In less than five years, Augusten Burroughs has become a New York Times bestselling author, been named one of the top 25 funniest people in America by “Entertainment Weekly” and finds the newly released film adaptation of his memoir “Running with Scissors” receiving Oscar buzz for some performances.
The truth that Burroughs reveals in “Running with Scissors” is the heartbreaking yet hilarious, beautiful yet gloomy and convoluted yet simple reality known as his childhood. As the son of an alcoholic father and mentally ill mother, Augusten is no stranger to drama, but nothing prepares him for his mom’s decision to let her whacked-out psychiatrist adopt him.
While his mother searches for her sanity and inner voice as a poet, Augusten finds himself thrown into a family that condones his sexual relationship with a 33-year-old psycho and has an electroshock therapy machine lying around their house.
“Nip/Tuck” creator Ryan Murphy was itching to write and direct a film based on Burroughs’ best-seller. The film made its Miami premier at the AMC Theater at Sunset Place on October 25. The following afternoon, just one day before the film hit movie theatres nationwide, I sat down with Burroughs at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Miami, where he spoke candidly about his works, struggle with alcoholism and the film.
TMH: Last night, right after I got back from the screening of “Running with Scissors”, I logged onto CNN.com and saw an ad for the film. It just seems to be everywhere. How does all of the attention feel?
Burroughs: Well, I’m isolated from it, I’m in a little cocoon of oblivion. I just think that the performers did such a wonderful, wonderful job. And I know they didn’t do it for money.I’ve always loved Annette Bening ever since I became aware of “The Grifter”. The fact that I feel that she has done the best work of her career and the movie is very exciting.
TMH: It’s an understatement that your childhood was tough. It doesn’t appear that you had encouragement back then, but what about in your adult life? I know last night you mentioned that you can be lazy.
Burroughs: It’s funny. It’s a dichotomy. I am lazy, but I’m also absolutely, fiercely driven. When I have time off, I just like to be in bed. But no, no one has ever pushed me. I push myself.
My support comes from my friends, and I’m very close to my partner Dennis, we met in 2000. We live together in a house we built together in Western Massachusetts right next to my brother, his wife and my nephew and we’re very close to our neighbors.
TMH: You’ve said that you haven’t received a formal education since you were in the fourth grade. What informal education did you receive that [fostered your talents]?
Burroughs: Who knows where talent comes from? Probably a great deal of it’s genetic or inbred. But I’ve [probably] been writing since I was nine. I used to have a blue tape recorder that I spoke into and [told] about my day. When I was living in the ‘Finch house,’ I had five subject college notebooks that I would write in and fill. The writing was just desperate.
It was sort of like if you’re in a plane and there’s no pilot, you’re going to learn to fly the plane. That’s really how I learned to write.
Then I started reading at 24 and that just opened up the whole world. That was what I had been missing my whole life. I felt like I had discovered the emotional Holy Grail.
TMH: When did it hit you that you wanted to write “Running with Scissors”?
Burroughs: I think it has been simmering in me all my life in the sense that I was running from it. All of my behavior was informed by this childhood.Flash forward a number a years, as I talk about in [my book] “Dry”, I was a very, very hardcore alcoholic. At 30, I went through rehab. I was sober for about two years and then my best friend Pig Head, from “Dry”, died and I started drinking again. I got much worse. I started to develop heart problems and I started to go downhill fast. You know, I think I was months, if not a year, from having a heart attack and killing myself with alcohol.I blew it. I mean, I had mislived my life.But it bothered me that I never tried to write. It was like a pebble in my shoe.
It was just a couple weeks after having that thought that I sat down and wrote “Sellevision” [Burroughs’ first book]. To make a long story short, by the fourth day, I was consumed with it and I was no longer drinking. By the seventh day, I had finished the book and my life had changed. I knew now what I would do for the rest of my life: I was going to write.
TMH: So you had not [started writing] “Running with Scissors” at that point. How did you go about finding a publisher?
Burroughs: After I finished “Sellevision”, I knew that I had finished a book. Whether it is a bad book or a good book, who knows? I sent it around to every literary agent I could. All rejects.
Then one agent that I contacted said, ‘Send me a manuscript.’ I did and he loved it. He sent it around town. Everyone turned it away, except one woman at St. Martin’s Press. She loved it. She bought it. Paid me nothing for it, but I was so, so happy.
In a time when success is associated with young starlets who make millions from baring all on reality television shows and magazine covers, 41 year old Burroughs is redefining the American dream by stripping away at the layers of his life to find, as he says, “the truth.”
Nick Maslow can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.