Raisin' a Rumpus: an Interview with Stephen Elliott

Ransom Riggs

There are many short biographies of writer Stephen Elliot floating around the internet, but this one, from the Chicago Tribune, is my favorite:

Elliott has been a ward of the State of Illinois, a stripper and a law school admissions counselor. Now, he's becoming a literary success. He is starting to get some serious book buzz and was just named a finalist for the New York Public Library's Young Lions Fiction Award to be announced this spring. He's a player in the hipster, cult publishing world of writer Dave Eggers and his McSweeney's Quarterly, and it was Eggers himself who edited "Happy Baby" ("Surely the most intelligent and beautiful book ever written about juvenile detention centers, sadomasochism and drugs," said an excerpt from a New York Times review printed on the cover.) In short, in some circles, Elliott's got -- or is, at least, getting -- rock star status.

Now, after all the excitement that's been generated about Elliott's literary career, he's gone and done something few could have anticipated: started a website. Therumpus.net isn't your run-of-the-mill content aggregator/blog, though: it features original reviews, interviews and essays on art, culture and whatever Elliott finds interesting by writers of literary merit, and blogs by long-established icons like Rick Moody (who wrote The Ice Storm), Jerry Stahl (Permanent Midnight) and others. But enough of my yakkin' -- I'll let Stephen Elliott tell you about it himself.

Ransom: Who is the site for? What's the angle?

Stephen Elliott: The site's for a lot of people. It's for people who are overeducated and underemployed. People who want to kill time at work and want an intelligent website that's always being updated (we update fifteen to twenty times a day). A lot of these people are visiting sites like The Huffington Post or The Daily Beast because they don't know where else to go. They're reading rants and they're reading different takes on the same "story of the day." A lot of those people would rather read a short interview with somebody interesting or a book review or a really well written short personal essay.

The vast majority of web magazines are obsessed with the same stories: Brad and Angelina, Britney Spears, a plane landing in the Hudson River. I think there's a sizable population of web surfers who want to be introduced to things they haven't heard of yet. They might not know who Zak Smith is, or The Twisted Monk, or Parry Gripp. They almost certainly haven't heard of any of the musicians that Rick Moody is blogging about. Almost all mainstream book coverage revolves around books that are being heavily hyped by their publishers. But we'll review books that are ten months old that didn't get a big marketing push. We consider any book out for less than a year to be a new book. And we'll often do appreciations of lesser known, older books. And we'll review movies that don't have big theatrical runs.

We're primarily a cultural magazine but if everybody else is writing about something, if it's already on the front of the Huffington Post, then we're not interested. We do still run interviews with people that are more well known, like Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Soderbergh, Van Jones, and Margaret Cho.

Also, there's very few web magazines that take writing seriously. There are some very good online literary journals and blogs. But they're not updated often enough for a lot of people. Boingboing is great, but Boingboing is really a blog, and more into art and design. We link to their stuff a lot. Arts and Letters Daily is great, but AL Daily is really just a very good aggregator. There are very few frequently updated literary websites. Everybody's obsessed with breaking news, or creating news out of things that aren't newsworthy, and salacious (misleading) headlines. We'll publish an essay with no news in it, like Dan Chaon's essay about his wife Shiela just because the writing is so good.

Ransom: Some of our readers might be familiar with the Rumpus' bloggers, and some might not. Tell us a little about their backgrounds, and why you wanted to work with them.

Stephen Elliott: The majority of people writing for The Rumpus are literary writers and lovers of literature. Some of our writers, like Michelle Tea, Rick Moody, Jerry Stahl, etc. are very well known. I wanted to work with them because I love their writing. Over the last four years I've done a lot of political organizing. I would organize these big literary events as fundraisers for progressive congressional candidates, or as voter registration events in Ohio. Doing that I met a ton of writers (all literary writers are liberals).

When I started approaching people (like, six weeks ago) they knew from my political work that if I put something together I'll really try hard to make it work. I think they were looking for a way to publish good writing online that they could live with. They could all have gotten blogs over at The Huffington Post, but then their beautiful essay on Robert Hass might get lost beneath some guy from Law and Order ranting about what he thinks should happen in Iraq.

So when I told them about The Rumpus they were really excited to write for an online magazine, a literary journal in many ways, that follows the rules of an internet newspaper. A place that cares about culture and language and publishing original articles that are more timeless than timely but is ready to make it work in the context of the new medium.

Ransom: One of the central challenges of blogging day after day is coming up with original content. How are you going to avoid the internet echo-chamber effect and keep the site fresh?

Stephen Elliott: Well, that's not hard. We have zero interest in the Internet echo chamber. In fact, that's one of the main reasons we started The Rumpus. The web was supposed to diversify content, and it has as far as giving everyone a platform and all the blogs that have been started. But in terms of mainstream magazines it's had the exact opposite effect. Salon and Slate have some very good writing, but they're really all competing over the same stories with The Daily Beast, Gawker, and the Huffington Post. It's like everybody's fighting to be the People Magazine of the Internet.

Sometimes I think we're like Rolling Stone in the late 1960s. Rolling Stone was writing about cultural trends that weren't being followed closely by the big magazines (though there were some other great magazine like Crawdaddy). It's still very early for internet magazines. I think between Arts and Letters Daily (which is a great aggregate website) and The Huffington Post and all the others, there's an ocean of content that's really being ignored. I mean, just look at all the great books that aren't being reviewed anywhere.

We have a lot of contributors, a lot of volunteers. I'm not really worried about coming up with original content. And I tell volunteers that are working on writing up interesting links that I'd rather they come in for four hours and not link to anything then link to something mediocre or "kind of interesting." I'd rather have a slow day and put up fewer articles, links, and blogs, than put up crappy stuff.

Ransom: You're a novelist and you've written for magazines, literary journals -- how do you approach blog-entry-writing differently from other forms of writing?

Stephen Elliott: Well, the first thing is that we're not a blog. The Rumpus.net is composed of three sections. The Around The Web section is all aggregate content. The coolest stuff from around the web that we think our readers will be interested in.

The second section is Rumpus Originals. This is primarily reviews and interviews, but also personal essays. Usually in the 1,500 to 2,000 word range, but sometimes as short as 800 words or as long as 4,300 words (so far).

The third section is the blogs. But the blogs are like columns. We won't have more than a dozen bloggers. Each blogger only blogs about once a week, sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less. And the blogs are about something. For example, Rick Moody is writing about music, Jerry Stahl is writing about aging, and Michelle Tea is writing about Paris. One of the blogs is a very funny advice column. None of our bloggers are writing about what soap they're using (not that there's anything wrong with that). And the blogs aren't political rants about anything we might have an opinion on. When I'm angry about something and want to vent I write it up for The Huffington Post, but we're not doing that kind of stuff on The Rumpus.

I write "editor's notes" from time to time, but my role with The Rumpus is primarily as an editor. And that's very similar, for me, to the way I write novels and creative non-fiction. I'm a compulsive re-writer. When I'm editing someone else's piece I just start reading it over and over again the way I would my own stuff. Thinking about how I can tighten it down and smooth it out and make it a leaner, easier read.

Ransom: I read a piece you wrote a while back called "Surviving a Month Without Internet." You make a convincing argument that many of us have more internet in our daily routines than is useful, or perhaps even healthy, and that being addicted to "continual bursts of small information" has a negative effect on the attention span. How do you reconcile that with starting a blog? Is there a way to be a blogger and run a blog and still maintain a healthy (whatever that means) relationship with the internet? (Because if you've found some kind of zen middle ground there, I'd love to hear about it!)

Stephen Elliott: Ha! No, I can't really reconcile that. I'm not at all of the opinion that the internet is a healthy thing or a good thing. But it exists. It is. Being against the Internet is like being against air.

I spent most of the last two years avoiding being online. I was working on what I think is my best book, it's called The Adderall Diaries and it's half-memoir/half true-crime. I worked on it seven days a week and I needed to not be distracted. I put everything into that book and when it was done I didn't really feel like starting another book right away. I did a bunch of organizing for Obama. Then that was over. I wanted to get into editing. I was actually talking to Arianna Huffington about being an editor for the Huffington Post. I had a lot of ideas and I met with Arianna and gave her pages of stuff I'd been thinking about. Then I emailed her more stuff. And then I thought, "Why am I giving her all my ideas?" I mean, I knew The Huffington Post would never go in the direction I wanted to go anyway. So I decided to start The Rumpus. Now I'm online like 12 hours a day.

I think if you're writing full time, especially fiction, you should probably stay off the Internet and do your work. But if you're working for some mega-corporation you should be online all day long. I spent years as a temp. I would have been a much happier person if I had Internet back then. I would have loved The Rumpus when I was a temp.

Ransom: Got anything exciting coming up on the Rumpus you'd like to tell us about? What should we be looking out for?

Stephen Elliott: Well, the big thing is that we're launching this week. We're stepping out of Beta and into Version 1. The site's going to be so much easier to navigate. [Ed's note: therumpus.net is now officially launched.]

There's so many exciting things coming up it's ridiculous. This is the great thing about being an editor; there's something exciting almost every day. This week we're running an awesome interview with Steven Soderbergh, a review of Ethan Canin's America America, and a very funny essay about books that changed the world. Also, February 5, we're having our launch party in New York, featuring Kristen Shaal, Michael Showalter, Will Sheff, Jonathan Ames, Andrew Sean Greer, Starlee Kine, Timoth Bracy, Beth Wawerna, and James Frey. Here's more info on that: http://therumpus.net/newyorkevent3.htm

Ransom: Now that you're positioned to become an internet tastemaker, I have a few blog-nerd questions for you:

"¢ What blogs do you read?

Stephen Elliott: When I'm interested in political blogs my first stop is always Talking Points Memo. I love Boingboing, Goodjobbb (http://goodjobbb.wordpress.com/), Bitchy Jones (http://bitchyjones.wordpress.com/), Metafilter, The Stranger Slog (http://slog.thestranger.com/blogs/slog/?hp), Maud Newton, and Book Forum which is one of the few print magazines doing anything right online.

"¢ Do you ever vlog?

Stephen Elliott: No. I don't think that's in my future. Though I could imagine someone else doing a vlog on The Rumpus.

"¢ What's your favorite LOLcat?

Stephen Elliott: You know, I'm not way into LOLcat, but I love Parry Gripp's Spaghetti Cat. That guy is a YouTube genius.

"¢ Twilight or Harry Potter?

Stephen Elliott: No, please no.

"¢ The Amazon Kindle: FTW or epic fail?

Stephen Elliott: I'm going to say FTW. Not that I'm rooting for it, or have ever used one. But I think it's going to fly. Even if it failed it wouldn't be an epic fail, because Amazon will survive.

Ransom: Thanks for your time, Stephen.

Stephen Elliott: Thank you! This is the first Rumpus interview. I haven't learned my lessons yet on what I should or shouldn't say in these things.