Catching Up With… Augusten Burroughs

Books Features augusten burroughs

Augusten Burroughs overshares. For almost a decade, the ubiquitous author has plundered his personal life to spit out three memoirs and three collections of personal stories, in addition to a novel. But he says he’s not doing it for the money. “I love preservation,” he tells Paste. ”Writing is the preservation of a memory.” Burroughs’ latest short story collection is You Better Not Cry, a wry, quick-witted handful of essays that revolve around Christmas. Skipping over the peace-and-goodwill part of the holidays, Burroughs paints the Yuletide season as a catalyst for dysfunction to reach its peak. And he would know. The author of the impossibly chaotic Running with Scissors is a literary poster child for dysfunction, and things are no less hectic in his latest work. Here, Burroughs tells us about his perspective on lying in a memoir, his recent psychiatric diagnosis that explains everything, and his very own Christmas curse.

Paste: You Better Not Cry is your third published collection of personal essays. Yet unlike Magical Thinking or Possible Side Effects, this one has a theme: Christmas. What made you decide to write a Christmas book? 
Augusten Burroughs: Right before the last story happened, I’d moved into this house, I was domesticated and kind of suburban. I thought, “This is the ‘after’ of my life. The ‘before’ things are over.” And then the house flooded. And I thought, it’s just weird. It’s like a curse. I remember saying to Dennis, “Did I do something to deserve this?” I’m always telling people, “I don’t want this life, I don’t attract this… Did I do something?” Why does it find me? It always finds me. I thought, it’s odd. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve not written about… I know that people think I make it all public and I don’t. And there’s so many stories, but one thing that stood out is that it’s like a natural theme. Christmas, I’ve always been obsessed with it. I’ve always loved it. And I think the reason is, I’m like a goat. I stamp my foot at the shiny can. It’s ‘cause I like the shiny shit. Every Christmas I’ve ever had has sucked. Now maybe there have been one or two that didn’t, but I don’t remember them, because most of them have been horrible. Horrible in one way or another. But at the same time, there’s always been something that I didn’t expect that was—what’s the word? I have a vocabulary of like 12 words—”perfect” and “shiny” in the middle of it.

Paste: Overall, was writing You Better Not Cry any different from writing your other two short-story collections? 
Burroughs: It’s pretty similar to write all of the short stories. Three of the other books have been really different, though. Dry, the one where I’m an alcoholic, that was written before I was a writer. It was my journal. I began it because I didn’t know what to do with myself. All I had ever done was drink, so I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know why at the time, but it’s really hard for me to have thoughts in my head and to figure things out. To figure something out and come to conclusions, I almost can’t do it. I think visually only, and to think like that, I need to write. Writing translates thoughts into pictures for me, so writing helps me deal with those things. That was different because it was not a process at all of going back in memory. It was happening right then and there. Sellevision was different because that was my first book. It was a novel, and I’d never written anything. I didn’t know what was going to happen from sentence to sentence. The other that was different was A Wolf at the Table, which was about my father. That one was different because it was very dark. 

Burroughs: People have always asked me, and I’ve never had a good answer for it. They always want to know, “How can you know all of this is true?” and I’ve always been sort of like, “Well, of course it is. It just is.” And I’ve never even paused to ask myself when I’m alone, “Are you sure it’s all true?” I just know. So last year, my primary-care physician said to me, “I’d like you to see a psychiatrist.” I’ve seen a number of psychiatrists and therapists over the years, but this guy sat me down and asked me questions that no one had ever asked me. The first thing he said was, “So. Do tags on the neck of your t-shirt bother you?” And I said, “Yeah!” and as I said it, I had a hole in the neck of my t-shirt where I’d ripped the tag out. They drive me crazy. Not the silky ones, but the crunchy Hanes Beefy Tees kind. Anyway, then he continued to ask me questions, and finally said, “Well, what I think you have has one name or 12 names or no names, depending on who you ask.” He did give it a name, and I don’t know what it is, but every time I’m talking about it someone goes, “It’s sensory blah blah!” 

Paste: After the legal fallout from Running with Scissors, did your storytelling process change? How do you know whether or not you’re crossing the line between non-fiction and fiction? 

Paste: It’s sensory processing disorder. 
Burroughs: Yes! It sounds like one of those bullshit diseases of the day, like Restless Leg Syndrome but without a commercial. So whatever it is, whether it’s a thing or not, this guy has seen people who also share the same symptoms. One thing he says he sees is an expression in memory. People with this thing have memories that extend deep, deep into childhood, but very early. There exist these vivid memories from all periods of my life, and some go back very, very early. When I was writing A Wolf at the Table, I was trying to remember Mexico. So I think of one specific image from Mexico that happens to be this little piece of glass, and then there’s a physical sensation. It’s almost like you’re in a rowboat with your eyes closed. A small rowboat on a great, calm lake, and you don’t have oars, and you’re lying backwards, and your feet are hanging over the edge so you can kick off a wall, if you can imagine such a strange and convoluted image. You feel yourself drift; that’s kind of what it’s like. I feel myself drift back and then it’s like I’m watching a movie. There’s something there and I don’t know where it’s going to go. It’s often accompanied by a feeling of, “Oh my God, yeah!” versus with Sellevision, where it was more like “…Oh!” It was a surprise. But I have not thought about these things that I’m writing about since they happened. So as it’s turned out, the memories seem to have been accurate. When the family from Running with Scissors sued me, I knew I had written it all from memory. I didn’t intentionally make it up, I knew that much. But was I wildly off? Well, in the end, no. They substantiated every point and they found all these documents that pointed to the truth. So after that, I knew I could trust my memory. 

Paste: So the scene with you in the high chair peering through a saltine cracker in A Wolf at the Table. That’s an actual memory that you recall clearly? 
Burroughs: That’s the one that people don’t believe. I went on CBS News once and the interviewer asked me, “How do you know that you didn’t see a photograph of yourself or listen to your parents tell you that you did that?” I didn’t have an answer for her. My brother said, “You know, we tend to tell our kids about amusing things that they did. When you were a baby, you liked to throw water balloons off the deck and try to squish the cat. Rarely, if ever, would we tell a child, ‘When you were a kid, you liked to hold crackers up to your face.’ Most likely, we wouldn’t even remember it.” Not that that’s an answer. But this psychiatrist thing, that is an answer. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that myself. 

Paste: And does this help clarify the blurry line between non-fiction and memoir for you?
Burroughs: That’s a completely different issue. I think you can do anything you want to do. If I wanted to write a memoir, and totally make everything up, I could do it. But I would not pretend that it’s true; I don’t know why you would do that. It doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s so simple. Do whatever you want to do. There are no rules. But just don’t tell people that you did something else. I could imagine weaving some fiction into a memoir, because it might be fanciful or you have some great reason for doing it, but I certainly wouldn’t make the entire thing fictional. If you decided to weave a tiny miniature winged fairy into your childhood and make it seem real, I guess go ahead and do that. Be coy, be tongue-and-cheek about it, but for God’s sake, don’t tell people it’s completely true. 

Paste: But unfortunately, that’s been happening a lot lately. And people accused you of doing something similar. 
Burroughs: You know, I didn’t read the Oprah book—what is it? A Million Little Pieces. I don’t read memoirs. I didn’t read that, or the one about the woman who was an L.A. gang member [Love and Consequences]. The thing with A Million Little Pieces is, I look at that and think that had to be a marketing decision. This guy, he’s never even written a book before. He doesn’t know the publishing business. It’s a weird business, almost backwards. So this guy probably came in with his novel, and probably a lot of it was real, and they said, “Oh, this is real, let’s make it a memoir.” And he was probably like, “Oh, is that what it should be? OK!” People who don’t write often don’t make the distinction between memoir and the rest of the genres. However, pretending to be raised in an L.A. gang when you’re actually a privileged white girl, that’s a moral corruption. It really just comes down to chasing after money and fame. And that’s the wrong way to do it. I’m a perfect example of that. I mean, I’m pretty fucking famous when it comes to writing. That was not what I wanted from writing. When I decided to be a writer, I never thought about fame. I just wanted the physical book. Right before Running with Scissors was published, I was actually filling out applications to nursing schools because I knew it wasn’t going to be a bestseller. America doesn’t want to read about the gays, or all that child sexual shit. There’s a lot of gross stuff in it. I was no publishing expert but I knew that it wasn’t a mainstream book. But it happened anyway. So that’s the way you have to approach it: being absolutely yourself. 

Paste: Most of the essays in You Better Not Cry were hilariously quirky anecdotes from childhood and your early adult years. But your piece about Pighead’s death, “The Best and Only Everything,” was clearly a departure in content and style from the rest of the book. Why did you choose to include it? 
Burroughs: That’s a totally different piece. It’s my favorite piece in the book. I wish I’d published my original essay version of that instead of trimming it down. I was flying to Australia for A Wolf at the Table when I started it. Pighead, the guy in Dry who died… The thing about that was that I had never told anyone how I’d met him. Not that I was embarrassed about it or anything, but it was just weird. Even when I look back on it now, the story just seems borderline supernatural. So what I decided to do is take this memory of mine and use it for myself for once. I was thinking about him, and I thought, “Some day I may not have this memory.” So I decided to write a list. It was a thing to do on the plane—I couldn’t focus on reading, so I wanted to write down everything about that day that I could remember. I didn’t realize I remembered as much as I did. It seemed like I remembered every moment. I couldn’t stop writing. At one point during the flight, the flight attendant came by and asked if I was OK. Five minutes later, six flight attendants were standing before me—the whole section. They said, “We just want to make sure you’re OK.” I said, “Sure, I’m fine, why?” and I looked around, and every single person on the plane was sleeping while I was sitting up with my legs crossed, writing. We were about to land and I hadn’t taken a single break from writing the entire flight, like I was on crack or some crazy drug. 

Paste: You’ve managed to pull three memoirs from your personal life, but you haven’t explored your relationship with Pighead. In the essay, you write that meeting him was “the one moment upon which all the remaining moments of my life would be based.” Why haven’t you written more about him? Is it off-limits? 
Burroughs: No, it’s not off-limits. It’s just kind of fractured. I don’t know if I’ll let that go. Nothing is really off limits for being too private. 

Paste: So as far as your personal life goes: is it completely no-holds-barred for what you can use as writing material, or do you set boundaries for yourself? 
Burroughs: Writing about my life does not make me feel vulnerable. I don’t have a fear of being ridiculed. When I was a kid, my brother was very smart and I hated school. But I was the prettier of the two. I had long, curly hair, and I learned very quickly that by playing dumb, I would get what I wanted: sympathy and kindness. So I always kind of played dumb. But I always knew that I was not. And that created what people call confidence. The other thing was that I had already experienced pretty much any mortification that you can, and anything I felt people would judge me for, I knew I could in two sentences crush that idea flat. It’s happened a couple times where people have tried to poke holes in my work or reveal a fraudulence, but it never works. I used to ride my bike to the next town over and go to the store. Normally I was pathologically polite, but when I’d go to the store, I’d cut in line. And when someone said something about it, I would be horribly rude to them. Then I would just die inwardly and leave the store. And as awful as that was, it helped. For that moment in time, that person hated me, and I hated being hated. 

Paste: Is there any future of you writing about anyone else? 
Burroughs: Like a biography? I’ve thought about it. But I think I’m too lazy. I’d really like to write a biography of the guy who wrote A Confederacy of Dunces [John Kennedy Toole]. That book really resonated. I related completely to so much in that book and could relate so deeply to that creature. I could see writing about him. But it’s a horrible burden, too. I better fucking get every goddamn thing right in that book. It makes it even worse that he’s dead. 

Paste: We heard that NBC is making Sellevision into a weekly series. Can you give us any details? 
Burroughs: I have nothing to do with that. I optioned it to someone many years ago, and that person recently purchased it outright. Hollywood is all about connections and deals, so they made a deal with NBC and now NBC is producing it as a weekly series. I have less control over that than I would about CSI. However, I have an opinion: There is no letter before A for this A-list that they have, the people who are creating it. They are the industry’s best. 

Paste: Sellevision was your first book and your only work of fiction. Is there any chance you’ll revisit the idea of writing a novel? 
Burroughs: I love writing fiction. It’s another world. I would love to write more fiction. I’ve actually written more fiction novels but just haven’t published them. I have a couple things in mind, but I’m not sure if I’ll do those. I really don’t know what I’m going to write until I write it. I know what the next one is, and it’s not memoir or essays. It’s already my favorite thing I’ve ever written, and I feel like I was born to write it.

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