As anyone who's read Burroughs' 2002 memoir, Running with Scissors, will attest, the guy has led a challenging life informed by a deeply dysfunctional childhood that included a broken family, drugs, alcohol and a sexual relationship with a man twice his age. Hilarious and haunting in equal measure, Scissors transformed Burroughs into a literary sensation almost overnight, which came as a surprise to its author.
“I was like, 'If you could write a book that was guaranteed to repel, this would be the book,' ” the 45-year-old Burroughs says by phone from his home in Massachusetts. “It was a complete surprise. Publishing is a ridiculous field. My success almost has nothing to do with me. It's a freak thing.”
Five nonfiction books of varying degrees of success and effectiveness have followed his best-selling breakthrough, including 2008's A Wolf at the Table, a harrowing account of Burroughs' difficult relationship with his father. But it was his lone fictional effort, 2000's Sellevision — which was informed by the years he worked as a successful ad copy writer and which is reportedly being turned into a television series by filmmaker Bryan Singer — that was the real turning point in a life on the brink of oblivion: Burroughs was an acute alcoholic.
“I thought, 'OK, I’m going to die early,' ” he says. “I was OK with that because I’d had a huge life.
It hadn’t been really very good in a lot of ways, but it had been big. I had fucked up. I had mismanaged. I didn’t have anybody. But what really bothered me was that I hadn’t even tried to write. I always felt like a writer and assumed I was, but I never tried to write anything. Advertising didn’t count. Advertising writing isn’t so much writing as it is puzzle solving; it’s much more related to strategic planning or war.”
Burroughs recounts this painful period of his life with trademark candidness, his soft speaking voice rife with a mix of matter-of-fact clarity and a rueful tinge of what might have been.
“It was a couple weeks after (realizing that I was going to die) that I woke up hungover one morning and sat down and wrote the first sentence of Sellevision,” he says. “It made me laugh, and I kept writing. I drank less that night and wrote all day. I had no idea what I was writing. I didn’t pause once to think about my characters or the plot. It was absolutely written with my subconscious. I was as surprised as any reader to learn what would happen in the next paragraph or the next page.
“By the seventh day I was no longer drinking and I’d finished a book,” he says. “I didn’t know if it was a good book, but I knew I could do it again and again and again. That was what I was going to do for the rest of my life.”
Writing is clearly a form of therapy for Burroughs, a way in which he can process his thoughts and work through the various issues wrought by his unconventional childhood.
“It’s hard for me to think without writing,” he says. “Writing is what allows me to have a thought and process it in my head. I get really lost if I don’t write.”
That he's been able to make a comfortable living doing what he loves and needs to survive is the unexpected icing on the cake.
“When I got into it I knew I wasn't going to make any money,” Burroughs says. “I'm going to leave advertising and be dirt poor. It's gonna suck, but it's not gonna suck as much as my life had sucked making money. Is (my success) because I'm so brilliant at it? Absolutely not. I'm very good at what I do — which is knowing me and going to the edge and reporting back — but that's not related to an inherent value. If you want to make money, this is not the field. This is the field you get into when you have to do it because there's no choice.”
AUGUSTEN BURROUGHS speaks at 2 p.m. Saturday as part of the Books By the Banks festival, which runs 10 a.m.-4 p.m. at the Duke Energy Convention Center downtown. Go here for event and venue details.