Pen Pals

11.20.2007

By Out.com Editors

Augusten Burroughs: You have to know that lesbians are going to be marching into bookstores to buy your latest novel, seeing as it features what can only be described as, 'deliberate and blatant lesbian content.' As a heterosexual woman with a fine religious education and a number of marriages under her belt, why would you actively court a lesbian audience?
Haven Kimmel: Lesbians and gay men are more real than other people -- they have an extra chromosome, I've heard. They feel things more deeply; they perform better on swingsets and standardized tests, and often keep their wits about them when mice get caught in traps. That isn't to say I haven't been frightened by a lesbian in my day. I'm thinking specifically of a certain woman in Seattle whose apartment was decorated with surgical clamps and elephant-sized sex toys. She knows who she is.

I've noticed that many lesbians consider you 'a sister.' And there is something kind of lezzy about you, come to think of it. So if you had to start playing for the team, who would be your celebrity dream date? And why? And for crying out loud, don't say Glenn Close.
Okay, but I want Glenn Close to be my chief-of-staff, is that all right, Bossy Boss Man? My celebrity dream date is Gina Gershon in Bound. Whew. Girlfriend was rockin' the whole thing: the boots, the wifebeater t-shirt, the tribal tattoo, the bee-stung lips, the power tools, the abs, O hep me Jebus.

What the hell is your new novel about, anyway?
At the risk of sounding earnest, it's about three women in a small city in the Midwest, all of whom are actual, literal outsiders: the thirty-year-old Rebekah is in exile from a radical Holiness religious sect. The forty-year-old Claudia is 6' 6", and has been an outcast her whole life. Hazel Hunicutt, the proprietor of Hazel Hunnicutt's Used World Emporium (a vast antique store) is an astrologer and a woman with a very dark secret. They are drawn together in a building that is haunted not by ghosts but just by the facts of history, and also by the fact that they just happen to be lesbians. WHOOPS, I said lesbians.

Is it true that you wrote this book in a trailer?
Yes, I wrote it in a FEMA trailer. I was concerned about the odor, which reminded me of the smell in the embalming room of my sister's funeral home. I called the Federal Government but they told me to eat a Moon Pie and be grateful I wasn't in Guantanomo. The original trailer was hit by a tornado, so I've taken shelter in a chicken coop. I went to see a doctor, who told me not to worry; although my lung capacity is severely depleted, after death I will look brand new for at least seventy-five years.

There is very little you take seriously, but among the few things are popcorn and writing. You know more about the actual wires and tubes and internal switches associated with writing than any writer I know. So describe your writing process. How many hours a day do you write? And do you outline your work in advance?
It's a closely held secret among novelists that a good book is actually a series of tubes. For many years I thought books arrived in the back of pickup trucks, but then I heard the tube theory and things have been much easier for me ever since. I don't need to outline, because I simply follow the technical diagrams I get off the Information Superhighway (many come with their own set of wrenches) and I'm good to go. That said, I do write an outline before making popcorn. I use the trusted Whirly Pop, an ingenious device invented where? That's right, Indiana. Recently I set one on fire while making coffee; I believed I was turning on the front burner but it was actually the rear, and after about five minutes I said to my daughter, 'Would you go see what's on fire in the kitchen?' She shouted back, 'You've done burnt up the Popper!' Since then I've felt it necessary to plan the arc of conflict, the climax, and the denouement of the popcorn prior to setting it aflame.

What's one book every lesbian should read and why?
My lifelong experience with lesbians has taught me that they are far more literate than you or I. I've seen lesbians reading 1,000 page tomes on nautical history. What's up with that? If I'm reading a thousand pages of anything it better contain adultery and lots of illustrations. Hey! That leads me to my favorite book of late: Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, which is what? A graphic novel. Not only that, it's flawless and funny and profound and the ending will rip your heart out. So that would be my recommendation. Also anything by Lisa Alther. I haven't read her new memoir yet, so I'd appreciate a review or two.

We have a term we use to describe certain people we loathe. You came up with the acronym UDG. Why don't you explain what this means to the fine Out readers.
There are UDGs and UDBs. The UDG is the Universally Despised Girl -- everyone reading this went to elementary and high school with such a person. The UDG is oblivious to her personality deficit; indeed, Helen Keller was more attuned to social cues. UDG always raises her hand first in class, she is unctuous at every turn, she craves the approbation of whoever is in authority, she is self-righteous and believes herself smarter than everyone around her. Of course, this highly unattractive persona masks not only a brittle ego structure but a gaping hole where her soul should be. I haven't studied on the UDB in quite the same way, but in my experience boys are universally despised in high school only if they are freakish in a good way, or gay. (This would explain why they were my best friends.) If a boy is despised all the way into manhood, there's probably a very good reason.

What have you done, as a straight woman, to maintain the sanctity of marriage?
My first tactical move was to marry a gay man. My thinking was (and is) if homosexuals aren't allowed to get 'married' how to explain my relationship with David? And also our relationship was sacred. I then proceeded to stick it to the political Right by marrying a number of heterosexual men and divorcing them. At some point the powers that be are going to have to accept the self-evident: I marry and divorce, but the vast majority of my gay friends have relationships that have lasted decades. They are infinitely more stable than I am. If anyone should be denied the right to wed it should be me and Britney Spears, not two men in Chicago who have been together for nineteen years and own a home and three dogs and will take care of one another until they die, asking the state for nothing. Oh, don't get me started on gay marriage; I become decidedly undignified.

While we're on the topic of lesbians and writing, tell me about your feelings for John Updike. And if somebody wanted to read him, where should they start? I say with Couples, what do you think?
As I've said to you on many occasions, John Updike has been licked by the genius cow. He's a writer of greatness. Couples and Marry Me are wonderful early novels, but if I had to recommend just a handful of books (out of the HUNDREDS it seems he's published) I'd go directly to the four Rabbit novels: Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit is Rich; Rabbit at Rest. They are unparalleled. The Beauty of the Lilies is also just tremendous. I could write a dissertation on Updike. I won't, because I'm lazy, but I could.

You're big in Britain. Why do you think they like you so much over there?
I look really good riding a bicycle in a dress. Also I can drive backward on the wrong side of the road, I can drink a few rounds of pints like a man three times my size, and I do not fear clotted cream.

You were interviewed by Katie Couric when your memoir, A Girl Named Zippy was the Today show book club pick and went to number-one. Katie is not known as a lesbian icon, why do you think this is?
Is Katie any sort of icon? I think not.

Say something horrible about somebody. Shall I start? Okay. A cab stopped for me the other day and I got in and the driver started yammering at me in woo boo language and a pregnant woman waddled over and glared at me. Horrified, I saw that the driver had stopped for her, not me. I hadn't even seen her. So as I got out of the cab I said, 'I am so sorry, I really didn't see you.' And she said, 'Fuck you.' And I said, 'I hope you lose the baby.' Your turn:
I live in Durham, North Carolina, a city I adore. However, there are 'athletes' there, a subject on which I shan't elaborate. One evening I was walking through the large parking lot of a bookstore with my son, Obadiah, who was about eight years old at the time. Obadiah was talking away, singing me a song, twirling around in circles. An SUV pulled in the parking lot going about 60 miles an hour. They turned down the lane we were in and actually swerved, as if to hit my son. I pulled him out of the way and put my body in front of his. The diseased pickledicks proceeded to park right where I could see them. They were frat boys IF YOU CAN BELIEVE IT, and they strutted into the bookstore in a cloud of Drakkar Noir and asslickery fashion sense. Each in turn glanced at me to let me know they were white men with money and power, and that scaring my son had been fun. I watched them go inside. I put Obadiah in the car, fetched the deer-skinning knife I keep either in my car or on my belt. I locked the car and told Obadiah to face forward and speak to no one. I walked over to their SUV (even the personalized license plate declared their desire to be killed). I kept remembering the line in Adrienne Rich's poem, 'Rape': He has access to machinery that can kill you. But then I decided, no he doesn't, and I slit all four of the very expensive tires. Wait, can I get in trouble for that?

Lastly, would it be okay for me to mention that you wear cowboy boots and pajamas, at the same time?
Yes, you may mention it. I have lost all shame since I got that hat made of a skunk's hide and my one-year-old son (named Augusten) insisted that I wear it at all times lest he weep. The cowboy boots are the last remaining vestige of my dignity. By the way? I do not in any way resemble Tuesday Weld in the skunk hat.

The Used Word (Free Press, $25) is in bookstores now.

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