A Conversation with Augusten Burroughs
Conducted by Scott Shrake
When Augusten Burroughs published his memoir Running with Scissors in 2002, readers quickly warmed to this wickedly humorous and disarmingly honest new writer. He managed to find funny material in a childhood (if that is the word for it) marred by the excesses of the "Me Generation" adults around him. His second book, Dry, continued the tour of Burroughs's world, documenting his struggle with alcoholism as an adult, and again, it was a harrowing but hilarious read. Now comes Magical Thinking: True Stories, a collection of some two dozen essays that span young Augusten's involvement with a Tang commercial, a decidedly unorthodox appreciation of Catholic priests, a trip to Amish country, the upsetting world of New York City dating, and a bunch of ordinary life events (such as run-ins with bothersome critters) that become outlandishly entertaining when seen through Burroughs's eyes.
Do you practice telling stories to people verbally, before you write them down?
Augusten Burroughs: No, I never do. I'm not all that articulate, I think, in person, and I'm much more articulate when I'm writing. Probably because of how I was raised in the Running with Scissors years, one way I coped with being left by my mother in the care of this lunatic psychiatrist who had his own cult was by withdrawing into myself and keeping basically a journal and writing everything that I was thinking and feeling and everything that was going on in my life at the time. And I learned to think and to process all my thoughts and emotions through my hands, through writing.
Let's talk more about your childhood. One thing you never mention in your memoirs is having been a bookworm...
AB: Yeah, no, I wasn't. In my early teenage years I read, like, a Stephen King novel and a book called The House with a Clock in Its Walls, and... not much else. And then when I was about 24 I read Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz. I bought it because of the cover, and I loved it and I felt this incredibly profound sense of "What have I missed?" So I started reading just constantly, everything I could get my hands on, and it just went from there.
I ask because you have this rare ability with words, but I thought, where did he "get" all the words?
AB: Well, I have a very — I don't even know the word to describe my vocabulary. I have a modest vocabulary, and I think I don't really use unusual words... I use very simple words that any fourth-grader could understand.
How did you decide to go into advertising?
AB: Well, I was 18 and a friend had talked me into becoming a computer programmer, so I was in this trade school just north of Boston. I guess I liked programming, it was very logical. One day I was home from school during the day, and I was watching television and a commercial came on for the school and it was one of those really cheesy commercials that run during the day for trade schools, you know — "Get a better career" — and it was just really embarrassing and it became suddenly clear to me that I was not at Yale or Harvard. And I thought, God, what a terrible commercial; I could do better than that. And then I thought, someone has to do that; someone has to think of ads.
And didn't you change your name around that time?
AB: Yeah, mm-hm.
All the names in your books are changed, more or less.
AB: Right. The reason I changed my name was, you know, I was just so — ashamed isn't even the word for it — I was just shell shocked and angry and I wanted my past, my childhood, my experience, my Running with Scissors years not to exist. But more important than that, I wanted them not to follow me, and I was determined to reinvent myself and I was really, really determined to not be a victim of my past and not to let my past define me. I would be the reason for my own success or failure, and my name really was incidental, but I wanted a different name; I wanted to start completely fresh.
You mentioned in Magical Thinking identifying with the alcoholic ad man, Darren Stephens, on Bewitched. The title of your book makes me wonder, did you identify also with Samantha?
AB: I admired Samantha's powers and I used to think it would be incredible to just be able to wrinkle your nose and change everything. I liked the idea that a person could have that much control over their environment, and I used to wonder why she didn't change more, why she didn't make her house bigger and drive a better car. Why ever do any cleaning?
I just remember it being a crushing moment when I would try to do magical, witchcraft kind of things and it wouldn't work.
AB: I know, I remember that, too. It was like being bionic — that didn't work either.
Magical Thinking has, I think, two arcs, and one is chronological from your childhood to your recent past. But the other arc seems actually to be a search for love, really —
— which gets fulfilled in the end. But along the way it's got these horrifying dating experiences, my favorite being the one in "Beating Raoul."
AB: Oh, thanks.
It made me laugh out loud, but at the end I also yelled, "Yes!" It's about humility, I think, and the value of self-deprecation, but it also shows this kind of cleft between Ken-doll people and oddball, real people.
AB: Right. Well, I dated a lot for a lot of years and I think the experience of having nightmare dates is something that everyone goes through. If you're single and, especially if you live in a city, you date and you're looking for someone, you're just going to find one terrible match after another. And Raoul was a real person, and he just was representative. I mean, there were many, many, many more. But he just really, to me, was the quintessential bad date. You know, his complete, supreme arrogance and his blind spot, you know, to his own —
AB: Yeah. To his own inadequacy, and his total lack of humility. That's one of my personal favorite essays too, in the book, because it was just such a learning curve for me, to go on a date with somebody who, on the surface, seemed so perfect and someone that I really, from the distance of not knowing them terribly well, admired. And to watch myself shape-shift for this person and change my personality into something that I thought they would like. That's just one of the things you do when you date and eventually you learn not to do that at all and not to change anything about yourself and then that's actually when you're going to find someone who's compatible. You know, as soon as you're just completely and unapologetically yourself.
You wrote journals as a child, and then as a project after giving up drinking, but did you write while you were drinking?
AB: No, I didn't write while I was drinking, and that was a lot of years. You know, I wrote heavy email correspondence with a writer friend of mine in San Francisco, Suzanne Finnamore, and I kept some of that writing, but I didn't write a daily journal at all and I think that's probably one of the other reasons why I got so lost and so heavily involved in alcohol and turned away from myself. I had learned from a very early age to depend on writing, journal keeping, as a way to stay sane and understand what was going on in my head. And when I stopped doing that I really became unmoored and distracted and focused only on the alcohol. So for all the years that I was drinking and working in advertising, I didn't keep a journal at all and that's why Dry as a book, for the most part, takes place when I get out of rehab, trying to adjust to my life.
I read somewhere that abandonment is the cause of all addiction.
AB: Really? Well, that makes sense; I can believe that.
Do you think that's true in your case?
AB: I can trace so many of my problems to abandonment; why not addiction? When you're abandoned, you tend later in life to want to control and, for me, addiction was very much about control. And it was about routine, about constantly being able to fill my glass up or drink more, and it was about dependability. The one thing about alcohol or drugs, as terrible as they are, is that, for a while anyway, they're very dependable and reliable. And even when they're bad you can depend on them to do something, to give you a terrible experience that will be at least probably unusual.
As a person with a short attention span, I like the bite-size chapters in Magical Thinking.
AB: Yeah, I love getting involved in a book, just getting lost in 500 pages, it's great. But, there's something that I also really like about a book that you can pick up virtually at random and you can read from — it's written in an order but you don't have to follow that order and you can skip around, you can read one on the subway and you can read one before bed and you can read another one a week later. Writing the book was very much the same. I wrote when I had time to write and I could focus just totally on one story and I didn't have to spend 300 pages talking about one event in my life. But I could, instead, spend 10 or 15 pages and then move on to the next thing. Magical Thinking was the most fun, in terms of an experience writing a book.
What do you want to write next?
AB: Actually, I'm working on the next book, and it's more true stories.
What time period does it deal with?
AB: The time frame is similar to Magical Thinking, and it deals with stories that took place fairly recently as well as years ago.
There are people, like the Dr. Pepper woman who stopped you on the street [from the story "I'm Gonna Live Forever"], who seem determined to be inspired by your books even if that wasn't the intention.
AB: When it happens, you know what, it's great, and even the Dr. Pepper woman is great. It was gross as hell, but it was incredibly flattering to know that something that I'd written and experienced in any way had a positive effect on someone else. I think that to start off with the goal in your mind of being inspirational and helpful to others can be very dangerous, because you can be very manipulative and condescending. So I think it's much better, at least for me, to just lay myself out there with all of the hideous mistakes and choices that I've made, and some of the good ones, and let people decide for themselves.