Memoirist Augusten Burroughs Puts It All Out There In 'Lust & Wonder'
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The writer Augusten Burroughs doesn't shy away from deeply personal, messy events. In his hit "Running With Scissors," he describes a bizarre childhood in which his mentally unstable mother sends him to live with her unconventional psychiatrist.
His second memoir, "Dry," is about getting sober. And his latest, called "Lust & Wonder," is about the years that followed, fumbling around in the wrong relationships until he finds the right one. Our co-host, Ari Shapiro, spoke with him last week.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: As usual, Augusten Burroughs doesn't go easy on himself here. When we spoke, I read him a few of the notes I had written in the back of the book - broken brain, catalogue of flaws, character deficiencies. He told me in order to write in such an unflinching self-critical way he has to give up caring what other people think about him.
AUGUSTEN BURROUGHS: I may be anxious about writing something or I may be, you know, ashamed of it or - but it doesn't matter. I've really trained myself, I think, to sort of get myself out of the way because it's, you know, what I do. I mean, I have to do that for this particular job in life.
SHAPIRO: It seems like this very strange tension where by portraying yourself in these ways that can be extraordinarily unflattering and by getting over caring what other people think about you, you create these books that bring you tremendous acclaim and recognition and adulation from total strangers. I mean, it's really two sides of a coin.
BURROUGHS: I mean, it's an odd experience. It's a very, very odd situation to, you know, meet a stranger and they feel they know you, you know, and to a large extent people do. You know, if they've read my books they certainly know a lot of the details about my life. And if I actually stopped and really reviewed every word I've ever written every time I met a stranger, I would, I'd cringe, you know? Oh, they know that about me? Oh, no. But, so I just, you know, I just - I can't go there.
SHAPIRO: So why do it? Why put it all out there in its bloody, gory fullness?
BURROUGHS: (Laughter) That's the $20 million question you don't know. I guess I'm OK with being flawed, you know? And I think sort of the older I get the more OK with it I am and the less it matters to me. You know, there's something really - it's a wonderful feeling to absolutely nail what something felt like or what something tasted like or what an experience meant, to really be able to pin it down.
At heart, I'm a collector. I mean, that's really, I think, what memoir is. I've collected jewelry since I was a little kid. I used to collect rocks. I've just always collected things. And memoir is a way for me to collect these moments in my life that at the time are so precious or so painful or so odd or so fascinating or so peculiar that it just seems a waste to let them go. And memoir is a way for me to sort of pin them into the shadow box. And there they are.
SHAPIRO: This book, "Lust & Wonder," chronicles a much more recent period in your life than some of your other memoirs. Is it different to write about people and things that are very recent, very present, in your life today as compared to writing about something that might've happened to you decades ago?
BURROUGHS: It is different. This book is a combination of taking writing that I wrote in the moment, as it was happening and also looking back. You know, there's always a danger, for me at least, of having perspective on an event that just happened...
SHAPIRO: Do you mean thinking you have perspective when you're actually too close to it to really understand it?
BURROUGHS: That's exactly it. So what is helpful in that instance is to be writing every single day so that you do capture the emotion right when it happens. And then later you can, you know, sort of read what you wrote and there's a freshness to it. Maybe you don't have, you know, perspective, but you've captured the juice of the moment.
SHAPIRO: Is there an example from the book you could give us where you can say, well, here's what I wrote in the moment and here's what I brought to it later?
BURROUGHS: Oh, yeah, absolutely. And as a matter of fact, the very end of the book where I'm out walking along the Esplanade in Battery Park City with my now husband Christopher...
SHAPIRO: We just give away the ending.
BURROUGHS: And - I mean, it's this great little exchange, very brief, that just sort of summed him up completely. And we were walking, you know, the dogs and as soon as we got back inside I wrote that.
SHAPIRO: Will you read that? It's literally the last page of the book.
BURROUGHS: Sure, I'd love to. (Reading) We were walking along the Battery Park City Esplanade beside the riverfront, and the dogs were straining against their leashes. There were so many stars, which you just don't expect to see in Manhattan. I said to Christopher, do you realize that when you look at something through an electron microscope and then you look out into the distant galaxy through a telescope, it looks the same? You can't even tell if you're looking at something tiny or something huge. He nodded like that's nice. I smirked. You don't give a [expletive] about that stuff, do you, I said. He laughed. No, not really.
The dogs paused to sniff the fascinating roots of the same tree. I said, OK, in that case, what was A Flock of Seagulls' biggest hit? Christopher beamed at me as the wind blew into our faces from the river. His eyes glittered and he replied without pausing to think about it faster than Google as though he'd been expecting this question all his life - "I Ran." I placed my hand against the side of his precious electric face and felt the stubble beneath my fingers. I was overwhelmed with the lust and wonder of it all.
SHAPIRO: So much of this memoir is about searching for the place that you will feel at home, the relationship that will make you feel at rest. Do you now feel like you've found that place?
BURROUGHS: I absolutely feel like I've found that place, and the feeling is magnified tenfold by having spent so many years in a relationship that was not right where I was trying to talk myself into being happy by saying, well, relationships, they're about compromise. So this compromise must be normal. This must be healthy.
I can make him love me. I can stop annoying him, you know, and just settling for being tolerated versus feeling celebrated for being me. So there is this feeling now where - I mean, it's sort of an inwardly triumphant feeling of, you know, I feel really, really lucky and I also feel like, yeah, I'm not going to doubt my instincts again.
SHAPIRO: Is contentment the enemy of memoir? Does your happiness and stability mean this is the last book we'll see from you (laughter)?
BURROUGHS: No, I don't think it is. I think, for one thing, I mean, catastrophe has sort of followed me around my whole life so we'll see.
BURROUGHS: But in all seriousness, I think as my life evolves my writing will evolve. You know, I see myself - I'm working now on another memoir, but I'm also working on two novels.
BURROUGHS: And when I sit down to write in the morning, I'm not really even sure which book I'm going to start with, you know? It's just sort of where my instincts take me.
SHAPIRO: That's Augusten Burroughs. His latest book is called "Lust & Wonder." Thanks so much for joining us.
BURROUGHS: Oh, thank you so much for having me. It was really great talking with you.
CORNISH: That's our colleague, Ari Shapiro, speaking with Augusten Burroughs. Burroughs' new memoir, "Lust & Wonder," is out today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.