Northerner by birth, Southerner by everything else?
Question: How were you shaped by geography?
Augusten Burroughs: I was raised in western Massachusetts. I am the child of two southerners. My brother is also southern and my family is southern way back before the Mayflower so I was the only Yankee in the family for all generations, and it definitely shaped me in my tastes. I was the only little Yankee boy who liked boiled peanuts and puts salted peanuts in his Coke and liked grits for breakfast.
Question: Does the South influence your work?
Augusten Burroughs: Well, southerners I think have a number of traditions one of which is storytelling so my southern relations when we get together-- It’s just one story after another after another after another. Thanksgiving when I go down to visit my Uncle Bob and Aunt Relda and all the cousins are there my stomach will hurt for days afterward because it’s just so funny, and they’re all great storytellers and that’s kind of how family knowledge is passed on from generation to generation is through stories.
It’s a cliché but there is a certain level of dysfunction I suppose that goes along with being part of a southern family, secrets and all these entanglements, and there is a sort of gentility, a courtesy. I was very polite as a child, very well mannered as a child, and that’s something else that you find in the South.
Question: Where do manners come from?
Augusten Burroughs: I think probably it all started with the Astors and the Vanderbilts in New York City in the Gilded Age when society was constructed of layers upon layers upon layers of etiquette. You didn’t call somebody on the phone or you didn’t text them and say, “Let’s go grab lunch.” You would have your person send your handwritten note over by carriage to your acquaintance’s or your friend’s house and they would receive the note and respond in kind, and there were just very many layers to society and how we behaved and how we reacted appropriately.
Now because New York is and always has been sort of the Zeitgeist from which everything radiates out, this is the- sort of the taste center and the design center of America and certainly was back then, I think a lot of people emulated that stratified sort of concept of society and Chicago certainly did. The big families began behaving as New Yorkers did and then as society spread west it happened in the West Coast as well and down south, and it’s interesting because these manners; a lot of them became of course outdated over time.
Life became more casual, casual Friday took over, but in the South what you find is that these manners still remain. Last Thanksgiving I was driving down a dirt road in Alabama. It was a red clay road, very narrow, deep, dark Alabama with alligators in the backyard and this big pickup truck like a Ford F350 was approaching me, and so it was me and my boyfriend and our two French bulldogs and I’m thinking okay, this is the part where the good old boy pulls the fags over, shoots them and takes the dogs.
And so as this truck gets closer and closer--it’s got the big headlights on the top--I see the driver is wearing camouflage including a camouflage hat so I’m thinking well, this is it; we’re going to die, and just as we passed the trucker goes like this and moves on. And I realized at that moment-- It was an epiphany and I realized the last gentleman- these are the last true gentlemen are the southern good old boys because their mamas taught them to behave, yes, Ma’am, thank you, Ma’am, no, Sir, thank you, Sir, and that’s very much how it is in the South and that’s why I love the South.
Question: Have you inherited a Gothic literary sensibility?
Augusten Burroughs: I don’t think I’ve inherited the gothic literary sensibility is sort of almost dated to Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor. It’s a South that doesn’t quite exist as it did. Certainly, there are pockets but because I didn’t live in the South I didn’t experience the Spanish moss hanging off the trees and the sort of sweltering days and that sort of drowsy and the sweet tea, and I have a deep appreciation for it.
One of my favorite authors is Carson McCullers and I think The Member of the Wedding is just one of the most perfect books ever written and it really for me captures that flavor. I don’t know if you would call it a gothic southern novel but it certainly captures that deep, deep, sort of almost the sensual South, the melancholy quality.
So I myself don’t think of myself as a southern writer although there are certain things about me that are definitely southern. They are as a result of having southern parents and having southern relatives.
Recorded on: April 30, 2008.