At this year's Book Expo America, Augusten Burroughs's latest work, Magical Thinking: True Stories, a collection of 27 brilliant, hilarious essays that will make you want to read them aloud to everyone you know, couldn't be swooped up fast enough by the book-hungry crowd. I was worried someone would grab my copy out of my hands. Lines instantly formed at the ex-copywriter's signings promoting Magical Thinking and his memoir about getting sober, Dry, the follow up to his bestseller Running With Scissors. In my opinion, Magical Thinking outclipses his previous books, starting out with a bang about his childhood experience trying to get cast in a Tang commercial, winding up at Kmart in Greenwich Village, with countless twists, turns, bad dates, crazed housecleaners, rats, moisturizer, trips, and children in between. Read it and weep, laugh and marvel.
Do you have an audience in mind when you write essays such as these, and if so, who are they?
I wish I could say that I did, it would make me seem smarter and more in control, like somebody is actually steering the ship. Sadly, the answer is no. I write for myself. The thing is, and I learned this by being an advertising copywriter, actually, as soon as you begin to "speak to your audience" you usually blow right past them. So it's best to just "be yourself" and then hope there are others enough like you to listen.
Which essay in Magical Thinking do you think will be the most shocking to people? Was there ever a point where you almost pulled one and said "I can't include that!"?
Easy, 'Rat/Thing' is the most alarming essay. And I seriously didn't want to include it and wish I hadn't included it. But I forced myself to put it in there because it happened, it's very real, it's disgusting and human in its inhumanity.
The book also comes with an audio CD. Why did you decide to do that?
Actually, it doesn't come with an audio CD, it comes as an audio CD. So you can listen to me read the book myself. Though, God only knows why you'd want to. Although in all fairness to my audio CD publisher, people claim I read the stories well. Especially when I don't cough or make weird stomach noises.
The title essay, "Magical Thinking," is about your ability to simply decide something, whether it's to become a New York Times-bestselling author to wishing your boss would die. What amazed me was the swift progression from basically deadbeat to bestselling author, at least within the timeline of that essay. Is writing always easy for you? Do you ever have writer's block and if so, how do you deal with it?
Writing is "that" easy for me, in the sense that I am very comfortable with words, the few words I actually know. And this is simply practice. The more you write and read good books, the better a writer you become. It's almost automatic. And no, I really don't get writer's block because I tend to write about things that have already happened, so I'm not trying to invent a storyline or something. I just have to dredge my memory banks.
One of the best things about Magical Thinking is the essay titles, such as "Holy Blow Job," "Cunnilingusville," and "Ass Burger"—which comes first, the title or the essay?
The essay always comes first. The titles come later and they are torture for me. Some authors are very good at thinking of titles. I feel I am horrible at it and I just end up giving up.
Your work seems to straddle this line between laugh-out-loud hilarious and dark and serious topics. What stood out from the humor for me in Magical Thinking is the love for your boyfriend Dennis that underlies this book, most especially in "Total Turnaround," which starts out being about moisturizer and ends with a really breathtaking few sentences about love. With that one and "My Last First Date," I almost felt like the tenderness seeped out of you unwillingly; when you were trying to be funny, these really heartfelt sentiments leaped between the lines. When you write an essay, do you set out to make it funny or romantic or some other adjective, do you have a direction in mind, or do they just turn out that way?
No, I don't really say, 'I will write something funny now.' Usually, the piece (how writerly to say that, the piece) comes out of me, as whatever it is. Sometimes funny, sometimes dark, sometimes hopefully actually moving. I am a very deep person, filled with many emotions.
How does Dennis feel about what you write about him? Is there every any tension about your writing about things both of you have experienced?
Oh, he sort of smiles, or rolls his eyes and then grabs the manuscript out of my hand and reads every word to make sure I haven't said anything really bad. Although honestly, Dennis is very straightforward and doesn't have secrets or things he wants to protect. Which is one thing I love about him. He's extremely honest and ethical.
In "I'm Gonna Live Forever," you write about some of the things that your fans tell and send you, from Dr. Pepper enemas to photos of their genitals. But on a more serious note, do you hear from a lot of alcoholics and substance abusers? Do they look to you for advice on getting sober, and if so, how do you deal with that?
Yes, I hear from a staggering, heartbreaking number, actually, of alcoholics and drug addicts. And also survivors of sexual abuse. And sometimes, each letter is more heartbreaking than the last. And usually what I do is try to just make them know somehow that I understand them, that I hear them. And then I try to suggest that they take the appropriate course of action—be it AA or treatment or a therapist. What's so sad is the shame so many people feel, having tried to stay sober and then failed. And the shame people feel living with secrets. And it really upsets me in a very deep way and sometimes I think, I shouldn't even read these emails. But then, how could I not, really? You know? I mean, complete strangers will email me or even come up to me on the street and reveal their innermost pain or heartbreak and it's profoundly humbling. And I feel I have a
responsibility to hear them because they've heard me.
Someone offered to tell me what AA meetings you go to when I said that I was interviewing you, and it struck me that you indeed are at the level of fame where you could be stalked. Does that recognition ever make you wish you were at a more obscure level?
I guess sometimes. Once in a while, something sort of creepy happens. But for the most part, people are great. Because anybody who knows me reads. And reading, even reading my tawdry books, requires a degree of intelligence, patience and attention. Which is a fancy way of saying, people who read are smarter than people who just sit at home and do nothing but watch TV. And although I'm really kidding here, there's a little truth to that. My "fans," that is, the people I have met who have read my books, seem to be pretty cool people. Like, sometimes I look at somebody at a reading and I want to say, "HEY. Where were you when I needed a cool friend seven years ago, huh? Where?"
On your website it says that you've seen Orville Redenbacher's penis, so I just have to ask—how and why?
Well, I used to work for an ad agency in San Francisco called Ketchum Communications. This was my first advertising job and it was 1985 and we handled the Orville Redenbacher account. And once in a while, Orville himself would come to the agency for a meeting. And it just so happened, we were in the men's room at the same time. At the time, I understood this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so I, well, I sort of just leaned over and peeked. He did not see me, which is good.
You're about to embark on a 17-city author tour-what are you most looking forward to about it and most dreading?
I most look forward to meeting the people who come to the readings, answering their questions during the Q&A and then signing their books and lifting their wallets when they aren't looking. I most dread the hotels that don't offer room service after ten at night, so instead of a cheeseburger for dinner I get to forage in the vending machine. The other thing I dread are the early morning flights, which mean waking up at five. And I also look forward to meeting the bookstore managers and owners because they are always, always, always so nice and gracious and weirdly grateful. Which I find just strange. I mean, you tell me: should they be kissing my ass? Or should it be the other way around? It should be the other way around, exactly.
For those aspiring writers lacking in magical thinking, do you have any advice on how to be a writer? Do you think that's something that can be taught or learned, or are you just born with it?
You do not have to be "born" with "it." You do need to have a passion. You need to want to be a writer and it's best if you really enjoy writing. But you can hate writing or dislike writing and still be a writer. But it's best if you enjoy it. And you should read, like I said before, as many good books as you can. Don't read junky books, trash. Limit yourself to one "beach read" per season, I think. And then read really good works by smart, literate authors. On all topics. Stretch yourself. And believe me, this is advice I take myself. I didn't even read a book until I was 24, so think of that and get inspired. The other thing, write every day. Even if you only write for ten minutes. You do that every day and in a year, you'll have quite the Word Collection. And some of those words are bound to be in an order you like. In other words, you'll have some good stuff.
But the number-one most important thing, and the reason you want to write every day, is because you must be honest. Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, demand of yourself ruthless honesty. This means, accurate descriptions of feelings and thoughts and the environment. True, true, true, this is what you want to achieve. Something that rings, as I say, the bell of truth. Know, too, that writing isn't something you need to study in college or graduate school or anywhere. Think of Elizabeth Berg. She's a perfect example. Elizabeth Berg is one of my favorite authors and did she go to Iowa and get a fancy degree? No, she did not. She was an R.N. And she wasn't seventeen when she published her first novel, either. My last piece of advice is to never, never give up. No matter how poor the odds may appear. If it's something you really want, then you must never, ever let go of the vision, the dream. And this, really, IS Magical Thinking.
You divide your time between New York and Western Massachusetts-do you feel more at home in one or the other, or do they complement each other?
They complement each other, what a nice way of putting it, thank you. But they really do. At the moment, I love being in Massachusetts more, simply because I am close to my brother and nephew and family out there, and my bulldogs have room to roam and I have something I never had before: a desk. I have an actual room that I use as an office and this sure beats writing at a dining room table, which is what I've done my entire life. Oh, and I am now the proud owner of a high-efficiency washing machine and drier. So I no longer have to take the elevator down 24 flights to the basement and use the icky machines.
Augusten Burroughs will participate in a booksigning November 16th at the 92nd Street Y. Find out all you ever wanted to know about Augusten Burroughs at his website.
Interview by Rachel Kramer Bussel