My Life the Movie
While literary celebrity generally carries with it a kind of faceless fame, Augusten Burroughs' solid attractiveness, relatable average-bro demeanor and highly interesting trajectory—he's been a starry eyed twink obsessed with glamour and stardom, a hostage of filthy domestic madness, a Prada-shod ad man, a hardcore alcoholic and a best-selling author—have allowed him the sort of glory that he obsessed over as a child. Of his life now, which includes both mentions on LA gossip website PerezHilton.com and cozy East Coast domesticity, Burroughs says, "It's given me enough fame to know that having a whole lot more fame would be really challenging. I can't . . . I can imagine a Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow level of fame, and I think that would be a real process of adjustment. I think that would be something that would be definitely more than I would want. I have enough now so that I get to keep writing, and that's what I love."
Augusten Burroughs will get to keep writing. His memoir-turned-flick Running With Scissors distinguished him as a cultural and literary player, though he's also done well with the boozing and recovery confessional Dry and essay collections Magical Thinkingand Possible Side Effects. He's signed on to develop a show for Showtime, and has a couple of other books in the pipe. With this success, and despite what seems to be a lovely home life (Burroughs shares a house in Amherst with his long-time partner Dennis), he has only become more ambitious. "I think a lot of writers, and I include myself among them, are never satisfied with the works that they create and put out there. I read books like Couples from John Updike. It just makes me, in the best way, want to die. It's just so amazing and gorgeous."
Though Updike's master status hasn't been approached, Burroughs is frequently compared to literary contemporaries David Sedaris, David Rakoff and, to some extent, Dave Eggers, all of whom have contributed some hotness to pop writing in the past few years. Stylistically closest to, though lighter than Sedaris (who frequently comments on the fallibility of his father, the failures of his sisters and the impossibilities of long term relationships), Burroughs exemplifies the semi-neurotic gay essayists who have so thoroughly taken hold of must-read lists.
When asked about this group's popularity, he says, "We've become a very fast culture. I think that there is an element of just cutting to the chase. Telling it like it is; telling the truth; just not being at all afraid or intimidated or embarrassed of the consequences and, you know, just bald honesty. It's appealing to people. People like to read about themselves, and they do that when they read memoirs and nonfiction because you see yourself. I know for me, when I read something that is so stunningly me and I can relate to it so completely, it makes me immediately feel a sense of relief. I guess it's realizing that you're not alone." This immediacy and the empathy for others, as well as the hyperbolic way of communicating, are all themes in his conversational style and in his writing. This, and the wild truth of Running With Scissors in particular, has hit a nerve with American readers, and the film is likely to do the same.
Burroughs chose not to write the screenplay either because or in spite of the fact that the story is of his own adolescence, a time that usually serves as the molten core of a person's character.
"When you give your book away to become a movie you have to either take control of it, like John Irving did with Cider House Rules, and write the screenplay yourself, or you have to give it up and you have to let it go and just hope that it turns out all right. So, mentally and emotionally, I did that."
Nonetheless, director Ryan Murphy reeled Burroughs in from the sidelines to play something of a consultant. "He had me send him a list of all the furniture in the house I grew up with, and if I didn't know the names or the brands, to describe everything. So if I said, 'Shag carpeting,' he'd say, 'Was it inch shag or three quarter inch shag?' so the prop stylist could go and find it. And when I go to the set, there was my little plastic record player, in ocher, that I hadn't seen since I was a kid. It was stunning in ways like that. It was extremely careful. He said to me at one point, 'I understand this is not just a movie, it's your life; I know that, so I'm going to be very, very, very conscious of that.' It turned out to be a very positive experience and when I first saw the film I was completely stunned. At first I was relieved, but right after that I immediately could feel that it was going to be one of those movies that people really respond to. Not only was it not bad, but it was really, really innovative and good."
Burroughs' perspective on the film's ultimate critical and commercial success is typically wry. "I feel like if it's great I'll be able to take credit, and if it's not I'll be able to say it's all Ryan. I mean, that's kind of how it is, really. If it is good it just reflects well on me, but if it's bad, hey, I didn't write the screenplay. It's a good position to be in. A bad movie can ruin your career. I mean, look at Endless Love."
Considering how even the most trite of printed reflections on family, friends and lovers can stab through the hearts of those relationships, Burroughs took what might be considered a risk by allowing the book's characters to be further fictionalized and caricatured in the film. He doesn't seem to care a whole lot about their potential reactions, partly because he's not in touch with the Finch family or with his mother, and likely in part because the story of his life is his own to tell. He expects that Bookman, an older Finch pseudo-scion who played an enormous and aggressive role in Burroughs' teenage sex life, is dead ("I heard that the studio or somebody found a death certificate for him. I never imagined that he could have survived, anyway"). Morever, the potentially bad reactions of those who figured into his difficult adolescence probably don't matter much to Burroughs: when you've survived what he has and come out of it with a successful professional and personal life, you're unlikely to be vexed by the opinions of others. It could also be that he's already been through it. "I was actually on tour for Running With Scissors and I had like a mini-breakdown and I thought, 'I can't do this, I can't.' It's like walking around with all these open wounds, and I just freaked out. But then people were so terrific and that feeling went away. People have much more in common than [they have] differences, and people were really cool about it. So I just never think of it, and I'm not embarrassed or ashamed of anything because if I've had it or done it or felt it or seen it or thought it then so has someone else, if not a lot of other people."
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