Tuesday, April 25, 2006


Augusten Burroughs reading aloud and signing books

I can't remember if I've mentioned on this blog that I keep a journal. So perhaps this means that you can't either. Anyway, I do. I kept diaries as a kid, then art journals in school, and this eventually morphed into my current habit of combining journal writing with commonplace book entries. This is a roundabout way of saying that I already wrote extensively in my journal about last Wednesday's reading in Orono by Augusten Burroughs, so in a way I felt like I'd already blogged about it, and then other life events sidetracked me before I could actually blog. I knew this would take a long time, to do him justice. Please keep in mind that while I took notes, and wrote about his talk later the same night, I am of course paraphrasing. So, here we go, better late than never:

I closed up the shop after five o'clock and headed up to the Maine Center for the Arts to get my ticket right when the box office opened, just in case I had to wait in line or something. This is my usual modus operandi (I'm a bit of a worrier). Well, I was the first person there, so I bought my ticket, went next door and had a sandwich for supper, then went back early to make sure I got a good seat. Again, I was the first person there. The auditorium was empty. I did not let this discourage me in the least. I figured if no one else showed up, Augusten and I could have a chat about books and reading. So I sat in the center of the front row and wrote in my journal for a while. Other people did show up, thankfully, because I am actually too shy to talk to a published author (face to face) that I admire, without sounding like an idiot. Trust me on this (I will provide evidence to this effect shortly - see below). Not a huge crowd, one hundred people, I'd say. The dean of students introduced AB by saying that we all can benefit by hearing the truth of someone's life spoken aloud, especially when that life has been filled with adversity and the person has made it back to tell us about it. He went on to say that he'd just met AB backstage for the first time and that he was charmed by him. I think the whole audience was too, by the time AB's talk ended.

AB came out wearing jeans, a wide silvery belt, a button-up oxford-type shirt, and a suede jacket with long fringe up and down its arms and sides (this fringe waved and moved throughout his talk, and was strangely hypnotic). He drank bottled water continuously, pausing to swig it during certain dramatic or funny pauses, giving us time to laugh or respond. He started out by saying he would read an essay from his new book, and answer questions afterwards, but before he read anything he was going to tell us a little bit about how he got this way. I think most of the people in the audience, including me, had read Running with Scissors and Dry so we knew what to expect. He told us that he had a G.E.D. but didn't go to high school or college. His father told him that he'd never amount to anything, that he'd be lucky to be a gas station attendant (his father was a college professor - he taught philosophy). He said he'd taken an I.Q. test and gotten an 80. After starting at a community college and realizing how awful it was, he got a job in advertising. He practiced for it by rewriting all the ads in magazines. At age 18 he started drinking - he had unlimited access to alcohol, every night, because of where and how he was living. He drank heavily, for years. When he stopped drinking, he said he had never lived 24 hours of a day before: what to do, how to fill all those huge fat hours... alcohol had filled up the big holes in his life. He knew he was an alcoholic but didn't have a problem with that at all - life hurt too much so it was best to be an alcoholic. It was a sensible response. When he went to rehab and AA, he realized that all the other people there, the alcoholics, were just like him: same patterns, habits, and obsessive thinking. He went there because it was a choice between rehab or his job, not because he wanted to stop drinking.

About his writing, he said that he wrote in journals as a kid, then when he drank he didn't write a word, except for the advertising work he was doing. Then as soon as he stopped drinking, he started writing again, sometimes for six or seven hours a day. Life was horrible (read the books), and he said that he thought dying would be fine, but the only thing he regretted was that he'd never tried to be a writer. As a kid his mother had told him he was going to be a famous writer someday, and he was angry that he'd never even tried to really write. So he sat down and wrote a book in seven days. It was 150 pages long, and was the first draft of Sellevision. It was enough of a book so that he found an agent for it. He said when he got the ms back from the agent, there were red pen marks on every sentence. Basic things like "the punctuation goes inside the quotation marks," things he said he would have known had anyone cared enough to keep him in school past the fourth grade. Then he spent six months or more expanding and revising the ms. Then he showed his journals to his agent. He'd been keeping journals for seven years, since rehab, recording events as they happened. The agent said, "Why didn't you show me these first!" and this is what would later became the book Dry. His agent and editor also asked him what else he had going on, and AB said, "Well, I had a horrible childhood..." and told them a few things, and they said, "Write about that!" and that became Running with Scissors.

He talked a little about his new book, Possible Side Effects, due out in a week or two, before reading an essay from it. He had the audience choose; he asked which we would rather hear, a story about John Updike, or a story about his and his partner Dennis's vacation. We overwhelmingly chose the vacation option, and did not regret it. I won't go into it, we'll all just have to go and BUY THE BOOK as soon as it comes out - but I will say that it was laugh-out-loud funny (and AB's delivery as he reads is straightforward and droll) and involves an island b&b run by a doll collector.

Audience members asked questions after; the few that stuck with me were these:

1. I work in advertising. How can someone work in advertising and survive? He said by training yourself not to care about it. Which is difficult. And by having another area of your life that you care about so deeply that it won't kill you not to care about your job.
2. How was/is your A.A. experience? He said that he won't discuss A.A. except to say that until we have a pill to cure alcoholism, it's the best we have. It works, no matter where you are on the spirituality spectrum (from total atheist nonbeliever to holy roller). He won't say how often he goes, because he doesn't want anyone to use his answer to justify how often they might need to go.
3. Truth in memoir-writing. No one said James Frey, but it was implied. AB said that it's hard to tell the truth sometimes. In his books, when he talks about his friend Pighead's death, AB makes his friend's death all about himself. Which is what actually happened, to AB's shame - he would have liked to make himself look better. He said, "But oh well, there it is." He also said that for example, he telescoped ten advertising jobs into two, or one, in Dry. This was an editorial decision, because the book wasn't about his jobs per se, and he felt it would just distract the reader unnecessarily from the real points of the book.
4. Do you find it hard to write, do you like to write, etc.? AB said he LOVES to write. He writes every day and he has to write about things and events to be able to experience them fully as they happen. He does know writers who HATE to write, to whom it's torture, very famous big-selling writers that are friends of his, and they bribe themselves with little Tiffany boxes lined up on their desks: "Finish this page, and I can open one Tiffany box..." He also said that he writes for himself, because he has to, and it's great if other people find they can relate to what he's written. He said reading is just, if not more, important than writing. He said to read the great books, and also read the really awful books (to see what they look like). Skip the ones in the middle.
5. How has becoming famous/well-known affected your life? He said he isn't that well-known. And the more people he meets the more he thinks people are great. They are friendly and good and say kind things to him.

In closing, he said he's written two novels, which he will never publish (but they were fun to write, he likes writing fiction), and he is working on a book about his relationship with his father, who died last year. He said when he was younger he wanted to learn French, and bought a set of tapes, and his father told him that he couldn't learn a language, that the science of the brain was such that only young children could learn languages easily, that it was too late for AB to learn. And AB said he listened to the tapes and they were indeed hard, so he stopped. Then he found out when his father died that his father knew FIVE languages, all of which he had learned as an ADULT. He also said that his father never believed he was a real author until he saw a stack of AB's books in the front of a bookshop next to a big pile of John Grisham's new book. But he never read any of AB's books. (I'm really looking forward to reading this book, when he finishes it.)

The book signing afterwards was easy and in less than five mintues it was my turn in line and he inscribed and signed my first editions of Dry and Magical Thinking, and a softcover of Running with Scissors (it's all I had - I couldn't find a first edition on short notice - though I tried), and the poster from the reading. I was bright red and stammering a bit, but I managed to blurt out that Dry meant an awful lot to me, and I loved his writing and his talk (oh god, the mortification of not being able to find anything else to say), and I would come to see him again if he was anywhere nearby, and oh yeah, I have a bookshop, and I recommend his books all the time. He was friendly and interested and looked right at me and asked about the shop, and inscribed the poster "To Sarah's Books" etc. I felt great about this, although when I got home and examined my books, I saw that he had inscribed the paperback of Scissors "To Michelle..." which was the name of one of the women in line in front of me. The others all say "To Sarah." Perhaps he was nervous too. I don't mind. The experience itself is worth more to me than the books. He was witty and funny, fearless and honest in about talking about his own thoughts and behavior, positive and happy about his life in general, and completely adorable about how much he loves his partner and their two French bulldogs. I wish I lived closer to a big city so I could see events like this more often, although AB is one of a kind, so I'll think I'll just have to go find him again, specifically. He's starting a book tour soon. Go see him if you can.

Wow,sounds like a great evening! It's so cool to get to listen and talk to your favorite writers(and yes,I read your earlier reply and thanks for the movie info).

Don't feel so bad about being nervous,I met Michael Chabon at a BEA convention once and blurted out"I loved Kavieler & Clay so much that I own two copies!' He asked me if I brought them with me(I didn't,that would've been way too fangirl). He was really sweet and I still have the signed ARC of Summerland(which I didn't finish reading). On an ironic note,my bookstore recieved some signed Chabon bookplates to slip in Summerland and a couple of them made their way home with me,so my two copies are signed after all:)
I'm like you, I go red and stutter. My favourite biographer, Richard Holmes, signed a book for me once and all I don't think I actually managed to say a single word apart from th..th...thank-you.
Glad to hear I'm not alone in this. "Gee whiz, I really love your work..." Oh lord. I should have prepared something in advance, but it wouldn't have done much good. I only would have forgotten it once I was standing in front of him! And he was so nice, not standoffish or "famous" at all.
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