Interview by Matthew Levi Stevens
So, David, tell me a little bit about your background? How did you first become aware of the Beats, and what lead to your starting Beatdom?
When I was in university I was doing a lot of very confessional writing. I’m not sure what inspired me, but a friend pointed out that it sounded a bit like Kerouac, so he gave me his copy of On the Road. After that I did a lot of Beat reading, particularly of Kerouac, and my professors largely encouraged this.
Ultimately, when I graduated, I realized that the chances of me getting a job in literature were slim. I wanted to be a writer or an editor, but you didn’t see a lot of these opportunities in the local “wanted” ads. So when I left university I just started my own publication. Initially it was just to gain some practical experience, and then it sort of snowballed.
To begin with, I called in a lot of favours from friends and blagged my way into interviews. I didn’t tell anyone that this was the first issue. I just pretended that Beatdom was a well-established publication and no one seemed to suspect otherwise.
Had you always wanted to be a writer?
For as long as I’ve been aware, I wanted to be a writer. It’s one of those things that goes back beyond your memory, like your favourite football team. In a way, you’re cursed with it. It most likely started it reading, though, because as a kid I read at least a book every day, and sometimes more. I think everyone grows up wanting to emulate their heroes, and for me those people were the ones who’d made up the stories I read.
Is William Burroughs a particular favourite among the Beats for you? If so, how did that come about? What set him apart?
He’s my central interest, that’s for sure. Like I said, it used to be Kerouac. Kerouac gripped me for years but in the end I think I stopped being so drawn to his books and felt like the millions of scholars out there already had his life covered. I was interested in Ginsberg for a bit, and other Beats, before getting into Burroughs. He was certainly the one I knew least about when I started Beatdom. I don’t think there was much about him in any of the early issues.
It’s not really that I’m a big fan of his work, but rather than I find him utterly fascinating as a character. He really is more interesting than his books, I feel. A few years ago I began reading more about him and his biographies really gripped me.
The subject of your most excellent book: Burroughs and Scientology. What drew you to this particular area of his life & work?
Well, although his biographies and other books about him really got stuck into certain topics, they left others relatively uncovered. We were doing a religion-themed issue of Beatdom and I wanted to write something about Burroughs, and someone mentioned his brief interest in Scientology. I began to do some research and found that there was little there. I took this as a sign that maybe his interest was overblown. But there was one essay that seemed to suggest that he was more than briefly interested. However, as I read it, I started to pick it apart and realized that the essay contained too many errors.
This motivated me to dig deeper and the deeper I went, the more I found. Ultimately I realized that this was a really big topic that deserved more than a few lines in a few books.
Did you know anything much about Scientology before you began work on the book?
No, not at all. I knew about as much as anyone else: It’s a crazy cult that only attention-starved celebrities join, and that people are brainwashed into believing insane space stories.
How did you set about your research?
My goal was not to join in the crowd of Scientology-bashers. There are already enough people doing that and the evidence stands for itself. Instead, I wanted to explore just how this cult influenced Burroughs. (By this stage I’d already written the first essay and had determined that it was important in his literary output of the sixties.)
I was stuck in China about this time and had to order books over the internet, which was expensive. Then when I’d exhausted everything online and in print, I had to fly to the United States to visit his archives. This was actually a bit of a chaotic trip and I really didn’t get as much time there as I’d wanted, but in the end I got enough. What was most fascinating was the wealth of unpublished pro-Scientology stuff, along with the brochures and such that he’d horded over the years.
The one thing that Burroughs definitely has in common with the other Beats is that he puts his life on the page: it’s laid out for all to see, “warts and all” as they used to say. Despite this, there are a number of areas that have been strangely overlooked. Would you say that there has been a lot of ignorance about Burroughs and Scientology? Or is it actually a kind of denial? Why is this, do you think?
It’s quite obvious to me that Burroughs was embarrassed somewhat by his time in Scientology. When you pick apart his letters, even during his most fervent years of belief, he was cagey about it in communicating with people he respected. Later, when he realized he’d been duped, he was obviously keen to downplay it. I think this explains why it’s overlooked in his biographies. In addition, Burroughs is also viewed as an intelligent man, and I think his fans tend to doubt that he could seriously have been interested in such an obvious scam. But if you look at his history, he fell for a lot of similarly idiotic schemes.
Where there any particular surprises that came up, either good or bad?
Oh yes, time and time again. I think the biggest surprise was the fact that Scientology was so influential on his work. I mean, books like The Soft Machine and The Wild Boys are really important works of literature and they were fundamentally inspired by Scientology. Burroughs really did view it as a way to improve his writing.
How has the book been received, generally? What sort of feedback have you had?
Very positive. People have been very flattering in their commentary, both public and private.
Coming up to the centenary of his birth, what relevance do you think Burroughs and his work still have? What do they have to offer us as we move further into the 21st century?
Burroughs got sucked into a lot of really wild and stupid systems of belief, but the important thing to remember is that he kept his mind open. He ventured into unfamiliar territory in search of the truth and in search of a cure, and I think that this is an inspiring message. He was determined to break free of the systems of control, and not just on a personal level, but on a worldwide stage. I think that was we move forward we are witnessing new means of control and new threats to our freedom that can be counteracted somewhat by keeping Burroughs’ philosophies in mind.
So, what’s next for David S. Wills and Beatdom?
For me: Well, I’ve been working on the next book. It’s in its infancy and as such it remains a secret, but I can say that it will be another work of non-fiction, it will be about a literary movement, and that it will be “groundbreaking.”
And for Beatdom: We’ve just released our first podcast and just revamped the website. We’ve also just put out our sixth book, and we’re planning plenty more issues, episodes, and other publications. I would really like to move into documentary-making, too, but I’m wary of overstretching at the moment.