An Interview With Creative Nonfiction Writer Augusten Burroughs

Litsa Dremousis

I believe I control the world with my mind, Augusten Burroughs writes in the title essay of his new collection, Magical Thinking: True Stories, published by St. Martin's Press this month. And who’s to say he doesn’t? Having survived a tumultuous childhood and an early career as an advertising copywriter while struggling with alcoholism, Burroughs—now a bestselling author—has indeed controlled his world. Magical Thinking is his fourth book in as many years, taking its place alongside Sellevision, his satirical novel about cable television’s home shopping networks, and his memoirs, Running With Scissors and Dry.

"I decided to stop being an alcoholic and become a New York Times bestselling author,” Burroughs writes in his new book. “The gap between active alcoholic advertising copywriter living in squalor and literary sensation with a scrapbook of rave reviews seemed large. A virtual canyon. Yet one day, I decided that's exactly what I would do.” And he did. Sellevision was well received and Running With Scissors and Dry both appeared on the New York Times bestseller list.

Running With Scissors chronicled Burroughs’s childhood with his delusional mother who, when he was 12, sent him away to be raised by Dr. Finch, her unorthodox psychiatrist. Finch engaged in feces reading (“The shit is pointing out of the pot and up toward heaven, to God”) and allowed his grown adopted son to molest Burroughs. Dry found Burroughs living in Manhattan as a successful ad copywriter and a hopeless drunk whose friend, Pighead, was dying of AIDS. Both books showcased the author’s darkly comic literary talent.

“Damaged but invigorated and fucking lucky," Burroughs describes himself in "Total Turnaround," an essay from Magical Thinking. Today Burroughs is sober, healthy, and living happily on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with his boyfriend, Dennis. But his new book, featuring essays like "Cunnilingusville" and “I Dated an Undertaker,” proves that Burroughs still has plenty of twisted tales to tell.

Poets & Writers Magazine asked Burroughs about his unconventional life and how it has inspired his writing.

Augusten Burroughs: All I ever wanted was to be a little trust fund kid whose mother went to Yale, and it's the opposite of what I got. I never wanted to have peculiar experiences. I'm not one of those writers—you know how there are some writers who go around and do weird stuff so they can write about it ...

P&W: Kind of like William T. Vollmann who goes around the world; he really throws himself into things.

AB: Right. They really look for the dwarves with the missing fingers. And I never wanted to be friends with the dwarves. I wanted a social life, you know? For some reason, I end up with all the dwarves. [Laughs.]

P&W: Along those lines, Carrie Fisher has said a couple of times that she doesn't go on as many talk shows as she's asked to because she's afraid she'd become the Joanne Worley of her generation. Do you get offers to go on talk shows?

AB: I don’t get as many because I think I'm a little too weird. I remember when Running With Scissors came out; it's not breakfast material. Like with Dry, it's not breakfast material. I imagine with this one I will, because I can talk about being on a Tang commercial. With Scissors, what was I going to talk about? Pulling shit out of the toilet? Or the pedophile? This one is more ...

P&W: Katie and Matt friendly?

AB: I would think. Unless someone has something against transsexuals.

P&W: Regarding the whole concept behind Magical Thinking—that you can control the world around you with your thoughts—how much of that do you believe?

AB: [Laughs.] It's tongue in cheek. I joke about it. I'll say to my editor, "Say something weird," and then it'll happen, and it's weird so we'll joke about it.

P&W: Do you believe in curses and things like that?

AB: Well, I think to some degree, you do have control over your fate. But there are so many variables that you absolutely can't control. When I got out of rehab, years and years and years ago, I had a problem with the whole "higher power" thing, so I decided that whatever the Baby Jesus wants me to do, I'll just do.

P&W: [Laughs.]

AB: I basically lived my life like a Magic 8 Ball, and things fell into place instantly. It was uncanny. I began happily following all the little serendipitous paths that led me to my literary agent and got me started writing, and it's all very peculiar. I mean, the way I found my agent is so strange. Remember Pighead [Augusten's close friend and former lover, chronicled in Dry]? Pighead's brother was a book designer with Doubleday, so Pighead would buy the books his brother designed. And after Pighead died, I had one of the books his brother designed in my apartment, and I read it, and I called the author and said, "Who's your agent?" That's how I got my agent. That's how I found him, after everyone turned me down.

P&W: Magical Thinking was published recently, and you've already had Scissors and Dry on the New York Times bestseller list simultaneously. Do you worry, "What do I do now?" Do you worry about topping yourself or do you just not care about it?

AB: No, I never worry about that, because you know what? That's one of the things you can't control.

P&W: It seems like the healthier approach is to not worry about it.

AB: It's hard. It's hard not to worry about it, but there's some part of me—it's so hard to explain to people—but there's some part of me that was worn down so many years ago. Just worn the fuck down, flat. This is fun, publishing and books is a lot of fun, but it's my career. You know what I mean? And my career is so not everything to me. It's just not the most important thing, so if all my books just completely tanked, I'd feel horrible for my publisher, I'd feel just horrible, not horrible enough to give them back any money ... but it wouldn't crush me, you know what I mean? To me it was an honor to have my first little book, Sellevision, published the first time. For me, that was it. That was what I wanted to accomplish. It's hard because I think I got to this place just by having such a piece of a shit life for so many years.

P&W: Has Dry been optioned?

AB: I haven't optioned Dry yet, but I optioned Sellevision, and Sellevision is apparently going into production in the fall.

P&W: Who's doing that?

AB: That is going to be done by Mark Bozak. He's going to be directing it. It's his first feature. Do you know who he is?

P&W: No.

AB: It's fucking hilarious. He's the former head of the Home Shopping Network and he was raised in a funeral home.

P&W: Perfect.

AB: It seems like a good fit. How can you fuck up Sellevision when you're the former CEO of the Home Shopping Network?

P&W: Slightly random, but do you remember when David Cronenberg shot Naked Lunch?

AB: Um, no.

P&W: This is around 1991, and it was largely believed that Naked Lunch couldn't be filmed. Cronenberg has made these great psychological horror films like Dead Ringers and his work is really illuminating and you think about it for the next two weeks because you're kind of creeped out. Anyway, an interviewer asked him, "Now that you've been able to film Naked Lunch, does anything still scare you?" And without missing a beat, Cronenberg answered, "Jerry Lewis."

AB: [Laughs.] That's funny.

P&W: Does anything still shock or repel you or have you heard everything?

AB: Things do shock and repel me and they're not the things you'd think. For example, my friend an undertaker, sent me a [Web] link, and he was saying, "You should adopt kids." So he sent me this link and it was page after page of little boys and little girls and each one had a little profile. Like, "This is Jeremy. He likes to play football and do things other kids like to do, but due to severe abuse, he has issues and wakes up one or two times a night with nightmares." And these are like six-year-old kids, five-year-old kids, four-year-old kids, and one was a teen who wanted to a championship BMX racer. And I was up until four o'clock in the morning looking at their pictures and I spent all day today looking at their pictures and it's the most horrifying thing I've ever seen. It's absolutely devastating. Devastating, and it shocks me. Those faces. And because it's a Web site, I just wanted to click, "Add to cart. Add to cart. Add to cart." That just shocks and horrifies me. People who have appalling greed shock me. It's things like that. It's not physical deformity and stupid reality TV show kind of shit. I get shocked at people's blindness sometimes and I get shocked by the level of shallowness I sometimes see in the culture. Things like that.

P&W: I know you wrote about this in "I Kid You Not" in Magical Thinking, but do you think you and Dennis will adopt?

AB: I don't think so, no. Because you know what? I'm so focused on my writing, I feel like I'd be replicating my relationship with my mother again. Like, "Not now, honey. Daddy's got to turn in his next book, Still Running With Scissors ...”

P&W: [Laughs.]

AB: “... so go play with your PlayStation." [Laughs.]

P&W: Last question: What's up next?

A.B: I'm just now finishing it. It's the next book after Magical Thinking. Right now I'm calling it Possible Side Effects. And it's [hushed voice] more stories.

P&W: When do you think it will be published?

AB: What year is it now? [Laughs.] 2004, so Possible Side Effects will be 2005, or maybe really early 2006. It's a scheduling thing. It's done. I would imagine they'll put it out in early 2006.

P&W: That's pretty good. You're averaging about what, one every year?

AB: About that. One every year, little over a year. Possible Side Effects is going to be really funny and I can tell you it was so much fun to write.

P&W: Does it cover a select time in your life or ...?

AB: It doesn't. Maybe it should be more specific, but it's kind of all over. There's one story that I love, and it's something I wrote recently. It's one of those things I never realized should be a story. But my entire life, in every single fairy tale, everyone's been Chinese. Like Robin Hood has been Chinese, Cinderella has been Chinese, that's always been my association, and I thought, "Where the fuck did that come from?" And I realized, Oh! Mrs. Chang! When I was in elementary school, Mrs. Chang would come in and read to us aloud. She wasn't our teacher, but she would come in and read us all our fairy tales. I was always just fascinated by her because this was western Massachusetts, where women were blonde and hairy ... and here's Mrs. Chang with a strong Chinese accent. I'm sure one of her kids was a professor and brought her over and said, "Mom, learn English by reading kids fairy tales." I'm sure that's what happened. I never knew why I associated all these fairy tales with being Chinese and now I know why, so I wrote about that.

P&W: So now you've decoded it. I was thinking the association came from the fairy tale "Seven Chinese Brothers." That's where I thought you were going with that.

AB: [Laughs.] But the book is filled with stories like that!