Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
The image of Burroughs soliciting for interview subjects at Indica Bookshop complicates many myths surrounding this most mysterious of writers. Burroughs was supposed to be a lone wolf, el hombre invisible, but a closer look reveals him to be a man about town, a bird of a feather within the creative community of the post-WWII era. Stories abound of how tight-lipped he was and how close to the vest (or should I say three-piece suit) he played his cards. Such accounts would lead one to believe that Burroughs refused interviews and rarely talked to the press. Looking over his bibliography, this is clearly not the case.
The interview process played an important role in his thinking from the beginning of his creative life. Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg interviewed and analyzed each other from the minute they met in the mid 1940s. In fact, it could be argued that Burroughs served as the house analyst to the Columbia University smart set from which the Beat Generation sprung. The collected letters end in 1959 with a flurry of letters revolving around the interrogation of Ginsberg and a questioning of self. Another example is the famous letter collected in The Yage Letters from 1960. The hostile or unreliable interview plays a key role his work. Dr. Benway’s questioning of Carl or the Hauser and O’Brien scene in Naked Lunch, the interrogation of the Death Dwarf in Nova Express, or the transcription of the deathbed ravings of Dutch Schultz come to mind. In the late 1950s, Burroughs returned to the interview format during his flirtation with Scientology. For the next decade, Burroughs lurked around town with his E-Meter subjecting all around him to a barrage of questions. As many commentators make plain, the interview is a collaborative activity and thus ideally suited to Burroughs’ turn of mind. From 1961 onward, Burroughs was interviewed numerous times. The final output is much more than one would expect from a supposedly reclusive writer.
The culture of the Beat Hotel colored the first public Burroughs reading. The fleabag hotel also frames the first two Burroughs interviews. Burroughs’ first interview appeared in the opening issue of The Journal for the Protection of All Beings in 1961. City Lights published this magazine roughly around the time it published the similarly named City Lights Journal. The interview may seem to be the product of the Cold War with its questions of nuclear destruction and the like, but it reeks of 1950s Paris when I read it. Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg interview Burroughs in a series of serious and goofy questions that could have been asked in Burroughs’ hotel room. Like in his tape recorded first reading, Burroughs comes off as a shadowy figure, still shrouded in mystery. By 1961, a small group of readers were clamoring for more information on the legend behind Naked Lunch. This interview provides a tantalizing glimpse of Burrroughs, but only a glimpse.
In 1963, Evergreen Review provided another fleeting peek at the quicksilver Burroughs. The scene is again the Beat Hotel, and the interview is even more cryptic than the jousting with Corso and Ginsberg. Ann Morrissett encounters a shadowy Burroughs who seems to flicker in and out of existence. The resulting interview, “An Account of Events Preceding the Death of Bill Burroughs,” is a classic, if almost completely unknown, interview. Something of a new journalism piece, Morrissett takes the scraps of information on Burroughs and weaves them into a short story of sorts with Burroughs as the central character. It isn’t even clear whether the entire interview is a fabrication. The Burroughs that Morrissett presents is in full Nova mode, all conspiracies and Dr. Benway. “I do not feel personally responsible: I am only following orders, and my lieutenants are only following mine.” At the end of the interview Morrissett pulls off her wig and reveals her bald head. I could not help but think of Alfred Chester and wonder if he was behind what has to be one of the most bizarre Burroughs interviews. Gary Lee Nova has mentioned that this interview heaped even more mystery into the myth that swirled around Burroughs. Given Evergreen Review‘s large print run, thousands of readers were sure to be puzzled by the account and a lucky few prodded to creative action.
It would be another literary magazine, The Paris Review, that would definitively pull back the curtain on the wizard of the cut-up in 1965. Conrad Knickerbocker interviewed Burroughs in St. Louis during Burroughs’ trip to the United States. “The Art of” interviews by Paris Review are fantastic and one of the reasons that this little magazine has remained relevant for over 50 years. If you are a major writer, you have been put under the microscope by Paris Review. The interviews with Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, and William Carlos Williams are some of my favorites and essential reading. To my mind this is the one Burroughs interview you have to read in order to get to the heart of Burroughs as a writer. But make no mistake Burroughs is at the height of his powers as a myth maker and deceiver in this interview. This is nowhere more apparent than in his answer concerning the death of Joan Vollmer. Here he denies the William Tell aspect of the story. His response ranks up there with the introduction to Queer in its importance dictating (for a time) how the curious would treat that pivotal event in Burroughs’ life. It is a classic Burroughs performance, because performance it is.
The Burroughs interview would be a staple of the literary journal or magazine for over 30 years. No matter how stale the questions or how canned the answers, readers of literary magazines could not get enough and inevitably purchased a copy. To this day, a photo of Kerouac, Burroughs or Ginsberg on the cover of a literary magazine or journal generates sales. Despite all his interviews or maybe because of them, Burroughs remains an object of fascination.
I have written on how some men’s magazines are collected, if not read, for the articles. Men’s magazines in the 1960s, particularly Playboy, presented wonderful pieces by the major writers of the decade: Norman Mailer to Truman Capote to Terry Southern. A defining piece of fiction rubbed up against a nice piece of ass. It was quite a combination and made Playboy one of the most relevant and popular magazines of the decade. The interview was another area in which Playboy distinguished itself. The interviews were in-depth and did not side step tough, probing questions. Like the Paris Review‘s “The Art of..” interviews, the Playboy interview provided a valuable look into the minds of the great writers of the period.
Burroughs appeared in a roundtable discussion on drugs in the February 1970 issue of Playboy but he was never a feature interview. Yet men’s magazines interviewed Burroughs throughout his creative life. In 1966, Jaguar provided one of the first interviews with Burroughs in a piece entitled: “Prophet or Pornographer?” Soon after, the British men’s magazine Mayfair interviewed Burroughs and began a partnership that would continue for almost two full years. Burroughs’ Mayfair columns are key documents into his preoccupations in the late 1960s in London, a largely forgotten and unexplored period.
Penthouse scooped Playboy in 1972 by publishing a major interview with Burroughs. Like the Paris Review interview, this is a major statement by Burroughs. I believe in this period Penthouse outsold Playboy. This is due in part to its racier content and edgier counterculture leanings. Penthouse broke the pubic hair barrier on drugstore shelves around this time. The presence of Burroughs in a major interview highlights the against-the grain-image of Penthouse as compared to the more country-club Playboy with its interviews with more mainstream writers of Hip, like Norman Mailer. For Burroughs on sex, check out the Gay Sunshine interviews. Penthouse focuses on the more out-there interests of Burroughs like telepathy, mind control, and mutation. The Penthouse interview would have fit nicely in Omni, a science fiction magazine published by Penthouse editor, Bob Guccione.
In the mid-1960s, science fiction was in a state of flux and on the verge of a great flowering. Burroughs was a major figure in this renaissance. With its depiction of the Nova Mob and Nova Conspiracies, Nova Express, along with the previous Olympia Press titles, was viewed as a major influence in the genre of science fiction. The publication of Nova Express by Grove in 1964 was an occasion. An original Burroughs novel appeared in hardcover without a preceding paperback for the first time. The first printing was 10,000 copies, but Grove quickly reprinted two paperback editons (15,000 copies each) in 1965 alone, not to mention a British edition in 1966.
As we have seen with the comments of Michael Moorcock, Burroughs’ influence in Britain was strong. Proof of Burroughs’ pull on the minds and pens of British Sci-Fi writers comes in the form of an interview. SF Horizons, a British science fiction journal, conducted an interview with Burroughs entitled “Hallucinatory Operators Are Real” in 1965. The interview dealt with the topic of science fiction and was conducted in New York City. Yet the interview ends with an invitation to visit London, an invitation Burroughs would take. Written in London, Wild Boys pushed the boundaries of what was considered science fiction. I cannot read Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren or Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (two of my favorite novels) without Burroughs in mind. Burroughs never relinquished his place in the pantheon of science fiction writers. He was interviewed again in the 1980s by Larry McCaffery and Jim McMenamin in Across the Wounded Galaxies, an anthology of interview by American science fiction writers.
By the late 1960s, Burroughs had become something of a public figure if only in underground and counterculture circles. The name Burroughs, like Ginsberg, meant something to a host readers. Drugs, censorship, sexual deviance, foreign lands and travel, the unknown, the exotic, black humor, anti-establishment. Not your parent’s bedside reading. Not surprisingly, the Burroughs interview became a staple of the underground newspaper circuit that exploded in the late 1960s. The Underground Press Services (UPS) served as a news wire and link for the underground press, so a news feature or interview could reach several different papers. Burroughs interviews were circulated in most of the major underground papers of the time including the RAT, International Times, and Georgia Straight. Like in the Playboy roundtable, Burroughs served as a talking head. Burroughs was no longer as mysterious; he was now authoritative providing a stamp of approval or disapproval on the counterculture issues of the moment. The Burrroughsian could be defined and for some had the power of law. If the technology was available in 1969, Burroughs would have been a cable or internet pundit like Bill O’Reilly or Bill Maher. He had the personality, the quick mind, the delivery and a definitive stance. In fact, a weekly column in the underground press was the equivalent. Burroughs in Mayfair was his nova broadcast on the men’s magazine BBC.
In 1972, the no longer truly underground magazine, Rolling Stone, interviewed Burroughs. Robert Palmer of Insect Trust fame asked Burroughs a full range of questions and Burroughs as always proved both shifty and direct. Along with the David Bowie interview of Burroughs, this interview helped usher Burroughs into the mainstream, solidified his standing in the rock and roll community, and probably triggered in his mind that the United States was ready, willing and waiting for his return. The Rolling Stone interviews are again must reading. Like the Philip K. Dick interview of the same period, Burroughs’ work won a new audience and the interview would be examined with a magnifying glass by readers and critics search for clues to the cryptic texts and their enigmatic author.
By the 1990s, Burroughs could be interviewed in a mainstream magazine, in this case Esquire, with the expectation that reader would know, and more importantly, care who he was. To be sure, Esquire had a long history of featuring innovative and important writers, particularly in the 1960s. Burroughs wrote a legendary piece of new journalism along with Terry Southern and Jean Genet for Esquire covering the 1968 Democratic Convention in 1968. The later interview in Esquire was occasioned by the movie version of Naked Lunch. In 1968, Burroughs reported on the countercultural political scene at a time when it seemed that the tide was turning and change or a bloodbath were right around the corner. In the 1990s, Burroughs is interviewed through the lens of Hollywood film and hype. This shift tells a tale of the manipulation and changing nature of the Burroughs image and myth over the years detailed to some extent in my readings piece.
The Burroughs interview also appeared in book form. In 1970, Daniel Odier conducted a series of interviews with Burroughs that was collected in The Job. This book was a mash-up of interviews and essays on a full range of topics. The book has become notorious as the source of Burroughs’ “women are a biological mistake” comments, but beyond such highly publicized statements, Odier allows an intimate look into Burroughs the writer and the man. For scholars and students of Burroughs, The Job is a monumental work.
Less so is Victor Bockris’ With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker. Bockris’ book is the literary equivalent of My Dinner with Andre. Bockris records the conversations that take place in the Bunker as Burroughs is introduced to a host of rock stars, artists and pretenders to the throne. Wackiness ensues!! Not really, instead Bockris is forced to basically transcribe Burroughs’ yawns as boredom reigns especially in the interaction between Burroughs and Mick Jagger or Andy Warhol. That said the book is a valuable document of Burroughs’ Bunker Years during the Age of Punk. Such drains on Burroughs’ time highlight the wisdom behind the move to Lawrence in 1981. Unlike Mexico, Paris, and Tangier, New York in the 1970s did not inspire Burroughs to creative action. Instead, the city and its scene bled Burroughs dry like a vampire.
Burroughs’ interviews have been collected in Burroughs Live. I do not own this book but at 600+ pages it appears to be quite comprehensive. Unpublished and published interviews get equal attention although from what I see on Amazon the editing of the book might be a little curious. The sheer size of the volume drives home the point that Burroughs was willing to suffer fools who tried to solve the mystery he presented. For those looking for the greatest hits, Conversations with William Burroughs proves a selected volume. Naturally, this collection has some gaping holes, like the Paris Review interview.
Of course some interviews prove more informative and valuable than others, but they all show Burroughs at work spinning his web and constructing a trap that would capture the minds of biographers, scholars and readers for years to come. At the same time, I naively get the sense that Burroughs sometimes dropped his guard and allowed interviewers to get a clear look at his life and work. I am partial to the Paris Review interview but a host of others take a nice snapshot of Burroughs at various stages in his creative life.
I may have mentioned this before but a very nice collection could be built around these various pictures that form a composite of Burroughs. Such a collection would be cheap, informative, unusual, and representative of his entire career and output. Little magazines, hardcover books, men’s magazines, underground newspaper and mainstream publications would all be present. These items appear on eBay constantly but there are a few pieces in there like Jaguar, Journal for the Protection of All Beings, Mayfair, and various editions of The Job that are a little tougher to get a hold of to keep the enterprise interesting. Of course, obtaining signed copies of these items would make the endeavor tougher still. The collection could be expanded to include the various Dutch Schultz inspired pieces.