day job at Stanford, teaching creative writing.

"It's high school kids -- rich kids from all over the world," he says, a little incredulously. "We made this trip to a Giants game, and some of the kids are sitting in the dugout because one of the girls' grandfathers owns the Giants. It's so ridiculous. These kids are so rich it's crazy. Some of them have servants, living in hotels. Wealth. Kids from Saudi Arabia, their parents running oil companies."

"And Wallace Stegner started this program?" the bartender asks.

"Yeah. It's great."

Stephen Elliott is a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, which means that a lot of aspiring poets and novelists would cheerfully gnaw off one of their limbs to be him. Last year over 1,100 writers from around the world applied to the program. Ten were chosen, and those 10 join an elite group whose alumni include Larry McMurtry, Raymond Carver, Scott Turow, and Robert Pinsky. Nobody's more surprised at this turn of events than Elliott himself, who really ought to be dead by now.

Elliott is 29 years old, and could play a victim if he wanted, though he's so laid-back about his history of drugs and abuse that even the worst stories just spill out of him like he's grown tired of them. His life essentially started at 13 -- "The fulcrum of my existence," he says -- when his father handcuffed him to a pipe. Running away from home, he lived on top of a convenience store, toyed with drugs and a gig as a stripper, and got bounced around Chicago's crowded, violent group homes. Two college degrees later, he began publishing in literary magazines and small presses. He won the Stegner Fellowship last year, at the same time his second novel, A Life Without Consequences, got selected for publication by being pulled out of the slush pile -- an event as rare as picking the trifecta at Bay Meadows.

So 15 years after being told he had no future, people now tell him he's thefuture. Scholarships, book advances, an actual salary, talk of auctioning off paperback rights, Hollywood whispering in his ear. And the best and the brightest streaming into Stanford, learning from the person they were trained to avoid.

"It's come full circle," he says laughingly. He takes a moment to savor the irony of it all. "You're gonna come to Stanford, you're gonna work hard all your life, you're gonna have all this privilege, and you come to Stanford -- and I'm gonna be your teacher."

Talk to Stephen Elliott long enough and you hear a lot of stories you're not sure how to take. They begin with him saying "It's a weird story" and they end with him saying "It was fucked up" or "It's ridiculous." The lead characters in Elliott's story arc are crack, PCP, and Placidyls; strip joints and group homes; shooting heroin and acing his LSATs. "I'd been dating this girl, and we were engaged," he recalls, "and she had this idea. She was from the other side of the tracks: Her parents were both doctors, and I was shooting a lot of heroin. She wanted to go to law school, and she wanted me to go to law school, so we could be a happy lawyer couple. I took the LSAT, and I aced it -- 98th percentile. But I aced it because I didn't want to go to law school. I didn't care."

Elliott started writing when he was 10, growing up in Chicago's North Side, the son of a writer, Neil Elliott. It was a difficult childhood; Elliott's mother died when he was young, and he felt intimidated by his father. "A total Chicago thug," he says. "He was a totally sketchy character, but a character nonetheless."

After the handcuffing incident, he spent a year on the streets -- much of it living on the roof of a convenience store. In Consequences, he describes it as a life sleeping in a cardboard box, keeping quiet, protecting himself against the wind, scavenging for food out of a nearby supermarket dumpster. There's a girl involved, too, but that's just a romantic conceit. "The love story is just a line to hang the laundry on," he says. "But the group homes exist." Most of his teen years were spent living in those homes -- it's his favorite subject as a writer, and his biggest source of resentment. "You end up with 30 kids who've been kicked out of everywhere else, so they wind up in a state-funded shelter," he recalls. "You're not allowed outside, and there's 30 kids to a room. You've got shanks, violence. Kids with tears tattooed on their faces. Kids were just dying in these places."

He failed out of school and toyed with heroin and crack, he says, until he hit his moment of clarity at age 16. "I like to think of myself as a sharp, funny guy, and all of a sudden I'm fucking stupid. So I made a decision" -- he snaps his fingers -- "and that was it." He graduated from high school after negotiating a deal with his principal -- if he got straight A's in the group home school for two years, he would get to go to the real high school, Mather High, across the street. He describes that time in his first book, a slim, street-tough novel called Jones Inn published two years ago.

Just like that. It's a writer's story; you're not sure what to make of it, and you don't want to believe half of it. But, here: "He was a very troubled young man, but eventually he cleaned up his act and resolved some of his drug problems," says Dr. Robert Bloom, director of the Jewish Children's Bureau of Chicago, which oversaw Elliott during his teen years and covered his college costs. "He's always been kind of a hustler in a way. He could get by on whatever the situation was. He lived as a ward of the state, but he never needed money for anything."

The people at the JCB and at his high schools were good enough to leave him alone, according to Elliott. "I don't credit them with my turnaround," he says. "I credit them with not fucking me up while I was turning myself around."

The Stegner Fellowship was, in his words, "something I put in the mail and just forgot. You send a piece of paper and something you've written. Thousands of people apply for this, it's ridiculous. They pay you $18,000, and you don't have to do anything. And you get all this name rec."

In an e-mail, Tobias Wolff, author of This Boy's Life and director of the Stegner Fellowship, says Elliott's work stands out "because of its restrained, sophisticated handling of highly charged material -- the struggles of children stranded and deeply wounded by their parents to retain their dignity and human sympathy and even their humor as they make their way through the various institutions and therapies and foster homes intended to restore them to society, often as not with catastrophic results." He calls Elliott "a wonderful writer, humane, surprising, funny, with a voice of his own and a canny sense of form. We were all excited and moved by his work."

Elliott will begin a 16-city tour to promote A Life Without Consequencesin the fall. In the publishing industry that's called a display of confidence, especially when the publisher is Macadam-Cage, a relatively small-potatoes San Francisco firm. Macadam-Cage editor Pat Walsh was tipped off to Elliott's book by a New York publisher who thought it was worth a look. "After the first 20 pages I knew I wanted it," Walsh says. "It was well written and honest. I see a lot of well-written stuff that isn't honest."

Walsh has bought the rights to everything Elliott writes over the next two years, and has him on a monthly stipend to keep Elliott writing. The book comes out in October with a promotional budget of $50,000 in a bid to make Elliott the next big thing. Walsh is banking on a few trends in literary fiction that Elliott's work neatly dovetails into: an ongoing fascination with memoirs, the success of stories by and about hard-living youths (like Sarah, by San Franciscan J.T. LeRoy), and a growing distaste for the irony-laced literary gamesmanship produced by the Dave Eggers set.

Instead Elliott opts for a more direct style in Consequences. He describes the group homes in this way:

The one thing every group home kid has in common is at some point they were ignored by someone. Every group home is different. Some have sports teams. Some are out in the woods five miles from the nearest hitchhiking road. Many line the housing projects and the least valuable pieces of land in the nation's biggest cities. The worst group homes are fish tanks, gladiator arenas, thirty to a room, make friends fast, hope for the best. In the worst group homes we just kill each other quickly. The state doesn't want to know, we do not want to tell.

To hear Elliott tell it, his father was doing the ignoring, but he is careful about not coming across as a victim. Besides, they're talking now. "He's not this fearsome, menacing guy anymore," he says. "He didn't know how to control his temper. He was like a child. No, not a child -- a fucked-upchild. A big chunk of our relationship is missing, and it's never going to be there.

"I'm sure he'd be happy to talk to you. Just go easy on him."

"I have a big voice," says Neil Elliott on the phone from his home in Evanston, a Chicago suburb. He does have a big voice -- a Mike Ditka, alpha-male boom. "I used to yell at my kids, and I didn't realize how much damage I was doing to them, the psychological violence. I kind of drove Steve out of the house."

Neil Elliott's listing in Contemporary Authors has him covering Vietnam for Newsweek, touring with a production of Annie Get Your Gun, and writing a handful of books, including a tome on euthanasia called The Gods of Life ("Crap," his son says), an interview with a mob insider called My Years With Capone ("Crap"), and the self-explanatory Sensuality in Scandinavia ("So bad -- total bullshit"). Neil doesn't have to be prompted to talk about his strained relationship with his son, and he has nothing but good things to say about Stephen. To hear him talk, he all but encouraged Stephen to write about that tension.

"I love my son," he says. "Whatever my son says about me is OK with me."

Your son says you handcuffed him to a pipe when he was 13.

"Oh, ha ha ha," he says. "He's always using that story. I get a laugh out of that. Steve uses that to dramatize his background, but that's OK. There's nothing wrong with that."

Here's what happened, according to Neil Elliott: "Steve had run away, and he was staying nearby on the top of a 7-Eleven. People were nagging me about it ... and I said, "How can I bring him home? The doors are always open. He can leave if he wants. Anyway, it's nice weather -- what's wrong with sleeping on top of a 7-Eleven?' So everybody's nagging me .... I went out and got him where he hung out, dragged him home, locked him -- put him in handcuffs to a pipe for 30 minutes. That's the entire history of something he's managed to turn into parental brutality. This is like 30 minutes where I decided if I wanted to institutionalize him. After 30 minutes, I said, "Fuck all the experts, I'm taking the handcuffs off, you go and do what you want.' I didn't have any control over the situation. I didn't know what was going on. Maybe today I would've handled it differently."

Certainly Neil's biased a little, but he's a big fan of his son's work, though he hasn't read all of Consequencesyet. "I'm sure he'll read it when it comes out," says Stephen Elliott. "I'm not sure how he's gonna take it. I know he's read the first chapter. He hasn't read the part where he dies and nobody goes to his funeral."

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