One of the most
successful gay writers working today, Augusten Burroughs
has made a career out of exposing his family's and
his own dysfunction with sharp wit and a taste for the
absurd that belie the pain of growing up amid
unchecked mental illness. But after two memoirs and two
essay collections, what more could he have to tell?
Quite a bit, it turns out. Set during
Burroughs's childhood in the years leading up to his
parents' divorce, his latest memoir, A Wolf
at the Table, is the kind of read that grabs
you by the neck and won't let go until the last
page. Readers looking for a reprise of Running With
Scissors are in for a surprise: This tale is as harrowing
and cathartic as a Stephen King novel.
Why did you choose to tell this story now?
It's always been a story I wanted to
tell, partly because of my father's denial of
his behavior--the way he called me and made threats to
kill me, then denied it had happened. I really wanted
to reveal him. Fans who have read my books feel my
mother is this enormous driving force in my life, but
my father was really the rocket fuel. Right after he died,
about three years ago, I started writing this book. It
was like something inside me was unlocked and set
Had you been in touch with your father?
We'd been in touch but hadn't
mended our relationship. He knew about my success as a
writer but had no idea what I wrote about.
Are you in touch with your mother?
As far as I know she still lives in a small town
in Massachusetts and still writes her poetry. I
don't talk to her.
How did writing about such a harrowing time in your
childhood affect you?
Around the time I started this book my beloved
French bulldog became paralyzed and I had to move into
the basement of my house because he couldn't
climb stairs. So I was down there 24 hours a day. My
father's brother sent me up a huge box of
family documents and photographs, new images
I'd never seen growing up. I entered this peculiar
state. I was working very long hours down there. I
live in the woods, sort of like in the book, and I
would have insomnia at night and I would cry. The whole
thing was a real horror.
It sounds like an exorcism.
I think what I exorcised was my father's
basement smile out of the center of my chest. I was
able to take my dark, mildew-smelling father and drag
him into the sun.
As a child you worried a lot about growing up to be
like your father. What are your similarities?
I feel more different from my father than like him.
Thankfully, my herniated disks are fixed. I knew I
looked like him when I had them and was all bent over,
and I hated it. When I was drinking I worried that I
too was a sociopath. I can't overemphasize how much
that scared me.
Has being gay shaped your sensibility as a writer?
I don't think so. I never struggled with it or
thought about it. It's something that tends to
come up when you hit puberty, but my attendance at
junior high and high school was brief and very sporadic. My
parents didn't seem to have any issue with
gayness. I had no religious upbringing whatsoever, so
I had no concept of it being a sin.
But your father's utter rejection of you, and
your search for ways to recover from that and to force
your father to acknowledge you -- that's a
very powerful gay archetype.
When you spell it all out like that, it's there.
But I really don't think about my triumphs as a
So are you a post-gay man?
[Laughs] If I'd been exactly like I was
but had more traditional parents, I would have had more time
to focus on my sexuality and might have found a refuge
in gay culture. But the fact was, I was living under
surreal circumstances. My issues were more
survival-oriented. There was always a crisis. That's
why I think being gay is no big deal. It was not an
identity I strove for. I liked being with guys, and
that was the extent of it.
Has the way you write been affected by all the skepticism
about truth in memoirs, or the Turcotte
family's 2005 lawsuit over Running With
Scissors, which you settled last summer?Nothing
has changed the way I write since I was 13. I had all
these journals I'd kept from when I was growing
up that I carted around in boxes when I moved. But I never
peeked at them. I didn't want to see this boy in the
process of being ruined at 13 years old. When I read
them, I found out I haven't changed that much.
What's your take on the recent scandal over
Margaret Seltzer, who wrote a memoir based on a
false identity as a half-white, half-Native
American gangbanger in South Central Los Angeles?
It seems like it would take a lot of energy to keep up
that front. Like JT LeRoy -- why would you want to
disguise yourself and then take on all the practical
issues of working with your publisher at the same time?
You say on your website that fame is your alcohol
replacement and you feed on it. What do you mean
That's totally tongue-in-cheek.
Isn't fame balm for your wounds?
I'll tell you what's balm: people
reading my books. I mostly meet them at book signings,
where we have 30 to 60 seconds to talk. People will say,
"Thank you for writing this book. I had the exact
same childhood." Knowing that other people
experienced these things has humanized me in many
You had three dogs as a child, and you have two French
bulldogs now. What's most important to you
I love giving them a great life. I'm fascinated
by the interspecies intimacy -- how they prefer
physical affection and closeness with me over their
other favorite thing, food. It was devastating when Bentley
became paralyzed. I moved downstairs, covered the bed
with plastic, and kept him immobile by holding him
between my legs for two months. Just when he got
better, it happened again -- another disc rupture. This was
a baby I used to carry in my hands. I just took care
of him, day and night. Now he walks like he's a
drunk, and his legs give out when he runs, but he's
Have you and your partner thought about having kids?
I think I would probably be good at it. But Dennis
doesn't want to have kids, and I don't
want them enough to get over that hurdle. Writing is a
selfish thing. I don't want to be like my
mother--type, type, type. Growing up without any
parenting, it's kind of presumptuous to think I
can do it.
Is there anything else you want people to know about your life?
When I was growing up I worried a lot -- Am I going
to be broken because I don't have a
father? What I've learned is that you can
repair yourself later. You can get the things you need.
That's what I would say to younger people
living in a situation similar to mine. It's
profoundly terrifying when a parent is mentally ill, or an
alcoholic, or missing something that makes you human,
but it's possible for you to be OK anyway.