High Times Greats: William Burroughs

Just plain Bill.
High Times Greats: William Burroughs
William Burroughs by Kate Simon

For the March, 1985 issue of High Times, John Howell spent some time down home in Kansas with William Burroughs (1914-1997)—renowned writer, world-class iconoclast, and counterculture guru turned country squire. While he had just signed a deal for seven books, Burroughs was also apparently a “regular guy” who liked to go fishin’. To celebrate Burroughs’ birthday on February 5, we’re republishing the story below.

Lawrence, Kansas isn’t a dateline you’d expect for an interview with William Burroughs. After all, this is one of the creators of the original “Beat” scene who made his reputation in such urban centers as London, Paris, Tangier and New York. Lawrence, on the other hand, is noted for its pastoral, college-town atmosphere and an uneventful Midwestern past punctuated by two violent disasters, one real, the other imaginary. During the Civil War, the town was leveled and several hundred inhabitants massacred during William Quantrill’s famous guerrilla raid. And recently, Lawrence was the fictional site of nuclear disaster in the television movie The Day After. But the grim irony of rural/apocalyptic Lawrence came full circle when, on the plane out to Kansas, I read that, as a boy, Burroughs spent time in a summer camp in Los Alamos, New Mexico—later, of course, to become the center of early atomic bomb testing. So bucolic Lawrence has a karmic past which doesn’t seem totally out of synch with one of Beatdom’s most notorious figures.

Actually, Burroughs’ reasons for residing in Lawrence are quite practical: at 71, he enjoys the slower pace of country life as a relief from his ever-increasing activity as a writer, speechmaker, performer, and world-traveling celebrity. Burroughs does return occasionally to New York City, where he maintains his famous “bunker,” a former YMCA gymnasium converted to a windowless residential apartment.

Before moving to Lawrence, Burroughs had made a triumphant “comeback” in New York in 1974. With the help of poets Allen Ginsberg and John Giorno, he abandoned his semi-reclusive, obscure existence in London and returned to America to discover a renewed interest in his work, an enthusiasm that stimulated the most recent phase of his writing. When I called for an interview, Burroughs had planned a lengthy stay in Kansas after the globe-trotting rigors connected with the many seventieth-birthday celebrations.

The occasion was to catch up with the current thoughts of this Beat avatar at a summary point in his long life and career. Burroughs now finds himself cast in a role he has avoided his entire life, that of a literary institution. During the last year, this original “Beat Generation” rebel was elected a fellow of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters; published his fifteenth book, The Place of Dead Roads; was the subject of a full-length film documentary, Burroughs; released several recordings of his readings and collections of his early writings; and saw the publication of a Twenty-Fifth Anniversary edition of Naked Lunch, the literary scandal which launched him into counterculture stardom in 1959. That’s an impressive list of honors and activities for a writer who, at the beginning of his career, was prosecuted for obscenity and who was called, by author Norman Mailer, “the only contemporary American writer truly possessed of genius.”

Naked Lunch and the other Burroughs books which followed, along with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, served not only as a new literature for a new generation, but outlined a blueprint for an entirely new culture, one which blossomed into a world-wide countercultural revolution in the late ’60s. That revolution continues into the ’80s, and Burroughs’ influence seems more potent, more on-target than ever. A new generation of writers, “new wave” musicians, and just plain fascinated readers have been attracted to Burroughs’ black humor, his futuristic prophecies, and his resolutely antiestablishment stance.

And there are even more ambitious plans for the future. Burroughs has signed an agreement with Viking Penguin press to publish seven books in the next five years. They include three novels: The Western Lands, a new work; Interzone, a pre-Naked Lunch work found among Allen Ginsberg’s papers stored at the Columbia University Library; and Queer, a 1951 work about life in the homosexual underground. These will be followed by collections of interviews and autobiographical pieces, and of film scripts and short novels. Two volumes of letters are also being planned, and, in addition, Viking Penguin will reissue two other early works, Junky and Exterminator. Also, research has begun for a definitive Burroughs biography.

Certainly, Bill Burroughs at home in Lawrence seems an unlikely candidate to be such an active counterculture guru. He lives not far from the town’s wide main street in a modest, Depression-era house built from a Sears Roebuck kit for a few hundred dollars—a homely, frugal fact which amuses Burroughs immensely. As I walked toward the porch, I strayed from the path and stumbled over a small ceramic object hidden in the grass: a recumbent buffalo statuette. “That’s a gift from Edie Kerouac,” Burroughs called out wryly, as if buffaloes were an inexplicable Kerouac obsession.

Greeting me at the door, Burroughs looked the part of a small-town Midwestern fisherman (in fact, he does fish), in his khaki work shirt and pants, and work boots. Yet a visitor cannot help but be aware of his other, past roles: the unhappy, upper-class child raised in St. Louis, Missouri as the grandson of the inventor of the adding machine; the expatriate drug addict living in exotic Tangier and bohemian Paris; the tragic paterfamilias (Burroughs accidentally shot and killed his wife in 1951, and his only son died in 1981 following a liver transplant operation); the outspoken homosexual. The traces of his extreme life are visible in his slightly stooped but springy posture, his restlessness, and his eyes, which are at times focused far away and, at other times, penetratingly staring.

Burroughs’ house in Lawrence is littered with his unusually eclectic collection of literary sources: medical textbooks, The Unfortunate Traveler by Thomas Nashe, books by Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad, stacks of handgun magazines, scientific publications, pulp novels of every genre—detective, historical, thriller.

On the top of a bookcase lay two volumes which summed up two Burroughs preoccupations: a dictionary of cats and a history of the devil. Several cats and kittens raced into the combination office-living room. As Burroughs played affectionately with his “little beasts,” he also explained his dislike and fear of dogs, a fear which had led him to order an electronic high-frequency dog chaser to chase away ferocious canines. (Burroughs claimed that an elderly neighbor had been torn to pieces by a pit bull terrier, and that he had no intention of sharing her fate.) This eerie device had been ordered from a blurry mimeographed catalog which Burroughs showed me called “Exotic Weapons.” As it turned out, Burroughs had ordered other devices from this catalog as well: he produced a blowgun and a particularly ugly-looking knife—which led to a discussion and then the display of various poisons, vials of which Burroughs keeps locked in a cabinet.

Burroughs then asked me if I shot guns, and, when I said that I used to, he invited me to his basement shooting range where we took turns plugging away with a .22 air pistol at shotgun shell casings. Unbelievably, since my experience with pistols is limited, I hit every target, as did Burroughs. We did not fire any of the heavier weapons which Burroughs then showed me—rifles, shotguns, and pistols stored in several cabinets and an ancient safe. When using those big guns, he shoots at a large neighborhood shooting range. Interestingly, while Burroughs spends quite a bit of time target shooting, he refuses to hunt. “Just don’t care for it,” he says.

After a low-key dinner, which Burroughs insisted on cooking himself, we made an appointment for a serious interview the following afternoon.

During our conversation, Burroughs restlessly chain-smoked (he has since quit), sipped vodka and coke (straight-up), and lit up the occasional joint. At the age of 71, he sometimes showed an impatience at answering many questions, but his answers were to the point and, when he cared to be expansive, even revelatory. Throughout the talk, Burroughs spoke in his distinctively cracked, dry, deadpan voice with a Midwestern accent which seemed even more pronounced when heard in Lawrence, Kansas.

High Times: In the past you’ve spoken of poetic influences like Rimbaud, but your latest book, The Place of Dead Roads, seems much more like a novel than your earlier, more experimental books. Is that true?

William Burroughs: It’s written in the oldest novel tradition there is, the picaresque tradition, which is simply a series of incidents, adventures, and misadventures, horrific and comic, encountered by the protagonist who is usually, more or less, a manly hero.

High Times: After being known for your innovative style, why did you choose to work with the oldest novel form?

Burroughs: That’s just the way the material presented itself. Remember, the novel is really an arbitrary form… it’s one way of telling a story.

High Times: You’ve also spoken about other novelists who are important to you, like Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad, who, on the face of it, aren’t the kind of novelists that one would immediately associate with your kind of
“Beat” writing. How did they influence you?

Burroughs: There’s a chapter in Cities of the Red Night that was written in the style of Graham Greene—the health officer episode. And a lot of the descriptive material is very similar to Conrad. Conrad is one of the best writers because he deals in very basic themes and deals with them very very well. Conrad’s characters and themes are very archetypical.

High Times: Isn’t this quite a switch from your earlier, “cut-up” method?

Burroughs: Oh yes. The cut-up is just a technique that’s good in certain cases. It corresponds to the montage method in painting. Painting had the whole representational position knocked out from under it by photography, but nothing of the sort has happened with writing, so it didn’t have to change. Painting did. One of the early changes was montage painting, which introduces the element of time into painting. Montage applies particularly to an urban context: you walk around the block, come back, and put down what you’ve seen on the canvas—a jumble of fragments: half a car, a sign, etc. I mean, life is a cut-up—your consciousness is always being cut by random factors, and you can apply exactly that same method to writing. But the content of Dead Roads really dictated a straighter narrative style.

High Times: You’ve talked and written a lot about dreams and dream-states. I’m wondering how you get in touch with those parts of the psyche to use them for writing?

Burroughs: A good part of my material comes from dreams. A lot of it is just straight transcription of dreams with some amplification, of course. And then there’ll be a feedback between dreams and material as you dream about what you’re writing, so you’ll get a feedback starting there.

High Times: Do you ever change or add to dream writings?

Burroughs: Oh yes, it’s like any material, any input. You have to make whatever use of it you want. Same way with cut-ups—you’re quite at liberty to change it or add to it.

High Times: Are there any processes or techniques by which you can encourage or train yourself to dream, or to pull “material” from other than conscious sources?

Burroughs: There are, but I don’t know how effective they are. Henry Miller says, ”Who writes the great books? Not the people that had their names on them because all they are is receptacles. They just tune in to something.” It’s not a question of being original, it’s just a question of tuning in because it’s all there. Now, are there techniques for tuning in? Yes, there are. I’ve given courses about creativity, and in one exercise, I had my students walk around the block, come back, and put down everything that they had seen and experienced in that walk, with particular attention to the points where what they were thinking of when this or that occurred—when they crossed a street or saw a sign—so they begin to see that there’s a distinct relationship. Often, they’ll be thinking about something and then they’ll see something that’s very directly related to what they’re thinking: synchronicity. And sometimes they become quite paranoid as a result of keeping their eyes open and realizing that everything that happens has significance to you because you experience it.

That’s one of many exercises. And of course, paying attention to your dreams. Many people forget them if they’re not written down. There’s a difference between the brain choices, the memory choices of waking, and dream experience, which is much more ephemeral. And there’s the cut-ups, when you want to introduce randomness into the picture—which is an integral part of experience. Many of the Buddhist exercises are applicable—those of undirected thought. Instead of trying to solve the problem, just sit there and look at it, not trying to solve it. And the solution is there, the solution will occur to you, or it won’t, as the case may be.

High Times: In your writings, a variously identified “they” seems to be an obstacle to a fuller consciousness. Sometimes you call it capitalism, other times Christianity, and sometimes, it’s the female.

Burroughs: Or any sort of social conditioning. For example, Islam or whatever. God knows, Islam is every bit as bad as Christianity, if not worse because more people believe it.

High Times: What leads to this paradox, in which a spiritual exercise turns into a control mechanism to close the mind?

Burroughs: It’s a paradox known as time. Any exercise will become sterile and pointless and stereotyped in time. It’s the nature of time.

High Times: What do you think when you are criticized for the violent or sexual nature of your books?

Burroughs: I don’t feel that any material is, by its nature, untouchable. When it comes to violence, you can find so many classical examples of violence. Usually, when people object to the violence in my books, they’re just saying that they don’t like the book—which has nothing to do with criticism.

High Times: What do you think about readers who discount the conspiracy theories in your books?

Burroughs: Depends. There would be people who are engaged in behind-the-scenes maneuvers that they naturally don’t want to have made public. Other people will say that these maneuvers don’t exist, that this is all paranoia, which is exactly what the people engaged in maneuvers hope they will think.

High Times: Do you feel like the messenger who is punished for bearing the bad news?

Burroughs: As I see it, the function of art or great thought is to make people aware of what they know and don’t know that they know. You can’t tell anyone something they don’t already know on some level.

High Times: A lot of musicians have been inspired by your work: Steely Dan, Patti Smith, Lou Reed. What do you think is the connection?

Burroughs: I’m not into music, I very rarely go to concerts. But I know about rock and roll, of course. It’s one of the more potent forces in the whole cultural revolution that we’ve seen in the past thirty years. This Shea Stadium concert concept is quite new, there’s no historical precedent for it, and it’s a very potent force that’s much more immediate than writing or even film. Possibly, the musicians feel that we’re doing the same thing in different mediums. That is, breaking down barriers and exploring new territories.

High Times: You have made at least two general statements about the way the world works, that “nothing is ever accidental,” and that “there are no real rules in the universe.”

Burroughs: Well, take the word “real” now. There are rules that hold up for a certain length of time. Euclid’s universe held up for a while until Einstein came in with the field theory.

High Times: But when we say there are not accidents, does that imply a determinism by rules that can’t be perceived or defined?

Burroughs: Not at all. There are no accidents in what I call the magical universe, or in anyone’s life. There’s no such thing as a coincidence. This doesn’t refer to any definite set of rules, it simply means that everything that happens is significant to the observer because he observes it. If it wasn’t significant, he wouldn’t see it.

High Times: How does that subjective criteria relate to the question of fiction and autobiography? Are your later books more or less autobiographical than your earlier ones?

Burroughs: All writing is autobiographical in a sense. All novels are autobiography and also, all novels are fiction at the same time. So many people thought that Jack Kerouac was writing straight autobiography. He wasn’t at all, he was writing fiction. On the Road could not possibly be written now any more than The Great Gatsby could be written now. A book is as much context as anything else. Besides which, the present is very much influenced by On the Road. Time is everything.

High Times: Speaking of time, there’s lots of time travel in your books, both flashbacks and, perhaps more uncommon, flash-forwards. How does your use of those devices relate to film?

Burroughs: If you’ve got a flashback, the idea of the flash-forward should be automatic. It took film years to get tothe actual flash-forward even though they were the ones in a unique position to do it. Film can get quite extraordinary déjà vu effects by just flashing a few frames forward. They started to do that in Easy Rider and Alice’s Restaurant. But I think the device has not really been powerfully explored because there are all sorts of things you can do with it. You can do the same thing in writing by having a short, rather incomprehensible phrase or two that will become comprehensible later. The point is, there are so many ways to tell the same story.

High Times: How can you tell if the way you’re telling the story is getting in the way of the story itself?

Burroughs: I don’t know why these last two books [Cities of the Red Night and The Place of Dead Roads] should appear at all incomprehensible. That can only be a result of the content rather than the method of relation. Books are coming to have less and less logic. More and more, books and films are just a series of incidents. Look at Indiana Jones. Things may not be logically connected or connected in any way. Did you read Aztec? Just one atrocity after another, and finally you just get numb under the weight of incidents without the least affect. Nobody seems to be reacting to any of these horrors at all, and it goes on for nine hundred pages.

High Times: Why haven’t more films been made from your books?

Burroughs: Just because something is visual doesn’t mean it’s cinematic at all. There have been scripts, but none of them particularly good. Take a book like Naked Lunch: it’s very difficult material, a challenge to put on film.

High Times: What did you think about seeing your life on film in the documentary, Burroughs?

Burroughs: I think it was a good job, given the material. It’s not supposed to be anything but a documentary of certain aspects, not a final statement. There can be no final statement.

High Times: Which contemporary writers do you feel close to?

Burroughs: The older ones, Conrad, Genet, Joyce, Beckett. But of writers right now, very few. There are lots of modem, so-called serious novelists that I don’t know anything about. Frederick Forsyth is a very good writer. People don’t see to what an extent he is a revolutionary writer, what a literary tour de force The Day of the Jackal is.

High Times: Best-selling thrillers aren’t usually thought of as revolutionary.

Burroughs: Just because something is a best-seller doesn’t mean that it’s bad. The Day of the Jackal is the complete antithesis of the psychological novel that came in with Dostoevsky and that weltschmerz stuff in the late 19th century—all that analysis of the character’s mind—that went on through Joyce. Then Beckett externalized the mind and put it out there as a play: one hears this part of the mind and that part of the mind acting out on stage. So, in place of the psychological novel, here comes Forsyth where there’s not one instance of introversion. Not one glimpse do we get of what the protagonist, “The Jackal,” thinks, only what he does. Of course, you can see him thinking, but from outside. In the scene where “The Jackal” confronts the passport forger, you can see what’s coming, but all you’re told is “His eyes clouded over slightly.” Then, he knees the guy in the nuts and breaks his neck. Never once is there anything about what that man thinks. Even in the early, hard-boiled detective stories—your Raymond Chandler—there are all these long, self-pitying monologues of the detective.

High Times: Seeing character through action—

Burroughs: —is simply another way of looking at a character that has a lot of impact.

High Times: Is it the relationship between character and action that attracts you to Conrad and Greene?

Burroughs: Conrad’s themes are so basic: courage lost, courage regained, honor lost, honor regained. And most of his novels are also about corruption, the corruption of fear, of power.

High Times: Corruption is a major motif in Greene’s books as well, isn’t it?

Burroughs: Yes, but it’s very pallid, a more conservative mode. I wouldn’t say it’s corruption exactly, it’s a fault which lets corruption in, as in the case of Major Scobie in The Heart of the Matter.

High Times: A character who produces disaster from his efforts to be “good.”

Burroughs: Nobody does more harm than people who feel terrible about doing it. They just can’t bear for anyone to suffer, and the windup is, everyone suffers a great deal more. In this book, there’s a sort of evasiveness, an unwillingness to face the situation that is a weakness which lays him open to corruption.

High Times: What do you think of the Catholic terms of that corruption?

Burroughs: He sure gets that whole Catholic thing in there, doesn’t he?

High Times: Is the wish to avoid traditional “psychological realism” the reason for your characters’ identities to be so vague, so blurry? They even change shape and form as well as time travel backwards and forward.

Burroughs: What I’m getting at in this blurring of character is, that in space, people are probably not separate. I don’t think they’re even in separate bodies. That means that in all experience people are, on some level, in contact, or certain groups are in contact along certain associational lines. So that the blurring of the identities is a thing of the future. The underlying concept is the proposition that life is a mirage, an illusion. That’s not a new idea, that there is no real reality. We’re getting closer to some of these older, vague metaphysical statements in the area of science and physics. Consider the dimension of time—the whole proposition that here it is, I can touch it so it’s real—doesn’t apply because there was a time when it wasn’t here and there’ll be a time when it won’t be here.

High Times: What are you working on now?

Burroughs: The third book of the trilogy, called The Western Lands. It takes off from the Egyptian section of The Place of Dead Roads. It also takes off from the Egyptian postulare of seven souls. I’ve counted these, clearly set forth, in Norman Mailer’s book, Ancient Evenings. But I realized they fitted exactly into my own mythology. Not only do you have seven souls, but each one has different objectives and different interests. One is Ren, that’s the secret name. He is the director who directs someone’s life from the moment they’re born to the moment they die. The secret name is, “What is your life all about?” Number two: Sekhem. That’s your technician: lights, camera, action. The one who’s always saying about Ren that he doesn’t know what buttons to push or what happens when you do. The technicians are the people who know how to do things. Number three is the Khu, the guardian angel. That’s the intuition. It also takes the form of actual guards, guards in the widest sense. Number four is Ba. That’s the heart—love, tears, laughter. No show without it. Number five is the Ka. That’s the double, and it’s the only one you can rely on. Six is the Khaibit, the shadow. That’s memory. And seven is Sekhu, the remains, the physical body.

Now here’s where some contradicttions come in. These three are eternal: the director goes back and gets the script, the technician—the cameraman—goes with him, and the guardian angel is also eternal—though they can be injured but not seriously. Now the rest take their chances in the land of the dead. They either get through the Western Lands or suffer a last and final death. Now Ba, the heart, that’s the area of treachery. So many people have been brought down by their Ba. The Ka, your double, doesn’t make it unless you do. Khaibit is memory, which can be a burden in many cases, but you need it for data. And Sekhu, the remains, remain. There must also be an eighth soul, who has all these souls.

High Times: Can you think of your “Beat Generation” as an establishment?

Burroughs: To some extent, but literary history is something that’s around long enough to be accepted. I like to say that I’m a good example. I was considered very incomprehensible by conservative critics when my books first appeared, but it certainly isn’t so anymore.

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