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The Making of Stephen Elliott 

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

Wednesday, Aug 8 2001
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 the future. 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.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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