Augusten Burroughs not crying wolf

BY MELEA ANDRYS | APRIL 07, 2009 7:30 AM

Controversial memoirist Augusten Burroughs will speak tonight on fact, fiction, and A Wolf at the Table.

What’s next for an author who has topped the New York Times Best-Sellers list, been ranked as number 15 on Entertainment Weekly’s 2005 list of “The Funniest 25 People in America,” and has stirred up enough controversy to call into question the very foundation and future of the memoir as an art form?

For Augusten Burroughs, the answer is to avoid the question.

“I need to reinstall a Linux system on my laptop because I screwed up the permissions and because I did it recursively, there’s no way to repair it, at least not with my measly amount of skill,” he said. “But I don’t mind. I’m good at losing everything and then starting over fresh.”

Or perhaps he isn’t dodging at all. Indeed, he has developed a reputation as an author who continually reinvents himself, someone whose habit of “starting over” with his memories usually yields in not only a new written work but also a slew of debates. Such is the case with Burroughs’ latest, A Wolf at the Table, in which the author departs from his usual comedic style to paint a somber and disturbing portrait of his relationship with his alcoholic father.

Burroughs will read from A Wolf at the Table to promote the book’s March 31 paperback release tonight at the Iowa City Public Library, 123 S. Linn St. The reading, cosponsored by Prairie Lights Books and the Iowa City Public Library, will begin at 7 p.m.

“It’s really exciting that Augusten’s coming to Iowa City,” said Prairie Lights employee and self-proclaimed fan Kathleen Johnson. “His books appeal to a pretty big range of people.”

It’s true that Burroughs has developed quite a fan base since his 2000 writing début, Sellevision — a novel about a home shopping TV network being adapted into a feature film starring Carrie Fisher, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Kristin Davis. Running with Scissors, Burroughs’ 2002 memoir (also adapted into a film starring Alec Baldwin and Annette Benning), sparked national interest not only because of his description of his bizarre adolescence spent in the home of his mother’s psychiatrist but also in the claims of falsity made against the text by those portrayed within (including the entire family of said psychiatrist).

“I think that to many journalists, I remain unsolved,” Burroughs said. “Am I a fraud, writing one fake memoir after another and getting away with it? Or am I the real thing? They just aren’t quite sure what to believe … But there isn’t anything I can do to convince people that I am only writing what I know — that my brain is broken, and that’s why it records such small details.” (Burroughs claims to have a perfect memory).

Since the Running with Scissors controversy, Burroughs has published four books, including the memoir Dry (about his journey in rehab), and two collections of essays (Magical Thinking and Possible Side Effects). Though 2008’s A Wolf at the Table was released to lukewarm critical reviews, mostly because of Burroughs’ stylistic departure, the title became an instant bestseller.

“The tone of Wolf is so different from my other work because the events portrayed in the book occurred much earlier in time — when I was younger and more earnest,” Burroughs said. “Did I worry that it would alienate some of my readers? Well, I knew it would disappoint some of them. I was sorry about that. But I also knew that there had to be many, many people who were either raised by or married to a dangerous sociopath. And these people would relate and feel a sense of relief.”

Though the legitimacy of Burroughs’ memoirs has been hotly argued, for readers such as Johnson, whether Burroughs has fictionalized his life to some extent is irrelevant.

“Apparently, the way that our brains work is that you remember small bits of everything that happens to you, and the more you try to remember … the more your brain fills in for you,” Johnson said. “So to some degree, our own brains edit our own past … I think when you write a book you’re creating something for people to read, and I personally like to read [Burroughs’] books … [and find them] very entertaining and easy to relate to. So in that sense, I find them to be authentic.”

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