The Augusten Burroughs Interview

May 28, 2004

Today is the day to step in the name of love.


I am back, now with 20/20 vision with which to serve you better. If you'd like to hear my story about the Lasik procedure, click here. If not, I understand. Baby.

Stay busy this long weekend! It is your final chance to send the BYT queries, so email any theology questions this way.

And what's with obese people? They're so fat! Read the bottom of this and send me fat fiction.send me fat fiction.

As I type, today's interviewee has not one but two books on the New York Times Bestseller list, so that's pretty good. Running with Scissors was an amazingly bizarre and witty memoir about growing up in a near-madhouse. Dry is about life after the house, and the author's struggle as a young man to find sobriety. His writing also appears on Salon, NPR and ok, I'll shut up now, let's get to the interview.

The Augusten Burroughs Interview: Just Slightly Less Than 20 Questions

What is your upcoming book Magical Thinking about? Are you thinking about what it would take to get all your books on the best-seller list at once?
It's a collection of true stories from my life. Some from childhood, others from my single years in Manhattan, and then some essays about meeting my partner, Dennis. And no, I haven't even thought about what it would be like to have three books on the Times list. But I guess it would feel like stuffing your face with nachos, cheesecake and Ben & Jerry's, all at the same time.

Running With Scissors got a wide variety of responses, from people hailing it as a comic triumph to others describing it as a shocking, somewhat sad memoir. Are you sensitive about people who might misinterpret any of your stories, or are you just happy if they're being read?
The only time I get irritated by somebody's reaction is when they freak out over the "homosexual content." Then I'm like, homosexual content? What homosexual content? There's sexual abuse between a kid and a grown up. That's not homosexual content. It's criminal activity. Get your deviations straight.

A New York Times review said of Dry, "Burroughs might seem to be pushing his luck in the self-revelation stakes." Is there anything personal that you wouldn't discuss in writing?
Yes, sure. There’s definitely stuff I won't write about. Certain things involving friends, for example. Like my friend, Lori? Who’s having an affair with her husband’s brother, Chris I think his name is. I would never write about that, for example. Chris Richter, is that his name? Something like that. Totally off limits.

Were you comfortable and prepared for Dry to potentially attract a large former/alcoholic audience?
Dry was really my journal. So at the time I wrote it, I had no idea that anybody would ever read it. I wrote it as sort of my own road map. But then, yeah. After Running with Scissors came out, I knew a lot of alcoholics would read it. And this made me happy because Dry, while a pretty grim tale, obviously has a happy ending. And every alcoholic should know: there can be a happy ending.

Did you choose the last name "Burroughs" as an homage to the writer? Or was there another influence?
I changed my name when I was 18. I named myself after Burroughs computer corp. I’ve never read a word of William S. Burroughs.

Do you think that too often memoir-writers feel the need to put a triumphant ending to the tale? Do you ever struggle with the desire/need to put a story arc on a nonfiction tale?
To be honest, I don't read a lot of memoirs. Do authors feel the need for happy endings? I really don't know. But I'm not surprised. People generally like happy endings, which is something I learned from my years in advertising. I like happy endings myself, but only if they're honest. I'm just as happy with a terrible, hopeless ending.

As a nonfiction writer, do you ever worry that you're going to tap all your personal material or do you keep finding new material to plumb?
No. Because I’ve had so many experiences. It’s like I’ve lived in dog years -seven for every one.

What did you like most and least about working in advertising? I personally thought it would be fun to work in a ‘creative’ atmosphere but it just cluttered up my brain and I resented being forced to write crappily.
In general, advertising isn't a "creative" atmosphere. It's a business atmosphere and your job is puzzle solving. My favorite aspect of the business, I guess, was presenting to clients. What I enjoyed least were the clients. Worried corporate brand managers, trying to dumb-down their ads for the stupid American population. I hated the disrespect that these people had for “consumers.”

Are you still obsessed with Elizabeth Berg?What’s so intriguing about her?
I love the honesty of Elizabeth Berg's writing. I am sort of obsessed with her, I guess. Because her novels tend to revolve around sort of suburban lives –families, kids, dogs. Stuff I never had so am very interested in. I also love Music for Torching by A.M. Homes, although it tips this world upside down.

In an interview with Bookslut, you talk about how even a famous author is still not that famous in the relative scheme of things. With the advent of writing and journalism as gossip fodder at places like Gawker, and the launching of Tina Fey as a celebrity, do you think that might change? Or is this just a fluke?
I don't think writers -in general- ever achieve the fame of movie stars. For the simple reason that only a fraction of the population reads. But I guess there are exceptions.

Do you enjoy doing readings?
I like doing readings. But the best part of a book tour is the audience Q&A.

How do you know when it’s time to promote one book and work on the next?
Well, it's pretty well mapped out. I tour right when the book is released and because I'm trying to write a book a year, I have to write at every free moment. Because I don't have large chunks of free time anymore. My publicist is the one who points me in a given direction and says, TALK.

Who are your favorite nonfiction writers?
Oh no. I can't even answer this. There are too many nonfiction writers that I love. Kathryn Harrison, Haven Kimmel, David Sedaris. So many.

You say that you’re not that interested in memoirs yourself—how come? Don’t you get sick of writing your own stories, then?
I tend to really enjoy being swept up in fiction. I love a good story and I admire fiction authors. I never get sick of writing my own stories because there’s a certain comfort in knowing you will never run out of material. It’s relaxing, actually, to write.

Do you really think that you’re the #15th funniest person in America, or are you higher up or lower down on the scale?
I think Entertainment Weekly left a few zeros off my rank by accident.

Who do you find funny?
Anderson Cooper from CNN is brilliant and hysterical.

Can you tell us anything about the film version of Running with Scissors?
I can't tell you much because I haven't spoken to the director for a few weeks. Last I heard, the studio was debating the whole Odor-rama thing. So who knows.

Do you or did you have any reservations about seeing your story put to film, especially if you didn’t write the screenplay? Or was it something you’d always hoped for?
Everybody asks me this, but I never really worry about it. It just all seems like it will work out perfectly. And I never could have written the screenplay because I would have been forced to learn new software and I can't learn one more thing.

How does it feel to be the 95th person interviewed for
Better to be the 95th person than the 37th or the 23rd. Although to be perfectly honest, it would have been pretty fucking cool to have been the 14th.