Interview with Augusten BurroughsApril, 2008
Augusten Burroughs first opened his life up to public consumption with his childhood memoir, Running with Scissors. Augusten now shares with Goodreads the details of his new book about his father, A Wolf at the Table.
Goodreads: Augusten, hundreds of people on Goodreads have already put your new book, A Wolf at the Table, on their "to read" bookshelf. What do you think fans of your other books will find most surprising about this new one?
Augusten Burroughs: Hmmm, well. Probably the fact that Wolf isn't a funny book. It's a brutal, harrowing memoir with the pace of something closer to a thriller. People often say to me after reading Running with Scissors, "Wow, you had such a terrible childhood." And I always think, "But those were the good years." Essentially, I served dessert first. It's time now for dinner.
GR: A Wolf at the Table describes your turbulent relationship with your father. The father-son dynamic is the core of a lot of literature. Have you read any father-son stories, true or fictional, that have resonated with you in a memorable way?
AB: I looked. I truly looked and maybe I didn't look hard enough or in the right places, but the books about the father/son dynamic that I saw were mostly about bonding. Father gives life lessons to son. Son expresses gratitude to father for being a pal. Both bond over backyard baseball. And I look at the father/son literature and I think, "Did every single person in the world have a great dad except for me? Am I truly the only one who had a monster as a father? It's almost like there's some sort of literary taboo —as if all father/son books must contain this very specific formula of Dad-wisdom, bonding over athletics and shoulder-punch "love-ya, kid" kinds of stuff. My father wasn't like that. First he killed my pets, then he killed my childhood, and things went downhill from there.
GR: Memoir scandals have become almost cliché in the publishing industry lately. What's the big deal? Why do you think there's such a feeding frenzy around a memoir's degree of truth? Is truth subjective? Shouldn't a writer have license to present the story of his life as he sees fit?
AB: It's almost like, when a certain breed of dog becomes really popular after winning Westminister, all of a sudden, these cretins spring up from out of nowhere and they grab a couple of dogs and start making them over and over and over, generating genetically weaker and more defective animals, all because they are trying to cash in. So it's like there's this new crop of puppy pill memoirists. Of course, some people have accused me of this very thing, of making things up and lying and selling my soul to the devil. And I always feel like, "Can't people tell a true trainwreck when they see one???"
GR: Memoir writing must be something like investigative reporting on your own life. Did the process of writing A Wolf at the Table change your understanding of your father or your memory of him? Did you uncover anything you didn't know going in?
AB: Well, it did. Because after my father died I inherited a series of diaries he kept during the years Wolf takes place. And my uncle, my father's brother, sent up a box of documents — school papers, photographs, personal writings — that really showed me a side of my father I had never seen before. My father revealed nothing of himself to me. As a matter of fact, when I was twenty, I tried to learn French and I was so excited, you know? I had these French tapes and I told my father about them. He said, "Son, it's really imposible to learn a language after the age of five. Don't waste your money on things like those French tapes." So I just gave up, figured he was right. Well, after he died I learned my father spoke four languages, all of which he learned as a young adult: German, Latin, French, Greek and something else, which I now can't recall. So yes, the process of not only writing but researching the book gave me startling new insights into the man. As well as confirming much I already, unfortunately, knew.
GR: Goodreads member Gina states, "Burroughs is a genius when it comes to maintaining a sense of humor while exploring with appropriate sincerity subject matter that in lesser hands could have found its place in a support group instead of on a bookshelf. The humor is in word play and scene-setting, not in, oh, say, alcoholism." Can you describe your approach to humor? Do you ever feel pressured to be funny, even just at cocktail parties, knowing that people expect that from you?
AB: Well, I love Gina for calling me a genius. But she should see me attempt to operate a vending machine. Okay, my approach to humor? I don't actually have one. My sense of humor is just there, within me, like an infected toe or a tumor. It really formed, sharpened, during the ages of twelve, thirteen —that period where my life was in utter chaos. It's a defense mechanism, to be all New York Psychotherapist-y about it. Because it was either, "I slit both wrists right now. Or I ponder the chicken breast that is sitting right now on the floor under the chair. What'll it be?"
GR: You are remarkably open with the events of your life and the thoughts in your head. Is there anything that you consider off limits, too private to write about?
AB: Nothing is too private to write about. But there are things too boring to write about or too, well, sort of already covered to write about. I mean, I could write DRY II, DRY III, DRY IV. I could write another collection of personal essays from what has happened to me in the last year alone. I don't seek out my material — it finds me. I am magnetic, somehow. But no, there is nothing about MYSELF that I wouldn't reveal or write about. I don't care how horrendous or ridiculous I may appear in person or in print. There is great freedom in not caring what other people think.
GR: Do you have any plans to write more fiction?
AB: Big plans for fiction, yes.
GR: Each of your books has had a very different writing trajectory. You've described writing Sellevision in seven days; in contrast, Dry was finished seven years after you started journaling about your experience with alcoholism. Describe a typical day spent writing now. Do you have a routine?
AB: I don't have a fixed routine. I write every day but I don't "write" every day, if that makes any sense. In other words, I email with my friends constantly and sometimes I'll pull out something I've written and save it. Or, I might write about something that happened that particular day and file it away. But I don't sit down at nine in the morning and begin writing and then take a break for lunch and stop at four. I have no structure like that. I am at my computer constantly, more or less attached to it. I live on-line and hate being off-line and don't care how unhealthy it is. Now, when I'm cranking against a deadline and I have to really pull my &*%$ together, then I will work around the clock until it's done. Wolf took way longer than I expected, it was much harder to write and I just wanted to be hit by a truck by the time I was finished, I was so totally drained. I don't know what I expected writing that book to be like, but MAN.
GR: Blogging is a sort of slapdash memoir writing for many, and you yourself keep a blog on your website. What do you think about the current blogging phenomenon?
AB: I don't really think of my blog as a real blog. It's a lame blog. It's more like my when-the-mood-strikes update, or smoke signal. And what I think of blogs is just this: Some are beautifully written and many are not. But even blogs that aren't necessarily "well" written are great for the person writing them. I am a firm believer in writing-as-actual-medicine. The dark side of blogging is, of course, people can be (and are) just savage and uncivilized, deeply cruel and fully unaccountable. So in some ways, blogging is like drinking — it gives a person permission to be a total asshole.
GR: What was the last good book you read? Can you name a few of your favorite books or writers?
AB: The last really GREAT book I read was an advance copy of Haven Kimmel's Iodine. It's a novel, and it was so far over my head I had to hold my breath for much of it, but it is just spectacular and brilliant and college-age kids, especially, will totally dig it and get it. But I read a lot of science books — I love cosmology, quantum theory, particle physics. So my idea of a great read would probably put you directly into a coma.