Books

Dealing in Experience

Nikki Tranter

Augusten Burroughs loves dogs, writing, and a man called Dennis. In a sweetly intimate, rather revealing phone interview, PopMatters spoke to him about these things and more.

PopMatters Books Editor

Interviews are funny things. I'm based in Australia, so mine invariably involve an horrendous time difference. No complaints, though — it's a world of fun. The only real concern is the preparation. Along with research and question composition, I also have to slap myself in the face a few times, shove down a coffee or three, and hope against hope that the subsequent jolt will assist me in passing myself off as a professional journalist in a high-rise office and a business suit rather than the messy-haired insomniac interviewing from her unmade bed while wearing a pajama top that reads "Academy for Naughty Girls".

For my latest late-night chat, I practiced my Aussie-accented Harold Dow-voice and got ready to impress. Until Augusten Burroughs came on the line and said: "Isn't it 3am over there? This is awful!"

Referenced book:
Magical Thinking: True Stories
by Augusten Burroughs


Picador
October 2005, 304 pages, $14.00 (paperback)



Sprung.

Oh well. Professional voice probably fools few anyway. Still, my chat with Mr. Burroughs, in honor of his Magical Thinking's paperback release, proved that 3am calls are not only a tad inconvenient; they're also rather dangerous. Had it been 10am, with mental faculties firing fully, perhaps I wouldn't have revealed to this veritable stranger my deepest, darkest secret. But then, Augusten Burroughs has that effect on people. We open up to him in ways we'd normally wouldn't and know we shouldn't — like the old woman in Magical Thinking who reveals to Burroughs her big secret: forced Dr. Pepper enemas. Burroughs is aware his revelatory Running With Scissors is the cause for all this confession. Still, the Dr. Pepper conversation has him pondering the possibility of handing out tests to potential readers. He wants to control just who gets inside his weird world.

Burroughs inspires honesty because, in print, he appears fearless. His worst experiences and least appealing qualities are detailed in Running with Scissors and it's follow-up, Dry. Both books are compelling and sad, yet empowering; what else can a man endure after hell itself? And what is a man afraid of who's not afraid to be honest with himself? Burroughs is caustic and brutal, but honest to a fault. Everything most of us go to lengths to hide about our pasts and our personalities, he shouts about. Confronting our flaws, Burroughs knows, is the only way to understand them.

His latest collection of real life stories is Magical Thinking. The book is not a standard memoir. Instead of detailing specific life-journeys from beginning to end, this time Burroughs selects issues of importance and writes about them. He relates, among other things, an appearance in a Tang commercial, an unexpected emotional reaction to killing a rat, the joys of Amish country, and how amazing it feels to be in love. Parts of the book, in fact, read like a love letter to his lucky boyfriend, Dennis. In "Total Turnaround", Burroughs writes:

I watch [Dennis] in the kitchen, and I think of how much it hurts to love somebody. How deep the hurt is, how almost unbearable. It's not the love that hurts; it's the possibility of anything happening to the object of your love. Like, I would not want Dennis to lose his mind. But I'd be much more fearful of me losing my mind, because then he'd be the one left alone.

To say Magical Thinking is his most upbeat and positive book so far isn't to say it's without its harrowing moments. But throughout much of it, with Dennis by his side, there's an undercurrent that makes even the tragic parts seem optimistic. I spoke briefly to Burroughs about this optimism, as well as dogs, dwarves, Dennis, and never leaving the house.

PopMatters: Has finally being in your own personal happy place changed your writing?

Augusten Burroughs: I think I write faster than I did before. Only because I just do so, so, so much of it. And I think anything you do over and over and over again gets easier to do and you get better at it — hopefully. There was a time when I was starting out, when I used to think about starting a book. I mean after I wrote Sellevision and Running with Scissors, just the idea — [fearfully] "Oh god, I'm gonna write another whole book!" I don't have that feeling anymore. It's an attainable thing for me now. I understand how it works and I know, sort of, where the milestones of the book are. It seems somehow doable to me now. I'm not intimidated by the process of writing another big, whole book.

PM: How do you lose that intimidation?

AB: It's like being a doctor and you've delivered 320 babies. At this point you know you can do it. You can deliver another one, so there is that certain level of, I guess, just the practical sort of skill. I don't ever sit and wonder will I have another book. I never have that question in my head.

PM: Is it different writing from your new, comfortable home in Massachusetts than it was writing in bustling New York City?

AB: I thought it would be, but it's turned out not to be so different. I could be writing anywhere. I could be absolutely anywhere. When I was down on my Australian tour and in New Zealand, I had to Google the city I was in so I could see it. It's kind of the same thing here. I spend so much time at the computer writing, or I'm reading, that I could be anywhere in the world. Certainly I have different experiences here — there's a lot more room and it's the country, sort of. It's a bit slower and you have to drive everywhere, but I like it.

PM: Is it fair to say that all the crap you went though ended up serendipitous because of your new life with Dennis and your dogs?

AB: Yeah, I feel that. I've actually always felt that. I've never been someone to regret anything. Even right after it was happening just because I think, you know it's a cliché to say, "that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger", but its really true. And I've gone through a lot in my life and as a result, I've got certain strengths. [Pause] The dogs just came into my office. So, hmm ... [speaking to the pups] go on. They had to get a toy. So ... I do feel that now not only do I not regret what I've gone though, I'm grateful. As a writer who writes about himself, and his own life with ruthless self-examination, it's great to have experience. The more experience — that's what I'm dealing in. That's what I need.

PM: Is it true that you can make interesting reading out of even the most banal situations?

AB: I think you can as long as you are connected personally to that experience. You have to be emotionally connected to it. If you're washing you're clothes, doing laundry — what's going on inside of you while you're doing it? I think then you can make it work.

PM: Do you find yourself doing certain things and thinking how you can manipulate it or use it in your work?

AB: Yeah, I know what you mean. Do I take like ballet lessons from wino dwarves? No, I've never done that. I know there are writers that do that — experience hunting. But I've never done that. I don't know why. I guess I'm not interested in hunting for experience so much. Thing just have always seemed to happen to me. I'm not someone who has sought to have a bizarre, or an especially eventful life, but it's been that I have. So I've never felt like I need to go out there and draw more attention.

PM: You talk a lot about Bentley the Dog in the book. Has raising him with Dennis changed you, do you think?

AB: You know it really has. Dennis noted when we first got Bentley, that I was different around him. He'd never seen, as he said, that side of me. I think I'm just really tender with him. I'm like a parent. I really think of him as a child. We have two French bulldogs, and they both sleep in the bed. And now I've come to feel that if you have dogs and they don't sleep in the bed with you that you're missing something. You really are missing it because it's perfect. He wiggles under the covers between us. It's the funniest thing — like his little face when he's in bed and he knows it's his bed. I can't imagine not sleeping with him.

PM: Do you have that thing where, even though they don't talk and they might not outwardly show it, your dog is more clearly way more cognizant that you're led to believe?

AB: Yeah, I think he is. You know, dogs have an emotional brilliance. They have a huge range of emotion. And I think they can understand a huge range of emotion. They're very sensitive to us; they definitely know. Bentley knows, for example, when I go shopping, if I've brought him a toy by the expression on my face. I'll try to hide it but he can tell, he can see something in my eyes and he'll know. He'll sit down and start barking and he'll grab at me and paw, because he'll know. He won't do that if I haven't bought him anything.

PM: It opens your world, right, having this thing to love?

AB: I know. I look at them, at this little animal plucked from nature, and it's a part of your life now.

PM: Are there any good books out there for screwed up people with normal childhoods?

AB: For screwed up people with normal childhoods? I know what you mean, yeah.

PM: What do you do when you get to that age where you're having all these fears and frustrations and you realize you might be kind of insane, but there's nothing in your past ...

AB: ... that you can point to and say, that's why? Let me think, I'm sure there is.

PM: It's a hard one.

AB: There must be one. Or you need to write it. Is that you?

PM: Oh, absolutely. I'm agoraphobic, among other things. Sometimes severely so. I read so many books like yours, and everyone — real people or made up characters — seems to have specific events to pin craziness or insecurities on. I don't.

AB: Right. You should definitely write it. You need to write the book that you don't see on the shelves. I have agoraphobia to a degree, too. I don't like to leave or do anything.

PM: It can be horribly debilitating.

AB: Absolutely. There are days when I never leave the house for anything.

PM: Is it a fear of other people?

AB: It's just a sort of a dread of leaving. I also feel that I've never had any sense of home ever in my life and now that I do, I don't want to leave it.

PM: Is your own domestication the best thing that's happened to you since the publication of Running with Scissors? Can you pinpoint any other specific events you've enjoyed above others over the last five years?

AB: The best thing has really been a combination of things. Meeting Dennis certainly, building our relationship. And my career has been great. I'm not unhappy in my career. I was unhappy for years and years and years and it's just a wonderful feeling not to have that Sunday dread. Which began on Friday, because I hated my job. Now I have an amazingly privileged career. I don't have to go into an office, and I get to meet thousand and thousands of people all over the world. It's just an incredibly eye-opening and astonishing kind of life. I'm more "me". I'm able to be more myself than I've ever been. I'm not plagued with unfulfilled wants. When you have something you want so bad, and you don't have it — that's a horrible uncomfortable, terrible feeling. You have a dream and it just looks like it's never going to happen and it's so far off and you want it so much. That's a terrible feeling. It's a wonderful feeling to have achieved that. To be doing exactly what you wanted to do in your wildest dreams. It's a little bit surreal sometimes, but it's also a very content feeling. It makes you very relaxed. I'm also comfortable in myself, I think, as a result. I'm more accepting of myself, and my flaws. I'm certainly not blind to all my flaws, [but] I'm fine with them, now.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

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Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

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8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

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