Sharpening the gay blade
30 January 2005
This is life on top of the best seller lists. Augusten Burroughs is holed up with his partner and manager, Dennis Pilsits, and their two dogs, Bentley and The Cow, in a "disgusting roach motel" in Massachusetts.
They are building a new home nearby in the same area where most of the action of his runaway 2003 bestselling dark humoured memoir,
Running with Scissors
, took place.
This motel is the only place around these parts that will accept dogs. But he’s been in worse places. Not quite yet 40, Burroughs spent a childhood marked by an erratic mothering, a drunken fathering, abandonment into the care of a mentally unstable psychiatrist, and regular molesting which, truth be known – and Burroughs has an open book but never sentimental approach to the truth – was not all together unwanted.
Burroughs moved onto the advertising industry, which he fictionalised in his first book,
, but spent most of his 20s in a drunken blur and did a long stint in rehab; the subject of his third book, the more sombre
, culled from his diaries of that period. Now comes Burroughs’s fourth book,
(Hodder), and this time it’s a collection of first-person essays.
is selling well in the United States, with spiky, laugh out loud humour. There’s an hilariously cruel piece that puts paid to romantic ambitions his partner might have for gay parenting: "Whenever I see a baby-slapper on CNN, I think,
There but for the grace of God
." There’s also a superb recollection of Debby, the vertically challenged housekeeper who, appropriately enough, hails from Hell’s Kitchen, New York City, and who extorts extra money, drinks Burroughs’s wine and calls him nasty names: "She even hung my pictures on the wall at waist height." Debby deserves her own book.
Fellow US writer David Sedaris proved collections of whimsical non-fiction pieces on partner, family and growing up gay could sell triumphantly. Augusten Burroughs is as erudite as Sedaris, although more out of left field. Sedaris typically finds his humour in mundane reality. Burroughs mines the fantastic and delusional, until we are treated to his falling in love with graphic designer Dennis Pilsits half way through
, though first he meanders through sex with an undertaker and not one but three Catholic priests. As only Augusten Burroughs can do.
So, indeed, he has been in worse places. Now, living between the couple’s upper west side New York City apartment and the roach motel, he is in love and in a very mentally happy place, "damaged but invigorated and fucking lucky". Burroughs would however like to take advantage of his semi-residency in Massachusetts and marry Dennis, even if gay marriage is null and void outside of the state. Massachusetts is the only state in the US where gay marriage is legal.
Paying tax should entitle gays and lesbians to wed, Burroughs insists. The arguments against gay marriage, he says, are equivalent to some of the arguments waged long ago against allowing women and African-Americans to get the vote. The value of marriage, or democracy, will not somehow suffer by allowing more people to participate.
"That’s what gay people need to be allowed to do – get married," he says. "Not have domestic partnerships; that’s not acceptable. I don’t believe for a moment [gay marriage] would destroy the sanctity of marriage. But let’s just say for a moment that it does. Well, then the sanctity of marriage just has to be destroyed. It’s just too bad. You can’t have one set of benefits and only give them to some of the people."
Burroughs knows there is a new fascination among straight people for gay lives, and books by gay authors may be a part of the phenomenon. Straight men in their 20s are not as threatened now by gay men as their older straight counterparts might still be.
"Now that it’s kind of OK to talk about [being gay], it’s OK to wonder about it, and ask questions about it," he says. "Unfortunately, gay people are still second class citizens. It’s OK for them to tell you what shirt to wear, but it’s not acceptable for them to get married."
The fascination with Burroughs extends all the way up the Hollywood A-list. Brad Pitt is co-producing a film version of
Running with Scissors
, due to start shooting in March. Gwyneth Paltrow will play Natalie Finch, with whom Burroughs grew up. Julianne Moore will play Burroughs’s mother. Young TV writer Ryan Murphy, the man behind
, has written the screenplay. Burroughs says someone cool has been chosen to play him on screen: he insists he’s temporarily forgotten the name, though it will mean something to young moviegoers more in touch with pop culture than he is.
He’s not worried about how people will react to seeing themselves portrayed in his story on screen. Burroughs mentions his childhood foster family, the Finches, whose psychiatrist father’s habits, such as reading the family’s faeces in the toilet bowl, are on glorious display in
Running with Scissors
He retains a "lot of love" for the Finch family. "They should be honoured the memory of their father is being preserved," says Burroughs. "I’m not responsible for their own emotional reactions." He doesn’t mention the potential reaction of his mother, a major player in his story, however. Burroughs is estranged from his eccentric mother, whom he portrayed as self-centred in the book. She still lives in Massachusetts, but had a stroke in recent years and is paralysed on one side of her body. Burroughs speaks only occasionally to his father, whom he portrayed as a drunk.
Burroughs insists he would have "butchered" the screenplay had it been left to him, though Murphy has been phoning him regularly, collaborating on additional scenes and dialogue from outside the book. Burroughs is talking confidently. "The word around Hollywood is that it’s the best screenplay since
," he says. The only slight problem, it seems, has been casting the child molester Bookman, who has to utters rude lines about semen. What A list Hollywood actor would want to say such things? Plenty perhaps if Brad Pitt is running the show.
Murphy with his
resume is an interesting choice to write the screenplay, too, given Burroughs’s own fantasy about radical surgery. In
, he recollects an early fantasy: "I wore polyester stretch pants with bell bottoms and wanted to be Christine Jorgensen, the world’s first famous transsexual." This declaration causes some concern for Burroughs’s fourth grade teacher.
Later in life, he toys with steroids: "To nobody’s surprise, steroid use is common among gay men. When you combine a love for men with a love for drama, you end up with a guy on steroids."
Does he think that, despite the advent of the metrosexual, gay men are still more engaged in the quest for the body beautiful than straight men? "Definitely," he says. "Gay guys grow up feeling like little sissies, so they want to become super hero body builders." Not that his partner Dennis was entirely dissatisfied with the muscle gains Burroughs made.
Next May, Burroughs will be in this part of the world. He will be a special guest at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. He’s considering reading from
, taking questions, maybe giving a workshop: "something where I can give an assignment, leave the room for three hours, go and see a movie, and come back and collect the papers at the end".