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Best known for his harrowing yet hilarious memoir Running With Scissors
, Augusten Burroughs will be in town to promote the paperback release of his latest, A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father
. The reading, discussion and book signing, presented by The Brooks Fund, is free and open to the public 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 8, at Vanderbilt's Ingram Hall. The Scene
recently had the chance to correspond with Burroughs via email.For readers familiar with the cringe-worthy comedy of your previous memoirs, what should they expect when sitting down with A Wolf at the Table?
Well, it's probably best to start off by saying what they shouldn't expect: laughs. Wolf
is not a funny book. One reviewer likened it to a Stephen King novel. Because while this is the story of my boyhood relationship with my father, it is also a horror story. It is relentless and it is disturbing. The reason it's not funny like my other books--which also feature disturbing subject matter but treat the material with levity--is because I did not, myself, develop that humor "warp" in my lens until the Running With Scissors
years. Before this, when Wolf
takes place, I was much more earnest, as young children are. When I decided to publish the book, knowing its tone was so very different, I did so believing that I alone could not be the only guy (or woman, for that matter) who experienced a terrible father. And this book, I knew, would speak to them. What I didn't expect is what happened: I must have signed thousands of copies with these words: "Happy Father's Day." This stunned me. But one reader really made me understand when she told me, "I'm sorry. I feel guilty asking you to sign 'Happy Father's Day' but I had a really wonderful dad. I know I'm lucky. And I just wanted to give this to him as a way to say...thanks." When she told me this, I understood. It made sense. I hadn't even considered that audience--those who had a pretty great dad. So I think it's a book that does two things: It can comfort a person who has experienced what I did or was married to a man such as my father, and it can inspire within a person who had a good father a feeling of gratitude. I never would have imagined that this, of all the books, would be my biggest-selling hardcover. And it was that way around the world.
In light of revelations about the falsity of other memoirs (now forever linked to Oprah's Book Club), you've received some criticism yourself. But even these critics must realize that all of our memories are malleable, especially those from childhood. If a memoir resonates with a reader, does its veracity really even matter?
Veracity matters to me. And while I do believe that any two (or more, obviously) people may experience the same event and then report very different, even opposite interpretations ("The party was so much fun. I met so many interesting people." vs. "The party was so awful I wanted to leave as soon as I got there. All these pretentious people with nothing better to do than cluster together in little cliques."), I also feel strongly that to invent
in a memoir is both counterproductive and misleading. While it's one thing to re-create dialogue, to put words in somebody's mouth that you, with your knowledge of that person, your experience with them and in your best assessment, they would either have said, would have been likely to say or could have said, it's another thing altogether to attribute to another person words or actions which are contrary to their nature, contrary to historical fact and which exist only to make one's memoir "more compelling."
In my particular case, I rely on my memory. Over many years, my memory has demonstrated itself to be a reliable tool. I can offer no proof or substantiation that I recall being a year-and-a-half and sitting in my high-chair, peering through the tiny hole of a Saltine cracker. But I know this occurred because I can see it. For many in the media, this is simply not enough. In light of the products released into the stores and marketed as "memoirs" which were in fact partial or complete fictions, there is a great deal of skepticism with respect to memoir in general, but my memoirs in particular. It is wondered, how can one person have experienced so much? And how can anybody recall such tiny details from so early in life?
So I can actually understand this skepticism, even if I find it offensive. Imagine saying to a woman who was raped, "This did NOT happen the way you say it did. You asked for it. You flirted with the guy." No journalist would ever say such a thing. But they feel comfortable saying exactly this to me because I am male, and I am "funny" and I have been successful--something which I have no control over.
The ironic thing is, I consider myself to have a very poor memory. I always have. My ability to willfully recall events is extremely limited. That said, I do possess a somewhat unusual memory for sensory details, of which I have little control.
There is a spectrum disorder in my family and while I myself do not have Asperger's syndrome like my brother or autism, I have a complex sensory disorder that prevents me from processing sensory input like other people. In general, this means I have difficulty listening to people, looking at their eyes. I am always fidgeting because clothing irritates me, and my skin is prone to breakouts. The sun bothers me. And I can hear sounds that are of a frequency too high for most people to hear. But one of the other things that comes along with this condition, and which the neuro-specialist informed me was not uncommon, was that I retain memories, rich in detail, from deep in my past. A typical person would simply forget something as unimportant as looking through the hole of a Saltine cracker. But I do not release these details. They instead accumulate. And they are as vivid as if they are happening right now, not yesterday.
Prior to being an author, this reservoir of information was without use and sometimes distracting and annoying. But as you can imagine, it becomes extremely useful when I am writing about my distant past.
However, the very nature of memory, the way in which memories are created, assures a certain degree of inaccuracy. Essentially, a memory is a tattoo, etched onto the nerve fiber by a neurotransmitter, a chemical. Each time we access this memory, additional "tattoo work" or etching is done. So the memory itself is physically altered, which is why our first recall is our most accurate. And I have always felt this, instinctively, long before understanding how memory works. I have always felt that I have one chance, and that I must be writing when I first "go back" and remember. I have never been able to trust those memories which have become "stories" I have told. They no longer feel, to me, real or true. But rather like scripts I have learned. So I never write these particular stories.
Ultimately, though, yes. All that really and truly matters is that the reader takes something of value from the memoir. And if it's entirely fictional but feels true to the reader, bone true and authentic, who's to say that's not a book of value? Likewise, I can imagine a book that is both memoir and fiction, one that blurs the lines. In which case there would be no reason to say the book is anything but what it is: a fusion. So I believe that anything is possible, that any of the "rules" of memoir or literature in general may be freely broken if it serves the author's purpose. I also feel that to deliberately mislead a reader, to claim a certain set of circumstances is the whole truth and nothing but, knowing this is not the case, is manipulative and corrupt.
The media has been unhelpful in this area because, in general, it rewards most of this kind of behavior. I have no doubt that I would be far less famous and of far less interest or use to the media if every journalist who read my books felt certain the stories were fully true. Just an old-fashioned, honest survivor who gets into mess after mess but still does pretty much OK is far less interesting or marketable than a manipulative marketing genius who pulls the wool over everyone's eyes and laughs all the way to the bank.
Speaking of Oprah, you've defended her against snarky claims that she's trying to arbitrate what America should read, claiming that getting people just to read in the first place is a great service. Any word on her picking A Wolf at the Table?
I find the whole "Oprah bashing" thing really condescending and elitist. And I am honestly not sure whether it's born from envy--she's one of the wealthiest and most successful people on the planet, 100 percent self-made. Or if it's because she's achieved so much more than 99.9 percent of the men in a male-dominated industry. Or if it's because she's black and therefore can't possibly know the difference between literary fiction and popular trash.
Or maybe, and I suspect this is the case, just maybe it's because she has as an audience the "average" American "housewife" or "mom." Not Ivy-educated journalism or Creative Writing majors, people who studied semiotics at Brown, then earned their MFAs at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and published their first narrative nonfiction essay in Ploughshares
under the title, "Places We Saw, People We Loved: or The Human Spirit Is an Amalgamation of Many Desires."
When all of one's friends also attended swank East Coast colleges and spent whole evenings smoking Indonesian cigarettes and analyzing Sylvia Plath's poem, Daddy
while drinking, with irony, Pabst, certain fundamental sociological principles engage. You, the well-educated literary thinker together with your friends (a.k.a. peers) become the "in" group, looking upon unexposed others, such as these housewives and other ordinary women as an "outgroup." Perhaps you think it's "just terrific" that these woman can read at all. But obviously, they aren't intellectually equipped to read the sorts of works that so inspire you.
I think this is why Oprah gets trashed with such animosity. And having met a great many of these ordinary, gelatin-brained women myself as well as having been raised by two parents who each had the terminal degree in their fields, I can assure you that education
, which can be purchased, is only the thinnest substitute for intelligence. To assume that because a person lives outside of New York City, has toddlers and prepares tuna casserole on a regular basis, they are not deeply and richly intelligent is, to me, the very hallmark of a mediocre mind, spit-shined to a gloss.
I never said what I said about Oprah hoping to somehow earn her favor or get on her radar. Having one of my books selected by Oprah is not something I ever think about or desire; my books already sell in huge numbers, and I'm not interested in appearing on such high-profile television. The only time I ever even think about Oprah is when something reminds me of her performance in The Color Purple
and I become annoyed that she took that Oprah away. I wish she would act in movies regularly. That's my Oprah wish. Just like I wish Debra Winger was the actress all the major producers went to first.
You put a lot of work into creating what you describe as a "cinematic" audio book for Wolf, which includes music inspired by the book from Patti Smith, Tegan Quin, Ingrid Michaelson and Sea Wolf. With print media of all kinds on the decline, do you see this type of outlet as a focus for your future works, such as your upcoming You Better Not Cry: Stories for Christmas?
Well, certain print media is on the decline. Newspapers, specifically. The Internet is simply able to offer fresher information than newspapers, faster and for free. The only reason to read a newspaper is because you've always read a newspaper. Which leaves newspapers with an older audience. Exactly the situation Cadillac found itself in a number of years ago, when it nearly collapsed as a brand before attracting a younger market with its radical redesign. It's a hopeless equation, I think. If I ran a newspaper, I would immediately take it paperless. I would be better than anything else online, and I would charge a quarter a day to read it. But in no way does this suggest that book readership is down. It may be at the moment because of the economy, but our literacy rates have risen. And one need only drive in any suburban area for 10 minutes before one sees a book megastore. These did not exist when I was a child in the 1970s. Furthermore, J.K. Rowling personally inserted a love of reading into the brains of millions of children. This does not simply evaporate. So no, I don't see my Wolf
audio book--or any of my audio books--as a strategic move into tomorrow's medium. Listening is not the same as reading. And the experience of reading is unmatched by any other medium. There's something...weird about reading. It's just specks of black on a page and yet something happens behind our eyes and our brains dash in to create the visuals to go with the words and, as a result, reading is fiercely visual and intimate; it's a fulfilling escape--a vacation--and it's a powerful way to learn. I created the Wolf
audio book because audio books, in general, are lackluster and could be more than they are.
What can you tell me about the progress of the film based on your novel Sellevision or the television show you're developing? And with the acting you did for the Wolf audio book, were you inspired to further hone your chops in either of these or other film/television work?
is in the pre-production stage; they are casting and finalizing locations, I believe. And it's true that I am developing a number of different ideas for television, which is fun. But no, I don't want to act, and I frankly don't have the specific talents needed to be any good at it.
While discussing your books in the office, a co-worker admitted that she's been known to Bible-dip, and it made me wonder, what's likely to happen to someone who uses your memoirs to Augusten-dip?
One is quite likely to land one's finger on a phrase which will make them blush. But only out of secret, private recognition.
Tennessee is unfortunately one of the many states where gay people are not allowed to marry the person we love, but you're lucky enough to live in Massachusetts. Are you and Dennis married, and if not, any plans?
We're not married, actually. We're a legal corporation, though. That's close. But we're not married and there really is no good reason for this; we've been together nine years and we both wear rings as if we were married. And I am sure that at some point we will actually formalize our union. But I am very proud that once again, Massachusetts has made a bold and controversial move to assure the freedom of every American citizen, regardless of sexual orientation.
When you're on tour, who do you miss more, Dennis or your dogs?
That's a horrible question! But the dogs.
Why did you choose to work with the LGBT-focused Brooks Fund for the Nashville appearance on your current book tour?
It is my publisher, actually, who designs and executes my tours.
Since this will be your first visit to Nashville, what are your expectations of the city?
I have absolutely no idea what to expect. Though I was raised in the North, I come from the longest line of Southerners there is. And I remain, at heart, a product of the South. And perhaps this is why people who know me and know Nashville say, "You are going to love it there." And that, I suppose, is what I expect: to love it.
Being a writer and a computer addict, do you feel more natural typing answers on a screen rather than vocalizing them? And where are you while you're typing these?
Yes. I am more focused when I can write. But it's also logistically the only way for me to engage in interviews while I am on tour. And as I write this, I am sitting atop a white cotton bedspread in my hotel room in Aspen, Colorado. There was something akin to a blizzard last night, so the city appears to be frosted. And because this is a "free" day, I am being glared at by Dennis who, at 2:59, wants to go out now and get lunch. So I have to speedy-quick hop in the shower and rush out into the snow.
Since this interview is more like an essay test and lacks the conversational quality of a person-to-person interview, based on your previous answers, what's a follow-up question I might have asked, and what's your response?
You would have been flustered by how fast I spoke and forgotten, entirely, to even ask a follow-up question. Remembering only once you were back in your car. So rarely does life provide us with a nice silk bow. Things are usually left partially unwrapped.