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Augusten Burroughs: an engaging extremist

Wed 25 May 2005 In: Books

At the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, Claire Gummer talks skid marks and cruel streaks with a New York Times best-selling author whose real life seems stranger than fiction. Augusten Burroughs "Oh! You've got the Diana Look!" gay American writer Augusten Burroughs tells his publicist just as I arrive to interview him. At least I think the exclamation is directed at his publicist, but it turns out to be meant for me. As a compliment. The morphing of a dowdy Auckland dyke into a fluffed-hair-and-frills princess seems so unlikely it's startling, but the man's enthusiasm is gratifying. Augusten is after all so fastidious with his own appearance that, as he reports in Magical Thinking, he spent hours a day at model school peering into a mirror and perfecting every conceivable facial expression. But (as he also recalls in this latest autobiographical volume) he's the guy who once wore polyester stretch-pants with bell-bottoms and wanted to be Christine Jorgensen, the world's first famous transsexual. So what does all that mean? It means that Augusten Burroughs has amazing observational skills - especially when it comes to the queer, the quirky and the kitsch. And it means that should you read his books, you will enter a world that seems familiar yet ever so strange. THE EMPEROR OR THE SAINT? Augusten is to some extent a self-made man. He changed his name when he was 18. That was partly, he says, to dissociate himself from his past and certain people in it, for reasons that will become clear when you read his memoir of childhood, Running With Scissors (or watch the movie, set to star Annette Bening and Gwyneth Paltrow). He needed, too, to recreate himself. So he selected a surname that he shares, more or less, with a train-robbing ancestor, and he hit on a new first name. “It sounded clean and modern." He pronounces it "Au-gust-en" but, he says, "people try to elevate it". So during his Auckland visit he has become "Au-gust-en", "Au-gust-us" (like the emperor) and "Au-gust-ine" (like the saint). He answers to all of the above and to "Chris", the name he grew up with, so perhaps he is Mr Malleable: whoever we want him to be. His autobiographical writing sometimes includes "imaginative re-creation... not intended to portray actual events", so perhaps he can be whoever he wants to be. As a former adman — an award-winning one — he has more than enough nous to offer a sales pitch with himself as product. But he says that in his career as an author, most of his advertising experience has been completely irrelevant. He can come up with only two transferable skills: abilities to get down to business (he doesn't wait to be inspired) and to communicate easily with journalists or on stage. "Au-gust-en" has written three autobiographical books so far. In them his name isn't the only one that's been changed, and no wonder. Few would want to be linked with the characters he portrays as his parents (both neglectful, one far from stable and the other alcoholic); his guardian (who was also his mother's shrink, and who read faeces the way some psychics read tea-leaves); his first lover (a 30-something who preyed on the pre-teen Augusten); or his drinking buddy (an undertaker who was a hopeless drunk) mention just five who feature in Augusten's pages. He can be merciless with others — and just as hard on himself. SKID MARKS AND CRUEL STREAKS If he is trying to promote himself, he's doing a poor job. Asked about what he makes of critics' comparison of him with fellow gay writer David Sedaris, he says, "It's very flattering. I think David Sedaris is a wonderful, wonderful writer. He's just a gorgeous prose stylist. I think he's more polished than I am." Later he rates his own writing as "energetic and funny but there are horrible skid-marks" (this from a New York Times best-selling author?!). And, he says, "I do have a cruel streak and it's really apparent in Magical Thinking... I'm not mean-spirited; I'm not now. That tone is not in the next book [Possible Side Effects, due 2006]." It's true that if you'd assumed Magical Thinking was a sweet-talking self-improvement manual or a starry-eyed new-age guide, you'd be in for a shock. There are some mean or thoughtless moments in it; his comparison of baldness with breast cancer is one of them. But his description of the lentil recipe he calls Lesbian Expander is authentic: I've cooked dinners like that. And his story of bedtime with Bentley the bulldog just begged to be read aloud in our household, where dogs also share our sleeping space. Augusten does seem awfully hard on himself. Surely few would admit to reaching the depths of squalor and self-destruction that he chronicles in his memoir of clawing his way to sobriety, Dry. Or is his confessional writing a sophisticated sibling of the American trash-TV talk-show episodes with such names as "I had sex with a virgin vampire AIDS baby"? You decide. It should be said that when he started Dry, it never even occurred to Augusten that it might be published. And his books don't belong in the too-hard basket; they're funny ("very funny", as Kim Hill reiterated when she interviewed him this month). And the response they've received suggests that these books won't feel at home in the trash-can, either. The American Psychiatric Association journal Psychiatric Services recently published a not-so-nice review — whose title I won't repeat; to me it spells defamation — but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule. The praise that fills page one of Running with Scissors reads like a Who's Who of international media. Reviews don't matter, actually. "I don't care at all about the critical response," Augusten asserts. What matters is the reaction he gets from ordinary people. Sometimes it's weird — such as the confession by an elderly woman that she had been forced to undergo enemas using a well-known brand of soft drink. But, Augusten says of the responses, "99.9% of the time, they're wonderful. They're profoundly wonderful." And when people take the time to relate something deeply personal (fizzy enemas aside), he is deeply moved. THE ADDICT'S CHOICE Our interview is in Bellini, the bar at the Hilton Auckland (the hotel that's home to the writers festival this year). Augusten is an alcoholic, albeit long sober, so I wonder aloud how often he hangs out in bars. "Quite often," he replies. "It doesn't bother me at all. It's almost as if I never drank." At the festival he has met and been impressed by fellow writer Stella Duffy, a lesbian, expat Kiwi and breast-cancer survivor. So I read him a comment from her interview in which she says, "As someone who has had a disease I truly don't believe that alcoholism is a disease... Any form of addiction is a choice. I didn't have any choice about my disease and they are utterly, utterly different kettles of fish." I expect he will disagree vehemently, but he doesn't. "I think she's absolutely right," he declares. "I never, ever consider it a disease... I think that's why the success rate [in rehabilitation] is so low: because we treat it as a disease." Augusten believes addicts have a choice, to live or die. "It's extremely empowering," he says, "when you realise that you are the one in control." He should know, because he has made his choice more than once. "When I relapsed, there were no mysterious forces at work. I bought a bottle of alcohol and poured it down my throat." "WHEN I STARTED WRITING, AN ITCH WAS SCRATCHED" It's there in Dry, though that memoir doesn't spell out everything that happened at the time. One of its omissions is that writing turned him around. He had an epiphany, that if he kept drinking he would die without ever having tried to write. The immediate result was that he wrote his first book, a novel that he describes with characteristic self-deprecation as "okay as a plane read". What is important is this: "I wrote Sellevision in seven days, and it changed my life." Writing replaced alcohol - "when I started writing, an itch was scratched" - and he was happy to dedicate himself to it, even if he couldn't get published for several decades. As it happened, a publisher soon accepted that first effort. Compared with alcohol, writing is an innocent addiction. "I don't wake up with a hangover or wondering who I need to apologise to. I don't have all those lies to keep track of." There is one chemical dependency he continues to pursue with enthusiasm: nicotine. He doesn't smoke but he chews nicotine gum in great quantities, he says, pulling wads of it from his carry-bag by way of illustration ("I'm going to end up with half a jaw," he quipped to two years ago). In fact he admits to being a connoisseur of the stuff. He especially enjoys the gum from New Zealand; he orders it to be sent to him in the US because "it's softer and it has a more mellow taste." AN EXPERIMENT IN LIVING This man is larger than life, in person and on the page. It must be partly because he had an extreme childhood: little effective education after fourth grade; massive maternal meltdown; placement in the unruly extended family of an eccentric, anything-goes psychiatrist; regular sex before 14; and so on — all experiences that set him apart from David Sedaris, the gayboy-next-door type. Augusten's life with the shrink was one of many "experiments in living" that people attempted during the 1970s. One result of his own past, he says, was a need to be "deprogrammed" when he emerged. "I had to be taught to think; I had a very close friend who taught me to think." He believes cult-like environments are less likely to have such a major impact these days. "We have more power now as individuals and we are connected more now to a greater world," he says, citing the internet. Another result of his 'abnormal' past must surely be his wholehearted embrace of 'normal' life. He finds the simple routines of domesticity "very soothing" - with the exception of paying bills, at which his partner fortunately excels. He loves his daily life with Dennis and their dogs. "I'm so, so lucky; I pinch myself that I get to do what I absolutely love to do." But he remains engagingly extreme, even in his embrace of normality: he's a recreational sheet-ironer, for heaven's sake. Augusten admits he tends to be either fully on or fully off, black or white. "I strive for the greys," he says. "That's where the richness lies." Claire Gummer - 25th May 2005    

Credit: Claire Gummer

First published: Wednesday, 25th May 2005 - 12:00pm

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