by Graham Rae
As is well known, William S Burroughs was a globetrotter who lived in several countries during his lifetime, including the USA, Mexico, and France. One of his lesser-known stop-offs was in Scotland. The country was an important one in the writer’s career. His arrival there in 1962, at the Edinburgh Writer’s Conference, was a portent of incoming new literature to Scotland, which was then, at that time, a parochial cultural backwater.
The appearance of the first chapter of Naked Lunch, “And Start West,” in the Edinburgh University Review Jabberwock, had caused a storm of controversy in 1959. Three years later, the conference controversy caused by Burroughs’ attendance, backed by people like Alex Trocchi, helped promote El Hombre Invisible’s profile on the world stage, and it was this publicity that finally convinced Grove Press to publish Naked Lunch in America in 1962.
The stooshie (Scottish word for “ruckus”) Burroughs caused at the start of the 1960s, and the lasting effects of his parochialism-destroying literary legacy, are the subject of the new book Burroughs and Scotland: Dethroning The Ancients: The Commitment Of Exile. It’s published by Beatdom Books, who publish, as their name implies, books about the Beat Generation. This may be the first time you hear of high school English teacher Chris Kelso, the young Scottish author here, but it certainly won’t be the last. The multi-tentacled Renaissance man — whose talents include writing, music, and film — is making a real worldwide name for himself in transgressive literature circles. He is also a British Fantasy Award-nominated author, although this is his first — though hopefully not last — work of non-fiction.
Kelso also happens to be hugely influenced by this site’s patron junkie wordkiller saint, which is why he has written Burroughs and Scotland.
It’s a work deeply rooted in Kelso’s personal artistic headspinfluences, careful recordings of the twitch of the internal dowsing rod striking poetic water. The absolute seriousness with which Kelso tries to examine every spare morsel of information about Burroughs’s time spent in the land of the young Scotsman’s birth, long before his time, shines through on every obsession-hewn page. From literary conference bête noire to Edinburgh Scientology student, a forever-overlooked chapter in William S Burroughs’s life is given long-overdue attention, along with the influence of the work on Scottish authors and artists like Graham Masterton and Ewan Morrison. Plus yours truly, to be honest, and as a separation-of-church-and-state confession, I was proud to do the introduction to this book. Punctuated with beautiful illustrations by Shane Swank, with an excellent and illuminating Afterword by one-time Allen Ginsberg editor Steve Finbow, Burroughs and Scotland is a must-read for those curious as to how his word-grenade thrown into the centre of Scottish literature hooked and cured and addicted and fucked us forever.
So when and how did you first become aware of William S Burroughs?
I was about 17. I was a conscious seeker and consumer, listening to and reading anything that united against the orthodoxy. When I was scouting for the territory for seditious, confrontational art, Naked Lunch’was always top of every recommended reading list. As much as I would have loved to say that I stumbled across his work organically, or that we found each other in the cradle of fate, I actually arrived at his work in the most artless manner imaginable — buying into a series of positive endorsements from other people. I was in something of a defining moment in my life (freshly heartbroken and in two minds about whether or not I should go to university). So, I decided to enroll in university, not show up, and just read Burroughs in the local library. Had my cake and ate it.
What was it aboot a dead gay American junkie writer that appealed to a young hetero straight(edge) Scot?
The fact he’s an outsider is the biggest appeal; the rest is just incidental. I can relate to the alienation intrinsic to homosexual identity. Also, Burroughs could have followed a very conventional path to respectability and wealth, but he rejected it. Took a left turn. That kind of bravery is really admirable to me, possibly because I lack courage myself. I rarely take a left turn. But I’ve still never really fit in anywhere. We’re both aliens.
What exactly is your chapbook Last Exit to Interzone? It has a smack-addicted “Time Detective,” so the headspinfluence is pretty clear.
That was a really early story. I originally just thought it would be interesting to bring my 2 favorite writers together in a science fiction setting — Burroughs and Hubert Selby Jr. The premise involves an alcoholic time detective called, Kip Novikov, receiving an emergency call from WSB. It all gets a bit messy and the two decide to steal Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn manuscript to pass off as Burroughs’ own. Borderline libel, really. It was enjoyable to write and astonishingly got published (twice), but I’m not sure how well it holds up as a relevant or respectful homage to either writer.
You say Novikov was partly based on your dad, “who is also bald and bad-ass.” What exactly does that mean? Has he seen the tribute? What did he think, if he did? Do your parents read your work in general?
He is based on my dad in the sense that he’s a towering and imposing masculine specimen. My dad is over 6 foot, eagle-bald, has broad wingspan and a series of tribal tattoos up his left arm. He is the classic male archetype — something I’m not. I wanted to honor my dad’s working class spirit (which he shares with Selby and Novikov), but I also know he would hate Burroughs. It was an amusing idea to put the 2 disparate characters in a story together. My parents are very supportive but they don’t read my work. They’re very intelligent in their own way, but have no capacity for art, and they’ll freely admit this. It’s probably better they don’t read anything I put out because I think they’d be thoroughly appalled by it.
Do you look at yourself and/or WSB any differently now after having written Burroughs and Scotland? The book struck me, in part, as almost a sort of aesthetic exorcism. “Possession, they call it…”
I find myself thinking about WSB all the time. Much like you, I’m partisan, an obsessive. I feel like I’ve had this idea for several years so it’s purifying in that sense. Last Exit to Interzone was meant to be my purge, my cleansing, but my fixation remained. Writing Burroughs and Scotland has been much more cathartic, although I don’t think I’m done with the man yet. I need to further decontaminate my soul.
How long did the book take you to write?
I don’t always write well, but I do write pretty quickly. I’d say, taking early-research, interviews and publisher discussion into account, that it took me about four months to write. I do tend to write in a compressed flurry.
Why did you feel it necessary to write it? You said “the book wrote itself.” What did you mean by that?
As I mentioned before, I’ve had this embryo of an idea cooking away for almost a decade, but I had been so preoccupied with fiction and trying to survive on minimum-wage jobs that I just couldn’t circle the time — and that’s all I needed: time. Having stepped into a new profession and had that security, I certainly don’t have “more” time but I have a better relationship with it. If I have time now I will utilise it and appreciate it more. Burroughs and Scotland was written during this new phase of gratitude, I suppose.
When you write aboot your Cumnock, Ayrshire youth in the book, it betrays a lot of pain, alienation, and isolation from average macho Scotland. It’s a barren inescapable panorama of post-Thatcherite post-industrial squalor and nihilism as a seemingly unquestioned way of (half) life. Was writing a book partly a way to compartmentalise your literary and parochial small town growing pains?
I think that might have something to do with it. Growing up in Ayrshire can be immensely alienating if you’re creative and appreciate transgressive art. Or an alien like me. It’s ironic that the fiction I’m interested in deals directly with this type of bleak parochial horror, but living it is a different story. I want to read about Harry Black in Last Exit, but I don’t want to hang out with him. Maybe I should be more grateful for the authentically transgressive environment I was presented with.
Do you see WSB’s vengeful wild boy teen wraiths in the unworking class “broken boys” of Cumnock you write aboot?
I do. I deal with the “broken boys” every day. They are walking oxymoron, simultaneously imbued with restless energy and a down-beat negativity. And there is definitely a hopeless pessimism to a lot of young people here. They’re less interested in the downfall of western civilisation, than they are with some kind of private annihilation.
Any thoughts on the Scottish literary scene, past and present? Any co-conspirators on your treasure-pinging transgressive radar? You seem to come from the Alex Neish angle of finding it all quite parochial and uninteresting.
I don’t find it tremendously interesting if I’m being honest. I like the canon staples, Alasdair Gray, Trocchi, Gordon Williams, some of Irvine Welsh, but not much else. Ewan Morrison and Hal Duncan are two writers I enjoy and admire. I’m sure there’s more great stuff out there, I’m just not that concerned with seeking it out. They’re not interested in me either, to be fair.
What has changed in our literary production in Scotland since WSB first evilly and grinningly shot us up with his dirty purring salacious literary prophecies, do you think?
Well, he does have a few obvious exponents, most of whom I talk to in the book. In saying that, I would like to have seen a few more Graham Rae’s in the world. [Not a great idea, Chris — Graham, laughing]
You equate American-born, Scotland-dwelling serial killer Peter Manuel with killing Scotland’s collective sense of self, and WSB with destroying our old literature, or at least moving into different, more cosmopolitan and open modes of transmission. Both are an American invasion into Scotland through real and imagined violence, which almost suggests you view, on some level, the American influence here as destructive, albeit maybe in a creative, transformative way. Manuel is a precursor of WSB to you, a fracturing portent, an ill-starred omen. You are hard on Scotland, almost suggesting that we deserve the murderous way we were shocked and stunned awake by transatlantic murderers. Why do you rail against Scotland so much?
I love Scotland. But nothing and no one is beyond criticism. As a nation we rest on our laurels sometimes and I do think artistically we need/ed a kick up the arse. When Manuel came along it shook us free of the daydream. We needed to be more honest about or base curiosities, even indulge them a little.
Do you think rebel publisher John Calder, of Calder Publishing, hated moribund Scottish kailyard literature as well, and his publishing of defiantly deviant literature, coupled with his organising the seminal 1962 International Writers Conference in Edinburgh, was a way of him cocking a vicious snook at his own frumpy Scottish roots? In context, because his lineage, he would seem like an almost perfect amalgam of North American (Canadian) and Scottish worldviews. How do you think this dichotomy influenced him, if at all? After all, he was the first to make WSB’s writing available in the UK, and his appearance at the Conference really raised his international stock.
I think Calder was also an alien and an outsider. I’m sure that his reasons for backing Burroughs and pushing the envelope when it came to publishing (and promoting writers of that ilk) were born of his personal passion for the artistic content on show, rather than some campaign or manifesto. In saying that, Calder was an Internationalist. It’s possible his experiences in America/Europe broadened the parameters he’s acquired in Scotland — and that upon returning to his homeland brought some of that confrontational guile with him. Of course, I also think Calder was a born-rebel.
What lasting aesthetic or cultural effects do you see from WSB’s influence on Scotland’s literati?
I’d like to say that it was clear to see, but I’m not sure it is. I see it more in the indie world, which exists very much outside of the literati sphere. Possibly though, that willingness to experiment has permeated our artistic culture, and I see it some of our artists and filmmakers, of which I believe we have produced a fearless few.
What’s your favorite WSB book, and why?
This is a bit controversial. My favourite book is Junky. I picked up Naked Lunch and couldn’t properly digest it the first time, but I was still fascinated by WSB, the man. So, I tried Junky which was much more linear and autobiographical. It’s a painful and beautiful-written account and I have that nostalgic attachment that’s tough to shake.
You write on WSB’s abortive time studying Scientology in Edinburgh. Aren’t you scared the organisation are going to put space fatwa on you and have the ghost of L. Ron Hubbard abduct you to Mars and beyond? Or would that be fun, and give you new material to write about?
Maybe they’ll take me back to my home planet? In seriousness though, I don’t think my books are on the immediate radar of my own family, never mind the Edinburgh Org.
Is there any WSB writing on Scientology extant?
There is a fantastic book released in 1971 called, Ali’s Smile that I refer to. It’s essentially an extended essay on the hypocrisies of Scientology and a satirical story at the end dealing with similar themes. Burroughs would go on to poke fun at the Org and it’s Orwellian security protocols In Bill and Tony, where he recited instructions on how to operate an auditing session. The tenets of Scientology are prevalent throughout his early work, and you can tell he’s somewhat heartbroken to have come to the conclusion that it’s all hateful baloney.
How did you get the info on WSB and his time in the cult?
I scouted around. There wasn’t much. A few articles here and there, some microfiche that came in handy. I also spoke to people who knew him around that time. It was immensely difficult and not widely documented.
How did you hook up with Shane Swank who did the excellent illustrations in the book, and how did you come up with the images? Collaboration? Lone vision?
Shane has illustrated a few of my books. He is a criminally underrated artist and someone who I can trust to offer an interesting perspective of his own. I try not to stifle my collaborators. I trust them implicitly. The images are all Shane’s.
In the book you mix fact and fiction, almost in a Hunter S Thompson gonzo (internal) journalism sort of way, having interviewees hanging out in space pubs and whatnot. What was the impetus behind this?
Well, I think because I was working with such sparse facts. I don’t think there would be enough for a full book without that creative bent. Initially I had planned on Burroughs and Scotland being a pure non-fiction account of his experiences in this country, but the more I wrote the more it morphed into this amalgam of fact, personal memoir, and creative non-fiction. The result is arguably more interesting.
How did you find out about the love of WSB from the interviewees in your book like Ewan Morrison, Graham Masterton, Hal Duncan?
I knew Hal socially and we had spoke at length about our shared love of Burroughs, so he was an obvious interviewee. I read Ewan’s book, Manage, and was so blown away by how different it was from the usual spate of Scot-lit coming out of the capital. I had an inkling Burroughs had played a role in his artistic journey — and I was right. Graham released a book with WSB called Rules of Duel. The project started as a scattering of poems about Masterton’s own life at the time but turned into a story about the way the two men were feeling about London and the world at the time, socially and politically. It is a brilliant and brightly inventive experiment and worth picking up.
When you were 17 you published a satiric piece in the Evergreen Review entitled Naked Punch, aboot WSB being flushed down a toilet into Hell. With this book you have finally come full circle. How does it feel? How has your WSB fandom/interest evolved?
Again, I think WSB is present in everything I try to do artistically, you can’t really escape his influence and omnipresence. Having used him as a fictional character a few times, I thought I knew something of the man — his motivations and desires — but the truth is none of us really know anything about his true nature. He was such a complex personality. Writing a non-fiction book and speaking to his close friends, you’d imagine I would have more of a personal insight into the man. But no. He remains as enigmatic, contradictory, and fascinating as ever. He’s like opium — you never really shake him loose from creative plasma or weary cells.
How did you get involved with Steve Finbow, who wrote the Afterword?
Steve is a writer I’ve admired for a long time. His book, Grave Desire, is a brilliant meditation on necrophilia citing the works of Freud, Bataille, Jacques Lacan, Foucault, Žižek and others. He also delves into necrophile biographies to analyse the impact and relevance to cultures of Ancient Egypt, Greece, Troy, and Victorian England. I found it very profound. I knew Steve would be receptive to anything Burroughs-related — and I just wanted his endorsement.
How did your involvement come about with Beatdom Books, who are publishing Burroughs and Scotland? Did they give you any specific direction or mandate, or did they just let you go your own way and do your own thing?
I knew David Wills and was aware of Beatdom long before Burroughs and Scotland came about. David is a strong writer in his own right and we connected over a shared admiration of WSB. Beatdom would later publish a short story of mine on their website so the bridges were fairly well-established. I started the book on my own, there was no early backing from a publisher. I pitched the first 50 pages to David and fortunately he was open to the idea of putting it out. I sent him updates and in a few months I had a completed manuscript. Upon seeing the finished article, David offered me a contract.
Taking an aerial view of your fictional works so far, how does writing this work of non-fiction book fit into the territory of your career?
Well, it doesn’t, which is exactly why I wanted to pursue it. I’ve become a little tired of fiction or writing it at least. I’m not sure if there’s been some perceptible shift in my attitudes or preoccupations but all I want to read and write about these days has to be rooted in actual human experience. I’ve heard this can happen when you get older.
How has your new job as a high school teacher impacted on your writing?
Good question. I think I’m more responsible with my output. It’s a very demanding job in Scotland so when you get spare time you really appreciate it. I think one of the main positives of having a stressful job is that you focus energy into the right places. You need to make the most of the “you” time.
Dystopian. Transgressive. Bizarro. Punk. Nightmarish. Nihilistic. These are all adjectives used to describe your work. Why are you such a morbid-minded wee bugger? Is it the Scottish darkness manifesting itself as usual? Cheer up ya cunt!
It is odd given that I’m a pretty optimistic person in daily life. I’m fascinated by these things because they are unusual to me. I’m not very punk — I’m a meek, monogamous, painfully polite wee schoolteacher. I’m not nihilistic, I think there is a lot of meaning in life. I am morbidly curious though, and I indulge that side of my personality. I think it’s healthy. The thought of someone suffering or being cast out of society breaks my heart, but I want a healthy understanding and connection to the darkness. Otherwise you’re just living a fantasy.
What does “transgressive” mean to you, and who are a few of your favourite writers?
To me, “transgressive” is anything that willingly goes against the grain and enjoys the reaction. If you read Delany’s Hogg or Selby’s Last Exit, these are works that drag you into the sumps and gutters and unapologetically show you a world without convention. I think it’s an important category of literature, maybe the only important one left.
I understand you’re a horror and trash and exploitation movie fan. Any of those feed into the writing? Got a few favorite films you could hand us the names of?
Absolutely. My very early writings were considered “bizarro” which takes its cue from B-movie culture. I love the Troma stuff — my favourite being Buddy Giovinazzo’s, Combat Shock. I love Street Trash and Society — these are films that Burroughs might have enjoyed because they were honest and grimy, even if their subtext was a little ham-fisted.
What sort of music do you listen to? Cats been thrown under buses as failing-heart old ladies sing weeping death arias to their poor scrunching flattened felines? K-Pop? Good old country and western?
All of the above. You know, I hate it when you ask someone what music they like and they say, “everything and anything.” It’s such a cop-out answer. Well, I’m now one of those people. I love it all. I love experimental music, some punk, hardcore (post), and rock, as well as classical. My all-time favourite musician is John Coltrane.
You said in a recent interview you won’t be writing any more long form fiction. Why is this? Any plans to write more non-fiction? Are you working on anything new right now
Definitely more plans to write non-fiction. I have a book coming out later this year called, Interrogating the Abyss which is comprised of essays and interviews. I also have an idea to do a kind of serial killer bio of the “Mad Master,” Lewis Hutchison. Fiction just feels a bit redundant to me at the moment — but this may change.
Does Scotland, and, by extension, the world, need a new William S Burroughs more than ever?
Yes. But for the life of me I don’t see how that would be allowed to happen.