From the unedited version of a 1995 interview that Self did with JGB that was horribly mutilated (not necessarily this part of the interview; can't remember offhand) in the American version of Junk Mail:
WS: You wrote that essay on William Burroughs in the late fifties, at a time when he was languishing and out of favour. Well, I suppose Girodias was just publishing Naked Lunch at that time. I was interested in your remarks upon Burroughs. Again, you said that you found it difficult to establish a rapport with him when you actually met him, though judging from the dates when you interviewed him, he was in the midst of a serious smack period.
JGB: Have you met him yourself?
WS: No, I have never met him.
JGB: I admire him enormously. I think he is the most important, innovative American writer, and possibly world writer, since the Second World War. But the man himself ... the thing to remember about him is that he is a Midwesterner. He comes from an upper-class, provincial American family and he is not cosmopolitan, he doesn’t have the natural cosmopolitanism of, say, a New York writer. He is very much a product of his Midwestern background, he has that built-in contempt for doctors, small-town politicos and policemen that a Bournemouth colonel might have, to use a counterpart from here. It is very difficult to penetrate that almost aristocratic mind-set of his.
WS: He has gone home to Kansas, he has gone home to die.
JGB: Absolutely. We have met a number of times over the last thirty years and we always chat in a friendly way. Obviously I steer the conversation towards those things that I know interest him. But I have never been able to relax with him, partly because he is a homosexual ... that is an important element, I think, because he comes from a generation which had to be careful. You could go to jail. This is true of Angus Wilson too, though he was a very different type, but you sense with older homosexuals that they have developed a system of private codes whereby they recognize one another and ease themselves into each other’s company and friendship without endangering themselves in any way. Strangers can be dangerous. There is something of that in Burroughs, complicated of course because he had been a lifelong drug user, at a time when that too was extremely dangerous. It is difficult for an outsider like me who is not a drug user, not a homosexual, to penetrate. I regret that. What is so wonderful about the American literate class is that it produces unlimited quan¬tities of young men and women, of your age group, who are so open to the world. But Burroughs is complicated.
WS: Did you read the Ted Morgan biography, Literary Outlaw?
JGB: Yes, I did.
WS: Because in this RE-Search interview you said that you didn’t really believe that Burroughs was as interested in the paranormal as some of his utterances and methodologies might lead one to believe. But he is, isn’t he?
JGB: Did I say that? Because I agree with you, he is. If I said that, I was wrong.
WS: Perhaps you didn’t want to believe it because it smacks of table-turning. When you read in the Morgan biography of that business with Brion Gysin, propping their eyes open and scrying in mirrors, you begin to realize that they really did take it seriously.
JGB: That is true. I remember going to see Burroughs when he was living in St James’s, Piccadilly, way back in the late sixties. We had dinner together and he was distracted - he had this boyfriend who had ‘hate’ and ‘love’ tattooed on his knuckles and he was nervous about where this young man was going. The boyfriend cooked us a roast chicken, then slipped out, and I think Burroughs was unsettled by this. He had an obsession with handguns and how you kill somebody, where you stab them in the chest - all weird stuff out of popular magazines. Then he started talking about the CIA. He had to be careful when walking up and down the street, this little street in St James’s, he said, ‘because they are keeping a watch on me from a laundry van’. He wasn’t that old then, about fifty, and I thought, ‘This guy is paranoid.’
WS: He’d wigged.
JGB: And all these images were coming from the trash magazines he’d read when he was young and from American movies, noir movies that he’d watched in the forties where police keep surveillance on Nazi spies who are trying to infiltrate the American dockyards - from laundry vans! Of course it flows seamlessly into his fiction.
WS: The impression I got - not so much from reading the Morgan biography, although that joined all the dots, more from the letters to Allen Ginsberg - was that there was a point at which Burroughs decided to live in the world of the imagination and take excursions into the world of observable fact, rather than the other way around. He went fully underground into his imaginative world.
JGB: And that is probably why he is the great writer he is. That is the only way you can tackle life in the twentieth century and write a fiction about it.
WS: But you don’t seem to have done that, yet you have produced an enormous amount of prescient work.
JGB: Yes. Well, people are always saying that I have been strongly influenced by Burroughs, but it is not really true. I am much more influenced by the surrealists. They are the biggest influence on my stuff.
WS: What we have been saying brings us neatly back to Burroughs, who can be seen as the apostle of the male homosexual response to the feminist movement. I’m thinking of his avowed and essentially caricatured misogyny - I believe he once said that all women should be exterminated.
JGB: His attitude to women is strange, there is no doubt about that.
WS: But any career homosexual tends to have strange ideas about women.
JGB: My own contacts with male homosexuals have been rather limited. Most homosexuals I have known seem to have liked and enjoyed the company of women. I am thinking of masculine homosexuals, not effete homosexuals. Burroughs is odd because he clearly dislikes women in a visceral way.
WS: He is delighted now - and I think the Morgan book puts it very well - by the sight down Christopher Street in New York of all these very butch male homosexuals. He sees himself as an avatar of the male who is both homosexual and tough. But coming back to Rushing to Paradise, tough male homosexuals now exist because they have become this ghetto of male sexuality, and the rest of us heterosexual men are becoming increasingly feminized without really knowing it.
WS: I’d like to return to the subject of Burroughs’s visceral hatred of women. When he was married to Joan Vollmer in the forties, he loved her very much - even though he found her physically very difficult to cope with. She said that he could function as a heterosexual.
JGB: I find it hard to believe.
WS: Couldn’t one say that the accidental killing of his wife triggered his misogyny?
JGB: It is a retrospective justification of the act.
WS: Exactly. And it helps to explain the plunge that Burroughs makes into the magical world. He describes this brilliantly in the introduction to Queer. It’s very easy to see how that experience would tip a man who was already living far too much within the purlieus of an exaggerated imagination into a full-blown magical obsession. The parallels with your own life and fictional existence are obvious, there is no need to recount them. Why, then, does one have the sense that you are an extremely rational and well-balanced person?
JGB: That’s true. It is something I have never understood about myself: Particularly in the years after The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash and High-Rise came out. People used to come to this little suburban house expecting a miasma of drug addiction and perversion of every conceivable kind. Instead they found this easy-going man playing with his golden retriever and bringing up a family of happy young children. I used to find this a mystery myself. I would sit down at my desk and start writing about mutilation and perversion. Going back to Burroughs, his imagination and mine - I recognize the similarities instantly whenever I read Burroughs. People say I have been heavily influenced by him, but I don’t think I have at all. My fiction is highly structured, I know where I am going, I always plot my novels and short stories very carefully, I always write an extended synopsis. Burroughs doesn’t do this at all. I don’t think he starts a book with any sense of structure whatsoever. Naked Lunch in particular. I have a scientific imagination, my fiction is not generated by my emotions but by a natural inquisitiveness.
WS: A forensic imagination.
JGB: Yes. I am in the position of someone performing an autopsy. Like all of us when we rent a strange apartment and find traces of the previous occupants - a medical journal, a douche bag, a videotape of an opera - and we begin to assemble from these apparently unrelated materials a hypothesis about who the previous occupants were. We carry out an investigation of our own. If we have fairly fluid and loose imaginations we can often come up with very striking visualizations of who our predecessors were. I operate in exactly that way. The environments both internal and external, the outer world of everyday reality and the inner one inside my head, are constantly offering me clues to what is going on. These clues secrete obsessional material around themselves. I then begin to explore various hypotheses: is it possible that car crashes are actually sexually fulfilling? It is a nightmare prospect but it could have a germ of truth - at least on a metaphorical level. I begin to explore the possibilities. How would this erotic frisson be achieved? Then I need to explore that. So let’s explore a car crash as if it was an erotic experience. And so I push that out. I have a speculative imagination that is constantly exploring the interior, mythic possibilities of these ideas. Obviously there is an interiorized mythology that we all have, that gives our lives some sort of compass bearing; we dream that we will go out to New Zealand and become a sheep-farmer, or sail a yacht around the world, or open a nightclub in Marbella. We are sustained by these dreams. Now all these things come together in my fiction, but I think my approach is basically a speculative one. Therefore my emotions remain uncommitted to whatever my imagination happens to generate. This is not true of Burroughs. He believes everything he writes. He lives in a paranoid micro-climate of his own; the rain falls and the rain is the condensation of this paranoid climate. The rain is the material of his books.
WS: And he is in a frightening magical world, where malevolent spirits may destroy him psychically. But with your view of Freud as the great novelist of the twentieth century, you can write things like Crash and then experience a car accident without viewing your psyche as the toy of terrifying forces over which you have no control. Burroughs is the true Freudian. He believes in fate and thanatos and just about everything.
JGB: I think that is true.
JGB: Oh, yes, the images and ideas have a life of their own. They emerge through the topsoil of the mind, push forward and make their presence felt. And one then uses them as part of the larger inquiry which every novel or short story is.
WS: I feel that I am midway between you and Burroughs in this respect.
JGB: You have got Burroughs’s manic humour. I am a little humourless.
WS: Sardonic humour. Gallows humour. Burroughs, to me, represents the last great avatar of modernism; he is like Beckett, he is like Joyce, he has been in exile. He is also a very dangerous person to look up to. Emotionally, he is a very tricky man, a blindingly selfish man, totally egotistic. Not nice.
JGB: I am afraid that is true. I remember seeing a film portrait of him on television, with a strange heart-rending conversation between him and his son, who died of liver cancer. Burroughs had no feelings for his son whatsoever.
WS: I remember that scene in the film well; there is Grauerholz, his secretary, and Billy, his son. Burroughs and Grauerholz are behaving like bitchy queens …
JGB: And the son wants some fatherly affection and reassurance. Burroughs is completely incapable of giving that. He may be an outrageous human being but he has produced some great fiction, and that is what counts, isn’t it?
WS: Well, yes and no. I was going to ask you about that.
JGB: We have to be grateful for what we have got. Take de Sade’s novels. God knows, the man was reprehensible as a human being, as a father and as a husband, as an employer of young women whom he ruthlessly exploited. Yet he did leave his fiction. One has to leave all moral considerations aside. The imagination is not a moral structure. The imagination is totally free of any moral constraints or overtones. It is up to society as a whole to say whether the novels of de Sade should be available or not. Society has social needs that the individual imagination doesn’t have. There is no reason why a mass murderer shouldn’t write a beautiful poem.