An Interview with Augusten Burroughs

Lina Shustarovich

Switchback: You’ve mentioned that memoir is a Grand Unifying Experience, which you define by the fact that one person’s experience can resonate with others. One of the benefits of this, in your own words, is “de-stigmatizing typically private, shame-associated experiences” and helping fold people isolated by these experiences into the larger population. How much of your writing is created with this goal in mind or is it something you’ve discovered as an accidental byproduct? Is this one way to solve the criticism of the proliferation of the “me-moir?”

Augusten Burroughs: This unifying quality of memoir is something I only saw in retrospect; it's not something I thought about when I was writing my memoirs or essay collections. Other than clarity, readability, I don't consider my "readers" when I write memoirs because, who are these readers? There's no such thing as "readers." There are only individuals and the fact that people read my stuff and identify with it or (or not) isn't really something I can control or change. And this is affirmed to me over and over each time I meet somebody who seems much too cool or old or young or serious or funny to read the likes of me. Having a particular reader in mind when I write would just inhibit me and make me crazy and I would second – then third – guess every word. Plus, it would be gross and manipulative to even try to write for a specific "reader." I just feel like, I have to write what I write and if people respond, that's awesome and if they don't, I have to go back to The Ground Round and wait tables again or go live under a bridge.

SB: Robert Yates from GQ called your bestselling memoir Running with Scissors “so strange it could never be fiction.” What is your opinion on this? Is truth really stranger than fiction? And since our own truth is always created based on our own memories, is there really such a thing as NOT fictionalizing the truth? What kind of book would this type of writing create? 

AB: I don't know that truth is necessarily stranger than fiction, but I do believe that the truth or untruth of a story impacts its value. A novel about a rock climber who chops off his own hand because he gets stuck between two boulders is, you know, maybe not all that amazing. But a memoir on the same subject is a lot more interesting. But sometimes the opposite is the case. Real life can be stunningly plain and uninteresting but a beautifully written novel about this same theoretical life could be wonderful.

SB: You describe You Better Not Cry, which is your holiday collection of stories, as “unexpectedly joyful.” Holidays can often be the hardest time of year for individuals such as yourself who come from broken families and who’ve struggled with depression and substance abuse. What drove you to write your holiday stories and to select a narrative tone that differs so much from most of your other work? 

AB: Well, for as long as I can remember, I'd loved the holiday season. I grew up in New England, so the holidays meant mounds of snow and lights strung up between the lampposts downtown. But it seemed I was never quite able to achieve that "perfect" New England holiday. And as I grew older, my holidays seemed to become worse and worse. But instead of getting bitter about this, I just kind of tried even harder. Or maybe hoped harder is more accurate. That’s what the stories were hoping to capture.

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