Interview with Graham Masterton on William S. BurroughsTags: Brion Gysin, Cut-Up, Graham Masterton, Men's Magazines, William Burroughs
By Dave Teeuwen
Graham Masterton is the amazingly prolific author of over a hundred horror and thriller novels, as well as self-help / how-to guides about sex. He has been publishing steadily since the mid-1970s. Earlier in his career, however, he was the editor for Mayfair magazine and later the editor of Penthouse and Penthouse Letters in England.
During this period he was able to develop what would become the Mayfair Academy articles with William Burroughs. The articles appeared monthly over a period of two years from October 1967 to November 1969. Some of Burroughs’ most precisely stated essays and stories, they were distributed to a much different audience than the one that had experienced his writing in smaller press journals and underground newspapers. Even though Burroughs appeared regularly in magazines such as Evergreen Review, which did have a large distribution, Mayfair introduced him to a readership who was probably not buying the magazine for the chance to read his work.
The Mayfair articles were not just a great forum for Burroughs to expound on any subject he liked; they were a steady paycheck. Given the nature of his work, money was generally short, and as Masterton points out, the Mayfair articles were two years of guaranteed income. Much like Jack Kerouac’s column in Escapade in the late 1950s, Burroughs was now given the headmaster’s position of his own academy, simultaneously writing much of the work that would become The Wild Boys, The Job and Exterminator!
The following interview helps fill in some areas that are currently missing from the official story about Burroughs’ work and his life in London.
As an intro to the first Academy Series piece, “The Future of Sex and Drugs”, there is a short interview between Burroughs and Ginsberg and the editors of Mayfair, of which you were one. Was this interview more of a device to introduce the Academy Series or was this actually how it happened? Was the series Burroughs’ idea or Mayfair‘s?
I had been corresponding with William when he was living in Tangiers. At that time I was a newspaper reporter in Crawley, West Sussex. By the time he came to London I had landed the job of deputy editor of Mayfair, which wasn’t as grand as it sounds, because the entire magazine was put out by the editor and me and Brian Fisk’s dog. I went to meet William when he moved into his top-floor apartment in Duke Street, St James’s, and after a couple of meetings I asked him if he had any articles or excerpts from his forthcoming novels which we could publish. He had long had the concept of an academy at which he could expound and discuss his ideas on government repression and big business and the future of social control, so I suggested that he write a series of articles which we would call The Burroughs Academy. So I suppose you can accurately say that we thought of the idea between us. The interview was absolutely as it happened, although edited of course to make it rather more comprehensible than it actually was.
Including a literary figure like William Burroughs in Mayfair would be considered an odd choice for most pornographic or men’s-magazine equivalents of today. What was the philosophical approach behind the magazine?
Within its very limited budget, Mayfair was modelled closely on Playboy, which had always used prestigious authors and artists to give the magazine a veneer of respectability. We used to call it “excuse material”… in other words, readers would justify purchasing Mayfair by saying that they only bought it for the articles… and, good gracious, I hardly noticed that it’s full of pictures of naked girls. Brian Fisk, the founder of Mayfair, liked the idea of a magazine that had the atmosphere of a gentleman’s club. It sounds very dated now, but in the mid-1960s there was a big resurgence in interest in Edwardian-style men’s fashion, as well as wine and cigars and all the trappings of luxury living which of course had been missing in the 1950s. This veneer of respectability meant that we were accepted by WH Smith wholesalers while Penthouse was not.
The Academy Series is some of Burroughs’ most realized, precisely stated work of the 1960s. How did audiences react to the articles over the two years he contributed them?
In actual fact we received very little reaction from the readership and I suspect that few of our hardcore readers actually bothered to read his articles… or, indeed, any of the features and stories that we published. Most of the letters we received were about glimpses of girls’ panties as they went upstairs in double-decker buses. Or the lack thereof. The rest of the letters we invented. But there is no doubt that word got around about the series and eventually it became a kind of secret classic for Burroughs aficionados. Much of it ended up in his novel The Wild Boys. These days you can read it on the internet, and I have seen some snarky comments about the rather simplistic introductions that I wrote for each article. But you have to remember that William was never easy to read and his thinking was way ahead of his time, so I make no apologies for having tried to explain to Mayfair‘s readers what he was saying. If I could get them to read even half a page before they turned over to ogle Millie (of My Boy Lollipop fame) with not much on, or even Shakira Baksh (now Lady Michael Caine) wearing only a pair of pantyhose, then I counted that as a success for the counter-culture.
How did pornography and/or men’s magazines fit into the counter-culture in those days?
There had been one or two avant-garde stories and articles in Playboy but in those days girlie magazines were not really perceived to be part of the counter-culture, if by that you mean the Beats and the hippie and the satirists of the time (such as Screw and Oz magazines and TW3 on television.) So when we included William’s Academy Series in Mayfair, it was really the first time that a sex-oriented consumer magazine had featured articles that seriously questioned the Establishment.
While the Mayfair pieces were pivotal pieces in Burroughs career, especially in terms of stating his views on the world, for some reason they do not figure very largely in any of the biographies of Burroughs. Why do you think that is?
Mayfair‘s circulation was not enormous and it was not published in the United States, so the Burroughs Academy did not reach a very wide audience at the time. I don’t think that many of William’s followers would have been natural Mayfair buyers, either. I think there is a certain literary snobbishness about it, too, from what I have seen from several biographies. Those biographers fail to realize how important the Mayfair articles were to William as a writer and a thinker, and how they also helped him to pay the rent.
The Academy Series in Mayfair introduced William Burroughs to a much different audience than before. How was his homosexuality viewed by this new audience, since he was writing for a decidedly heterosexual publication?
William’s homosexuality was never an issue either with me or the readers of Mayfair. I suppose if we had published the articles today we might have included more arguments about the status and treatment of homosexuals in society, but most of the articles were concerned with thought control and political issues.
The tenor of the Mayfair pieces is very different from the work Burroughs began doing once he moved to NYC later in the 1970s. Do you think it was just a symptom of the times that he was so focused on political issues / control in the late 1960s? Why do you think he moved on to the more reflective work we see in The Cities of the Red Night and the novels that followed?
William did not like London and he was deeply suspicious of the politics of the 1960s. Not only that, I think that when he was writing for Mayfair he was feeling not only culturally displaced but politically and socially and even physically claustrophobic (his apartment was very small and confining, with sloping ceilings because it was on the top floor.) I lost touch with him when he moved back to NYC, partly because I was now newly married with a child and partly because of the geographical distance and partly because times had radically changed. His work always had a sentimental / nostalgic element to it… “last boat whistling in the last harbor” … “dim faded far away” and I think when he returned to the United States he felt able to wallow in his historical interests like the Johnson family and the myths and legends of the Old West.
What was the main demographic for Mayfair? I’m assuming it was 18 – 45 year old men from all backgrounds, but did you find that there was a much wider audience than that?
I think the audience ranged from 16 to 96, and included any man who liked looking at girls with no clothes on.
What do you feel Burroughs’ views on pornography and the world of avante-garde art were?
William hated censorship of any kind. As a homosexual he obviously preferred the stimulus of gay pornography (although I never saw him look at any, and there was never any overt gay activity in his apartment while I was there, apart from Ian Sommerville bursting into tears because his boyfriend had left him). But William never expressed any adverse opinions about the pictures or sexual articles in Mayfair. As far as avant-garde art was concerned, he was right at the leading edge. He and the artist Brion Gysin were working on a way of turning words into art.
As a noted writer of manuals and self-help guides on sex, what is your opinion of Burroughs’ view that Christian attitudes towards sex were the main thing holding back Science at that time, as he expressed in the interview you did with him in Penthouse in 1972?
I believe that narrow-mindedness of all kinds was holding back sexual and scientific progress, not necessarily Christian repressiveness. William wrote about sex openly, which is why The Naked Lunch was considered to be obscene when it was first published, and one of the main themes of my sex manuals was that sex should be discussed openly, especially between sex partners. I even wrote a Christian sex manual Love Thy Lover, Love Thy God which was commissioned by the American inspirational publishing house Pillar Books, but never published (although to be fair they paid me for it.) In those days, people did not have the vocabulary, either in words or emotions, to talk openly about sex, or to explain to their partners what they wanted and what they didn’t want. Teaching people to be articulate about their sexual needs and anxieties is one of the greatest gifts you can give them.
Do you feel that this is still true in the present day?
Less so, obviously, than in 1972. I like to think that the sex books I wrote were instrumental in helping society to be less repressed about sex. They certainly did so in Poland when they were first published there after the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989… I still get blushing Polish ladies coming up to me today to tell me that I taught them everything they know, but of course the great explosion in sexual communication came with the internet, when people could freely see images of sexual activities that excited them and aroused them, and could instantly and confidentially look up anything about which they were unsure.
You have said in interviews that Burroughs taught you to “pick up your typewriter and walk.” How did he influence you most as a writer?
He taught me most of all to live the story rather than write it… to be there as the action unfolds, and to forget about the sheet of paper in front of me (or the screen, these days.) William’s novels are full of smells and sounds and weather and all kinds of sensations that make the narrative feel real. I work very hard even now to make sure that I am El Hombre Invisible, the Invisible Man, and that once readers start one of my novels they forget that they are reading words on a page, and think that they are actually living the story. The other thing that always impressed me about William was his dialog, which is actually highly stylized but “sounds” when you read it as if it is how people really speak. He brings over an enormous amount of character in his dialog and I always try to do the same. In fact I work on my dialog relentlessly, rewriting it again and again until it hits exactly the right note.
In what ways is your early novel Rules of Duel influenced by Burroughs?
Rules of Duel is written in the style that William and Brion devised called “intersection writing”. This means that the writer follows factual coincidences and synonyms as if they are a kind of code. It is an entertainment more than a mystical way of expressing yourself. I also used William’s method of cutting up sentences so that they are more than a mystical kind of code. This means that William hits exactly the right note.
Could you summarize the method you used to write Rules of Duel and the overall story for those who have not been able to read it yet?
I wrote most of Rules of Duel in the evenings after work, but I would take pages around to William’s apartment for him to read and comment on. It is set in London in the late 1960s and the hero is a newspaper reporter who suspects that central government is trying to introduce some repressive plan to control everybody in the capital. When it was finished I showed it to Wolf Mankowitz the film director and he loved it, and (if you don’t mind me being big-headed) called it a “psychedelic masterpiece.” “Psychedelic” — how’s that for dating it? Unfortunately he thought that it was probably unfilmable. William used one or two sentences from Rules of Duel in Nova Express, and he also said that he had used some in The Ticket That Exploded but I have never been able to find any in that particular book of his.
How close would you say you and William became during his time in London? It sounds as if you saw him pretty regularly.
I suppose I went round to see him about two or three times a month. We would either have a meal in his apartment or else we would go out to a restaurant in Knightsbridge or Covent Garden, usually with other friends of his such as the film director Antony Balch and Allen Ginsberg and Ian Sommerville and Brion Gysin. We talked about all kinds of stuff, some of it totally inconsequential, like how much he hated Jacques Tati movies because he couldn’t stand clumsiness and incompetence — some of it serious like the politics of mind control or Scientology (which was a great new interest of his at the time.) He had a dry, droning voice and the appearance of a bank manager from the mid-West, but he could be incredibly funny and irreverent and we had some really good evenings and days together.
I drove him and Antony Balch down to the Scientology Center at Saint Hill in East Grinstead so that he could have a snoop around. We adopted the names of William Lee and Graham Thomas, and Antony made an 8mm movie of our visit which he later intercut with old black-and-white movies. I don’t know who has a copy of this film now but I would love to see it again.
Somewhere I have a photograph taken by Antony that day but it was temporarily buried during my move to Ireland. William and I talked a lot about the whole Rules of Duel concept, which was to educate young people, help them to become literate — but, more than literate, to give them their own language which would not only give them more control of their own lives in an increasingly technological world, but free them from the baneful influence of politicians and old farts. In some ways, much of that has come to pass in the internet age.
I have a picture in my mind’s eye of the evening at Duke Street when Alex Trocchi came to visit and brought William a swordstick. Nobody who has seen movies and photographs of William looking less than animated can imagine what it was like to see him dancing around his apartment with this sword, swinging it dangerously from side to side and shouting, “Ho, there, you ruffians!”
You have said that you have been reading Gysin’s book The Process for the last 25 years. Burroughs also made a point of calling it one of his favorite books of all time. What is it about The Process that keeps you coming back to it?
The Process is magical. The writing is so visual and so tactile that sometimes I have to re-read a sentence twice to work out how it was done. It is far too druggy and plotless to read all the way through. The first two chapters are enough. To quote: “I joggle the miniature matchbox I hold in my hand and these masterpiece matches in here chuckle back what always has sounded to me like a word but a word which I cannot quite catch. It could be a rattling Arabic word but my grasp of Arabic is not all that good and no one, not even Hamid, will tell me what the matches say to the box.” Technically, “chuckle” is such a brilliant word to use for matches in a box. And there are dozens of passages like that.
What was it about Brion Gysin do you think so fascinated Burroughs? At one point he said that Gysin was the only man he ever really respected.
Brion was probably the laziest man in the world but he had abundant talent as a writer and an artist and he was prepared to consider anything to express how he felt. No conceptual boundaries.
How close were you with Brion Gysin?
Not very. I met him a few times and he signed his book for me, and we got on well. We had a hilarious evening at a restaurant full of Middle Eastern gentlemen when William got very drunk and started shouting that we should bomb the Ay-rabs. Brion and I had to remove him with apologies to our fellow diners and take him home.
Is there anything about Burroughs and his work that you think people, even fans, misunderstand?
Maybe this is apparent to other people, too, but William told me one evening that he felt as if he had never lived the life he was supposed to live, and that somehow he had ended up as an outsider on the edge of his own existence. This could well have been brought on by the displaced feeling he had when he was living in London, but throughout his work there is always an underlying sense of lives that never worked out… of opportunities missed or squandered. There is such strong nostalgia, too, even for places that he never visited. Overall, I think he felt that nobody else could see the world the way he saw it, or think the thoughts that he was capable of thinking, and sometimes I think that made him feel desperately detached. That is what Rules of Duel is all about, that feeling of alienation in London in the late 1960s, that feeling that officialdom is always watching you and out to get you. That’s why I thought it so appropriate to see it published today, when we are back to heavy-handed state control and surveillance.