Stephen Elliott will be at Nightbird Books from 5 to 6 p.m. Monday and will read from his work at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Giffels Auditorium in Old Main on the University of Arkansas campus.
By Geoffrey Brock
Stephen Elliott, one of the best young prose writers in America, will be in Fayetteville this week to read from his new book, “The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder.” The book is everything the title suggests, and far more.
Elliott began by trying to write a true-crime story about a high-profile Bay Area murder trial. But his reactions to the trial quickly became entangled with reflections on his own obsessions, and the result is a masterful mash-up of disparate themes, which ultimately coalesces into a loose but profound meditation on memory, self-knowledge and truth.
Elliott touches again here, as he often has in his half-dozen previous books, on the fallout from a childhood spent with an abusive father and a dying mother, and later as a ward of the state. (The New York Times called “Happy Baby,” his 2004 autobiographical novel, “surely the most intelligent and beautiful book ever written about juvenile detention centers, sadomasochism and drugs.”)
His father emerges as a particularly crucial figure in “The Adderall Diaries,” and Elliott’s portrait of him is hauntingly complex. It’s a painful book in many ways, and yet the clearsightedness with which Elliott approaches subjects such as his relationship with his father seems, itself, a triumph of no small proportions. It is such triumphs that make the book feel not merely harrowing but also exhilarating-even redemptive.
It would be hard to give a brief sense of the range of subject matter here without making the book sound impossibly scattered. Indeed there are so many threads that you wonder as you read how he can possibly hold them together. But he does, and so brilliantly that the book is getting the kind of reviews around the country that writers fantasize about.
Kirkus claims that “despite the luridness of the subject matter” Elliott has created “a refined, beautiful work of art” and argues that the book “deserves a place on the shelf next to such classics of uninhibited American introspection as “On the Road” and “A Fan’s Notes.” According to The San Francisco Chronicle, “you won’t find a more provocative, masterful, thrilling ride than this.” And Vanity Fair says that “he may be writing under the influence, but it’s the influence of genius.” I could quote from a dozen more equally incandescent reviews.
Given how hard it was for Elliott to write this book — he had to overcome a serious case of depression and writer’s block as well as his addiction to the prescription drug Adderall, among other things — I wanted to know if all the love he’s now getting from readers and critics had made those struggles seem worthwhile.
“If we were capable of that kind of fulfillment,” Elliott replied, “would we be writers? What would we write toward? Writing is more of a compulsion. I don’t think it can be justified or satisfied.”
That is a true writer’s answer.
“If I was really healthy and self-actualized,” he added, “I’d write for television.”