Stephen Elliott is a literary hustler. He's been published by various presses, curates a reading series, and runs a website that focuses on literary culture (therumpus.net). His new book, The Adderall Diaries, is a brilliantly executed memoir disguised as a true crime book. It weaves a disturbing story involving his father together with details from a 2007 murder trial involving renowned computer programmer Hans Reiser, who was accused of murdering his Russian bride, Nina Sharanova. Also at play are Elliott's struggles with both the drug Adderall and his own writer's block.
But the story gets really wonky when Sean Sturgeon, Nina's S&M-practicing ex-lover, confesses to "eight and a half" unrelated murders. Elliott, a writer who has boldly chronicled his own S&M adventures many times, was then hired by ABC's 20/20 to try to make sense of it all. Sturgeon was someone that Elliott knew through the San Francisco S&M scene, but that connection proved to be merely a distraction. "I think 20/20 was very disappointed that S&M wasn't a bigger factor in the trial," Elliott told me via email. "So was 48 Hours. Both those shows tried very hard to link sadomasochism to Nina's murder, but there was no link. Her ex-boyfriend had a history in the BDSM community but he had nothing to do with her murder. It was kind of disgusting to watch, especially behind the scenes at 20/20."
With the media trying to latch onto a sensational angle, they got plenty of help from the defendant, Hans, who argued with his own lawyers and alienated the courtroom. "He didn't have a single character witness at the trial," says Elliott. "Even his mother called him selfish from the stand. Hans is a guy who has never done anything nice for anybody. I don't think he's capable of feeling guilt. When I visited him in jail he kept talking about technicalities, how so and so misstated something or got a date wrong. Finally I said, 'Who cares about any of that if you killed your wife?' At which point he ended the interview."
Sociopathic tendencies spring up closer to home for Elliott as well. The Adderall Diaries is bookended by stories of his own father, a man who gave him up as a teenager and later harassed him by panning his books on Amazon.com.
The first sentence in the book is "My father may have killed a man." Elliott then relates a story about his father being beaten up by another man in his neighborhood in 1970. Many years afterward, Elliott's father—who was a writer himself—implied in an unpublished memoir that he later killed the man. The truth of this matter remains hazy. "When I confronted my father in my book it was the first time I had had a real conversation with him in five years," says Elliott. "Writing the book I had come to a new understanding of my relationship with my father and I had actually decided not to confront him about the murder. What I wanted to do instead was take some of the poison out of our relationship. It didn't go as well as I hoped and I ended up confronting him anyway. I had looked into the murder and decided it was false so I was surprised that he intimated it was true. But I still don't know the truth of it. I'm not sure I ever will."
Bonus Questions with Stephen Elliott
MERCURY: A big part of this book focuses on your struggle with writer's block. Do you feel like this is something you might struggle with for a long time?
STEPHEN ELLIOTT: I probably will. I don't know. Probably every writer struggles with writer's block from time to time. It's interesting you bring that up. This was supposed to be a true crime book, but it's really a book about writing and being a writer. I've been writing since I was 10. I used to cover my walls with poetry. I wrote compulsively through high school and college. It's how I process my emotions and figure out exactly how I feel about things. Part of my writer's block, I think, was forgetting why I write. When I couldn't write I had no outlet for my emotions and no tools for making sense of the world. I felt like I was going to explode.
You've done some interesting promotional things for this book. How many people signed up to read the advance reader copies? [In program called the Lending Library, Elliott offered free advance copies of The Adderall Diaries to readers who make less than $20,000 annually—Eds.]
Four hundred people signed up to receive advance copies of The Adderall Diaries. The deal was they got the book for a week and were responsible for forwarding the book on to the next reader. It was amazing, actually, to get so much email and have so much contact with people who were reading my book. I never think of it as "marketing" or "promotion," though I know it is. I'm a writer and I want people to read my work, and that, more than anything, was the point of the Lending Library.
You've invited people to set up some readings in their homes while you're on tour. Why did you want to do that?
This was an outgrowth of the Lending Library, kind of. It was only a couple of weeks before the book was released when I decided I should do a larger book tour. I already had some bookstore readings set up, like at Powell's, and I could have added more. Instead I sent an email to the 400 people that participated in the Lending Library asking if they would like to host book events in their homes. It just seemed more intimate than a bookstore reading, and it was people I already connected with, who had already read the book, inviting their friends. I'm pretty excited about it. I'm going to a lot of places where I wouldn't normally go on book tour, like Richmond, Virginia, and Lincoln, Nebraska.