Laughing with Scissors


Let’s divulge a lurking prejudice from the get-go, shall we? Your reporter has been shamelessly charmed and as such has little but girlish waffle to impart.

For the fearless exposé on the bloke who gave the publishing industry its memoir-led recovery, you can easily consult Vanity Fair. Don’t expect any disclosure from me – last week over lunch, I was unprofessionally smitten and powerless to demand, "So, Augusten, Running with Scissors: innocuous invention, litigable monster or legitimate pain?"

I didn’t ask because people with well paid fact-checkers already did. I didn’t ask because the protracted Scissors lawsuit was resolved, apparently to Burroughs’ satisfaction, last year. And I didn’t ask because, well, he did seem like such a very dear person.

If you missed the 2002 Scissors rumpus, here’s a crib: Burroughs wrote a work chronicling his adolescence. A flighty mother and incomplete father condemned their 12-year-old son to the "care" of a psychiatrist. Introduced to readers as Dr Finch, the gent was quite peculiar. In fact, to pronounce the late doctor eccentric is akin to calling Brendan Nelson dull. The Doc, by even the most generous assessment, emerges from the pages a fruit-bat.

Finch kept a private chamber dubbed the "mastibatorium". The doctor’s attitude toward sanitation, ephebophilia and pet care were, er, unconventional.

The real-life famliy that the book was based around took Burroughs to court for defamation.

But readers were besotted. The wildly successful book seemed written by the conceptual love child of Charlie Kaufman and Brett Easton Ellis. Parents, perhaps, who had briefly employed Anne Tyler as a nanny to help him pick up his prose. And it was funny.

A number of other successful books followed. Dry, Magical Thinking and Possible Side Effects riffed capably on dysfunctional. Scissors became a major motion picture featuring Gwyneth Paltrow and, yes, more lawsuits. Annette Bening chewed up the Massachusetts scenery and turned in the eeriest performance I’ve seen since visiting a benzo recovery ward.

"Oh, she’s just lovely. I enjoyed her company," Burroughs says, somehow without sounding boastful.

There was little time over lunch to talk of authenticity. Burroughs, born Christopher Robison, had far too much to say about the unforeseen excellence of the new Battlestar Galactica.

"Honestly, it’s extraordinary. And, no, not in an entirely geeky way. You’ll ring me in three months and thank me for telling you about it. Don’t be a cynic. Just download." He is equally fond of Mad Men.

"But I prefer to watch this and other television in one non-stop, extravagant block."

The naughtiest thing this famously abstemious writer does is TiVo. That is, of course, unless you consult the people depicted in his best selling work.

Later, we discuss the awkwardness of translation. It is Burroughs’ cheerful understanding that Magical Thinking has been released in Italian under the title "Cunnilingus Ville". "And the covers in Italy are so unfeasibly gorgeous. They seem to have little to do with the content. But who cares?"

"The French mass market paperbacks are chic. And the German hard covers are striking and harsh."

I suggest that a tongue that manufactures terms like schadenfreude and weltschmerz might easily lend itself to a decent translation of Scissors.

"There is, to the best of my knowledge, no German word for ‘cuddly’," he replies.

Burroughs recalls his time as an ad man in New York City. "I wrote a beer print ad. [It featured an image of] a cute little stuffed bear pinned to a laboratory dissection tray and he’d been cut down the middle with a wire section for an autopsy. And the headline read, ‘Anyone can tell you that it’s cuddly. We can tell you why’."

Astoundingly, the brewers didn’t go for it.

But readers are going for his bleak prequel to Scissors: A Wolf at the Table. Here, there are no jokes. Instead, there is a (literal and figurative) reconstruction of a father so un-cuddly the young Burroughs once made him out of pillows and cologne.

And I’d tell you more, but our taped conversation is filled with the sort of quotidian chat the enthusiastic reader of Burroughs’ work might imagine having with their author. Which is to say, my girlfriend and I told him family secrets. And he offered advice somewhere between unstuck and acute. And we talked about his French Bulldogs ("It was like Lorenzo’s Oil" he said of his efforts in restoring a sick dog to health) and of the merits of writing in bed.

All your work has been completed in bed? I ask. "Just like Proust. Or, just like romance novelist Barbara Cartland," he says.

This was not the cuddliest means by which to complete an interview.

"Nice one," said my girlfriend.

And then he was off to deliver the Melbourne Writers’ Festival’s alternative keynote address.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.