Augusten Burroughs doesn’t want to be confused for a trained writer. “I don’t write like an MFA grad. I write from a subconscious place. I don’t think while I’m writing. It’s like going into a trance,” he says. “That’s the way people should write.”
The serial-memoirist is capable of speaking from trancelike states, too. He can orate breathlessly for minutes at a time, verbally wandering around subjects like brain chemistry or The Diary of Anne Frank, only to stop himself and ask, “How did I get here?” Like his books, Burroughs’ mouth is both vulgar and charming, the circuitous ramblings only making his monologues more authentic.
While discussing Christmas (his favorite holiday), Burroughs says he sees one common thread throughout his memories, “Each one has been horrible, worse than the last.” He’s recounted those laughably miserable memories in his latest book, You Better Not Cry, a loose collection of Christmas stories spanning from his youth until just a few years ago. Because so much of Burroughs’ personal life has already been published, it’s easy to plug his new stories into that public timeline. The drunken ones fit in before the sobriety of Dry; the earliest childhood recollections pre-date his life with the Finch family in Running With Scissors; and the latest stories come after his publishing success.
Over the phone, Burroughs recalls waking up one Christmas morning in his mid-20s: “The first thing I noticed was the light coming between the drapes, which was nice except that I didn’t have drapes,” he says. He also noticed a “red floating blob hanging in the air,” but couldn’t make out the shape without his glasses. Glasses on, Burroughs realized the drapes hung in a hotel room and the red blob was a Santa costume belonging to the overweight French man in bed with him. “It was a nightmare. I was worried that I had a Santa fetish. If that’s the case, I’m fucked.” Burroughs still doesn’t know how he ended up there. “You tell me. It’s all beer goggles.” The two did not become friends.
Like most of Burroughs’ books, You Better Not Cry opens with a short disclaimer explaining that the “names and identifying characteristics of some people have been changed.” A few years ago, after James Frey was publicly tarred and feathered for lying in his memoir A Million Little Pieces, the family portrayed in Running With Scissors sued Burroughs, alleging he had fictionalized large parts of the story. Eventually, Burroughs agreed to amend the acknowledgements page, saying, “I recognize that their memories of the events described in this book are different than my own.” Dry is prefaced with the admission that parts of the book “are imaginative re-creation, and those episodes are not intended to portray actual events."
“When you say that every word of this is true — you set the bar high for truth,” he says, attributing the attacks on Frey as the result of a “marketing error.” Compressing characters and time or rearranging events doesn’t bother Burroughs. “When I did it in Dry, I didn’t feel that changed the essential truth of the book. It doesn’t fucking matter.”
Christmas, on the other hand, does matter to him. Burroughs says he'd intended to write a series of stories simply mocking the holidays, but, “It’s just not that difficult to make fun of Christmas," he says. "[The book] is really about finding greatness in the holidays, despite everything. ... Even the most jaded motherfucking New Yorker will stand out in the freezing cold to see the tree light up in Rockefeller Center.”
You Better Not Cry by Augusten Burroughs. St. Martin's Press. $21.99. 206 pp.