Augusten Burroughs wears his life on his sleeve. As the memoirist of Running With Scissors and Dry, Burroughs has laid bare the most troubling details of his life and made them fair game for polite conversation. As compensation, the author has finally achieved his childhood dream of celebrity, appearing as himself at the end of the big-screen adaptation of his coming of age. In Ryan Murphy's film of Running With Scissors, Annette Bening plays Burroughs' erratic mother, and up-and-coming Joseph Cross plays the writer as a teen. At San Francisco's Ritz Carlton Hotel, Burroughs recently spoke to me about his life and the dangerous game of penning memoirs.
Groucho: Armistead Maupin noted with pride, earlier this year, that The Night Listener was, as far as he could tell, the first mainstream Hollywood movie to feature a gay protagonist—and gay wasn't the issue. Do you think gay characters have arrived in popular culture?
Augusten Burroughs: No. No, I don't think they've especially arrived. Not until we've seen the hundredth gay character for whom sexual orientation isn't an issue. We're not even close to having arrived. Now it's still too much of an issue.
G: Not that I want to make it one, but I have a couple other questions in this vein. In the book, you say you've know all your life that you're gay. How early did you become aware of your orientation, and did your parents ever acknowledge it?
AB: I honestly don't remember how old I was. Might have been eleven maybe. My parents acknowledge it? No, no. It was not something I talked about with them. I talked about so little with my parents. But it wasn't something that I felt bad about or worried about, you know? I wasn't scared of it.
G: With perspective, how do you now view your first sexual experience that you shared so boldly in the book?
AB: That relationship ended up causing a lot of damage in me, and I didn't understand that until many years later when I found myself replicating that behavior over and over and over—waiting for someone to come back or waiting for someone to leave. Or using sex as a sort of way to get back at somebody. I think that that—Bookman was the primary adult in my life that was supporting me. The sexual relationship that we had was not sex as an expression of love. We didn't have sex because we had to find a way to show each other how much we loved each other. We had sex as a way to operate with each other, and that just warped me, you know, for years.
G: Moving to the subject of the film, had you already sold the option to Running With Scissors when you met with Ryan Murphy, or was he the decisive factor in selling the rights?
AB: After Running With Scissors came out, I didn't want to—I wasn't going to option it for film. But Ryan was so persistent. He was bugging my agent so much that I decided to meet with him and explain my reasons for never having Running With Scissors made into a film. And those reasons were that I just felt Hollywood (with big fat quote marks around it) would—it would be too easy for them to focus on the sort of more sensational aspects of the book. You know, make it something tawdry, or something just campy and kitsch. Like—I could imagine the Hollywood version of Running With Scissors, and I didn't like it and I was not convinced that there were people out there that, you know, were going to make it right. So—but during lunch—during that meeting we had, Ryan shared so many stories from his own youth and from his experience growing up with his mother. And our mothers were very similar in some very fundamental ways. And the way that we responded to these mothers was very similar. Our sensibilities were similar. There was so much there that felt related in our stories. And Ryan understood Running With Scissors in a way that only the writer of the book could. And it was an amazing lunch. And by the end of it, I had completely changed. And my gut instinct was to give him Running With Scissors even though I had made a decision—conscious decision—to do otherwise. But I always follow my gut because it's really the only thing I have—it's my only tool that I can be sure of—that I know that I can trust. So I did and I gave him Running With Scissors then and there. And he hadn't done Nip/Tuck at that point—he'd done Popular, but I hadn't seen it. So I was completely unfamiliar with him...but I trusted that he would do the right thing, you know? And he did—I mean, Ryan never let me forget that he knew that Running With Scissors was my life story and not just a movie, you know? And I think he took just enormous care making sure I was comfortable with every decision from casting to wardrobe. And I think he never would have done something that I was uncomfortable with at any point. He just showed just incredible empathy in his direction.
G: What was the extent of your input as a resource to the actors and creatively?
AB: Well I made myself available to the actors, you know, to do anything that I could. Annette and Jill and Joe—I just—I was there to answer any questions they had or tell them stories that weren't in the book—other memories that I had from that period of time. Some of them had very specific questions about my childhood and my relationship with my brother—even things that really had nothing to do with the movie. I mean Annette had some questions that really had very little to do with the movie about my relationship with my brother, or my relationship with my uncle. I talked about my mother's brothers and where they fit in in the scheme of things. I mean it was fascinating—the questions that the actors asked because they didn't seem like they would be directly translatable to the film. There were no...questions about how do people walk and how do people laugh. No technical questions like that. And yet the performances are, in so many ways, just spot on.
G: Murphy has said that you approved sets, actors, costumes—even buttons. Is he overstating it, or were you there—
AB: No. I mean Ryan—I cannot overemphasize the amount—the level of detail that Ryan Murphy considers when he's making a movie. And yes, he showed me every little thing you can think of. When I got on set and walked into the Finch house, there, near the fire place, was my plastic record player that I hadn't see since I was a little kid. So I mean even the clothes Joe wears were the clothes I wore as a child, from Chess King. Those are vintage clothes from Chess King. That was my wardrobe. Ryan asked me for a list of all the furniture and contents of my house and, if I didn't know the brand names, to describe those pieces so they could be located.
AB: There's a jar of pennies on the set—there's a jar of pennies that's shown, because I used to boil my change. I liked it shiny. And there's not one penny in that jar of fifteen hundred that's above 1978 or whenever.
G: Interesting. Changes are obviously necessary in adaptation. And though the film is quite faithful, were you sanguine with the changes that had to be made? One that stood out—you mentioned your brother, Troy. It's a dramatically sensible change to omit him, but that must be kind of strange for you.
AB: You know, actually, I was not—I was never concerned that every character even, or every line that I wrote, be in the movie. That was not my concern. So it didn't phase me in the slightest that my brother's not in it. What I wanted—the only thing that mattered—was that the movie have the same soul as the book. And that, when you leave that theatre, you have experienced what it felt like to be me. And I think it does that. You know, it captures the soul of the movie. You know, the movie is actually very accurate in it's portrayal of my brother in the sense that it doesn't show him. He appears in one chapter in Running With Scissors, and that chapter is a bit "And, here, by the way, I have a brother." He doesn't come in and out of my life. He doesn't come in and out of the book in Running With Scissors. Every single mention of my brother is in one chapter in Running With Scissors. He just wasn't part of my life then. He was older. He didn't come around. He wasn't part of that family. So, as a matter of fact, it's actually very accurate that he's not in there. But yeah, there are certain things that you have to give up because it's a movie. But I think that that works well because the book and the movie complement each other—because you can see the movie, and if you're curious to know more—to have greater detail—I mean, the relationship, for example, with Natalie is far more fleshed-out in the book than in the movie. But Ryan had to make a directorial decision. And he felt that, you know, what he loved about the story was my relationship with my mother. And Ryan has said this, that I could have done five Running With Scissors—one that focused on Augusten and Natalie, one that focused on Augusten and Bookman—you know, and you really could. You could do that, but for a movie, you have to choose. You can't have all that you have. I mean, Running With Scissors is very broad. The book is very broad. And it had to be narrowed down for the film. And the trick was how to narrow it down and still make it feel like the book. You know, as a culture and as an audience, we are so accustomed—we have been well-trained by the studios, to see a comedy or go see a romance or see a romantic comedy. And Running With Scissors is a very confusing movie. I mean, some people would even say it's disjointed. One minute it's funny, and the next it's gross, and the next it's a little—maybe even insulting. You know, you honestly don't know what to feel. You don't know really what you are supposed to feel because it's so extremely all over—and that is because it's—that's how it was. Life itself is like that. In the space of a day, you can have all those different emotions. And that's what it was like living in that house. So the movie is like being able to test-drive my childhood.
G: I want to talk a little bit about that element of style and tone both for you writing the book and in the film. You mentioned before wanting to avoid any kitsch or camp but, as you say, life has both dramatic and comedic elements. How do you find that line so it doesn't kind of cross over?
AB: Yeah, you know how you find that line is by being real—you know, it's like that's the authenticity of like Annette's performance or, you know, if you look at Rachel Wood's performance—they're just so devastatingly authentic. The emotion is just so real. Where camp occurs is where parody happens. You get camp when you start to make fun of, or where you start to cartoon people. That's when you get campy. Camp is when you start to get a little insincere and sarcastic. And I think that's where the line is. It has to do with how true the performance is. I mean there are scenes in Running With Scissors when Annette Bening is just devastated and she's crying. But it's funny. But it's not campy at all.
G: We were talking about paring down the book, and I know the original cut went forty minutes longer before, inevitably, the editing process really kicks in. Do you know what fell on the cutting-room floor?
AB: You know, I'm not sure of all the scenes. But that would be a good question for Ryan. I was not privy to all the edits. I saw one edit before the final—and that was a pretty final edit. So I don't actually know all the film that he shot. But, I mean, it was just a constant process of refining. I do know he's including a lot on the DVD. And he's excited about that because he can include the scenes that brought it over-length.
G: There's the tricky question of telling true stories and I found that a fascinating subject to talk about, whether it's writing a historical fiction or—films come out all the time, based on a true story or inspired by a true story, that change so much but maybe still try to have the essence of truth. How much artistic license should be allowed to memoirists who are fashioning their own perspective of their stories? How much is simply a matter of point of view?
AB: I don't know. I don't know what the formula is. I don't know how much memoirists should. This is a very difficult question to answer. I honestly don't know. You know, I only know how I write. And I don't read a lot of memoirs, it's funny. I guess when I read a memoir I like to think it's true. I like to know it's true. I think that writing falls apart when you lie. It falls apart in fiction when you lie—when it rings false. It doesn't work when it's poor analogies, you know, when it's false. And memoir—we've all seen what happens when something is claimed to be true but is not true.
AB: Yeah. Exactly, yeah. Running With Scissors—I'll just talk about the book. That's a true story. Everything in that book happened to me. Did I get every single word right? You know, I hope, but probably not. I mean, it seems like it would be impossible. However, I've got a very good memory, and I'm a very good mimic. You know, I'm a very good mimic, and I've got a very good memory, so I would bet that I've got quite a few actual verbatim lines, I would think. But of course you can't have that always be the case. There's gonna be times where I say I'm wearing brown pants and I'm wearing blue. But the thing—part of it is intent. You do your best to tell the story. You do your best to tell the truth the way it was. For me, my life had been such a phenomenal experience that I didn't need to—
AB: Yeah. I needed to pull back. The authorial voice in Running With Scissors is extremely—the note is very low—it's very reportage. I just sort of walk through the funhouse. And that's very much how I lived it. Dry I took more liberties with because it was a very complicated mess. It was my journal. And it was about eight hundred pages. And it was just a mess. And I had to fudge it a little bit. I had to combine some people together.
G: But when you're upfront about it, it sort of dissolves the—
AB: Well, I think when people can understand—Dry's a true story but some of the people that say certain things were actually other people. And I do that just because it's—it would have been confusing as a reader; it would have been confusing to introduce a character so late, you know? I also invented someone's testimony in an AA meeting, and the reason I did that was just because I didn't want to tell someone else's story that was repeated in AA. I didn't want someone to read that book and have them go, "That was my story." I didn't want that one person—I changed that, actually, for just one person. I didn't want that one person to see their story in my book. That would have been emotional shoplifting and I wouldn't do that. So I would rather lie in that instance and create a fiction. And actually, some people have been upset that I did that. But I just don't have a problem with that.
G: But a representative one of—
AB: Yeah. But someone did say something. I think where you get into trouble is when you say—when you make bold, wild outlandish claims of things you've done and achieved, and it actually turns out you haven't. And you tell people, "No, it's true. I did. I was married to a girl, and she was a model and she was killed. And it was horrible. And I had a nervous breakdown." You know, and I get you emotionally involved, and you start to feel bad for me because I lost my model wife. You know, you're going to be mad at me when you find out I didn't have a model wife. You are going to be mad that you cried. And I think that that's kind of how readers feel when they get emotionally invested in a memoir or in a story—in a memoir, when they make an emotional investment, to find out that they cried for nobody? Or for somebody in a book, especially a successful book turning a profit, it's just—there's something kind of gross about it, I guess. The thing that makes memoirs so strong is because, when you read something in a book that resonates—when you read something you recognize as "That could have come from me"—it makes you feel less alone in the world. It makes you feel less alone. In the movie I think there are certain liberties. I mean, no one ever gave me a can of cash, you know, like at the end. I was never given a can of cash, you know. But it—Ryan did that, and I think it makes the point beautifully in a way that you'd have to make with six pages of dialogue to explain what that can of cash stands for: you know, of "I'm not much of a mother to you—I'm a little bit of a mother, and that's all I can give you and I believe in you," you know? But that's Agnes. And that's a good way to show that.
G: There's so much more I'd love to talk to you about, but we're out of time.
AB: I know. I'm sorry. But thank you for your talk.
[For Groucho's review of Running With Scissors, click here.]