Interview with Augusten BurroughsApril, 2016
Lust & Wonder picks up where Dry left off and finds Burroughs in New York City, living a stable life for the first time and hoping to find love. The book follows his relationships with Mitch, a novelist Burroughs starts dating after writing him a fan letter; Dennis (the first relationship he experiences sober), a man he makes a life with for ten years; and Christopher, his longtime literary agent and now husband. With his signature dry wit and unfiltered honesty, Burroughs answers the question: Once you've been to hell and back, where do you go next?
Lust & Wonder: "The horrible thing about being sober is you lose your excuse for being so fucked up." This book definitely deals less with external trauma and more with the lasting internal effects of it. What is easier and what is harder about this shift in perspective?
Augusten Burroughs: You know, in my childhood (as I described it in Running with Scissors) there was just an endless series of punches, of traumas, of body blows to contend with on a sort of daily basis. I just became psychologically athletic. I couldn't sit around and say, "Wow, how is this going to impact me when I'm 40?" The adrenaline and need for constant readjustments was kind of numbing. And in a way, that was an easier experience. Because as an adult much later on, I was experiencing almost a wave-function from an impact made in childhood. It was difficult to understand my own behavior or to trust my own instincts.
GR: Through the success of your books you've become a source of inspiration to many people who deal with addiction. Does that give you a sense of responsibility when you write? Do you feel any pressure to be a role model?
AB: I don't feel any pressure to be a "role model" because I just don't think of myself as a model of behavior. But I do feel an obligation to fully put myself out there on the page and not hold back. My feeling is, if you're going to be a memoirist, you owe it to the reader not to spit-shine your life. So if I'm uncomfortable writing about something because it might make me appear weak or crazy or desperate or unbalanced or...whatever, I just have to deal with that discomfort and write anyway.
Sellevision as something that in some ways saved your life—drawing you away from drinking and introducing you to a new career—but you haven't published any fiction since then. Do you hope to in the future? Have you stayed away from fiction because you don't feel that same compelling force that you did when Sellevision came to you?
AB: I do hope to publish more fiction in the future, and I've written several novels since Sellevision, but I haven't published them because I haven't been completely happy with them. I experience more internal pressure with respect to fiction writing than I do with memoir. And I think maybe it's because in fiction there is so much freedom; there is only freedom. And this reminds me very much of my childhood, where I also experienced a kind of mad and endless freedom. So maybe this freedom scares me a little or intimidates me. I think that's part of it. But the other thing is, my life continues to unfold in unexpected ways, so I've had this real need to process it and continue to explore it on the page.
GR: You end this memoir as a self-described "happy man," something you say you never expected. What surprises you most about happiness?
AB: I think how rooted to the present moment it is. I mean, my life isn't without conflict now, it's not without fear or anxiety. But I love my life now, which is something I've never been able to say. It's not about success or my career or what I see as my potential—all the things that really used to drive me. What I love about my life is my relationship with Christopher, our friends, our dogs, our home, our land. I love cooking and reading and living away from New York City. I love living in a house that's over 200 years old, where there is such history in literally every inch.
AB: Sometimes people tell me I'm more serious than they expect. Which I guess is a polite way of saying, "Oh, I thought you'd be funnier in person."
GR: You talk a lot in the book about your fascination with precious stones and your habit of buying jewelry online. Can you tell me about a favorite stone or piece of jewelry that you own?
AB: I've collected jewelry since I was a little kid, since I was five. Jade is probably my favorite stone. It's much more popular in the Chinese culture, where it's infused with history and significance and meaning. I also love natural, uncultured pearls because they're just so incredibly rare. Diamonds are actually quite common and, to me, a little boring. I am drawn to much less familiar gems. Chrysoberyl cat's eye, for example. I love stones that do something, with an eye that slides across the face in the right light or a stone that changes color completely from daylight to candlelight like an Alexandrite.
GR: Goodreads member Julianne asks, "How would your friends describe you?"
AB: Probably in many contradicting ways.
GR: Goodreads member Laura asks, "As a memoirist, do you think of your life as the plot of a story? How do you curb your inner dialogue while 'scenes' in your life are happening?"
AB: I've been writing about my life since I was eight or nine, long before I had a career as a writer or had any dreams of being a writer. Writing is really how I process my thoughts and feelings and experiences. And this has remained true for most of my life. I continue to think, "I'll write about this when I get home" versus, "I might publish this someday."
GR: Goodreads member Rosalie asks, "Do you experience hostility from the people you write about and, if so, how do you deal with it? Your end product is clearly never the result of having written scared, and you write so honestly and directly that it's hard to imagine that people aren't angry with you."
AB: I've experienced backlash, for sure. But I always come back to the writing, to telling my story and not allowing anything to pollute me.
GR: Goodreads member Ann asks, "Do you think there is a link between addiction and creativity?"
AB: Well, inasmuch as many creative people struggle with themselves and use drugs and alcohol as a means of soothing or coping, yes.
GR: Tell us about your writing process.
AB: I write throughout the day. Sometimes on memoir, sometimes on fiction. I write in many different locations—upstairs in the attic room, downstairs on the sofa or at one of the tables, or upstairs in the bedroom on top of the bed. I might write 10,000 words in a day or I might write literally one sentence. But if I don't write at least a tiny bit every day, I get totally derailed. It's like my machinery rusts instantly.
AB: I really love Edith Wharton for so many reasons. I tend to read more female writers than male writers, and I can't tell you why this is, just that it is.
GR: What are you reading or planning to read now?
AB: Right now I am reading Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner.
Interview by Janet Potter for Goodreads. Potter is a staff writer for The Millions and cohost of The Book Report on YouTube. She has contributed to The Chicago Reader, Chicago Magazine, The AV Club, and The Awl.
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