20 Questions: Augusten Burroughs

What do you get when you mix Lolita, Dexter and Ignatius? Something like Augusten Burroughs.Ranked among the 25 funniest people in America by Entertainment Weekly Burroughs, satirist of so many things held precious in contemporary society, talks with PopMatters 20 Questions about a few people and things that he admires , not least a brave little girl named Anne Frank.

His most recent book, A Wolf at the Table, published in March (Picador).

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

The last movie I saw was a documentary short about restoring the Buddhist temples and culture of Mustang, and I did nearly cry but only because I did not think I could endure even one more moment of the lotion-covered woman’s perfume two rows ahead.

But in general, if it stars Debra Winger I will cry. And not a guy cry either, where you pinch the bridge of your nose, sneaking your thumb and forefinger into the corners of your eyes to squelch the tears.

2. The fictional character most like you?

Good god, I don’t know how to answer this kind of question. A combination of Lolita, Dexter and Ignatius.

3. The greatest album, ever?

I’m not the kind of person that really has “favorite” anything. And I don’t know what makes an album “great” or just “good”. This is a question for the Deadheads, who have that kind of loyalty and devotion.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

Well, duh. Star Trek.

5. Your ideal brain food?

Huh? What do I consume when I want to be … smarter? Pork chops sprinkled with Adderall, I guess.

6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?

The publication of my first book, Sellevision. Because the odds were against me in every possible way. I was worn out, very nearly beyond repair and had reinvented myself so many times, I just did not know if I had the stamina to want something again. And then make it happen. But I did. So I’m proud of that.

7. You want to be remembered for…?

This sort of thing doesn’t matter to me. I don’t “want” to be remembered for anything in particular. I understand that some people really have a need to feel their legacy and imagine its impact. I could not possibly care less.

People can forget my ass or they can remember me as the greatest humanitarian who ever lived, right up there with Princess Diana. Either way.

8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?

This probably sounds depressing, but I have never looked to other people for inspiration. Growing up, all the adults I saw around me were wrecks. So I was locked in my head for so many years that I wouldn’t even have known where to look.

But a couple of years ago, I was in Amsterdam and I toured the Anne Frank house. It was interesting. Then I bought her journal and took it back to my hotel room, one block away. I read it. And that girl blew the top of my head off, just like Emily Dickinson said can happen with good poetry. Or I think it was Emily.

Anyway, Anne Frank wrote with such naked — absolutely stripped of irritations like ‘style’ and ‘voice’ – human girl need and hope that it was as if the girl herself continued to live right there in her own words. I have never read such a fine memoir and most certainly never will again. And, as a person, here we have a child who is growing up in circumstances we truly cannot imagine. Her life overnight become The Worst Thing That Can Happen to the power of ten. And did this girl sit and weep endlessly or kill herself as I most certainly would have done? She did not. She thought about love and boys and life after.

I am so glad I never went to school and therefore did not have this book spooned down my throat. Because it should never, never be an assignment. It should only be read as a reward.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

Any of what’s his name’s paintings. The Girl with a Pearl Earring man. I saw one in person and I’m telling you, the man caught light itself and glued it to the canvas somehow. I have seen many fine paintings in my life. But never one that seemed painted from the scene itself, made of that scene’s molecules.

10. Your hidden talents…?

I am very decisive, but that’s kind of boring. Oh. Okay, wait. This is sort of a talent, maybe. I can detect the very slightest deviations in pattern. For example, I can tell when a piece of crown molding is un-level by 1/16th of an inch. I think it was 1/16th but maybe it was 1/32nd.

Well, either way the contractor who measured was shocked. So yeah, go ahead and ask me if those jeans make you look fat. I’ll tell you if they do and by how many pounds.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

I can’t think of anybody who has ever given me advice. Advice? You mean like, “Always marry a girl whose mother had freckles,” or some such thing? Nobody has ever said things like that to me, I don’t think.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

Oh no, another one of these. Okay, here we go. I’m going to mentally toss all my “things” into the air as high as I can and then the first one I catch is the one that will be my favorite.

I never could catch anything.

I don’t know, then. Oh, wait, I do, I do: I bought two of them, about a year apart. I liked these French bulldogs so much, I even gave them names: Bentley, and then The Cow.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?

Levis. Because I feel an obligation to fine clothing. Whenever I must wear a beautiful suit I always feel like I’m taking somebody else’s child to the park.

“It’s like I said, Allyson, it just never occurred to me that there even was such a thing as a blueberry allergy. Strawberries and peanuts, yes. But blueberries? Even if I had recognized the signs, I never could have made it to the hospital on time. Ask any of the other people who were there, it just looked like he was hot, wanted to cool off the top of his head in the fountain and wanted to be on his back when he did it. His eyes were wide open, we all thought he was just picking out shapes from the clouds. Nobody could see that his tongue was gone. And the blue urine didn’t even show up against his jeans.”

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

Well, there is only one reason to take somebody to dinner at the Ritz and that is to impress them. But impress them with what? Which is why I would select some very angry, sullen teenager from a part of the world that least resembles ours. And we would have dinner at the Ritz and I would explain to this person, do you see how different this is? It’s not anything like what is familiar to you. And that tells you that you may think you know the world and you may feel there are a certain number of possibilities, but this is proof that you do not and that the number of possibilities is beyond figure.”

But after the Ritz, I would want to take him somewhere else, so they didn’t the wrong idea. I would like him to see the tunnels, beneath the city. I would like to take him to Times Square and then somehow, down. Where it was silent and empty. And I would say, “You see? You have to scratch, scratch, scratch the surface like a big old cat and then you’ll find something else entirely.”

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

New York City, October, 2009. To see if my disaster of a building is any closer to being finished or if one should still take care not to electrocute one’s self by forgetting to duck in the lobby.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

I did take a spa vacation recently and about two minutes after sitting back on my teak recliner, these words entered my mind: now what? And with one week before me, I suddenly felt hopeless and bored to a fatal degree.

So I think pills, probably, would be best for me.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?

Having watched my friend go through it, I would need all of the above if I was pregnant. But as it is, I can get by OK on just Sugar Free Red Bull and nicotine gum.

Photo by Dennis Pilsits

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

I think I would have to say Australia, either Brisbane or Melbourne. Sydney, of course, is spectacular. But does spectacular suit me, really? Do I need spectacular? What would I do with it?

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

Well, I would say the only thing that is appropriate to say to such a man. “Yes, sir, Mr. President. Anything you say, sir.”

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

My next book, You Better Not Cry: Stories for Christmas, will be released this October. Between now and then, it’s enough work just trying to keep myself out of the mental hospital.