From the May 2008 DePaulia
“I’m this guy.”
Augusten Burroughs walks into the DePaul Loop Center bookstore on Thursday for his book signing. He holds up his new memoir, A Wolf at the Table, flips to the back of the book and shows the cashier his photo, and asks where he should go.
He’s given directions and heads downstairs in his leather jacket, t-shirt, baseball cap, jeans and sneakers, looking more like a college student than a New York Times bestselling author.
By the time he walks in, about five minutes before the event is scheduled to begin at 12:30 p.m., there is already a standing-room-only crowd of some 200 people awaiting him.
Burroughs, 42, has written six books, and this is his fifth memoir. He is most noted for Running With Scissors, the account of his time living with his mother’s psychiatrists family and was made into a movie in 2006. A Wolf at the Table takes place earlier in Burroughs’ life before his mother, a writer, and his late abusive father, a professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst, divorced when Burroughs was of elementary school age. The book focuses on his relationship – or lack of – with his father using vividly told stories from his childhood.
“When I would look in bookstores for books about fathers and sons and the complex relationships, it was always the Norman Rockwellian advice from dad to boy, very sentimental, idealized, or sports related,” Burroughs, who doesn’t plan to be a father himself, said. “There are a lot of bad dads. Dads walk out, they drink, they molest, and beat, and do all kinds of terrible things. My father is an extreme example, he’s a sociopath like Ted Bundy. He had an external presentation of a personality that he presented to the world, but when the world blinked, my father was completely different, black-souled creature that lacked some sort of human quality.”
For Burroughs, writing this books was different than any other of his work because of how much he was affected by the material and he would often struggle to get through the horrible memories.
“I spent a couple years on it,” Burroughs said. “The actual writing was really brutal. This was my fifth memoir, so I figured I knew the drill, but it was far more harrowing that I ever expected. When I was done with it, it was great because I finally felt like I contained the experience and then could sort of set it away and put it off into the world.”
The book is a serious departure for Burroughs, who has become known for sprinkling humor in with his serious subject manner, so much to the point that he was named one of “The 25 Funniest People in America” in 2005 by Entertainment Weekly. But his latest book is almost completely devoid of any humor.
“I took the sugar away to make the medicine go down,” he said. “It’s still me, the thing is that it’s not funny because my sense of humor really became refined into what I’m known for as a defense mechanism when I was 12, 13, and 14 during the Running with Scissors years. This takes place much earlier, so I’m more defenseless, more naiveté, more the eight-year-old kid who didn’t have that defense mechanism of humor to float him safely to the next catastrophe.”
He said that the book may be his least funny, but that’s just how it wanted it to be.
“I want people to experience the brutality of it,” Burroughs said. “It’s supposed to be brutal. I think people that have great dads, great parents, it makes you feel appreciative for what you have. When you have great parents, like being born into wealth, you don’t really appreciate it until you meet someone who had to work for every dime they had. That’s the power of memoirs when you read a book that you yourself have felt and experienced but have never been able to articulate, it makes you realize you are not alone. As I’ve been progressing through the tour people come up to me non-stop and say, “I had the same father, I had the same mother.”
Memoirs have come under fire in recent years with James Frey being called out on Oprah for fabricating parts of his book, A Million Little Pieces. However, Burroughs said that he still strongly believed in the memoir, and as one of the leading memoirists in the world, he wasn’t going to stop anytime soon.
“I think if I backed down it would be a bad thing for the genre,” he said. “I welcome the scrutiny of my own work. I do the very best I can telling the story truthfully, I don’t lie, I don’t invent stories, I don’t say I was a soldier in Iraq if I wasn’t. I can certainly understand the scrutiny, and it saddens me when there is sort of a fake memoir because it makes people suspicious and that they can’t trust their literature. In my experience, it’s more of a media issue than a reader issue. Readers seem to be able to judge for themselves what they like and what they don’t like and why they like it or not.”
Following the success of the movie Running with Scissors, A Wolf at the Table has been picked up to be turned into a film. Burroughs said he is going to try to write the screenplay for it as well. But he said that having his life turned into a movie hasn’t made that much of a difference for him.
“The good thing about reaching my success when I did in my life is that my personality was formed,” he said. “I’m not intoxicated with myself and my own celebrity. When I go home after the book tour, I’m not famous anymore.”