Our extended chat with Augusten Burroughs
In an extended, online-only interview, Augusten Burroughs, the author of ''Running With Scissors,'' tells Karen Valby about watching the film version, writing about his dad, and adjusting to the post-James Frey world
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your memoir Running With Scissors kicks off with your mother’s descent into psychosis. Do you feel like you dodged a bullet with mental illness?
AUGUSTEN BURROUGHS There were two things I used to worry about all through my teens and a little bit in my early 20s: My father was covered head to toe with psoriasis — he was actually photographed once for a medical textbook, that’s how severe it was. And then I had my mother, who was mentally ill. So I was always worried that one or the other would happen to me. I was terrified that writing was the door to mental illness, so I was worried to even think of becoming a writer. Whenever she wrote and got really intense with her writing, that’s when she’d have a psychotic break, so it was literally like the door that unlocked her mental illness and her psychoses. When my mother was psychotic, she was not there. Her body was there, but my mother was nowhere to be seen in that person. It was horrible, and as a result, all my life I have been prepared for everything to change. Psychologically, I’m primed for that kind of thing — disaster, if I dare to hope that I can be happy.
When you saw an early screening of Running With Scissors [which stars Annette Bening as his mother], were you able to see it as entertainment, or did you want to run and cry?
I could appreciate it as a movie, but it really did hit me. I was really choked up. I remember my parents’ fights like they were yesterday, and to see it there on the screen so absolutely as it happened was just chilling. Most of the movie was chilling to me, and also weirdly comforting. I was looking at it and it was a film, and I got out of it. I still have dreams where I’m back there in that town and that life. Those stopped for a while. But it was just a great feeling. It’s the ultimate moving on from the past. It now is something completely different. In a weird way, it is like a home movie with people who are much better-looking. Alec Baldwin is my father. I know that Annette Bening and Jill Clayburgh will win Oscars. And a lot of times in Hollywood, when people play psychotic they overdo it and they get crazy. But a truly psychotic person isn’t necessarily running around screaming their head off. It’s the expression in the eyes, and it’s very subtle. Annette Bening did it. I was so absolutely astonished that she captured the look. She has the look of genuine psychosis, and you just don’t see that in film.
Why didn’t you want to write the screenplay?
Because I’m not a filmmaker. And also, at the time it would just be too overwhelming. I didn’t have the time then. I was working on so many other things. That’s the kind of thing where I would need to devote all of my energy to the film. Everything.
Are there more memoirs in your future?
I’m working on a memoir about my father. I haven’t done any actual writing, I’m just outlining it a tiny bit. When my father died, he left four journals, the only four journals he ever kept, and we just had a very disturbing relationship. So that’s going to be devastating to write… It will be a little about my childhood and about his childhood, and about my adulthood reconnecting with him. I hope to understand him better, and I know I will when I’m done with it. I need a lot of answers and I couldn’t get them while he was alive, so I’ve got to be like on TV, when they do the forensics after the crime: I have to go back and look at the DNA and look at all of the evidence and understand how it could happen. He had very poor health. He had cirrhosis of the liver because of alcoholism, and he had taken extremely huge amounts of medication to treat his arthritis and psoriasis. I have a picture of my father when he was my age now, and he looked 65; when my father was 70 he looked like 103.
Are the essay collections — last year’s Magical Thinking and the new book Possible Side Effects — thrown into the mix to buttress you for the heavier memoirs?
Kind of, yeah. When I write the memoirs, it’s all-consuming; I literally don’t do anything [else]. The essays are fun to write, especially with such a heavy memoir about my father coming up.
Are you tired of being revealing?
No. Everything that I have ever written about, I’ve met someone else who has gone through the same thing. It’s both comforting and upsetting. That’s one weird thing I’ve learned: Nothing is pure, especially with feelings. So much is wonderful and terrible. They seem to go hand in hand. I am very happy in my life now, but I’m also sad. I’m also sad. And that will never go away. Ever. And I live with it. I’m not depressed; it’s just a part of me. I can be funny, but I can just be so deadly serious that I want to drive around in a hearse all day.
Do you feel resentful of the added scrutiny you’ll face because of James Frey?
Remember Milli Vanilli? He’s like that. Writing is very hard work. All your friends are out and they’re doing stuff, and you are like, ”No, I’d rather stay home alone and write about myself.” You have to really want to be a writer to be a writer. In order to be a writer, you have to not be able to do anything else. Right after the Frey thing broke I was at a college giving a talk and this kid stood up. He was really, really nervous and he was like, ”I want to be a memoirist — is this going to affect me and my career?” He was really worried that now people are going to be doubtful. Most writers, especially memoirists, put their heart and soul into the book. I will never believe that the majority of memoirists are just making stuff up cavalierly and going on TV to swear that it is exactly the truth. I just think Frey’s a rare exception.
Do you feel like people are gunning for you now?
No. I focus on my life — otherwise, you can get addicted to your own press. You can be checking your Amazon ranking constantly. Whenever a writer tells me they’re publishing their first book, the first thing I tell them is to never look at your Amazon. You have to get used to being attacked. You become in a weird way like a product or a brand, so there’s people who slam you. There’s this magazine that runs this thing called ”Celebrity Flaws.” They’ll do a photograph really close up of someone’s cold sore. It’s absolute fixation on human perfection; they’ll show somebody’s thighs with a little bubbling. Imagine being that person. It’s cruel, but we get off on this as a culture.
When Frey said he wrote about the essence of his experience, other memoirists blasted him for that fuzzy definition of history telling. Where do you come down?
To me there’s not a gray area. Something is either true or not true. I’m the son of a logician. You need to tell people what you’re doing. To me something is true or it’s not true.
Is Running With Scissors a true story?
It’s a true story. I did not embellish it.
Dry is different. I had to combine a couple people. Dry took place over so many years. The journal itself was 1,800 pages, and it would have been very confusing if I didn’t combine people. To me I had do things to make it read easier.
Are you [and your boyfriend of six years, Dennis] going to have kids?
No… and I have mixed feelings about that. I think I would like to, but it’s just not going to happen. I love my two dogs, Bentley and Cow, like a person loves their children.
My very next thing is working on my own TV show for Showtime. I’m going to create a series, but it’s great because it gets to be anything I want. I can’t tell you what it’s about yet. I have to get my ass in gear and finish working on the bible, the first initial big bang, but I’m really excited about it because it’s about something that hasn’t been done, not correctly. Then I’m going to write my Christmas book. Every holiday I’ve ever had has been absolutely hideous. But it’s weird because I’m so stupid, I love the holidays. And then after I write my book about my father, I’m going to write a novel. That won’t be until like 2010.
Aren’t you tired?
I’m really good at just flopping in bed and watching TV. I found pizza from Whole Foods that’s better than any pizza you can get at a restaurant. And I play with the dogs. I’m good at just doing nothing. I’m able to turn it off.