The Truth is in the Text
Talking breakups, dogs and happiness with Augusten Burroughs
As I was waiting for Augusten Burroughs to call for our scheduled phone interview I took off my shoes and climbed under the covers, phone clutched at chest height, eyes closed. It was Monday, and it had already been a turbulent week, a new day on the heels of a restless weekend. As chance would have it, however, Burroughs' book, Lust & Wonder, which I had finished earlier that morning, had come to me during the preceding rough week, and reading it had been a meaningful experience. It is a memoir—as are the bulk of his publishings—that chronicles three relationships, the discovery of a personal writing practice and, simultaneously, the dissolution of years of alcoholism. Encountering this particular book on that particular week was a tonic. When Burroughs called that afternoon I was still under the covers (and I stayed there for the duration of our conversation). My interview with Burroughs—who was candid, thoughtful, full of laughter—was just as grounding as reading his book had been. Burroughs in conversation was very much like Burroughs on the page, both embracing a particular brand of radical honesty and translating that into indelible word, which functions like a restorative taken in through the eyes or ears, cutting a direct channel to heavy hearts.
“If it's authentic, if it's true,” Burroughs laid out at the beginning of our conversation, “if it's something that you really went through, people can smell it and they can feel it. That's what they really respond to. I think it's important then not to hold anything back or to spit shine reality.” Certainly, Burroughs doesn't shy away in the least from those particularly painful, sad or absurd moments. Things that many of us might want to shelve in our memory and never return or admit to. “If I've experienced it, the chances are that someone else has experienced the same kind of thing. I just have to have faith that I'm not special,” he laughed, so self-deprecating and contagious that I cracked a smile, too. That someone else could do things that they were ashamed of, that they could admit to flaws and failures and that they can come out the other side, still deserving happiness and finding it, too, is powerful, and it seems to resonate across a wide and adamant fan base. “The more truthful and the more me I can make it, in a weird way, the more universal it is,” Burroughs explained. “Because we really do experience a lot of the same things, and we want a lot of the same things,” he said emphatically.
Much of what Lust & Wonder hones in on—with heart-wrenching acuity—is the process of recognizing the ill fit of a relationship and mustering the courage to end it. “This is the kind of stuff [that] we all do at some point in our lives, or most of us anyway … I fooled myself into believing the relationship was actually better than it was because the work of breaking it up would be too much. It seemed impossible to think about,” he detailed. The book plots the course that took Burroughs and his partner, Dennis, from their first date through a sort of listless evolution that culminates in a house, two dogs and 10 years of life built with each other. “I felt like if we broke up it would destroy my whole life. That's the thing about the truth. The truth is right there inside of you, but it can be very expensive to see it. And I mean expensive financially, but I also mean expensive emotionally. That's why we run from the truth even though we're looking it right in the eyes,” he said. To face the truth is not just brave, but difficult. Part of what makes Burroughs' writing so compelling is that it is brutally, unflinchingly honest—and anything other than the vulnerability of telling the truth and the strength in laying it bare is unacceptable. That honesty provides a compass for Burroughs. “[The breakup] had to be done because it was a lie. It wasn't me. It wasn't authentic. I would rather blow it all up than live in something that was deeply, profoundly mediocre.” I was stirred from my blanket nest just a little, “But that's so scary!” I protested. “That's the whole thing about it!” he yelled back. “And the horrible thing is you always already know the answer. Deep, deep, deep, deep down you know. You know.” And each day of mediocrity that passes dwindles down the remaining number to find happiness. By doing the hard thing, Burroughs does, in fact, find happiness by the close of the book.
I asked him if, since finding true love and easing into a life that feels right, he has found that it is harder to write happiness than the trauma of the past. He answered that it's not that happiness is difficult to write—it's just boring. “No one wants to read about the happy, middle-aged, white guy living in Connecticut. That's just not fucking interesting,” he summarized. So, on the horizon for Burroughs may not be many more memoirs, but he certainly has enough rich, varied life experience to inform hundreds of novels. Yet, he mentions offhand, he kind of wants to write a book about dogs. “I have a little bit of insecurity about it though, because I want to be the first to write a dog book, not, like, the three-thousandth,” he said. I took this opportunity to nag him for a little more life advice, so I told him I had been thinking for years about adopting a dog. “Totally! Do it! I'm all for that!” was his immediate, enthusiastic response.
Where Burroughs is headed—dog book or not—is inspiringly self-determined. “I guess I come at it from a … selfish place,” he said. “I'm just doing the thing I've been doing my whole life: Trying to understand the world and myself and my place in it and those around me. … I'm just very fortunate that people like to read what's left,” he explained. “In a weird way I think that I'm a writer because I'm a collector and I don't like waste. An experience … that was amazing and important, I want to share it with someone, I don't want it to just die … I want to put it on the bookshelf.” The fact that those pages and pages of experience laid bare might impact someone deeply seems to genuinely astonish him. “That's wonderful to me, just supernatural,” he said as our conversation was coming to a close. As I hung up the phone, I felt like I had drawn some inspiration from Burroughs’ whole way of communicating, on the page and in his conversation—so deeply honest with others and himself—which is a rare and beautiful language. You can hear Burroughs' voice for yourself on Thursday, April 6, at 6pm at UNM's Dane Smith Hall. The event is totally free, and the conversation is bound to be revelatory.