It is not at all surprising that when I finally catch up with Stephen Elliott by phone, the first thing he says to me is, “So there’s a guy over here right now who’s a bondage expert. He’s going to do some stuff with my girlfriend.” Elliott is, after all, the author of the story collection My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up and without a doubt the most famous practitioner of BDSM in the literary world.
But he’s a singular figure among writers of his generation for another reason: he’s an insanely daring and successful entrepreneur. In the past five years, he’s launched one of the best-known literary websites in America, The Rumpus, and made two feature-length films—2012’s About Cherry and the forthcoming Happy Baby.
While his girlfriend was busy with the bondage expert, Elliott talked with us about his long history as an entrepreneur, or what he prefers to call a “small-time hustler.”
Do you ever feel there’s a stigma to the “entrepreneur” tag, like you’re putting business interests over creativity?
Actually, being an entrepreneur is incredibly creative. You’re always trying to solve the problem of how to keep the idea moving forward, which is exactly the same as writing. The truth is, every writer is kind of like a small business, just like every movie is its own small company.
Is there a certain temperament that makes you start these projects?
A lot of it is that I can’t work for other people. I was a temp once and my only job was to answer this phone, which only rang, like, once every ten minutes. And still, I would go and hide in the bathroom for 30 minutes. I just find it hard to care about other people’s projects.
I was talking with Arianna Huffington about joining the Huffington Post. At some point I was like, Why am I giving her all my ideas? How hard is it to start a website?
But you have to support yourself.
Yeah, but you find a way to do that yourself. In high school, I drove a cab. In my early twenties, I dealt drugs, mostly acid and pot. I’d go to Grateful Dead shows and sell balloons with nitrous. There’s nothing more capitalist than drug dealing. All those conservatives who like to talk about the virtues of the free market, they should be holding up drug dealing as a paragon! It’s pure supply and demand.
How did you decide to start The Rumpus?
The thing is, I’m only interested in things for a limited time, so I’m always in this race against my own enthusiasm. With the Rumpus, I’d just finished The Adderall Diaries, my seventh book. There was no way I was going to write another book, so I figured I’d try editing. I was talking with Arianna Huffington about joining the Huffington Post. I had all these ideas and at some point I was like, Why am I giving her all my ideas? How hard is it to start a website?
Then the problem became: how am I going to keep this going? So I was talking to this guy in a café and I was telling him about this idea I had for a book club where members get the book a month early and get to talk with the author at the end of the month, and I got up and walked four blocks to [the indie publishing house] McSweeneys and I got them to commit to the idea. We got 500 members to sign up.
Above: Elliott and James Franco on the set of About Cherry; below: a scene from the film, which co-starred Ashley Hinshaw, Dev Patel and Lili Taylor
Is that how you started “Letters in the Mail”, where people pay five bucks a month to receive a letter from an author?
Yeah, if I have an idea, I tell everybody, “Hey, this is what I’m gonna do.” Then you have to do it. With “Letters in the Mail,” I thought of it one day and announced it the next morning. And the next thing you know, or a few months later anyway, we’ve got 2,500 subscribers and I’m talking about it on CBS with Charlie Rose.
How did you move into film?
James Franco optioned The Adderall Diaries and invited me to the premiere for 127 Hours. I told him he should let me write the script for the book and he was like, ‘Feel free.’ So I sent it to him. I had only been waiting ten days, but I just had this feeling, like, ‘This is not gonna work for me. I’m going to show these guys how to make a movie.’ Which is totally crazy, but that’s how I felt. I’d had this idea for a screenplay about a girl who comes to San Francisco and gets into porn and I wrote the script for About Cherry with Lorelei Lee, who knew that world. So then I asked James Franco to be in the movie. He kind of owed me, because I’d written the Adderall script. Once you have a big star attached, it’s easier to get other stars, then to get producers who can find investors. We wound up shooting the movie for $550,000, which isn’t a lot for a feature.
A lot of people have more talent than I do, but they don’t have the ability to get stuff done.
Are you ever amazed that, as a writer with no film experience, you got the movie made?
Well, look: nobody’s going to hire you to be a first-time director. You’ve got to fight your way into that job. With the new movie, I didn’t have any big stars, so I had to do a Kickstarter campaign. In the end, I’m just a small-time hustler.
Maybe it feels that way because you have a big vision.
I guess. A lot of being an entrepreneur does come down to wanting more. I always want more: more audience, more movies, more books. A lot of people have more talent than I do, but they don’t have the ability to get stuff done.
You also have to be able to inspire other people, to get them to buy into your dream.
Fortunately, I have a huge email list and I send them a Daily Rumpus email most days and when I ask them for help, they get behind stuff. That’s a big part of all this. I’m better at asking people for something than most other people. And that goes back to being a homeless kid. I got used to asking people for stuff really early on. That’s more important than the size of your audience, even. You have to find a way to ask people for the things you need. I’m not saying that’s noble. But it is effective.