At an intimate gathering of students in the Ronald Tutor Campus Center Franklin Room, novelist Augusten Burroughs spoke to students about his career as a writer and the events in his life that influenced his work. The event was sponsored by Program Board, USC Spectrum and the Queer & Ally Student Assembly.
“There was no structure or normalcy in my life,” Burroughs said. “So I never really learned what was normal or mainstream.”
Burroughs, who said he had never read a book until he was 24, was born in Pittsburgh, Penn. in 1965 but grew up in western Massachusetts. His mother left him in the care of her psychiatrist after his parents divorced.
He eventually earned his GED and went to work in advertising first in San Francisco and later Manhattan. He excelled at work but was also battling alcoholism and checked into a rehabilitation facility when he was 30.
“In rehab I became sort of a star, like a popular kid, because I was the one who drank the most,” he said.
Burroughs, who is openly gay, said he had a partner for many years whom he avoided being in love with because his partner was HIV positive. When his partner passed away, Burroughs relapsed into drinking while continuing work advertising freelance. He was spiraling deeper into drinking when his writing career began unexpectedly.
“I woke up one day and wrote something that made me laugh,” he said. “And I hadn’t laughed in a year and half so I kept writing.”
Writing helped wean him off alcohol because it was “Elmer’s glue in the mind,” and after writing for seven days he had finished the first draft of what would become his first novel, Sellevision, which was released in 2000. After contacting multiple agents, he eventually found one who agreed to read the manuscript and later signed him as a client.
“Writing helped relieve the itch, which alcohol never scratched,” he said.
Sellevision launched his writing career, and Burroughs then gave his journals to his agent, who helped him turn them into another novel which his publisher bought. He then got the idea for a memoir based on his troubled and unusual childhood. This memoir would eventually become Running with Scissors.
“I spent years in advertising chasing money, and I was miserable,” he said, “As an author, I was making less than $10,000 a year but I was happy.”
Burroughs said he did his best to write about the events as they happened, despite his apprehension about revisiting his past.
“When you’re really truthful in the writing, it’s always okay,” he said.
Running with Scissors was a huge financial and critical success, and gave Burroughs the opportunity to go on tour and meet readers who connected with the story.
“It doesn’t really matter what you say,” he said. “People can smell the truth, the truth weighs more in your chest, it’s not something you can smell, or taste or hear, but you feel it in your sternum.”
Students at the event were struck by the journey into Burroughs life.
“The insight into the psyche of an author was really interesting to hear, the extent to which he described his writing process and how his memory came through, and how he wrote this work that was kind of haphazard but went on to become a great best seller,” said Bobby Sachs, a junior majoring in business administration.
Others were touched by his honesty.
“I’ve read two of his books, and I was really interested in hearing him speak because I know his story and wanted to know what he had to say about it in person,” said Dylan Lee, a freshman majoring in international relations and the incoming assistant director of QuASA. “[I liked] how candid he is with his experiences because they’re obviously very difficult things to go through — I think that’s why his story touches so many people, because he’s so honest.”