Author Interviews

To Be an Author, Suffering Doesn't Hurt

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Commentary by Burroughs

With summer reading season about to begin, Michele Norris talks with publisher Jamie Raab and writer Augusten Burroughs about whether authors need to have had difficult childhoods in order to write interesting books. Raab and Burroughs say not necessarily, but it helps.


From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

As the temperatures rise in the spring and summer months, so does the interest in finding a good book to pack in some carry-on luggage or tuck inside a beach bag. Here at NPR we've been thinking a lot about books this week. We're based in Washington, D.C., the site of this year's book expo. In fact, it's right across the street. It's a gathering of the top booksellers, book publishers, book authors and all kinds of people involved in the world of writing.

These days the bestsellers' list are so often filled with dark tales and stories of one kind of dysfunction or another. It got us thinking. Do the best - or at least the bestselling writers - have the worst backgrounds?

To ponder this question we're joined by Jamie Raab. She's a Senior Vice President and Publisher of Warner Books. And Augusten Burroughs joins us from Chicago. He's the author of several bestselling memoirs including Running with Scissors, Dry and Magical Thinking. Hello to both of you.

Ms. JAMIE RAAB (Senior Vice President and Publisher, Warner Books): Hello.

Mr. AUGUSTEN BURROUGHS (Bestselling author): Hi.

NORRIS: Well, can we get to the central question. Do you have to have a dysfunctional life to be a great writer? I'd like to begin with you Jamie.

Ms. RAAB: Well, I don't think you have to. I don't think it's a necessity, but it certainly has, shall we say, helped certain people. If you look at many writers and you look at their backgrounds or you look at them as they get older, there certainly is a high percentage of people who have had episodes of depression or manic periods. And so, feed into whatever their background was. I guess it does - there is something that has to do with unhappiness and creativity.

NORRIS: Augusten, I'm interested in your take on this since you've turned a troubled upbringing into a series of successful books. Does a childhood full of pain and disappointment help as a writer?

Mr. BURROUGHS: I think it probably does help. It - my childhood resulted in me having to write. You know, there was no other option.

NORRIS: Having to write.

Mr. BURROUGHS: Yeah. It was powerful, you know, compelling drive really. So I don't think it's necessary, but I think in a way having a troublesome past makes it a little easier because, you know, you're not really aware of all the work involved. Because the point is writing. Writing is a release and it's a way to process and understand and really put that experience in context.

NORRIS: Now I want to turn the question around 180 degrees and ask you the same thing. Not necessarily as a writer, but as a reader.

Mr. BURROUGHS: No. I think that for someone who has had a troublesome past or childhood to read a memoir by somebody who made it through such a past is inspiring. I think it can give the reader hope for their own life and make them feel that, you know, they too can come out okay. But, what I believe is that people who had a pretty great childhood are then allowed to test drive, if you will, or experience a very, very, very different childhood, one that they really couldn't even fathom.

NORRIS: Now I'm going to turn this around and ask you this as a reader and a critic. When you read books, do you find that authors who've had a rough and tumble past are better at what they do? Jamie, go ahead.

Ms. RAAB: I don't know if it's necessarily that they're better at what they do, but they have some depth, you know, that many of us haven't experienced to draw from. And, therefore, their stories have dimensions that other people's don't.

NORRIS: I was going to ask you why you think people reach for these books?

Ms. RAAB: Why do people slow down when they pass an accident. There's a curiosity. There's a - they make for interesting stories. They're - people like to be - people like to feel when they read, too. And these, you know, stories of tragedy or darkness, you know, they touch us.

Mr. BURROUGHS: I mean perfect isn't necessarily interesting. I think that it's imperfection, you know, and it's the flaws and the mistakes and the disasters that I think are really most compelling.

NORRIS: So, with summer reading in mind, I'd like both of you to give us an example of a story about a dysfunctional life. Someone who had to overcome great obstacles that makes for a great read for this summer and I want that example first to come from you, Jamie.

Ms. RAAB: Jacquelyn Mitchard's new book, Cage of Stars. A story of a young girl who sees the most horrible thing one can ever see, which is she sees her two sisters - younger sisters - being murdered and she goes through the rest of her life thinking she wants revenge and she finds what she needs is something very different.

NORRIS: Augusten?

Mr. BURROUGHS: I would say a book called Fat Girl by Judith Moore. And it's just a devastating book about the - Judith Moore's childhood and adulthood being fat and hating herself and hating her body and despising her life. And unfortunately Judith Moore passed away. So, I would encourage people to read the book.

NORRIS: I'm curious about Jacquelyn Mitchard. What was her background? Would you say that she overcame great obstacles?

Ms. RAAB: She did suffer a lot, a great deal of tragedy. Her husband died young. She brought up kids all by herself and I think that probably, you know, she started to write after that, write fiction after that happened and I think she probably drew on all that she'd gone through.

NORRIS: Well it's been wonderful talking to both of you. Thanks so much. Come back and talk to us again.

Ms. RAAB: Pleasure. Thank you.

Mr. BURROUGHS: Thank you. Thank you very much.

NORRIS: Jamie Raab is a Senior Vice President and Publisher at Warner Books. Augusten Burroughs is the author of Possible Side Effects, Running with Scissors and Dry.

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