Every Augusten Burroughs memoir really gets into my head. They always seem to fit in the exact right place in my mind, like a puzzle piece or a game of Tetris for all my 90’s kids. Lust and Wonder, which will be available March 29th, is no exception, in fact it feels more like a rule. Not only is this book wonderfully hilarious and scathing at times (both towards Burroughs himself, and others) but it’s really a beautiful story of love and acceptance and damn it if that’s not where I am right now. I don’t know how he does it but he always does. What’s it? Echoing every thought and emotion, however painful at times, that allows me to laugh at myself. Augusten Burroughs will be at Busboys and Poets Wednesday March 30th. I’ll be first in line.
Brightest Young Things: I was having some technical difficulties naturally 3 minutes before you called so I was frozen in a small ball of panic.
Augusten Burroughs: Oh don’t freak out. It’s cool. Are you okay now?
BYT: I’m great. I’m not very good with technology so I get very easily flustered. That’s what this interview is actually going to be about, my inability to understand the modern world. Every day I wish we were living in a different time except I would be dead from too many babies.
AB: I kind of wish we were living in a different time too. I fantasize about living in the waaaaay past.
BYT: Your new book was a really great read. Love is the best and the worst so the fact that this particular excerpt from your life is primarily focused on relationships was really enjoyable. Is it difficult to write about who you were then if you’re not that person now? And maybe you are because I genuinely feel I change the smallest bit, but rarely.
AB: It really helps I’ve been keeping journals my whole life. That definitely helps. When I’m going back and writing about a relationship that happened in the late 90’s, for example, it helps that I have material I can go back to and draw from but having said that there have been times with Running with Scissors for example I had diaries but they weren’t as helpful as I had wished. They were sort of rambling and anxiety, very teenage sort of “I hate my life,” stuff. In that instance I was able to go back. I have an odd memory. It’s kind of always been the same. It doesn’t seem like it’s really changed as I’ve grown older. The best way I can think to explain it to someone is I generally think of myself as having a pretty awful memory. I can’t really remember what I had for dinner last night. I’m terrible with names. Right after I meet someone I forget t heir names. I’ve tried learning languages while listening to audio tapes and repeating and repeating and repeating and I just don’t seem to be able to retain those things. On the other hand I can point my head back in time and at times it seems I don’t remember anything at all about being 7, just nothing. When I sit down, if I can remember one thing then I point my head backwards as I’m sitting there writing I am flooded with memories and it’s very very specific. They are things I can’t even believe I remember. It’s very very rich. I don’t really seem to have control over what I remember. I can’t right now say for sure I’m going to remember you and this conversation for the rest of my life but it could also be that in 30 years I’ll remember that you opened it up by admitting how difficult technology is for you. It’s very unreliable in terms of what’s gonna stick and what’s not but when it is there it’s very very vivid.
BYT: It’s amazing being able to recall conversations with people and as I was reading the book I found myself trying to place things in a timeline. In the beginning of the book you talk about listening to messages on answering machines and I got very excited by that because, technology. Things like that must be helpful.
AB: A lot of that is because I documented the conversations while I was having them at the time. That’s when it’s helpful to have journals. They’re a great resource when I have seeds of conversation, whole chunks of conversation have been retained on these, by now, ancient sort of documents I have.
BYT: Millennials, that’s called paper and pen and sorry we ruined that for you.
AB: I know! I know…I’ve kind of always used computers. I’m kind of the opposite of you. I only have one period of handwritten journals and those were for Running with Scissors and they’re a mess.
BYT: Do you find, now that you’ve written more than one memoir, that as you’re living your current life with the possibility you might someday write about that, that the idea could inform your actions. Do you have a moment where you think “This could be good in a book.”
AB: There is sort of an awareness as I live my life. I’m not sure how much publishing memoirs has made me aware of that. I’ve been in the habit of writing about my daily life since I was not even ten. I kind of always think of writing about something. I’ve thought about writing about something long before I had any kind of book deal. I don’t think it changes what I do but when something happens, it’s almost like that’s the place I go. The writing is the place I go. My natural reaction to any kind of experience is I’ll write about it so I can think about it and process it. There are periods when I haven’t been writing and that’s when I really lose my way. I lose my way in terms of my own mind, my own self, my own sense of self. If I don’t go deep enough, if I’m just too shallow with my writing i.e. my thinking, I can lie to myself and get into trouble.
BYT: That’s something else I found interesting about this book. There is a moment where you sit down and write for the first time and it is what I imagined it is like for someone who is actually a writer. You sort of come to and you’ve been sitting there for 6+ hours. There are times when I’m writing, and I apologize for sounding spiritual, but it feels like something else is doing the writing for me and I don’t know where I’m going to go when I sit down but I end up somewhere. It sounds like something similar happens to you. You didn’t know you were going to start writing, even though you had been keeping journals. I always suspected writers were some kind of magical wizards.
AB: You’re right, and that’s a really beautiful description of exactly what it can feel like. It doesn’t always feel like that but it can. The goal is to reach that place where you really lose track of your surroundings. You lose a sense of time, the sort of nagging voice that a lot of people have in their heads that is sort of adding a narrative over the writing “Oh that’s not funny enough or that’s boring or where is this going to go.” That voice is absent or completely silenced so you’re only focused on the very words. It’s very seamless the way they sort of enter the page. There is almost a lack of consciousness. It sounds spooky and ridiculous, paranormal and psychobabbly to describe the process of writing in that state of mind but I just can’t think of any other way to describe it. It’s you, one’s self, sort of out of the way. There are times when I’m writing when I’m like “Where did that come from?” After I’ve written I’ll wonder where I got a word. It just comes out and it’s exactly the right word. I think it’s about being really focused on that train of thought without allowing the distracting conscious thoughts or judgments to enter the fold and pollute the writing.
BYT: Again, I’m not a writer like you, but when I do write that is how it has felt like. There are times when everything I just wrote felt exactly right.
AB: Sometimes that is the case. Some pieces of writing need very little editing even if they have imperfections. Sometimes those imperfections ring truer than any kind of fiddled with writing that you can culture.
BYT: Do you ever wonder if people are reading your books in the voice you’re writing them? Something as simple as where you’ve chosen to place a comma, for example.
AB: There is no way to really tell but that’s stylistically why there is punctuation in places that is technically not appropriate. There are definitely writersy ways of altering the cadence of a line or emphasizing some words. You want to be heard as specifically as you are expressing yourself. I can’t ever be sure if I’m coming across exactly as I intend.
BYT: This book is about the three seminal relationships of your life and this might sound terrible but I was so blown away by the fact that you were able to accomplish this. I am blessed with a mental illness myself and I find relationships to be very difficult. How does someone with as many anxieties and issues you’ve written about in this book, and others, even make this happen? I guess I’m asking for love advice. And I don’t mean to sound like I think you’re a monster. I feel like I can be at times but it is a difficult thing when you’re someone with a lot of issues.
AB: These are three primary relationships. Two of them were really disasters in different ways. There are things that I think, because of my phobias or anxieties or issues, either shouldn’t have existed in the first place or went on for too long. Ultimately I think this book is a love story and I think the way that it worked is finding someone really through chance who had a personality that was an excellent complement for mine. I found someone who was amused by and really loved all my fucked upness. That is what it takes. You gotta find someone who totally gets it and is not threatened by one’s psychological issues because they simply don’t have them and they’re not insurmountable. For Christopher they’re nothing. They’re not things he deals with. They’re not things he struggles with. They’re not things that are intimidating in the least. They’re not even real to him. He’s not threatened by them and even enjoys some of them. I’m a catastrophist and always think the worst things are going to happen. If I hear a door or a car outside it’s not just that it’s a car passing on the street it’s that a group of people have come to make a home invasion. To have someone who can laugh at that helps me to realize that it’s not real and it’s just my crazy fantasy. He doesn’t indulge them.
BYT: What was it like writing about your relationship with Christopher now that he’s your husband. Was he involved in any way? He seems very easygoing and probably didn’t mind a thing.
AB: He is, as he always has been, my literary agent. This is the first time I’ve given him a book where he is featured prominently. He was laughing about it because he knew he couldn’t take out things that embarrassed him or made him blush. His comments on the book were like they’ve always been with any book. He was very conscious about not taking stuff out about him that were too personal. He is very good at compartmentalizing and being an agent. It works, our relationship as author/agent remains compartmentalized. We don’t stay up in bed talking about my next project. I’ve been working on my next book since last Spring and he has absolutely no idea what it is and he won’t read a single word until it’s done. It’s interesting because it really hasn’t changed our agent/client relationship other than I used to make excused to go visit him at the office or call him on the phone. I have less access to him as an author but have more access as his spouse.
BYT: The second relationship you wrote about, with Dennis, you were together for a very long time. Did you feel like you needed to let him know you would be writing about him?
AB: I didn’t go over material with Dennis. We don’t have a relationship beyond what’s required because we still have an LLC together. I write about my life and how my life intersects with other people.
BYT: That’s what always fascinates me about memoirs, the reactions of people in the books because these are of course real people.
AB: You do get mixed reactions. It’s impossible to gauge and imagine how people will respond. Sometimes people are upset they’re not in the book. It’s one of those things I can’t let interfere with the writing. Not everyone can do that and I get that, I really do. There are a lot of memoirists who can never write about their families or friends and I respect that but that’s not something I have. I write about my life. At this point it’s just sort of how it’s always been for me and it’s what i continue to do. I don’t allow anything to get in the way of the writing of the story.
BYT: I really loved reading about your dogs. They were featured prominently in this book which was great because I just got a dog so I’m kind of dog-focused right now.
AB: What kind of dog did you get?
BYT: I got a long-haired Chihuahua. Her name is Lorraine Baines McFly and she looks like a tiny deer.
AB: Awww, I can tell you there’s been an update since the book. We no longer live in New York City. We live in Connecticut now in a house that was built in 1780. It’s really old and wonderful with a beautiful history. It hasn’t really been updated or bastardized and it has a lot of property. We finally have room for a Great Dane so we got a Great Dane puppy. We now have three dogs. My relationships with dogs have always been some of my best relationships, period. It’s always funny to me how far behind science is. Every once in a while I’ll read something in one of my science journals like “Scientists now believe dogs can interpret facial reactions,” and it’s like every dog owner has known that since time began. Dogs are just brilliant. I’m glad you liked the stories about the dogs. There will be more for sure.
BYT: I’m not sure I knew real love until I got this dog and my heart cracked wide open in a way I’ve never felt for another human being.
AB: I don’t see that as a problem. Dogs develop one’s ability to love in a very very powerful way. Love really is love and dogs just develop that seed of love within us and it just expands. In my experience the love for a dog just grows. Every single day I love the dogs just a little bit more.