Augusten Burroughs Is Only a Little Afraid to Talk About His Latest Memoir

Posted by Cybil on October 1, 2019
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For Augusten Burroughs, one of the most acclaimed memoirists of his generation, no topic in his life has been off-limits.

He’s delved into his struggles with addiction, sexual abuse, and his dysfunctional family, in books including Running with Scissors, Dry, and A Wolf at the Table. He’s mined his memories so thoroughly that a decade ago, when promoting his fifth memoir, he joked to The New York Times that he had written “more memoirs than anyone my age should be entitled to write.”

Yet here he is again, with his ninth nonfiction book, Toil & Trouble: A Memoir. And for the first time, Burroughs says, he feels “terror” at the thought of going on a book tour. It’s because he’s writing about the one topic that’s always been off the table: his life as a witch.

“I had never spoken the words ‘I'm a witch’ out loud,” said Burroughs, when reached by phone at his home in rural Connecticut. Even his husband didn’t know about this gift, he added. “It was so off the table that I didn't even realize I wasn't being fully transparent when I answered, ‘No. There's nothing I wouldn't write about.’ ”

Burroughs knows not everyone will understand his beliefs, and that’s a big source of his anxiety. “It’s embarrassing,” he says. “It would be like saying, ‘Guess what? I'm an Easter bunny! No, really, I am.’ ”

Toil & Trouble explores his life as a witch, but it’s also the story of growing older and leaving the city. It follows Burroughs and his husband, Christopher (who is also his longtime agent), as they trade life in New York City for a town in rural Connecticut, complete with wacky neighbors and infused with Burroughs’ trademark humor.

Goodreads contributor Kerry Shaw caught up with Burroughs to discuss his latest work. Their conversation has been edited.

Goodreads: You mentioned feeling nervous about going on your book tour. Can you talk more about that?

Augusten Burroughs: I think part of it is because, when I was a kid, my mom would say that being a witch is the most natural thing in the world, but it's private because people don't understand what it is. They think it's a joke.

And it’s funny that I would feel this way because I'm always the one telling people, "You have to practice not giving a shit!" And it's always been very easy for me to say that because, in general, I don't give a shit. I don't mind being judged. I know I'm going to be judged, and I'm used to it.

I'll be fine once I'm out there. It's just anticipatory imagining, and I'm going to be a little bit nervous until I'm not. I think it's this weird feeling of being vulnerable, like I'm the only person in the world who is like this. And also feeling like, “Oh my God! I've got to explain to people now.” I'm not speaking for all witches, and, yes, lots of witches do use spells and potions and herbs and I love all that shit—I just don't use it. Or sometimes I do, but because it's fun and cool, not because it does anything. It's in the mind. Just trying to explain it to people. But it's also exciting because I look forward to talking to people who don't believe in it. I can relate to those people because there's so much I don't believe in.

GR: When I was reading the book, I was pretty sure you meant everything literally. But there were moments when I wondered if writing about witchcraft was your way of putting an artistic lens on some of life’s coincidences?

AB: No. The thing that we call witchcraft is complex and multidimensional, and I think it’s exhibited in different ways. I think there are people that can sense things. I don't believe that everything is locked into position and predestined, but I do believe that at a certain point, the gumball enters the chute and it's going to come out. Because so many times in my life, I will take action that is in direct response to an event that has not actually occurred and I would have no reason to think it would occur.

I think that there is some form of anatomy in people—I don't know if it's all people, I don't know if it's some people—where they can communicate despite great distance, in a fashion that's apparently not possible. Perhaps it's genetic. I don't know. I do know, too, that there are people—and I'm one of them—that cannot just sense things but conjure, meaning to create, something. The feeling is not "I'm going to build the bridge." The feeling is "the bridge now exists." It's almost like concentration that's so powerful and so hyperfocused that it's able to influence molecules and outcomes.

GR: That sounds exhausting. If you have dark or scary thoughts about your community, it sounds like you can’t just brush them off?

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AB: It's stressful because I don't know if I sensed something that was going to happen or if I made it happen. That's the thing! I don't have all these answers now. That's why I wish there was a Dr. Bombay, like from the TV show Bewitched.

GR: I imagine some readers might push back and say, "Well, that is just a coincidence!" What do you say to those critics?

AB: I totally get it. And that's when I refer to the law of truly large numbers, which is used to explain coincidence. It says that, of course, someday you're going to be on a plane and you're going to sit down next to somebody who's got your same name and same birthday, too. That's not amazing. What's amazing is if that never happens to you. The question is: What happens if you change seats? And you go to the next seat and it turns out, wow, that person was born in your hometown? And you change seats and, oh, that person has the same breed of dog you have and you’re both wearing the same watch? What happens if your life is composed of one, quote, coincidence after another after another after another? That is not explainable by the law of truly large numbers, which means therefore there is no explanation for the coincidence like that.

And these kinds of things happen to me all the time. So the answer to the skeptics is "OK. Well, then, how would I explain this? OK. Well, then, how would I explain this one? OK, what about this one?" And that's the problem you get into when it's just again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again.

GR: When you have put so much of your life into the public sphere, what’s it like to go on tour? Do people treat you as though they already know you?

AB: Yes, it's wonderful. I get to meet people that I end up having so much in common with, from all walks of life. I have heard from so many booksellers about how my audience is different from those of other writers. It’s very, very young people, like 12. And it’s very, very old people and all cultures. It's not like “women between the ages of 18 to 35 who like NPR.” It's incredibly diverse. And yet there's something that we have in common, and it's always amazing to me. That part of it I absolutely love, and I never thought about that when I first started writing. I never thought about the people I would meet.

And, yes, they do know a lot about me if they've read my books in the past, and I don't know anything about them, and they know that. “They.” I hate speaking of people collectively, but I hear a lot of people expressing, "I totally get that you don't know anything about me and I know everything about you, and I know that must be really weird for you." People are really sensitive to that. It’s really almost never weird and awkward.

GR: Do you have a theory as to why people from all ages and backgrounds are drawn to your work?

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AB: I think it's because I'm not writing about cultural themes so much. I'm writing about things that are very, very basic to people. I mean, in the past, I wrote about being sexually abused. At that time, when Running with Scissors came out, it was just not really a thing that was in a lot of nonfiction books. Back then, nonfiction books were all, like, presidential biographies and nothing that was graphic about a guy being molested by a guy. That turns out to be something that is incredibly common among both men and women. I mean, so many people have been sexually abused at some point in their lives and don't talk about it, or struggle with it.

Addiction as well. Addiction doesn't care if you're Inuit or Jamaican or Scottish or Korean or West African or Icelandic, rich, poor, brilliant, really-not-that-smart…it doesn't matter. The experience of it is really, really, really similar, no matter what, no matter who you are.

I’ve also written a lot about being in horribly wrong relationships and lying to yourself. I mean, I've made a lot of mistakes, and I just write, “This is what I've done, and this is what it felt like.” I think people relate to that.

We're a lot more similar than we are different. We have huge, huge differences politically: over how we think we should raise our children, over who should be allowed to get married and who shouldn't, and over who should be able to choose whether a fetus is aborted or not. On those issues, we are a different species, we are so far apart. But when you talk about dating someone who was lock and key exactly wrong for you? Then all of a sudden, everyone you hated and had nothing in common with—you're all sitting around, nodding your heads because you all know exactly. Because you've done it. I think that that's probably what it is—I'm writing about things that are often kind of universal.

GR: I wanted to get your take on a quote I saw today in a New York magazine article about an Instagram influencer. The writer said Instagram is memoir in real time. What do you make of this idea?

AB: I think it depends on how honest your Instagram is. Is it portraying the life you want people to think you lead? Or is it portraying your actual life? If it's portraying your actual life, if you're out there on social media being your actual self, not a character, then I suppose it is sort of like writing a memoir in real time. But a lot of people don't. For the vast majority, it's about people positioning themselves, building their brand, even on a very small level. But you know what? My memoir Dry was written in real time. I didn't write that memoir looking back. I wrote it as it was happening. I went downstairs to the supermarket and something happened; I was back upstairs within an hour writing about it.

GR: How do you decide something is worth writing about?

AB: There's not a conscious process. I don't often know what's worthy of being written about. I've been writing for so long. I mean, I was in the single digits when I started writing. My mother taught me to write, and to write without hesitation or judgment of any, any, any kind. So I don't ever think, "Oh, is this going to be good enough?" What happens is, I write a lot of stuff and then my agent, Christopher, who is my husband, too, will cut stuff. He’s like, "Yeah. No. That's like so not interesting." But other times, I will know. Like when something is a big event or if it was significant to me.

But I don't think you have to have a very hugely interesting life or one filled with craziness in order to write a great memoir. The most important thing is truthfulness. People can sense it when you are lying. Maybe trying to make yourself look a little bit better than you really were. So when you write something that is just absolutely the naked, bare truth, even if it's not something particularly revelatory, it's weirdly, deeply satisfying.

I've given this example before, and I should stop giving it because I can't remember the book that it's from, but I think it might have been a John Updike novel. In any case, it's set in the 1930s, in a farmhouse in the Midwest. You can hear the chirping of the crickets outside. And it's just a hot, hot night, and someone's in bed, and they hear a rifle blast out the window. The first thing they do is, they toss the sheet off themselves and listen. And I never forgot that because I was like, "Oh my god! That's perfect." Because that's exactly what you would do, really. Even though the sheet has nothing to do with your ears, and you're naked under the sheet, you would totally throw the sheet off your body. You just would. It's like you would want to hear it with your skin, too. There's no logical reason to do that other than it's absolutely true.

And when you encounter that, it's wonderful. It's like food. Especially in the climate we live in now, when the truth has become this flexible thing. It's very dangerous because the tree either fell or it didn't fall. There's not your truth, my truth. We have different experiences, and we have different perspectives, and we may view the exact same experience in two completely different ways. But either there was a car accident or there wasn't.

GR: What do you read for fun?

AB: I love thrillers. I read a lot of books on physics, theoretical physics. I read about dark matter and gravity, and I just try to understand what it is. I don't really read funny things. I loved The Girl in the Ice by Robert Bryndza. And I love—it's one of my husband's clients, but I love them—E.G. Scott. I blurbed them. They're great. I love Gillian Flynn, and I liked her long before Gone Girl. I really don't read memoirs. I mean, I have, but not usually.

GR: It’s just not your favorite genre?

AB: Yeah. Funny, huh?

Augusten Burroughs' novel Toil & Trouble: A Memoir will be available in the U.S. on October 1. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-24 of 24 (24 new)

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message 1: by Karen (last edited Oct 02, 2019 11:20AM) (new)

Karen Fohner Love the new book,though it's a bit different,it is a great read. I have read all of Augusten's books and none of them have disappointed me,such a great writer!

message 2: by Jess (new)

Jess Hands down, favorite author ever. Even named my son after him:-) Excited to dive into this one!

message 3: by Robert (new)

Robert Anthony I love this man. Can't wait to read this book. It's on my dining room table waiting for me to finish what I'm reading now.

message 4: by Christine (new)

Christine I can't wait to read this one! I read anything and everything by Augusten Burroughs. I just adore his writing. (And we may not share the same name, but we do share a birthday!)

message 5: by Deborah (new)

Deborah Underwood Love Augusten Burroughs! Read this book and it was fascinating...couldn't put it down.

message 6: by Christian (new)

Christian He writes it. I read it.
It will be loved.

message 7: by Darlene (new)

Darlene Donovan I just finished this book and I had a hard time putting it down. He is one of my favorite authors by far. Enjoyed all of his books. His brother's books are excellent too.

message 8: by Carole (new)

Carole I've read all of his books, loved them, and cannot wait to read this one!

message 9: by BC (new)

BC Never tried his work before but I will now- good job, goodreads!

message 10: by Linda (new)

Linda J I've never heard of him before, but I wasn't a minute into the description of his works, and this latest, before I was requesting Toil and Trouble from my library. Can't Wait!!!

message 11: by Rika (new)

Rika It's pretty clear that several of the comments here are made by fake profiles. (strange profile activity, doing nothing but rating a bunch of books in the span of a single minute; all their usernames following the pattern of nothing but a first name)


message 12: by C (new)

C He's my favorite author and I love his writing style!

message 13: by Tommy (new)

Tommy Schnurmacher Rika wrote: "It's pretty clear that several of the comments here are made by fake profiles. (strange profile activity, doing nothing but rating a bunch of books in the span of a single minute; all their usernam..." I agree with you. It is kind of weird. Like a set up

Linda wrote: "I've never heard of him before, but I wasn't a minute into the description of his works, and this latest, before I was requesting Toil and Trouble from my library. Can't Wait!!!"

message 14: by Tommy (new)

Tommy Schnurmacher I do enjoy Burroughs ever since bought his first book Sellervision because it was on sale at a Toronto bookstore. I loved it. It was hilarious. I have bought - and read - most of his other books but aftr about half way through them, I lose interest. He builds some momentum but then it just peters out.

message 15: by Mimi (new)

Mimi good job

message 16: by Mimi (new)

Mimi Linda wrote: "I've never heard of him before, but I wasn't a minute into the description of his works, and this latest, before I was requesting Toil and Trouble from my library. Can't Wait!!!"

message 17: by Topher (new)

Topher Colin i won this book from a giveaway... way back in early may. haven't picked it up since it arrived. i don't care for him, his writing style, his subject matter, but i enter all the giveaways just in case. the grossness of 'running with scissors' put me off him so i don't know how this could possibly improve his standing. add in the questionable (fake? adbots?) profiles with their effusive praise and i'm even less enthused about him and the book.

message 18: by TMR (new)

TMR Excited for toil and trouble!

message 19: by Marcia (new)

Marcia Love this Augusten....You have bewitched me again...Bravo

message 20: by Zoom (new)

Zoom I need the link to Jeffrey's utube channel!

message 21: by Sara (new)

Sara Lingerman Ditto to Zoom⬆️ Jeffery’s YouTube...Toil and Trouble: Amazing!! None of the frippery of the “blessed be” crowd, its snarky, honest and FABULOUSLY witchy!!

message 22: by Alex (new)

Alex Johnson Love his books....Toil and Trouble is a gem!

message 23: by Ann (new)

Ann Boy have I been out of the loop. I’ll be ordering this one tonight. I love everything he writes.

message 24: by Draagonfly (new)

Draagonfly FINALLY I know WHY I love Augusten's books so much! This makes perfect sense! I can't wait for it to get here so I can read it!

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