‘Running with Scissors’ author Augusten Burroughs takes his razor-sharp wit and trims the holiday tree with a collection of hilarious and heartfelt Christmas stories.
by Steven Foster
Photo by Augusten Burroughs
The moment Augusten Burroughs’ eight-year-old self confuses the identity of Santa Claus with Jesus Christ and shortly thereafter quickly, furtively fondles Santa-Jesus’ Christmas package, readers know they’re in for a uniquely Burroughs holiday. After penning his first novel (Sellevision, soon to become an NBC series), the angsty author turned his prose toward a more reflective pose. The result was the megaselling Running with Scissors, a perversely funny and shocking, genre-changing memoir of his horrific childhood (later turned into film by Nip/Tucker and Gleemeister Ryan Murphy). The addiction memoir Dry (currently on Showtime’s development slate) was met with the same wild critical and commercial success. Two collections of essays followed and then another full-length memoir. That book, A Wolf at the Table, devoted solely to his mercilessly cruel father, sold millions but angrily divided critics who began to doubt the author’s almost unimaginable tales, what with that nasty libel suit from Burroughs’ Scissors siblings and the whole James Frey debacle and public flogging about a recent rash of fibbing memoirists. Burroughs was crucified in the press, guilty by accusation and association.
But the charges didn’t stick. Because the scary thing about life is that it is so strange, so maddeningly twisted in its tragicomedy, and often features more oh-if-this-was-in-a-movie-no-one-would-ever-believe-it moments than we care to admit and can scarcely believe. Burroughs’ moments just happen to be funnier and more frightening than most of ours. The lawsuit verdict came down in his favor, and the guilty Frey vanished from sight. Burroughs continued triumphantly tapping his pain on the keyboard and climbing up bestseller lists and packing in bookstore signing events. When you spend time with Burroughs, you realize: someone like this can’t possibly have made up a life like this, a pretty awful life, to be sure. This life—from the dubious best to its uniform worst—sculpted every curve of his admittedly, joyfully warped personality, created every smashed atom of who he is, from his stream-of-consciousness caffeine-speed speech to his wry, slightly skewed but always inventively focused view.
Steven Foster: How’s Austin treating you?
Augusten Burroughs: I love it here. But I’m never here for long.
Where are you off to next?
In the morning I have a meeting in LA, and then at the end of that meeting I have to go to the airport and wait for a few hours and fly to Portland.
That said, I’ve got to ask the obvious. Why Christmas essays? It seems like such an interesting choice after your last book.
The last story in the book is basically how I’ve become domesticated and I have the house with the gravel driveway and the washing machine. I did think it was sort of the “after” life of what I had “before” with all the horror. But I hadn’t had that perfect Christmas. I never had that, and now, of course, I could have that because my life was more normal.
So I put up a tree, and the next morning the house flooded, and I realized later that it was crazy. Even Christmas for me is a disaster. I don’t go around seeking this stuff, it finds me.
Christmas has always been my favorite holiday and not for any religious reason, but because it’s filled with bright and sparkly things. But every Christmas I’ve had has been really cruddy, worse than the one before it. But in even my really bad holidays, there’s always been some redeeming quality, something perfect and shiny right in the center. And I think that’s been brought home to me with the last story described in the book. Because that was the worst Christmas I’d had, but it was also the best. And I think that made me look at my other holidays again and made me want to write about them.
The holidays are rife with story.
There’s pressure to have a perfect Christmas, and I think a lot of people feel that pressure. You know what? I just don’t think it exists. I think if you want the perfect Christmas, you’re gonna have to pay 4½ million dollars for it, because it’s a Norman Rockwell painting and it’s hanging on a wall. Once you accept that the ham of life is always going to be burned at Christmas, you can focus on the potatoes. You can focus on everything else and not feel so much pressure to make it perfect.
I don’t know why, I’ve never had that feeling about my life. My life’s always been such a garbage dump that I never thought, Well why can’t I now have the perfect life? I’ve just always understood that you might get what you asked for, you might get Perfect, but it’s gonna come along with its little traveling companion, Chaos. For some reason, I had a different aspect about Christmas, it should be alone, and spared. And that’s not true. So now I don’t have any such expectations.
You’re famous as a memoirist, but your first book was a novel.
It never really occurred to me to write about myself. And the only reason I had, or have, or do is because after I found an agent for Sellevision, I didn’t have another idea for a novel, but I did have this other writing that I had for myself, my journal. So I decided to show it to my new literary agent. I just wanted to find out if this kind of writing, this style of writing that I was just doing for me . . . imagine if I could take this style of writing, which to me was no style. And my agent really surprised me and said, “Why didn’t you show this to me first?” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “This is a book.”
A very successful one at that. Any jones to write another novel?
I will write fiction again. I’m doing a TV series, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with me.
I was talking with some friends in LA, and we were discussing your books, and someone said, “I think he’s got a deal.” And I didn’t know if it was a series or a movie. So what’s that about?
Well, one of them, Dry, is going to be a series for Showtime.
Get the f—k out! Are you serious?
Yeah. And then I’m doing an original series for CBS. And then Sellevision, that’s going to be a weekly series for NBC, although that’s not my deal. I sold that book, and the people who bought it are the ones who got that deal to occur. So right now there are those three projects. My agent doesn’t think I should have more than the two right now though, because I’ve never done it.
I love LA. I love the people. That’s why I did it. I didn’t do it because I had some burning desire to do television. I don’t watch TV. I did it because I met these people and just loved them, and I wanted to please them.
And that’s so you.
I don’t mean it in some sick, treacly way. I liked being around them. And I think, honestly, because I’m not a TV person is a benefit. Although sometimes I’ll have an idea and tell them, and they’ll say, “That’s on TV right now and it’s a hit.” But the good thing is that I’ll come up with an idea that’s never been seen before and then another idea that’s been seen to death. But I like that. It’s like when I got into advertising. When I got into advertising I didn’t know a thing about it. And it worked out really well.
So who are you working with in LA?
I’m working with everybody! CBS, Showtime, and I’m working with Catalyst, the production company. I haven’t actually met him yet. It’s Ashton Kutcher’s production company. But I’m working with his producer. A bunch of people, but they’re great.
That’s great. You really lucked out. And it couldn’t happen to a more talented guy.
What do you mean I lucked out? Are there too many horrible people there mostly?
That’s what you were saying, but you won’t say it. But that’s what you mean, right?
Actually, that’s what everyone says. Everyone always bitches about LA, but it’s always been a really good town for me.
Well, see, that’s what I think, too. I don’t get it. I don’t get all the . . . I don’t know. Maybe whatever horrible things people say about LA people, maybe I’m one of them. And that’s why I like these people. It’s possible.
Birds of a dark feather?
Like Dexter meeting people on Death Row thinking, “These people aren’t so bad!”
[Laughs] That’s awesome. So tell me, when Running with Scissors came out, were you ready for that?
When that book was just about to come out, I was downloading applications to community colleges, because I couldn’t do advertising anymore. So I was going to do something else. But Running with Scissors came out, and it popped really quickly, and it kept growing and growing. It’s the sort of thing you can’t ever really plan for. And you shouldn’t even really hope for it, because that’s just gonna derail you and distract you. And it’s most likely not going to happen. I was very fortunate. I don’t know why.
When it sold to the studio, did you have any input in the film?
I didn’t have any input, but I made myself available to the director and to the cast.
You should have had more input. It had such promise. A cast like that. Ryan
He was very passionate about it, and I was impressed by his passion and his dedication. He was very dedicated to that. So I’m happy for him now that he’s got another hit TV show. You know, Ryan’s a really sweet, talented guy. And it was a fascinating experience to watch the actors. And they’re all so hugely talented.
Was it difficult to see your life up on screen like that? I mean, it’s one thing to write about it, and it’s another thing to watch it replayed that way.
No, because I’m emotionally removed from it. I mean, I saw the movie. But to comprehend it or really see it, I’ve never been able to really judge it or see it in that way.
When the movie was being filmed, that’s the time the lawsuit from your Scissors family came out.
That’s right, it was at the same time. Or around the same time.
How did that impact you?
It didn’t make me happy. It was a pain. Because now there were meetings. And it dragged on forever. It finally settled in my favor, but of course by that point it was no longer a story, so no one ever knew what happened to me. [The verdict was in his favor.]
I remember Stevie Nicks talking about when she got sued by some woman who said Nicks stole “Sara” from her, and Nicks was just so pissed off that she had to actually hire a lawyer and take her time and money to fight back just to debunk a claim that was bullshit and, basically, protect what was always hers from being taken away from her. It would have been cheaper and easier to let the other person win, but it would have been a lie. And letting a liar win.
Even if it’s the most baseless thing in the world, go ahead, get your lawyer and explain how it’s baseless. And it’s expensive. And it’s a shame that that’s how it is now.
And then that whole James Frey thing happened with him getting snagged about how much of his “memoir” was actually invented, or at least wildly exaggerated. It didn’t help the cause any.
Yeah, it became a really bad time for memoirists.
You wrote Magical Thinking and Possible Side Effects, which were collections of essays, but then returned to the long form memoir with A Wolf at the Table. Was the demon of your father so great?
In a way, I suppose. I was going to write about him earlier in Running with Scissors, but I couldn’t summarize him. Because he wasn’t accurate when he was summarized, and I realized that was just a big can of worms. I just can’t write about him, and I thought, Good, I don’t want to anyway.
But then he died, and I just felt compelled to write it. Not because he died and because I would have been worried about what he said. My father never read my books, and he would not have read A Wolf at the Table. If he would have been forced to read it, he would have had some practiced phrase or opinion. He would never have had an actual opinion.
I knew I was going to write it, but I didn’t know if I’d publish it. I have other memoirs, I just haven’t published them. But I thought this was just so different. It’s not funny at all. It’s very dark. It’s just a very disturbing, disturbing little book about my father. And I decided, You know what? I needed this book, and I couldn’t find it when I was looking. There’s probably other guys out there who had a very similar father, I just haven’t met ’em. But I think they’re there.
The reaction was as darkly violent as the cover was.
Kind of what I figured would happen did happen. It got really mixed reviews. I mean, just horrible and really good. Sort of split. But it really resonated with people. When I went to my events, a whole new audience showed up.
Because you’re gay and you’ve always been open about being gay, you’ve had a considerable gay following. Who was showing up now?
A lot of them were women who were married to these guys. And I never really thought of them. I thought it was gonna be a lot of guys. It was sort of the Nicole Simpsons of the world who came, and they said, “I know him. I was married to him.” Or, “He was my father.” And these were my biggest events, biggest talks, and it was very unexpected and very surreal. There were just so many people who were sharing similar experiences.
Speaking of marriage, you’ve been with your partner Dennis forever.
We recently separated. We recently split.
Whoa, sorry. I didn’t know. I’m so sorry.
No, that’s . . . thank you.
You were together a long time.
Yeah, just about 10 years.
What happened? You can tell me to f–k off if you want to.
No, no. I don’t even know how to answer that. I don’t really know what happened. I don’t think he does either. You know, it’s a bunch of different things. It’s so many different things. One thing is, um . . . I’m very difficult to live with. I am. I mean, I’m the only person I know who’s been able to live with me for 10 years.
[Laughs] Jokes aside, I’m really sorry. That’s a tough place to be in.
It’s tough, it’s very tough.
Was it amicable or was it ugly?
No, it is, it is [amicable]. We have two dogs we parent together, we have business things, we talk. We’re still in stages as well. It’s all very new. Right in time for my holiday book, of course.
Like most of your life. And everyone’s basically. Fact is far more WTF? than fiction. But the book’s amazing. A really great read, Augusten. I don’t know why, but it seemed really alive and bright to me. The language seemed really refreshed. Kind of like you hit reboot in some ways.
I felt like I did hit reboot in some ways. I really loved writing it. I really, really loved writing it. My father was a minister before he was an atheist. And that gene is in me. I really wanted people to sort of get Christmas the way I do. I really wanted people to enjoy it and not feel this just terrible burden.
I lived in New York since the ’80s and it’s cool be cynical about Christmas. Cool people are cynical about it. But why shouldn’t it be okay to be cool to like it, you know? And by Christmas I also mean Chanukah and Kwanzaa, any holiday. I don’t think you have to be traditional how you celebrate it or acknowledge it. You just have to be you.
Steven Foster interviewed Rita Mae Brown in the November issue of OutSmart magazine.