Through a joke, darkly: Augusten Burroughs is the gay humorist of the season, as he has come back with an excruciating new collection
Augusten Burroughs burst onto the literary scene in 2002 with his best-selling memoir Running With Scissors, which hysterically chronicled his unusual upbringing (his mom basically gave him away to be raised by her wacky psychiatrist). Since then the ex-advertising exec published last year’s equally acclaimed Dry, a look back on his recovery from alcoholism, including a stay at a gay rehab. Now comes Magical Thinking (St. Martin’s Press, $23.95), a collection of shorter takes on similarly out-of-the-ordinary subjects. The Advocate talked to him by phone from his home in New York.
Magical Thinking is one of the most highly anticipated releases of the fall, coming hot on the heels of two straight best-sellers–but only three years ago no one knew who you were. What’s it like to be such a huge success?
It’s weird. I feel like Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest–showing reporters her house [saying], “We just have a normal Christmas like every other family.” [Laughs] It’s been great. I wrote for years and years, every single day of my life, ever since I was a little kid. I’ve just always done it for me. To have a career doing it is hard to believe.
Well, in part, you can thank all the gay men who’ve been snapping up your books. Aside from the fact that you’re gay, why do you think that is?
They’re getting to read about things they do and have done themselves, and they’re not having to go to the rainbow-colored section of the store to get it, you know what I mean? [Laughs] It’s not marketed as “Here’s a gay book for you gay guys! Hey gay, gay, come here, gay!” Being gay is a huge part of everyone’s life, bat it’s not the defining thing for most people, especially not in this century.
Yet so many straight guys read you too.
Well, I think that the things I write about are universal, in terms of what we deal with in relationships. It really doesn’t matter if you’re with a man or a woman. The intimacy issues and the sex issues and the insecurities–it’s very much the same stuff. And I write about a lot more than just sex–whether it’s childhood stuff or being an alcoholic and struggling with work or a missed opportunity at love, [being] single and dating in New York City.
One of the more hysterical stories in the book is about your experience at the Barbizon school of modeling when you were 14 and all the poses you had to learn, including a particularly sexy floor pose inspired by a Brooke Shields ad. Can you still do them?
Oh, God, I can, I can still do it all. It’s just impregnated in my brain. I studied so hard, it’s so pathetic. I wasn’t kidding when I said [in the book] it was the most mortifying fact of my life. It’s horrifying. Deeply shameful.
Even all these years later?
It’s just as shameful as it was then. Even more so, because you look at me and you’re like, “Ha! A pointy head and he’s bald and he went to modeling school–and he looks like a tube.” [Laughs]
What about Debby, the housekeeper you write about who practically extorted you–have you kept tabs on her since you fired her?
No, I never heard about her, never. But that little creature better not crawl out of the woodwork [now] either. It was horrible. She had just such an incredible power over me. I really was powerless over this woman. It was like I worked for her. I guess I deserve it for thinking I could even have a housekeeper in the first place [laughs].
You don’t seem very domestically inclined, although I understand you and your boyfriend are building a house in western Massachusetts.
Yeah, with my brother on the same street. I feel kind of crazy, because it’s so suburban. It’s on a street with six other houses, and they’re new, and there’s kids in every house but ours, and sometimes when I’m there I’m like, “What the hell are we doing here in this suburban cul-de-sac? We live in a motherfucking cul-de-sac! Where did I go wrong? What happened here?” But I guess because I never had that, I fetishize it, sort of.
Although of course it never ends up being what you expect it to be.
Oh, no, I’ll never be able to actually have it. I just talked myself into it for a while. “You want me to do a load of whites? I’ve got a washer and dryer right here!” [Laughs] And then I’ll burn down all the other houses in the neighborhood and end up in prison.
Kennedy is a reporter for New York magazine.
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