Stephen Elliott


Stephen Elliott is the author of five books including Happy Baby, a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lion Award as well as a best book of 2004 in, Newsweek, New City Chicago, and the Village Voice. He is a contributing writer for The Believer, the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsday, the Village Voice, and McSweeney’s, and his work has been featured in Esquire, the New York Times, GQ, Best American Non-Required Reading, Best American Erotica, and Best Sex Writing 2006. Stephen Elliott lives in San Francisco. Visit him online at

My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up

"Any true love story, if told with the urgency and animal intelligence of love, isn’t for the fainthearted. On every page of this profound, distilled work of art, Stephen Elliott wrestles with the unknown and unspoken essences of love, and articulates that unknown so beautifully, with such clear-eyed fearlessness — imagine a glass of pure water with one drop of blood hanging in its center, about to dissolve — then drink it and be transformed." — Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City

"Stephen Elliott knocks my fishnet stockings off. His work is strange and really smart. And sad. And full of the tenderness that comes when you realize you are on your own in the world. This is alarming and terrific stuff." — Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler's Wife


An Interview with Stephen Elliott

Stephen Elliott was between jobs and living in San Francisco when he sent two novels to the slush pile at MacAdam/Cage publishers. He didn’t know any other writers, aside from a few slam poets in the local scene. Two months later, both novels had been accepted, and he had won a coveted Stegner Fellowship at Stanford for the years 2001–2003. Today, Elliott has six published books, the most recent of which is My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up (Cleis). His work has appeared in Esquire,, the New York Times, and Best Sex Writing 2006, among other places. He’s the founder of the Progressive Reading Series and the executive director of LitPAC, a literary political action committee. Regina Marler spoke with Stephen Elliott at a café in San Francisco.

RM: There’s been so much discussion lately about the slippery lines between fiction and memoir. I see you’ve titled your introduction, “This could have been a memoir.”

A: Every sexual act is true. It is a sexual memoir. There are some composite characters, though, and a few things I made up. The book is essentially non-fiction.

RM: If it’s non-fiction, it’s very brave.

A: This is bravery out of necessity. The government gives us no choice but to be brave. There’s no closet anymore. They’re smoking us out. There are educational S/M websites being shut down now by Attorney General Gonzales using these obscure anti-obscenity laws. If we don’t take credit for our sexual identities, we don’t have any political power. When you self-censor, when you do [the government’s] job for them, they win. I’m not going to let these people set my agenda.

When you publish, it’s like a drag queen walking out of the house for the first time with a dress on. When I wrote Happy Baby, none of my friends knew I was into S/M. Sometimes people make stupid jokes, but overall it’s a big relief having them know. And I believe in being open. It’s very important to be open sexually and not ashamed.

RM: How did you get involved with LitPAC?

A: LitPAC started out as a reading series I was hosting monthly to raise money for political candidates I liked. Sometimes it had more to do with who they were running against. And the readings were so successful I started doing it nationally. Then it had to become a PAC since it got so big.

RM: I have to say, looking at your rough childhood — the group homes, the abuse — I don’t see a lot of early encouragement for you to write.
A: I started writing at about ten or twelve. I’d write poetry and tape it to my walls. Really awful rhymed poetry about what an unhappy child I was. I started writing because I was bursting — I really needed to communicate and express all these feelings. I had a grandmother who couldn’t stop talking. It was like a medical condition. I always thought this was sort of the same thing. The poems just got longer and longer — six-, eight-page poems, and in the end they weren’t poems anymore. They were personal narratives. All my novels are loose memoirs — they’re all based heavily on my own experiences.

RM: How long does it take for an experience to make the leap from life to art — at least, to something you’re ready to write about?

A: Well, it depends. Nerve was running a “First Times” issue, so I wrote “First Things First” — about my first S/M encounter — for that. But the last story in the collection, “Just Always Be Good.” was written the day after the events happened. I mention getting on a plane — and I actually wrote the story on the plane, on my way to New York. That piece was published as non-fiction.

RM: So is your allegiance to the truth — to your experiences as you remember them — or to the story you shape from those experiences?

A: My allegiance is to the reader. I shape narratives that are not exactly true, but that are interesting to the reader.

RM: Tell me about the writing of the title story, “My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up.”

A: This is a hundred-percent true story. I wrote it the next day, or when I finally got out of bed. It was an intensely erotic relationship. This woman was really mean. There were no lines. It’s not like we would play and then go to a movie or talk politics. And we were together for a year and a half. We were broken up for most of that time. It was so extreme. She said the meanest things. I wrote the story instantly. I published it on Nerve. She read it, and we broke up again immediately.