A Conversation with William Burroughs
By Philippe Mikriammos
What follows, being now nearly ten years old, is a document, not unprecedented material that will shed new light on William S. Burroughs. In any case, William Burroughs has pushed farther than other writers the art of always answering the same things to the same questions, so his answers are very well known to those who have sought them. But then again repetition has a particular purpose for him; it is part of his cultural and literary tactics.
This interview was conducted on 4 July 1974, the very day before William Burroughs left England for good and went back to live in America. I think he had already partly moved to New York the preceding year, but obviously he still had some business to attend to in London, where he was when I had called from Paris a few days earlier to ask if he could see me. Mr. Burroughs answered yes immediately, and I crossed the Channel as rapidly as possible.
I wanted the interview to conclude the book I had just finished on him, the first full-length book on Burroughs in French (published by Editions Seghers, 1975). Strangely, I was to find out later that, while I was an unknown, young author writing this book in Athens in 1973, William Burroughs came there to see Alan Ansen and get the manuscript of The Naked Lunch, which Mr. Ansen had. William Burroughs did not want the very precious manuscript to travel by post, and so he flew to Greece to collect it by hand. Of course we did not meet then; he did not know a young man was there writing a book on him, and in my complete isolation, how could I ever have heard that William Burroughs was in town?
Anyway, William Burroughs was then a complete legend. It may seem hard to believe it now, in America and elsewhere, but the man was really el hombre invisible. Quite a few thought he had died years before. Imagine what I felt when dialing his London phone number and asking for Mr. Burroughs, I heard the famous sharp voice answer, "Speaking…"!
Since then, of course, I have met William Burroughs several times, in Geneva, Paris, and Brussels. I have learned to know him as an individual being, to the point of being able to perceive whether he enjoys the steak we are having in a restaurant, or to know, simply by an almost imperceptible move of his head to the side, that he has spotted some handsome red-headed boy passing in the distance in a street. For I have always preferred, when in his company, to deal with the living man, not with an abstract author. I would have found it rather morbid to try to wheedle clues to his literary works out of him. Anyway, I am convinced that, in William Burroughs' case, the more relevant explanations to his works are to be found in his sensitive personality, his way of feeling.
PM: To what extent is the prologue to Junky autobiographical?
PM: Several people have mentioned a text of yours called Queer, which would be a continuation of your Mexican adventures and of Junky. What has become of these pages?
WB: It's in the archives. Now, the catalogue of the archives was published by the Covent Garden Bookshop. It took us five months to get all the manuscripts, letters, photographs, etc., from fifteen, twenty years. And the archives are in Vaduz, Liechtenstein. Whether they will let it be transferred to Columbia University in America, I don't know. But Roberto Altmann, who has the archives at the present time, has not made them available yet. He is setting up something called the International Center of Arts and Communication in Vaduz. But they had a landslide which destroyed part of the building, and they haven’t opened it yet. The catalogue’s a very long book; it’s over three hundred pages. And I wrote about a hundred pages of introductory material to the different files, and where this was produced and so on and so forth. Literary periods, what I wrote, where, and all that, is in the catalogue, and the material itself, including this manuscript Queer, is in the archives.
PM: Did you use parts of the Queer material in other books?
WB: No, no. Frankly, I consider it a rather amateurish book and I did not want to republish it.
PM: In The Subterraneans, Kerouac spoke of "the accurate images I’d exchanged with Carmody in Mexico." Does this sentence refer to experiences in telepathy and non-verbal communication between you and him?
WB: Well, I think we did some elementary experiments, yes.
PM: Have you been influenced by Celine?
WB: Yes, very much so.
PM: Did you ever meet him?
WB: Yes, I did. Allen and I went out to meet him in Meudon shortly before his death. Well, it was not shortly before, but two or three years before.
PM: Would you agree to say that he was one of the very rare French novelists who wrote in association blocks?
WB: Only in part. I think that he is in a very old tradition, and I myself am in a very old tradition, namely, that of the picaresque novel. People complain that my novels have no plot. Well, a picaresque novel has no plot. It is simply a series of incidents. And that tradition dates back to the Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter, and to one of the very early novels, The Unfortunate Traveler by Thomas Nashe. And I think Celine belongs to this same tradition. But remember that what we call the "novel" is a highly artificial form, which came in the nineteenth century. It’s quite as arbitrary as the sonnet. And that form had a beginning, a middle, and an end; it has a plot, and it has this chapter structure where you have one chapter, and then you try to leave the person in a state of suspense, and on to the next chapter, and people are wondering what happened to this person, and so forth. That nineteenth-century construction has become stylized as the novel, and anyone who writes anything different from that is accused of being unintelligible. That form has imposed itself to the present time.
PM: And it’s not vanishing.
WB: Well, no, it’s not vanishing. All the best-sellers are still old fashioned novels, written precisely in that nineteenth-century format. And films of course are following suit.
PM: Would you say that Kerouac also belonged to the picaresque novel?
WB: I would not place Jack Kerouac in the picaresque tradition since he is dealing often with factual events not sufficiently transformed and exaggerated to be classified as picaresque.
PM: Isn’t it a bit striking that a major verbal innovator like you has expressed admiration for writers who are not mainly verbal innovators themselves: Conrad, Genet, Beckett, Eliot?
WB: Well, excuse me, Eliot was quite a verbal innovator. The Waste Land is, in effect, a cut-up, since it’s using all these bits- and-pieces of other writers in an associational matrix. Beckett I would say is in some sense a verbal innovator. Of course Genet is classical. Many of the writers I admire are not verbal innovators at all, as you pointed out. Among these I would mention Genet and Conrad; I don’t know if you can call Kafka a verbal innovator. I think Celine is, to some extent. Interesting about Celine, I find the same critical misconceptions put forth by critics with regard to his work are put forth to mine: they said it was a chronicle of despair, etc.; I thought it was very funny! I think he is primarily a humorous writer. And a picaresque novel should be very lively and very funny.
PM: What other writers have influenced you or what ones have you liked?
WB: Oh, lots of them: Fitzgerald, some of Hemingway; "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" was a great short story.
PM: Dashiell Hammett?
WB: Well … yes, I mean it’s of course minor, but Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in that genre, which is a minor genre, and it’s not realistic at all. I mean this idea that this is the hard boiled, realistic style is completely mythologic. Raymond Chandler is a writer of myths, of criminal myths, not of reality at all. Nothing to do with reality.
PM: You have developed a personal type of writing called the "routine." What exactly is a routine?
WB: That phrase was really produced by Allen Ginsberg; it simply means a usually humorous, sustained tour de force, never more than three or four pages.
PM: You read a lot of science fiction, and have expressed admiration for The Star Virus by Barrington Bayley and Three to Conquer by Eric Frank Russell. Any other science fiction books that you have particularly liked?
WB: Fury, by Henry Kuttner. I don’t know, there are so many of them. There’s something by Poul Anderson, I forget what it was called, Twilight World. There are a lot of science fiction books that I have read, but I have forgotten the names of the writers. Dune I like quite well.
PM: There is no particular science-fiction author that has notably influenced you?
WB: No, various books from here and there. Now, H. G. Wells, yes, The Time Machine, and I think he has written some very good science fiction.
PM: What about the other Burroughs, Edgar Rice?
WB: Well, no. That’s for children.
PM: In The Ticket That Exploded you write: "There is no real thing— all show business." Have Buddhism, Zen, and Oriental thinking in general exerted a strong influence on you?
WB: No. I am really not very well acquainted with the literature, still less with the practice of yoga and Zen. But on one point I am fully in agreement, that is, all is illusion.
PM: Has the use of apomorphine made any progress that you know of since you started recommending and advocating its use?
WB: No, on the contrary. Too bad, because it is effective.
PM: In a recent interview, you said that apomorphine combined with Lomotil and acupuncture was the remedy for withdrawal. What was wrong or insufficient with apomorphine to require the combination of two other elements?
WB: I found out about Lomotil in America some time ago, and then doctors have been using it here with pretty good results. The thing about apomorphine is that it requires pretty constant attendance. In other words, you’ve got to really have a day and a night nurse, and those injections have to be given every four hours. And it isn’t everybody that’s in a position to do that. But at least for the first four days, it requires rather intensive care. And it is quite unpleasant.
PM: And it’s emetic…
WB: Well, no, there’s no necessity; see, it’s not an aversion therapy and there’s no necessity for the person to be sick more than once or twice when they find the threshold dose. They find the maximum dose that can be administered without vomiting, and they stick with that dose. You’ll get decreased tolerance; sometimes the threshold dose will go down. Usually, almost anyone will vomit on a tenth of a grain. So then they start reducing it, but as the treatment goes on, you may find that a twentieth of a grain or even less than a twentieth of a grain produces vomiting again. You may get decreased tolerance in the course of the treatment. So it’s something that has to be done very precisely, and of course people must know exactly what they’re doing. It’s very elastic, because some people will take large doses without vomiting, and some people will vomit on very small doses. Continual adjustments have to be made.
PM: And acupuncture?
WB: Well, I thought immediately when I saw these accounts, as well as a television presentation of operations with acupuncture, that anything that relieves intense pain will necessarily relieve withdrawal symptoms. Then they started using it for withdrawal symptoms, apparently with very good results, and are using it here, I think.
PM: Most of your books definitely have a cinematographic touch. The Last Words of Dutch Schultz actually is a film script, and The Wild Boys and Exterminator! are full of cinematographic details and indications
WB: That’s true, yes.
PM: Why haven’t we seen any film made from one of your books?
WB: Well, we’ve tried to get financing on the Dutch Schultz script, but so far it hasn’t developed. Very, very hard to get people to put up money for a film.
PM: What films have you liked recently?
WB: I like them when I go, when I see them, but it’s rather hard to get myself out to see a film. I haven’t seen many films lately. I saw A Clockwork Orange; I thought it was competent and fun, well done, though I don’t think I could bear to see it again.
PM: Do you write every day?
WB: I used to. I haven’t been doing anything lately because I gave a course in New York, and that took up all my time; then I was moving into a new flat there, so that during the last five months, I haven’t really been doing much writing.
PM: When you write, how long is it each day?
WB: Well, I used to write… it depends … up to three, four hours, sometimes more, depending on how it’s going.
PM: What is the proportion of cut-up in your recent books, The Wild Boys and Exterminator!?
WB: Small. Small. Not more than five percent, if that.
PM: Parts of Exterminator! look like poems. How do you react to the words poem, poetry, poet?
WB: Well, as soon as you get away from actual poetic forms, rhyme, meter, etc., there is no line between prose and poetry. From my way of thinking, many poets are simply lazy prose writers. I can take a page of descriptive prose and break it into lines, as I’ve done in Exterminator!, and then you’ve got a poem. Call it a poem.
PM: Memory and remembrances of your youth tend to have a larger and larger place in your recent books.
WB: Yes, yes. True.
PM: How do you explain it?
WB: Well, after all, youthful memories I think are one of the main literary sources. And while in Junky, and to a lesser extent in Naked Lunch, I was dealing with more or less recent experiences, I’ve been going back more and more to experiences of childhood and adolescence.
PM: Parts of Exterminator! sound like The Wild Boys continued. We find again Audrey Carson, and other things. Did you conceive it that way, as a continuation of Wild Boys, or is it just a matter of recurrent themes?
WB: Any book that I write, there will be probably…say if I have a book of approximately two hundred pages…you can assume that there were six hundred. So, there’s always an overflow into the next book. In other words, my selection of materials is often rather arbitrary. Sometimes things that should have gone in, didn’t go in, and sometimes what was selected for publication is not as good as what was left out. In a sense, it’s all one book. All my books are all one book. So that was overflow; some of it was overflow material from The Wild Boys, what didn’t go into The Wild Boys for one reason or another. There are sections of course in The Wild Boys that should have gone into Exterminator!, like the first section, which doesn’t belong with the rest of the book at all; it would have been much better in Exterminator!, the Tio Mate section. There’s no relation really between that and the rest of the book.
PM: There was the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and then The Wild Boys, subtitled "A Book of the Dead." Am I stupid in seeing a connection between them.
WB: Oh no, the connection I think is very clear: everyone in the book is dead. Remember that Audrey is killed in the beginning of the book, in an auto accident.
PM: Did you inspire yourself from the old books of the Dead?
WB: To some extent, yes. I’ve read them both; not all of the Egyptian one, my God, or all of the Tibetan one, but I looked through them. In other words, the same concepts are there between birth and death, or between death and birth.
PM: You have kept an unchanged point of view about the origins of humanity’s troubles. In The Naked Lunch you wrote: "The Evil is waiting out there, in the land. Larval entities waiting for a live one," and in Exterminator!, "The white settlers contracted a virus," and this virus is the word. But who put the word there in the first place?
WB: Well, the whole white race, which has proved to be a perfect curse on the planet, have been largely conditioned by their cave experience, by their living in caves. And they may actually have contracted some form of virus there, which has made them what they’ve been, a real menace to life on the planet.
PM: So the Evil always comes from outside, from without?
WB: I don’t think there’s any distinction, within/without. A virus comes from the outside, but it can’t harm anyone until it gets inside. It is extraneous in or??ìp
PM: Speaking of coming in and out, as you were arriving in London for a visit late in 1964, you were allowed only fourteen days by the authorities, without explanations. Have you had to suffer from a lot of harassment from authorities?
WB: Very little. That was straightened out by the Arts Council and was of course prompted by the American Narcotics Department. Allen Ginsberg had the same difficulties. The American Narcotics Department would pass the word along to other authorities. Well, I got that immediately straightened out through the Arts Council; I’ve never had any trouble since.
PM: May I ask the reasons for why you are moving to New York?
WB: Well, I like it better. New York is very much more lively than London, and actually cheaper now. I find it a much more satisfactory place to live. New York has changed; New York is better than it was; London is worse than it was.
PM: You have always described the System as matriarchal. Do you still have the same opinion?
WB: Well, the situation has changed radically, say from what it was in the 1920s when I was a child; you could describe that as a pretty hard-core matriarchal society. Now, the picture is much more complicated with the pill and the sexual revolution and Women’s Lib, which allegedly is undermining the matriarchal system. That is, at least that’s what they say they’re doing, that they want women to be treated like everyone else and not have special prerogatives simply because they’re women. So, I don’t know exactly how you would describe the situation now. It’s certainly not a patriarchal society—I am speaking of America now—but I don’t think you could describe it as an archetypal or uniform matriarchal society either, except for the southern part of the United States. You see, the southern part of the United States was always the stronghold of matriarchy, the concept of the "Southern belle" and the Southern woman. And that is still in existence, but it’s on the way out, undoubtedly.
PM: You call for a mutation as the only way out of the present mess. Right now, what positive signs, factors, or forces do you see working toward such a mutation?
WB: Well, there are all sorts of factors. Actually, if you read a book like The Biologic Time Bomb by Taylor, you’ll see that such mutations are well within the range of modern biology, that these things can be done, right now. We don’t have to wait three hundred years. But what he points out is that the discoveries of modern biology could not be absorbed by our creaky social systems. Even such a simple thing as prolonging life: whose life is going to be prolonged? Who is to decide whether certain people’s lives are going to be prolonged and certain other people’s are not? Certainly politicians are not competent to make these decisions.
PM: You hate politicians, right?
WB: No, I don’t hate politicians at all, I’m not interested in politicians. I find the type of mind, the completely extraverted, image-oriented, power-oriented thinking of the politicians dull. In other words, I’m bored by politicians; I don’t hate them. It’s just not a type of person that interests me.
PM: What are your methods of writing at present?
WB: Methods? I don’t know. I just sit down and write! I write in short sections; in other words, I write a section, maybe of narrative, and then I reach into that, but if it doesn’t continue, I’ll write something else, and then try to piece them together. The Wild Boys was written over a period of time; some of it was written in Marrakech, some of it was written in Tangiers, and a good deal was written in London. I always write on the typewriter, never in longhand.
PM: What is, in The Wild Boys, the meaning of sentences like "A pyramid coming in…two…three..four pyramids coming in…"?
WB: That is an exercise of visualizing geometric figures which I have run across in various psychic writings.
PM: Would you be interested in testing psychotronic generators too?
WB: Yes, the various devices described in Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain. They have now come out with another book called A Handbook of PSI Discoveries, which is a how-to book telling just how to do Kirlian photography how to build all these machines and generators and so on. I’m very interested in experimenting with those if I have the opportunity, time, and money.
PM: In the mid-seventies, you write that you wanted to create a new myth for the Space Age. Is it what you are still trying to do, and do you use the word myth in a particular sense?
WB: I feel that I am still working along the line of a myth for the Space Age and that all my books are essentially one book. I use myth in the conventional meaning.