When he started a tour in support of his latest book, A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father, Augusten Burroughs thought he would strike a nerve with at least one group of readers: those with terrible fathers. To his surprise, he was greeted early on by readers who wanted him to inscribe the book personally—as a Father's Day gift. (See link at bottom for the full Q&A.)
"I must have signed thousands of copies with these words: 'Happy Father's Day,' " Burroughs wrote recently by email from atop a cotton bedspread in a hotel room in Aspen. "This stunned me. But one reader really made me understand when she told me, 'I'm sorry. I feel guilty asking you to sign "Happy Father's Day" but I had a really wonderful dad. I know I'm lucky. And I just wanted to give this to him as a way to say...thanks.' When she told me this, I understood."
Something else he wants you to know about his latest work: Don't expect laughs."Wolf is not a funny book," says Burroughs, who will appear April 8 at Vanderbilt's Ingram Hall in a signing and discussion presented by The H. Franklin Brooks Philanthropic Fund. "One reviewer likened it to a Stephen King novel. Because while this is the story of my boyhood relationship with my father, it is also a horror story. It is relentless and it is disturbing."
More disturbing, certainly, than Running With Scissors, the 2002 memoir in which Burroughs recounted his twisted adolescence with the demented family of his mother's psychiatrist. In that book, Burroughs made...if not light, then at least high dark comedy of the addled, addicted adults around him, a gallery of spectacularly failed authority figures.
The "wolf" of Burroughs' most recent work, however, is much less comic and much more capable of inflicting lasting hurt. In the new book, a memoir of the childhood years that preceded Running With Scissors, Burroughs remembers his professor father as an embittered, arthritic alcoholic whose mean streak extended to animals and humans alike. Training the family dog to snap at the rest of the household was one of his milder cruelties. For affection, the 7-year-old Augusten seeks solace in a stuffed facsimile of this tyrant—a dummy made from his father's shirts.
"The reason it's not funny like my other books—which also feature disturbing subject matter but treat the material with levity—is because I did not myself develop that humor 'warp' in my lens until the Running With Scissors years," Burroughs explains. "Before this, when Wolf takes place, I was much more earnest, as young children are. When I decided to publish the book, knowing its tone was so very different, I did so believing that I alone could not be the only guy (or woman, for that matter) who experienced a terrible father."
Such memory-mining has brought Burroughs his share of hostile reviews and accusatory press coverage, especially as the memoir has come to be viewed with suspicion. The juicier and more vivid the detail, the thinking goes, the more likely the author is to be lying his ass off. Burroughs bristles at this logic.
"Over many years, my memory has demonstrated itself to be a reliable tool," he says. "I can offer no proof or substantiation that I recall being a year-and-a-half and sitting in my high-chair, peering through the tiny hole of a Saltine cracker. But I know this occurred because I can see it. For many in the media, this is simply not enough. In light of the products released into the stores and marketed as 'memoirs' which were in fact partial or complete fictions, there is a great deal of skepticism with respect to memoir in general, but my memoirs in particular. It is wondered, how can one person have experienced so much? And how can anybody recall such tiny details from so early in life?
"So I can actually understand this skepticism, even if I find it offensive. Imagine saying to a woman who was raped, 'This did NOT happen the way you say it did. You asked for it. You flirted with the guy.' No journalist would ever say such a thing. But they feel comfortable saying exactly this to me because I am male, and I am 'funny' and I have been successful—something which I have no control over."
Conducting interviews by email is one way of restoring some of that relinquished control. Asked if there's a follow-up question he would have expected from an interview in person, and how he might have answered, Augusten Burroughs' response is—to borrow the title of yet another memoir—dry.
"You would have been flustered by how fast I spoke and forgotten, entirely, to even ask a follow-up question," he wrote. "Remembering only once you were back in your car. So rarely does life provide us with a nice silk bow. Things are usually left partially unwrapped."
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