Augusten Burroughs: His Life As An Open Book
So much is known about Augusten Burroughs, who was born Christopher Robison, through his mega-selling works that he feels like a person we know; a friend off-the-page, because of the accessibility he affords readers on-the-page, with each literary glimpse into his life.
Although there is a certain amount of inherent knowledge and name recognition that comes along with the author, there is also a wealth of facts regarding the man, who has become synonymous with the word memoir.
While Burroughs’ first novel, Sellevision, a work of fiction which was published in 2000, it was abundantly clear that there was an excitingly fresh and funny new voice in literature.
But, what has made Burroughs’ literary career has been mining his own colorful past to produce brilliant gems in book form; beginning with his first memoir, Running With Scissors in 2002, which made him a #1 New York Times best-selling author, and he followed up that blockbuster book with another one – his tell-all battle with getting sober, chronicled in 2003’s Dry.
His more recent works, 2003’s Magical Thinking and 2006’s Possible Side Effects, consist of essays with what has became a hallmark of Burroughs’ writing – mixing the ordinary events of his days into humorous romps, and his observations are as wry and cutting as a pair of newly sharpened scissors.
Speaking of Scissors…in 2006 the film version of Burroughs account of being sent off during his formative years to live with his mother’s psychiatrist, and the doctor’s highly unorthodox family, hit the big screen (with Annette Bening portraying his mother and Joseph Cross tackling the role of the teenaged Burroughs).
In 2007, Vanity Fair ran an article entitled “Ruthless With Scissors,” in which the Turcotte family, (featured in both the book and movie version as the Finch family) explained that their lawsuit against Burroughs and that Scissors had falsely portrayed them. The author and his publisher, St. Martin’s Press, settled with the family, and Burroughs felt he had emerged triumphant because “we had a very strong case because I had the truth on my side.”
With his latest tome, A Wolf At The Table, Burroughs delves back into memoir territory with his recollections of his strained relationship with his late father, who is termed as “a shadowy presence in his life.”
During the midst of his latest book tour, Burroughs kindly corresponded, via e-mail, with me to talk about his past, present and future writing projects, being a gay author with crossover appeal, and about relinquishing his tales to be told through the camera lens of Hollywood.
Burroughs’ ability to write about his life with an unflinching bird’s eye view has been a coping mechanism for the author for many years now.
“Well, writing has always been cathartic for me,” he explained. “I’ve been writing about my life for most of my life. As a young teenager, suddenly hurled into extraordinary circumstances, I found myself under profound stress. And I kind of had a choice to make: kill myself or focus on the absurd. This wasn’t a conscious choice, but it was a choice nonetheless. And the lens was ground.”
And if not for that choice, and his innate talent at juggling a copious amount of curve balls, which life has thrown his way, Burroughs may not have been able to hit home runs in book form later in life.
The separation of the comedy amongst the tragedy has proved to be a saving grace throughout his existence.
“It was at this age when I began to focus on the silly, the absurd, the ridiculous even in the midst of something horrifying or profoundly disturbing,” Burroughs stated. “Humor became a sort of life raft, allowing me to float from one catastrophe to the next.
“But Wolf takes place before this highly refined defense mechanism was in place,” Burroughs said of his latest work, “As a result Wolf is a much more brutal, harrowing book than any I have written before.”
A Wolf At The Table focuses on a dream Burroughs had as a child, in which his father takes him into the woods to show him where he has buried a body, and is sworn to secrecy to never tell of the event. But Burroughs is inclined to believe that the dream is, in fact, a memory.
The underlying theme of the father-and-son dynamic is at the heart of A Wolf At The Table, and Burroughs feels that readers will be able to latch onto that ongoing and ever-present struggle that surrounds most families.
“I hope readers who had a difficult relationship with their own father will feel less alone,” Burroughs recanted. “There aren’t a lot of memoirs about bad relationships between fathers and sons. And yet, many men – and women – experienced terrible fathering. My father was dangerous; he was sociopathic, so he is an extreme example. But again, I think people are able to relate to the emotion behind the specifics. I have had so many come up to me and say, ‘me too,’ after reading Wolf. And this makes me feel wonderful – and not so alone.”
Another way that Burroughs is able to touch readers’ lives is by writing about “human issues, not sexual orientation-specific issues,” which has made him a gay author with a vast amount of crossover appeal. He explained to us what that means on a personal and professional level, of why his books carry such a wide grab, from the bookshelves to the readers hands, for all walks of life.
“I have always been comfortable with my sexuality; indeed, have taken my comfort for granted; just as a heterosexual person might,” he said. “And I love my readers: old people, young people, male, female, straight, gay, undecided, somewhere in between. Love, longing for love, losing love, life, death, pain, addiction, overcoming adversity –these are all issues every person deals with.”
One thing popular authors, like Burroughs, must also deal with is when Hollywood comes-a-calling to turn their books into a film version. Hopefully (but very rarely) this procedure won’t bastardize the written word equivalent of a child, which has gestated inside an author’s fertile mind, until it goes through the birthing process onto a blank page, is ultimately accepted into the open arms of a loving family of readers, and then is passed into the shaky hands of Hollywood.
And while most authors express displeasure at the treatment that their books go through in the studio system, Burroughs was very happy, and held not an inkling of trepidation with placing his life story into the hands of strangers, and how the film version of Running With Scissors ended up when all was said and done.
“I loved the performances in the film and I thought it was a fascinating experience. I accepted – right away – that this was going to be another person’s vision of my memoir – the director’s,” Burroughs detailed. “So I wasn’t trying to assert control or imprint the movie with my own sensibilities. I just allowed it to happen and felt grateful that it was happening and featured such a hugely talented cast.”
Burroughs happily reported that “Sellevision is currently being cast. Wolf will be a film. And Dry will, as well.”
Since Burroughs writes primarily about his life and foibles – one has to wonder if the author finds that the people in his life are cautious about what they say in front of him. Or, if he experiences the opposite end of the spectrum – where they are always at the ready with something clever to say, in the hopes that it will make it into print?
“I have had my friends for many years and they aren’t concerned about what I will or will not say about them,” he said. “It’s just never been an issue.”
As far as what morsels are to be served next on his literary plate, Burroughs gave me the dish on his upcoming projects, and it sounds like his plate will be plenty full.
“Well, a number of things. I’m working on a collection of horrible/funny holiday stories called, You Better Not Cry,” he replied. “And I’m working on a memoir and on two novels. I’m also trying to think of a Unified Theory of Everything – but this is tricky, because I still don’t know my multiplication tables.”
To read reviews of A Wolf At The Table, and all things Augusten Burroughs, log onto http://www.augusten.com This interview was first published on May 29th, 2008.