Although Augusten Burroughs achieved moderate success with his debut novel, Sellevision, it was his 2002 memoir, Running with Scissors, that catapulted him into the literary stratosphere. Indeed, few writers have spun a bizarre childhood and eccentric personal life into literary gold with as much wit and panache as Burroughs, whose harrowing accounts of dysfunction and addiction are offset by an acerbic humor readers and critics find irresistible.
Born Christopher Robison (he changed his name when he turned 18), Burroughs is the son of an alcoholic father who abandoned his family and a manic-depressive mother who fancied herself a poet in the style of Anne Sexton. At age 12, he was farmed out to his mother's psychiatrist, a deeply disturbed -- and disturbing -- man whose medical license was ultimately revoked for gross misconduct. In Running with Scissors, Burroughs recounts his life with the pseudonymous Finch family as an experience tantamount to being raised by wolves. The characters he describes are unforgettable: children of assorted ages running wild through a filthy, dilapidated Victorian house, totally unfettered by rules or inhibitions; a variety of deranged patients who take up residence with the Finches seemingly at will; and a 33-year-old pedophile who lives in the backyard shed and initiates an intense, openly homosexual relationship with the 13-year-old Burroughs right under the doctor's nose.
That he is able to wring humor and insight out of this shocking scenario is testimony to Burroughs's writing skill. Upon its publication in 2002, Scissors was hailed as "mordantly funny" (Los Angeles Times), "hilarious" (San Francisco Chronicle), and "sociologically suggestive and psychologically astute" (The New York Times). The book became a #1 bestseller and was turned into a 2006 movie starring Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin, and Joseph Fienes.
[Although the doctor who "raised" Burroughs was never named in the memoir, six members of the real-life family sued the author and his publisher for defamation, claiming that whole portions of the book were fabricated. Burroughs insisted that the book was entirely accurate but agreed in the 2007 settlement to change the wording of the author's note and acknowledgement in future editions of the book. He was never required to change a single word of the memoir itself.]
Since Running with Scissors, Burroughs has mined snippets of his life for more bestsellers, including further installments of his memoir (Dry, A Wolf at the Table) and several well-received collections of razor-sharp essays. His writing continues to appear in newspapers and magazines around the world, and he is a regular contributor to National Public Radio's Morning Edition.
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Some fun and fascinating outtakes from our interview with Burroughs:
"When I was very young, maybe six or seven, I used to make little books out of construction paper and wallpaper. Then I'd sew the spine of the book with a needle and thread. Only after I had the actual book did I sit down with a pencil and write the text. I actually still have one of these little books and it's titled, obliquely, Little Book."
"Well, all of a sudden I am obsessed with PMC. For those of you who think I am speaking about plastic plumbing fixtures, I am not. PMC stands for Precious Metal Clay. And it works just like clay clay. You can shape it into anything you want. But after you fire it, you have something made of solid 22k gold or silver. So you want to be very careful. Anyway, I plan to make dog tags. So there's something."
"I'm a huge fan of English shortbread cookies, of anything English really. I very nearly worship David Strathairn. And I'm afraid that if I ever return to Sydney, Australia, I may not return."
"I will never refuse potato chips or buttered popcorn cooked in one of those thingamajigs you crank on top of the stove."
"And my politics could be considered extreme, as I truly believe that people who molest or otherwise abuse children should be buried in pits. And I do believe our country has been served by white male presidents quite enough for the next few hundred years. I really could go on and on here, so I'd best stop."
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In the winter of 2005, Augusten Burroughs took some time out to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors, and pastimes.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz was the first book I read as an adult, at the age of twenty-four. Until this time, I'd never had the opportunity to sit down and read. Reading takes solitude and it takes focus. My life had been extremely chaotic. By the time I was twenty-four, I was already an active alcoholic. But during a brief period of sobriety, I went to a local bookstore and selected Midaq Alley out of all the other books, simply because I liked the cover. It turned out to be a profound experience for me. I was completely absorbed in the book, in the experience of reading. I felt transported from my life into a different, better life. From that moment forward, I was a heavy reader, often devouring three or four books a week.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
Not in order, here are ten of my favorite books.
The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers -- While the prose is magnificent, the reason I love this book is because I relate so strongly to the little girl at the center of the story, who wants a larger life for herself, who feels trapped and lonely and tired of being a child, ready to be an adult.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole -- The first time I read this book, I came to the last page and then turned right to the beginning and read it again, straight through. It's a satiric masterpiece and features one of the most eccentric, insane, vividly realized characters ever created. It's the ultimate "misfit" story of somebody who truly does not fit into the world, does not see life the way others do. It's also an astonishing portrait of a son's relationship with his mother.
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton -- I cherish all of Wharton's books, but Ethan Frome stands apart from the others. It's riveting and heartbreaking and perfectly written.
Fortune's Rocks by Anita Shreve -- It's a beautiful and heartbreaking story of a complex relationship between a man and a woman that takes place at the turn of the nineteenth century. The location, the political climate, the social climate, all of this I find fascinating. I have read all of Shreve's books and this is among my favorites.
A Portrait in Letters by Anne Sexton -- The inspiring thing about this fascinating memoir-in-letters is that the letters are published as they were written, complete with dreadful spelling. It is as though the poet unzips her head and lets the contents spill onto the page, caring not in the least about what others might think or how they might judge her. It's an extremely honest memoir and it's a book I believe every writer ought to read.
Anything by Elizabeth Berg -- Along with Anita Shreve, she is one of my favorite authors because of her emotional specificity. There's never a false note in a Berg novel. The Pull of the Moon continues to be a favorite, as the story of a woman sort of running away from home in order to find herself, is something I think everybody can relate to.
The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison -- One of my favorite memoirs. The prose is so crisp, so sharp and elegant, which the subject matter is so shocking. The result is a book that you read and then remember for years and years.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville -- This is one of those books you are forced to read in school and you slog your way through it, hating every moment. Lucky for me, I was never forced to read it. So the book was not ruined for me. Instead, I was shocked by the brilliance of the writing. Melville was eons ahead of his time.
She Got Up Off The Couch by Haven Kimmel -- It's funny and smart as a whip, it's heroic and has an enormous heart. I love this book and I love Haven.
Kept Boy by Robert Rodi is such a witty, clever, spirited romp of a read. He's a satirist of the highest order.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- Mike Nichols's first film -- continues to be my favorite movie. Maybe because it feels like the closest thing I have to a home movie.
Other films I love are films from the 1940s like Double Indemnity and Citizen Kane. I'm a huge fan of pictures from the 1970s, like Chinatown, Network, The Godfather, The Eyes of Laura Mars, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. A Streetcar Named Desire is one of my all-time favorite movies. As is On The Waterfront. More recent films that I love include Silkwood, The Accused, The Silence of the Lambs, Safe, American Beauty, The Hours. And this list is very incomplete.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I never listen to music when I write. And I tend to listen to NPR when I'm not writing. But I do listen to music when I'm in the car: Stevie Nicks, Julia Fordham, Carole King, Carly Simon, Patti Smith, Sinead O'Connor, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Coldplay, Great Big Sea, Tina Turner. But my favorite band is Curbside Life, out of Chicago.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I love to both give and receive very old books. For his birthday two years ago, I gave my partner a cookbook from the mid-17th century. Boiled sheep head anyone? Of course, the perfect book for book lovers (and graphic design students) would be a copy of Chip Kidd: Book One, an enormous and fascinating retrospective of the work of this most famous book jacket designer (and author). What's great about this book is that he really takes the reader through the design process, showing his initial sketches on napkins and scraps of paper, covers that were killed by the publisher or the author, and then the famous final covers we all know and love. And because Chip is a terrific and funny writer, it's a really interesting book to read, not just look at.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
My only ritual is to just sit down and write, write every day. I usually have a Blenheim ginger ale nearby. The television on the bookshelf behind me is always on, but always mute. I may have a lit candle on the table behind me. My French Bulldogs are probably snoring away. That's the ideal. But I can also write in crappy motel rooms, while standing in line, or sitting in the dentist's chair. The secret to being a writer is that you have to write. It's not enough to think about writing or to study literature or plan a future life as an author. You really have to lock yourself away, alone, and get to work.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I was rejected by every agent I contacted, except one. And he's still my agent today -- Christopher Schelling with Ralph Vicinanza, Ltd. As a writer, you can't allow yourself the luxury of being discouraged and giving up when you are rejected, either by agents or publishers. You absolutely must plow forward. I believe that if you have real talent as a writer, a true gift, you will eventually be published. But it may not happen according to your schedule. And it may not happen with the first manuscript you create. Or the second. So you have to be, if not patient, at least endlessly tenacious.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Well, like I said above -- you must never give up. Once I decided to write, to be published, I knew it would happen. I knew that if I wrote a new book every six months or every year, if I continued to read great books, eventually I would write something worthy of publication. I understood I might be in my forties or my fifties or even my sixties, but I felt confident that it would happen. The reason I was so confident is because I knew I wouldn't stop trying until it happened. And this is the secret. You don't need to be confident. You just need to be stubborn.
In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what made Burroughs's list:
Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin -- Audrey Hepburn-elegant prose and a suspenseful ticking clock pace make this the ideal summer read.
The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor -- Wonderful and a smidgen disturbing, like parasailing in shark-infested waters.
The Pull of the Moon by Elizabeth Berg -- Because sunscreen will hide your tears.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole -- Brilliant, insane,
hysterical, disturbing, gorgeous. And yet it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Kennedys.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath -- Doesn't it make you feel better to read about somebody who's worse off than you?
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald -- Read a page, have a drink, read another page, have another drink.
Contact by Carl Sagan -- It's fascinating to think there really might be someone else sharing our beach towel in the universe.
The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher -- Every page of my copy is smeared with cheese popcorn fingerprints.
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore -- So good it makes me sigh.
The Zygote Chronicles by Suzanne Finnamore -- A very funny novel, especially the parts about her friend, Mad Augusten, who lives in New York.
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