An Interview with Augusten Burroughs
Augusten Burroughs's 2000 novel, Sellevision, was well-received, but his 2002 memoir, Running With Scissors, garnered the kind of critical applause and stratospheric sales that most writers pursue like a mirage. Chronicling his barely-survived youth with an Anne Sexton-wannabe mom, a Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? dad, and an adoptive father/ therapist who divines prophecy "reading" feces, Scissors is disturbingly hilarious and sears itself into the reader's brain.
This year's sequel, Dry, records Burroughs' years as a precariously inebriated Manhattan ad scribe, his stint in rehab (replete with smock-wearing counselors and mandatory sing-alongs), and the excruciating helplessness he feels watching his best friend, Pighead, succumb to AIDS. Scabrously funny, Dry is Burrough's unflinching look at his addictions and his refusal to let a surreal past overtake his hopeful future.
Burroughs has forgotten our interview is today, and I'm pretty sure my call wakes him from a nap. In spite of this, he is genuinely warm, reflexively articulate, and funnier than hell. We discuss his unexpected success, the controversies surrounding the memoir genre, how literary fame is "fourth tier," his devotion to Elizabeth Berg, his affinity for Greek families, his overlooked similarities to JT LeRoy, and his Thanksgiving with Bret Easton Ellis.
Litsa Dremousis: Sellevision did well, but did you anticipate the runaway success of Running With Scissors and Dry?
Augusten Burroughs: No, not at all. I'm always prepared for the worst. I was prepared to have the book come out, sell seven copies, and have to keep working in advertising, so it was just great that it was received so well and by such a huge audience. I mean, it allowed me to continue writing and not have to publish myself at Kinko's.
One of the things I've noticed in reading interviews with you is that you seem remarkably un-tortured by the whole process, like you seem really grateful to be doing this.
Oh, I'm totally grateful, because I was not born to a life of privilege--
That's kind of an understatement.
--so I'm definitely grateful for it, and I'm grateful for a lot of things. One is not being a drunk wreck. Or losing all four limbs in some ridiculous East Village bus accident that I was so destined for.
It surprises me that with so many writers, their default position is to compare you to David Sedaris [Me Talk Pretty One Day, Naked]--and I think you're both equally brilliant--but your background sort of reminds me of JT LeRoy [Sarah, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things]. Have you read him?
No, I've not. I've read part of one thing. It seems good. I haven't read the rest of it, though.
Stylistically, you guys are day and night, but the thing that you seem to have in common is that your early childhood stories are so similar, that your mothers were mentally ill, you were sexualized early--
--and clearly, you were both born to write, but his stories take such a mordantly dark turn, and yours don't. One of the things I noticed at Bumbershoot [the annual Seattle arts festival] is that people seem completely comfortable with you. Sure, they've read the stories, and you've got toilet dippings and all that, but it seems as if it allows people to feel that they can approach you, because if you could tell your whole story, people feel...
Well, that's what it is, really. I can't possibly be unapproachable with my background. What are people possibly going to be ashamed of or embarrassed of? I mean, I think people might think, oh, I don't want to approach the big famous author because it's embarrassing, but then they think for two seconds about it and realize, this is, like, a toilet bowl reader.
My friend who was at the reading with me was laughing--I used to work as a publicist, so it's not the celebrity factor at all--but I was actually stammering when I met you at Bumbershoot, and she thought that was hilarious.
It was the lack of climate control in the room.
But if you meet a writer you look up to, there is this thing where you don't want to bug them.
You said that at Bumbershoot, and I've read that in every interview...
I have an Elizabeth Berg obsession...
Do you think that throws people, though? Because that's exactly who people are not expecting you to say.
Most people who are surprised by it haven't read her. It's because her covers are really girly and embarrassing; I don't read them with the covers on in public. There's a dressing table with a pink hairbrush on it...
There's a lot of pastel.
Exactly, a lot of pastel action, so it's not something you want to be seen in public with. But, she's very, very truthful. If you read her stuff, she's incredibly truthful. I mean, she writes typically about suburban moms and their lives, so it's not exactly mirroring my life, but she's so honest, so, so honest, and so unpretentious, and so graceful and simple. I just love her stuff.
But I also thought "American Psycho" was hilarious.
That's funny, because someone saw me reading Sellevision the other day, and he was unfamiliar with Sellevision, but he saw that Bret Easton Ellis had blurbed it, and he was like, "Oh my god, Bret Easton Ellis!" I think he's one of those writers who, to this day, divides readers: people either love him or hate him. I don't know if you're into Vanity Fair, but have you read the latest George Clooney profile?
No, I haven't, but I have it sitting right here.
Out of nowhere, the writer injects this barb against Ellis, how at some point there was a "cultural hiccup" and Bret Easton Ellis came to the forefront. It just seemed, like, ouch, but he [Ellis] seems equipped to handle it.
I'm sure he's fine. I mean, I don't know him that well -- I've met him a few times -- he's very gracious, a gracious, nice guy. He's a very good cook.
Really? Have you been to his place for dinner?
Years ago. I had Thanksgiving over there.
The mind reels.
I kept an eye on the cutlery. Do you mind my asking who else was there?
Let's see. There was another writer, Lawrence David, who wrote a book called, Beetle Boy and he's also written a collection of children's stories now. I'm trying to think, I don't think Candace Bushnell [Sex and the City] was there, but she might have been.
That would have been fascinating. One of things I wanted to ask you about is that in Scissors and Dry you write about your love of New York and how, in many ways, you think it's the place where everyone who doesn't fit in fits in. Why do you think that so many writers are drawn to New York City? It's a cliche that's so true, and it doesn't seem to shift over generations.
I think writers tend to be experience junkies, and I think they also tend to want to be on the outside looking in. New York City is a place where you can lock yourself up in your little studio apartment, and not go outside at all, and not feel in the slightest guilty about it. And yet, you know that if you wanted to, there's every conceivable thing going on right outside the door, but you don't have to go. It's sort of like falling asleep when your parents are having a party?
There's something sort of comforting about it. It's just all going on around you, you can watch it, you can feel it, you know it's happening. So, for a lot of people, you're able to be in the midst of it, without necessarily having to be in the midst of it. That's one thing. The other thing is that there is so much here that you can do and research and meet people. There's just a lot more opportunities to experience various things here than there are in Duluth or, you know, Omaha.
We [A.B. and his boyfriend, Dennis] also live in Massachusetts, and we're moving full-time to western Massachusetts at the end of next year. Because I crave living in a more suburban area, you know, more rural.
Just a little bit more even-keel?
Yeah, I've wanted that for awhile, actually, but especially now that the books were successful. It's just weird, I just really want sort of to be left alone in my little house. And I want a refrigerator that has an icemaker. You know, like the kind from the '70s? The double refrigerator? That's all I want. And a washer and dryer. Because I've lived in one room my entire life, working at the same table that you use to pay bills at and eat at. It's going to be nice to have actual space.
Sure. I want to ask you about literary fame. One of the things that cracks me up about literary fame is that it's almost like being famous, but not.
It seems like there are definitely people who are going to recognize you. One of the things that was amazing about your Bumbershoot reading is that, when it's that warm in Seattle, it's really hard to get people indoors, but there were two or three hundred people on a ninety-degree day at the end of summer who came to hear you. But still, it's relative. People like Eggers, Franzen, Sedaris, you -- writers who really have name recognition and who people are going to know -- you're famous, but yet not, and I don't mean that pejoratively.
That's exactly true. I write about that in Magical Thinking. There's a story called, "I'm Going to Live Forever", which, as you know, are the lyrics from Fame. You've seen that, right?
Oh, god yes.
I talk about that, how it really is a fourth tier kind of celebrity thing, and how to most of the world, you're absolutely nobody, but to a few, you're somebody, and you're really somebody. I get approached, but I think it's because with Running With Scissors, I got a lot, a lot, a lot [of press]. I was on the cover of a lot of newspapers. I was on the cover of USA Today for every single day for a month. I was on the masthead, so I tend to get recognized a lot, and in weird places. It's always flattering, and it's always odd. It's always at the worst possible time. [Laughs.]
It seems as if it would be jarring, to have someone act as if they know you. A lot of actors say, "Oh, I didn't anticipate this," but still, you know that if your face is out there, that's part of it. People are going to see your face. But with writing, you're not necessarily going to anticipate that.
Right, you don't. A lot of writers, I think, bitch and moan about that, "Oh, I didn't want that, I didn't sign up for that, I just want to write," and I just feel like, well, that's the way it is. There's a lot about being "A Writer" that has nothing to do with writing. That's one thing I've discovered. You've got to meet with the sales force, and you've got to have all these luncheons, and be gracious, and you've got to give a lot of presentations and you've got to give a lot of speeches, and you've got to be on tour.
A book tour isn't glamorous. I mean, it's definitely fun in the abstract, when you think, "I'm on a book tour." But the reality of it is, you're in the middle of coach, next to a screaming child who wants to bite you...
And the hotel rooms...
And it's a job. It's like any other job, like being a pharmaceutical salesman. You know, you're just travelling around. So, a lot of being a writer doesn't have anything to do with writing. It's ironic -- I have to squeeze the books in, even though that's what it's all about. I have to squeeze it in, I have to wedge stuff in here.
Sure. I interviewed Sherman Alexie a couple of years ago, and stylistically, you don't have much in common, but your childhoods were both so epic, for lack of a better way of putting it. That's his take on writing, too. Okay, it's grueling and the book tours can sometimes suck and it's interview, interview, interview, and on the other hand, like he said, it's a lot better than being poor on the reservation.
And that's what he keeps in mind...
What are the alternatives...
I was in advertising for years. That was cushy, you know? It's pretty cushy in a lot of ways, but I hated it. Right before Running With Scissors came out, like the month before, we had the galleys, it had the "buzz," people liked it, but I'm just thinking, the chances are so slim that this book is really going to get any attention at all, especially because it's got the gay content, that I thought, I can't do advertising any more, so I was downloading all these PDF applications from community colleges. And I thought, I'll become a paramedic. I'll get a two-year associate degree, if I can get in.
Did you have any plans to revert back to the hair salon dream [detailed in Running With Scissors]?
No, that was all about my name. I wanted to put my name on the shelf. It was never really about hair. I would be horrible at that, because I'm not that precise. [In a sweet voice to his puppy: "Leave the vacuum cleaner alone, Cal. Come on."] Pardon me, I'm housebreaking him, and he's discovered the Hoover.
No problem. I know everyone always says, "Oh, I laughed out loud," but there are parts of all of your books where I would just find myself rolling, and inevitably, it would be when I was in a coffeehouse or something. When you talk about the Vidal Sassoon dream, what seems so absurd is that you were pretty much a kid. Where did the impetus come from originally, in Massachusetts?
One does wonder about that. I don't know, I think it came from [the fact] my life was so dark, and I touched on that, a little bit, in Running With Scissors. My parents -- before my mother became involved with Dr. Finch -- their relationship was incredibly dark. We lived in the woods, the house had a lot of glass, so we looked at the trunks of trees, and it was nestled. It was very, very dark. My parents had this relationship that was really terrifying. I mean, the level of hatred that they had, and the level of physical abuse -- my mother would beat up my father, basically -- and I think I was drawn to images on television that were bright and reflective. And shallow, very superficial. I was sort of skating along the surface. When I wrote Sellevison, it was a similar situation. Pighead [his best friend and ex-lover, poignantly remembered in Dry] had died -- I don't talk about this in Dry -- but toward the end of Dry, the part where I had alcohol poisoning, all I could do was watch QVC and the Home Shopping Network for, like, eighteen hours a day.
Right. You talked about that at the reading.
I guess I did. It was that same thing: let me become absorbed with what is shallow. Absolutely deflect all the pain and the misery -- everything I'm feeling -- away. I'm going to focus on what is, essentially, unimportant. So that's my fascination with hair, and with things [like that]. Also, that was in the '70s, when Vidal Sassoon was advertising at the same weight Burger King advertises now.
The whole "If you don't look good, we don't look good" thing.
Right. You saw that everywhere. It was just a very sort of glamorous, sophisticated, polished thing. It was the opposite of what I was going through with my Anne Sexton-slash-Sylvia Plath kind of mother, who was just ready to put her head in the gas oven any day.
It makes sense that you'd be drawn to it, because you'd need some sort of respite.
Which brings me to another question. I was reading some of the initial reviews of Running With Scissors and the reviews seem, uniformly, glowing. But initially, it seems there was some question about the veracity, about whether all of this really could have happened to you. One writer focused -- and he's totally giving you the benefit of the doubt -- but he focuses on the fact that "Donnie and Marie" wasn't on when you said it was on...
And it seems like...
And I got Marcia's [from the "Brady Bunch"] bracelet wrong.
And it seems like of all the stupid...
He was wrong about the "Donnie and Marie," actually. He was incorrect. It was on when I said. The Marcia's bracelet thing, I was incorrect. I was wrong on that.
But it seems like, of all the stupid shit to quibble over. Like I said, the profile, overall, is absolutely flowering, so in the scheme of things, it was still really positive, but still.
Definitely, people were incredulous. I mean, how could this happen? How could all this happen to one person? It never dawned on me that people wouldn't believe it. My main concern was that people were going to be bored to tears by it, because I grew up with it, so I have to really step back, and look at it objectively, through the lens of normalcy to remember that this is really weird.
But I'm sitting here right now, and I have a newspaper clipping from the period, and there's an old article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette from -- I don't see the date on here -- but it has the doctor's name: "Dr. Finch appeared today before the State Board of Registration of Medicine in Boston to answer charges of gross conduct." And the headline is "Dr. Finch Again Faces Investigation." This was my "father," and he's got a whole bunch of newspaper clippings here. And the doctor was notorious in that area, absolutely notorious, so I always felt it was laziness on the part of reporters to question [the veracity]. All you have to do is search western Massachusetts doctors in the '70s, in North Hampton -- how many psychiatrists were there? -- and you can access a lot of stories, lots and lots of stories. For example, scooping turds out of the toilet and writing about it, that's something that people were like, "Did he really do that?" And you know, that is actually documented. He would write press releases, and draw these things up, and send them to newspapers.
Which is kind of it's own pathology right there, that he wasn't trying to hide it.
He was flagrant. The house, just the way it looked. I get emails now from people who grew up in the area, who guess his name, guess his correct identity...
Because he stood out?
Yeah, because he stood out. The one thing I got attacked on with Dry by some old guy at The Washington Post, he attacked the thing I have in the beginning of Dry ["AUTHOR'S NOTE: This memoir is based on my experiences over a ten year period. Names have been changed, characters combined, and events compressed. Certain episodes are imaginative re-creation, and those episodes are not intended to portray actual events."], which the lawyers [had me include] and is like a little...
Right, I read that in conjunction with the piece about Vivian Gornick in Salon.
And he just hated, hated, hated it for that reason.
When people say memoir is an overdone genre, I think it's unfair because that's like saying science fiction is overdone or...
Marriage is overdone. As long as there are people, people are going to find it interesting.
To me, the key is how the writer tells the story.
I think it was Hemingway who said that are really only ten stories, that we're all telling similar tales, it's how we're doing it [that matters], so I don't understand the attack on the memoir genre.
Lucy Grealy apparently encountered that with Autobiography of a Face.
She said that, too, that people were focusing on the cancer disproportionately to the artistry she brought to the writing. The writing was getting overlooked because people were focusing on, "Did this really happen? Did that really happen?"
Right. I like, though, that people have a hunger to connect with other people. They're desperate to know that you're not lying to them or misleading them. Before I'm a writer, I'm definitely a reader and when I read memoir, I really want it to be true. I know that people who write memoirs aren't journalists for The New York Times, although I guess... [laughs]
But I want it to be true.
With my own memoirs, they are truthful, and I write everything fully expecting to some day end up televised on Court TV, and I'm fully prepared to be challenged legally on it. Everything I write is the truth and I know that I would win. I know I would win. I've got journals -- I mean, I was walking around with a tape recorder, basically, throughout my childhood. So, I feel like, go ahead, challenge that one line, you know? Some things, you do have to creatively recreate, and that's fine, but I like to know the essence of it is true.
To me, if the overwhelming majority of it isn't true, then the writer is writing a novel.
Like Dave Pelzer [A Child Called "It", A Man Named Dave]. There was that article in The New York Times Magazine a few years ago, where his siblings were contradicting the truth of the story. Things like, when Dave Pelzer says, "Mother stabbed me in the stomach with a knife", the kids are saying that he grabbed her arm and she scraped him with a fork, accidentally. If that's the case, that he made it up, then I think that...
It's not truth. I like the example you used in an interview, whether the polyester pants were blue or brown.
Right. The important thing is that they're polyester, with a crease down them.
Right. That's what I was referring to, when people get locked into questions over that kind of minutiae, that that's not really the point.
You're right about that. That's so true.
Something you might be surprised by is that my parents love you.
They're retired now, but they were deputy prosecuting attorneys.
How cool. What a cool couple of parents.
So, they're both unflappable. It's cute, too, because they both look like Greek parents, my dad wears Dockers and my mom is 5'1".
They're the parents I always wanted.
I'm going to tie this in with Pighead [who was Greek-American, too] in a second, but my parents are unflappable, and they love your stories. I read parts of Running With Scissors over the phone, then my mom borrowed it, and my dad borrowed it, but when they found out that Pighead was Greek, they cracked up. As a people, we tend to be kind of stubborn.
[Laughs.] That's funny.
I was wondering about that, with your family having been so fractured, and with the Finches being so laissez-faire -- and I always say that there are no laissez-faire Greek parents -- they tend to know exactly what's going on, for better or worse.
The opposite of mine.
But was that part of the attraction to Pighead? He sounds like a really dynamic, great man anyway.
Exactly. That was definitely part of the attraction. Pighead was all about structure and organization and control and I was really, really drawn to it. Pighead was just a mule. He was so willful, so willful, and I admired him. I don't think I've talked about how he became infected with HIV. I'm going to talk about it in the [upcoming] book, because it was the most heroic way you could become infected. He did not get HIV through sexual contact. He had lost a friend early on in the epidemic, and he was terrified by that, and of course, very, very cautious.
Pighead had a boyfriend he had been with before he knew me, and the boyfriend had an affair in the relationship and became HIV positive. Fast-forward a few years in their relationship and the boyfriend, Stephan, had just had his wisdom teeth and molars taken out, and he was in the hospital, too, for meningitis, and it was clear that he was going to die. I walked in one day and George [aka Pighead] had his hands in Stephan's mouth, and he said, "The nurses aren't taking the cotton out, they're not changing the cotton."
I looked, and his hands were covered in blood. Now, Pighead always bit his nails and he always had bleeding cuticles, and I looked at him and said, "What are you doing? You've got to wear gloves. What the fuck are you doing?" And he said, "I can't wear gloves with him." And I looked at his hands covered in blood and I thought, "You just killed yourself." And that's exactly what happened. Six months later, he got tested and was HIV positive with the same strain.
You know, he had it genetically tested, and it was the same strain that his friend had. It was horrible, horrible, horrible, but throughout it, he had an amazing attitude. Here I was, my problem was that I wanted to have fourteen cosmopolitans, and not one, and I was just the epitome of self-pity, I was the ultimate victim in a lot of ways, and he was just so incredibly strong. His family was like that. His father was a really quiet, nice guy, but his mother was like a mule. They were great. I always tried to learn Greek, but all I got out of it was, "poulaki mou." ["My little chicken."] That's good. There can be some horrific arguments [with Greek families], but we rally around each other.
It's the family thing. I was attracted to that, and I loved that they had their own little weird eggs on Easter. [Greeks dye their Easter eggs deep red.]
Totally. All of my friends spend Greek Easter with us. Greek Easter is such a huge freaking deal. In my family, it's a party.
I love that.
It does give you a sense of belonging. One of the things that I think resonates with Dry is that it is such a great love story. I think one of the reasons people are so drawn to it -- besides the fact that you're so open about the ups and downs of alcoholism and addiction and that you don't glamorize it or wrench it for all it's worth -- is that the love story is universal. You didn't have to be gay to get it. Gay or straight, it doesn't matter. Everyone has a story in their lives about a great love and the timing never seems to work, and there's failing each other on both sides, but through it all, you're still there for each other.
Right. I think you're right. I think everyone does have that. I'm glad you got that -- thank you for the compliment -- but I think you're right. I think everyone can relate to that. I think that's part of why I get so much email and feedback. It's weird, you'd think -- or at least I would have thought years ago -- that it would have been looked at as gay, but it's mostly moms and dads and kids.
Sure. What would have been considered "gay" before is mainstreaming.
And the boundaries are coming down. Whether it's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, or whatever. If you look at Armistead Maupin, who was kind of ghetto-ized initially, now, more and more, work like his is just considered literature.
Is he still writing?
He did The Night Listener like, what, two years ago?
No, that was a long time ago. That was before I was writing, that's how I know. It was before 1998, I think.
You're right. I bought it two years ago.
[Laughs.] That doesn't count. I hope he's still writing. I love Tales of the City. I wanted to live there [the infamous 28 Barbary Lane]. I'm drawn to families like that.
I know that you're busy, so I'll ask a few more questions and let you get going. The screenplay for Running With Scissors, where is that now?
Ryan Murphy, the person who optioned it, he's the one who writes, directs, and created the series Nip/ Tuck, he has it. I guess he wants to start going into production in November.
Are you going to write the screenplay?
He is. I'm not going to write the screenplay. Are you going to have an advisory role with it?
Yeah, but I'm not writing the screenplay. That's one of those things -- maybe my advertising background makes it easier -- but when you come up with an ad campaign, you come up with this vision, something you think is really smart, yet really entertaining, and then you give it to a director and he takes it to the next level. You learn early on in your career -- if you're going to have a long career -- that you need to let it go. You either need to have complete control over [a film], write the screenplay, choose the director, much the way John Irving did for Cider House Rules, or you need to let it go. But you can't option it, and then whine about it not being good, because the only reason you option it is for money. That's why you do it.
I read in last week's Entertainment Weekly that that's the conundrum that Dave Eggers is finding himself in. Nick Hornby is writing the screenplay for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and...
I didn't know that. It seems like he [Eggers] would write it.
That's what the article talks about.
Nick Hornby isn't a screenwriter, is he?
No, he didn't write [the screenplays for] High Fidelity or About a Boy. Hornby has a quote in the article -- and I know that he and Eggers are friends -- but it's sort of a loving quote, saying that's there's some wrangling going on, because there are certain scenes that Dave really wants in there, and Nick doesn't. So, it seems like you do just need to write it yourself or let it go, otherwise, you find yourself in that position.
Exactly. You don't want to be in that position.
It seems like it would be more stress than it would be worth.
I feel like, if Julianne Moore ends up in it [Scissors], how bad can it be? That woman could just sit there and shred pages for you, and you'd be riveted.
I know, she's fantastic. Anything you want to get in here about Magical Thinking before we wrap it up?
It's a collection of true stories about weird things that have happened to me. I've had these two events in my life, but I've had a lot of weird stuff happen to me. But I had to get these big events out before I could talk about the funny things. So, I'm excited about it. It's my personal favorite of my books, so far. Maybe that's just because it's the new one. Maybe I'm just tired of looking at that fish [on the cover of Dry].
And it's coming out when?
November 2004. And the Dry paperback comes out in spring 2004, hopefully with a new cover, a fabulous cover by Chip Kidd.
You didn't like the current cover?
No, I like it. I designed it, so I like it, but Chip did one ages ago for the hardcover, and everyone liked my stupid fish more, but my paperback editor loves the Chip Kidd cover, and I think it's a much cooler cover. The only problem is, it's weird -- sort of not terribly wise -- to take a book that was successful and then change its cover. Generally, you keep the cover, and you only change the cover if the book tanks. But I think Chip's is such a cool-ass cover.
Chip has a sort of "best of" book coming out, right?
He does. He does great, great, great covers.
I guess that's it. Augusten, thanks so much for your time.
You, too. Take care.