Yesterday, very early in the morning, I had the opportunity to interview Augusten Burroughs, author of the monstrous bestseller Running with Scissors. (By opportunity, I mean I walked backwards into a 6am interview.) You can split modern fiction readers into two camps: those who have never heard of him and those who are sick of hearing his oh-so-dysfunctional stories (the latter group being made up of equal parts those who actually turn their nose at him and those who just confuse him with David Sedaris). He was in Austin, TX yesterday touring with his latest book, You Better Not Cry, a collection of stories about his ruined, but still merry, Christmases. (It has its moments, according to me.) He wraps up the seven-city tour here in Portland, tonight at 7 pm at the Bagdad.
I thought playing Mad Libs with a "real" writer would change the game, like cooking brunch with a chef, or playing HORSE with Chris Paul. And you know what? I think I was right. But if you hunger for a "real" interview, one in which Augusten talks about Christmas, gay marriage, and Linux, it's after the jump.
So this is what happened, and this is Mad Libs, for your reference.
- Extreme close-up
'Twas The Night Before [Holiday]”
- A Christmas Carol Lib by Augusten Burroughs(ish)
'Twas the night before kwanzaa (holiday), when all through the black sand beach in maui (location)
Not a creature was stirring, not even a naked molerat (animal).
The great aunts (family members) were hung by the chimney with care
In hopes that John Wayne Gacy, Polo the Killer Clown> (infamous person) soon would be there.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sodium bicarbonate (chemical) danced in their heads.
Mama in her eye patch (article of clothing), and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long mostly horizontal for about an hour and a half long* (how did you sleep last night?) nap.
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters, threw open the sash.
And what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature skateboard (vehicle) and eight tiny reindeer.
With a little old driver, so full of lesbian tendencies and not hungover (adjectives describing Austin, TX),
That I knew right away, that it must be Dr. Phil. (old fat guy, not Santa)
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them Dick! (curse word)
"Now Dasher, now Dancer, now Prancer, now Vixen,
On Comet, on Bentley (name of a pet), on Donner, and Blitzen".
To the top of the porch, to the top of the wall,
Dash away, dash away, dash away all.
So up to the Mean-Eyed Cat Lounge (name of a bar) the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and a Harvey Wallbanger (a drink) too.
And then in a twinkling, I heard on the roof,
All the clattering noise of these galloping hoofs.
All bundled in fur from his head to his ability to cut through bullshit when someone is dying** (your best feature),
His clothes were all tarnished with ashes and quatram 14 (sp?) (what are voters in Maine smoking?)
I drew in my head and was having cervical spasms (symptom of an exorcism***)
When down the chimney he came with a bound.
A bag full of it's friggin old. There's a lot of old shit there (something about Massachusetts that you like, that it has over New York) he had slung on his back
And he looked like a microsoft co-founder (another name for a hippie) just opening his pack.
His eyes, how they squatted (past tense verb that describes a beauty queen)
His sun-damage (feature of a beauty queen), how merry.
His cheeks were like Georgia O'keefes (flowers)
His nose like European chocolate Santa heads, cause they're sweeter, with an almost wooden taste. Or candy corn (favorite holiday treat).
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
The beard on his chin was as white as the oh, well it's kind of weird, but when I was a kid there was a place...the maple syrup houses would sell fresh hot maple syrup ladled over snow (favorite frozen holiday treat).
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
The smoke went around his head like a wreath.
Oh, he was so jolly and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him,
In spite of myself.
He had a round face, and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
With a wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
I knew all the while I had nothing to dread.
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his god...writing (favorite hobby)
He filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk
And laying a finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a cupcake (way of saying thank you),
And away they all flew like flying to LA (what's your flight plan for the day?).
But I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight,
"Merry Christmas to all, and to all good night."
* [Do you sleep like that every night?] "I don't sleep much. I don't need much. I've always fought it and forced myself to sleep...I feel tired if I sleep. If I sleep much worse, I feel horribly exhausted and hungover." [Do you nap?] "I sometimes nap on planes and stuff and sometimes during the day. But not always no, mostly no."
** ”[When you're dying] You don't want someone yammering over you about trite bullshit...I'm blunt, yeah. I have sort of a sweet nature, like a farm animal. I'm well meaning. Some people you get to know them a little bit and you realize they're just fucks. But I'm like a friendly goat. [My best feature] It used to be my hair, but I lost it...I used to care, but now I don't care at all. Now I wouldn't give it back even if you offered it. It doesn't matter now. That's what I love about being old...[I tell Augusten my age, 25] The stretch between when you're 25 and 35 is the biggest stretch you will ever realize...It's true that what your brain will perceive for you between the age of 25 and 35 will be bigger than for me from 45 to 55... That length of time before you is the longest in your life. It's going to extend forever. Even when you're 29 you'll feel it. It's going to seem like [today] you were 12... So much of aging is mental. It's about retaining that child-like mentality of the world...There's a saying in the alcoholic world 'what you focus on grows.'”
*** Augusten corrects my use of the word “symptom,” explaining the Catholic roots of an exorcism. I tell him I want the Linda Blair version.
HE WAS SO PLEASANT. At one point he apologized for coming off angry. (He was heated on the subject of gay marriage.) While talking to him the thought crossed my mind a couple of times that his openness is palpable, and I could see how it would have led him into trouble (alcoholism) in the past. And when at the end he had to run, I felt guilty, not relieved as I had expected. I felt guilty for treating him like an interview subject.
You're only visiting seven cities on this mini-tour, and none of the other are on the West Coast, so why end in Portland? Do you have other business here? Are you working on projects in LA?
My publisher decides where i'm going to go on tour. I can say we should go here and we should go here and I did give them a long list of towns, but they decide. Portland I can tell you has always been a great town for me. It's one of the towns I go to for pretty much every book....I have a meeting in LA to talk with one of the studios. [Augusten is developing a TV show. He mentions that he doesn't watch TV.] I don't need to watch desperate housewives in order to create one. I did that in advertising for years. It's not that I feel superior to television. I went through periods where I watched a lot of TV and now I don't do it at all. I don't know, I can't. My life's too much of a mess to watch TV right now. I just can't.
There's a huge variety of time and tone in the stories. Was that intentional, like a representative sample of Christmases, or did it just turn out that way.
After the last story that happened in the book, after it happened in real life, I thought it was just uncanny how every holiday was just worst than the one before, but beyond that it's not such a highly managed process that I look at the whole thing and try to slot a story in every one. I see which memories float to the surface.
I know you sometimes reside in Massachusetts, but do you think of Maine voting against gay marriage?
...It's uncivilized that they are not allowed to be married. And if they aren't allowed to be married there should be a gay tax rate that is lower...There's absolutely no argument, nothing that should contradict it...If marriage itself is destroyed because gay people are allowed to marry, then marriage must be destroyed...It's appalling. It's appalling. People who want to see evolution occur have to be organized and they have to make it happen. It's not something where one can be passive and sit by and watch and hope.
In Oregon the lead organizations involved are waiting until the next national election in 2012 to push the issue. Do you think that's the wrong tactic, then?
Theoretically, yeah, sometimes are better than others. That's possible. Things can happen, but they can't always happen when you want them to happen. I'm not going to have a lot of opinions on the subject because even when I was raised, at that age when my sexuality was coming into focus I was living the “running scissors” life. It's not one of my identities any more than being right-handed is. People have interpreted my not be being “proud” of being gay as being un-proud, but that's not it. If I was raised with super religious parents I would be proud [of being openly gay], but I wasn't. It has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with humanity. It's criminal. When these rights are repealed it's a mass criminal act. I'm not a religious person but I have to say to these people who are: In no way is it even remotely rational to believe that the architect of gravity cares if the person you want to have pizza with on a Friday night also has hairy arms or has boobs. It's just too petty. There's no way the creator of the universe is that petty.
I've heard that you love Linux. Do you really?
...Mac's little bouncy Icons, I can't stand them. What I love about Linux too is it's bizarre, that no one runs it. People from around the world work together and it's a great microcosm of what people can do when they're not being ridiculous. It's positive. It cheers me up.
I had all these Microsoft things from the early nineties and I couldn't open them, just Linux opens them. It opens Microsoft documents that Microsoft won't open anymore.
In You Better Not Cry you show a real soft spot for Christmas. I thought this might be due partially to it being an opportunity for you to see who really loves you. In other words, the holidays can bring us closer to the ones we love (in spite of bad gifts, etc.) and make us really irked by people we used to only find bothersome. It's a season of proposals and breakups. Do you think that's part of it?
I've actually never noticed that but it rings true. For some reason I seem to gravitate towards a certain level of intensity in my life. It's the one time when the level of general intensity is raised to a peak and that's both good and bad. Positive and negative. It makes things more interesting to me. Everything's heightened. Nerves fire faster. And that is just a more interesting place to live. People can be incredibly kind because they have dedicated themselves to being such but then they also snap because they're under so much pressure. It's like the water in a tub. It's that last little bits that circle fastest as it goes down the drain. That's what I like about it, what feels home about it, is that acceleration of chaos.