Just in time for the late, great William Burroughs’ birthday on February 5, we’re bringing you an interview by Victor Bockris, originally published in the February, 1979 issue of High Times.
After years of exile, the controversial American author of Naked Lunch and Junkie talks about Jack Kerouac, smack, out-of-body experiences, outer space, brain power future shock, fascism and the most important novel of the ’80s, his own Cities of the Red Night.
“I think,” said Norman Mailer in 1962, when the seminal American classic Naked Lunch was published, “that William Burroughs is the only living American novelist who may conceivably be possessed by genius.” Burroughs, who had been a heroin addict for 16 years prior to taking the apomorphine cure in London in 1956 (he has been off junk ever since), went on to become a major innovative force and literary bellwether, creating not only metaphors but living generations with minds of their own. Along with Dylan, Lennon, Jagger, Warhol (and others whom the reader’s mind may suggest) he stands as one of our giants.
The great promise of Burroughs’s first books and early experiments seemed marred when, as he explained in our recent conversations, he ran out of his original source materials. This is an important thing to understand if you want to understand the career of a writer, and I think it’s worth going into, because William Seward Burroughs (whose grandfather invented the Burroughs adding machine) is a man who is particularly worth understanding now.
Since the enormous triumph of Naked Lunch, Burroughs has been criticized for writing books that have been too inaccessible or simply bad. (He has also written a number of very good books that have been widely read, such as Junkie and The Wild Boys). In his attempt to get to the front, Burroughs experimented so extremely with language that he not only went too far out but also lost contact with a large part of his audience. He also, he admits today, published books that should have remained in notebooks.
But Burroughs has come through. This began to happen when he returned to the States in 1973 after 25 years in exile (skipped bail in New Orleans after a drug bust) and rediscovered his young and growing American audience. Since then he has gone from strength to strength, giving a series of public readings across the country, lecturing and teaching at various colleges and always writing. His recently completed novel Cities of the Red Night (a detective story due for release presently) promises to be up there.
One of the more unusual aspects of Burroughs’s career as a writer is that he didn’t begin writing until he was 34 (after a few botched attempts that gave him stomach cramps), at the urging of Jack Kerouac. It is always intriguing to guess what unleashed a writer’s word hoard. In Burroughs’s case, it may well have been the accidental 1949 shooting death of his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, in Mexico City. On that awful day he had found himself crying in the street; upon returning home he started drinking and suddenly told his wife it was “time for our William Tell act.” The .38 misfired. There was a blinding flash: his wife was dead.
After this incident Burroughs began writing constantly. The notes that later developed into Naked Lunch were recorded in seedy hotels and bars across South America and finally composed in Copenhagen, Tangier, Venice and Paris.
Burroughs developed his source materials from his early experiences, some of which are flatly related in Junkie. In between and during being a drug addict, Burroughs was also an exterminator, bartender and private detective. Some light is shed on the side street from which he viewed life in an incident he related recently: “I remember trying to get into 21 [an exclusive Manhattan restaurant reserved for movie stars and the rich] as a private detective in order to serve a subpoena on some citizen and having to figure out a way to get past the doorman.”
“As a child I wanted to be a writer because writers were rich and famous.” His favorite writers are Graham Greene, Richard Hughes, Joseph Conrad, Raymond Chandler. “They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in yellow pongee silk suits. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair, and they penetrated forbidden swamps with faithful native boys, smoking hashish and languidly caressing pet gazelles.”