After the publication of his self-help book, This Is How, Augusten Burroughs considered getting a divorce—from memoirs.
“At that point, I had made the intellectual decision, within myself, that I wanted to write novels,” says Burroughs, who wrote two in the next few years.
But a third book eclipsed them both: the story of how he fell in love with his husband, literary agent Christopher Schelling. Yes, Burroughs’s latest, Lust & Wonder, is, in fact, a memoir.
“That is what I kept returning to, so I embraced it—I started writing, yet again, more about me,” he says. “...And my memoirs are really for me, in the sense that I can’t imagine that this is going to be interesting to anyone else, but they come from a place of needing to gain insight into my own life. It’s almost like the pages that result are a side-effect of the writing process.”
Burroughs’ bestselling side-effects include Running with Scissors, Dry, and a half-dozen other highly entertaining, honest, and heartrending nonfiction books. They chronicle his highly abnormal childhood, high-functioning alcoholism, and advertising career.
Lust and Wonder picks up with the near-simultaneous achievement of sobriety and literary success in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. Burroughs’ writing career began feverishly, almost compulsively, after a wild night of drinking and binge shopping on QVC.
“In my life I had swallowed countless drinks and lit enough cigarettes to burn down the world; I had fallen in love and once inside of it, spun around with my arms outstretched and shattered everything; I had lost many things; I made mistakes; I made a single pot roast and still my wrist held onto the scar,” he writes. “But one thing I had not done was this, whatever this was,” he describes writing his first manuscript, which became the novel Sellevision. “This carried me much further away from myself than drinking had ever managed to do.”
All along, he’d been looking for love in New York City and, as his career takes off, it seems he’s found a viable candidate named Dennis. His last relationships proved impossible: a writer with spotty body hair, privately nicknamed “Second-Hand Mitch”; an HIV-positive investment banker named George. Dennis’ difference is that he’s normal and, therefore, a novelty in Burroughs’ life.
“Normal people hadn’t been molested or reared by a clinically psychotic mother, an alcoholic father or a perversely mad psychiatrist who wore a Santa hat and performed toilet bowl readings,” he writes. “These were normal people and I lived among them now. I thought, This must be what I want.”
Though it sounds nice, normal proves not to be that sexy. “The mystery of, ‘What will the sex be like when we finally have it?’ was over. The answer was: like assembling a bookcase from Ikea with parts missing,” he writes.
Yet the relationship persists for the better part of a decade.
“One of my lessons has been to learn to identify the thing that I want, not just the thing that it seems like I should want to want,” Burroughs says.” Sometimes the thing I actually want is painful, for whatever reason, and so, in different periods of my life, I’ve gone to great lengths to steer clear of the thing that deep, deep, deep down I want. When I was writing [Lust and Wonder], I was facing that head on. The costs of not being true to yourself are high, and I was lucky to face the truth about myself when I did.”
“Honesty is expensive,” he continues, “but it’s something you have to save up for.”
Lessons of the ensuing years, told with trademark bluntness and humor, enrich Burroughs in many ways—enough to gain purchase on his undeniable attraction to Schelling, the agent who’d been representing his work since the late 1990s. After a decade as business partners, they start to date.
“We had known each other well enough and for long enough that most of the new information we exchanged [as a couple] was about things that had happened that day,” he writes. “The surprising facts about me were few, having published enough memoirs for an octogenarian, and Christopher having read large chunks of them that never made it to print.”
In this case, familiarity breeds content: Burroughs and Schelling married in 2013.
“It’s a roundabout love story,” Burroughs says, “and it’s also about what it’s like to be sober for almost two decades. It’s about being surprised at where I find myself in life and being open to that surprise. And I suppose the heart of the book is about what happens when you learn to trust yourself.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.