Allen Ginsberg’s 1980 interview with William S Burroughs quizzing him about his post Naked Lunch work (and probing him about the nature of “Spiritual Conspiracies”) – “Conversation on Sequence of Burroughs’ Books On Way To Stapleton Airport on August 18, 1980” – was excerpted and used that year as an introduction by Grove Press to their edition of “Three Novels – The Soft Machine, Nova Express and The Wild Boys”
It also was included (in its entirety) in Sylvere Lotringer’s edition of The Collected Interviews of William S Burroughs – Burroughs Live 1960-1997. A second interview, conducted that year (also included in Lotringer’s book (entitled there “Time Jumps Like A Broken Typewriter”) will follow this one tomorrow (as well as a short piece, published in 1981 in Boulder’s Daily Camera).
AG: What’s the basic plot or theme of The Soft Machine?
WSB: The book takes place, to a large extent, in a mythical area which bears some resemblance to South America and also to the planet Venus. It concerns, I should say, a struggle between controllers and those who are endeavoring to throw off control.
AG: And Nova Express
WSB: The same
AG: What is the distinction between the two in terms of theme and plot or development of the theme?
WSB: Nova Express… is more directly concerned with the struggle. Soft Machine is more concerned with just deescription of the factors involved and the scene, which corresponds somewhat with the planet Venus.
AG: In Nova Express you give a more precise description of the battle or of actual tactics?
WSB: More actual battles, battle scenes, in Nova Express than in The Soft Machine. The Soft Machine is more concerned with the set.
AG: The material from both those books is overflow from Naked Lunch?
WSB: There is some overflow from Naked Lunch in both of them, yes.
AG: And also there is material that was generated out of the whole cut-up experience of that time.
AG: An what new preoccupation or theme, or symbolic set-up, is added in Venus? The whole concept of Venus?
WSB: Added in there after Naked Lunch. And also in The Soft Machine there’s a good deal of narrative material that’s concerned with reincarnation. This is the concept of The Street of Chance, not sure of what kind of reincarnation you’re going to have. It’s almost like a lottery was the allegory of the Street of Chance, people between birth and death, what chance they’re going to get in their forthcoming reincarnation.
AG: And the concept of Venus is Eros, or female Eros?
WSB: No, no. Venus, the actual landscape, etc. This has been a theme in science fiction for some time. And most writers have equated it with something like South America, a lush tropical scene teeming with poisonous exotic life forms. I would mention in this connection the novel Fury by Henry Kuttner, which takes place on Venus, and there are a number of descriptions in science fiction
AG: The Ticket That Exploded, following Nova Express, brought it all to a climax. Did that conclude the…
WSB: No, it didn’t at all. I mean, it’s…
AG: A continuation of the battle?
WSB: Yes. Yes.
AG: Or a continuation of the description of the scene?
WSB: Well, both. I would say you could regard The Soft Machine and Nova Express as almost a continuation of the same book, so that anything you say about one, more or less applies to the other…
AG: I thought The Ticket That Exploded kind of concluded – that was the action of the Nova, or of the explosion itself – by dissolving into a vibrating soundless hum.
WSB: Yes, there is that. Shall we say that The Ticket That Exploded winds it up? After that, was, of course, The Job
AG: Which is an attempt to regulate the ideas, and that gives them a linear exposition.
WSB: Yes, that was it. It also contains some narrative material which was possibly a mistake. I think it is a mistake to mix essay and narrative, fictional material because it slows down the narrative, and then everybody thinks that the essays are fictional rather than being factual.
AG: So the next thing is what?
WSB: More or less immediately after The Job was The Last Words of Dutch Schultz.
But The Job, you might say, overlapped The Wild Boys because I realized it started to be one book. And then I realized that I had two books, and that they should not be mixed…
AG: So the fantasy material, or the fictional material of The Job, overlaps with The Wild Boys?
WSB: That’s right.
AG: And actually in both, there is a significant theme, because The Job is the most outright or outrageous statement about the occlusion of women.
AG: And so The Wild Boys is an exemplification of the world.
WSB: Absolutely, yes.
AG: Now I haven’t read Port of Saints yet. I’ve read Exterminator! and The Wild Boys. How do those two books differ and what’s their progression?
WSB: There isn’t very much difference. I found the material for The Wild Boys when I had to make, at some point, a more or less arbitrary choice. Sometimes you realize that the things you left out are better than what you’ve put in. So three books came from that block of material.
AG: Is there any progression, or any thematic distincton between them?
WSB: Yes. For example, Port of Saints is, I think, more structured like a musical composition. In fact, there are musical leads for each chapter.
AG: And Exterminator!
WSB: Exterminator! is more episodic and perhaps not as structured as Port of Saints, or even The Wild Boys.
AG: Well, how can you expect anybody to read through all this if you don’t make big categorical distinctions? It’s like reading one large series of prose poems that have no end.
WSB: No, no, no, no. It’s quite comprehensible and as accessible as any book you pick up at the airport? People are demanding less and less in the way of plot and structure, I find. So I don’t think there’s any difficulty in understanding.
AG: Actually, The Wild Boys is very clear because it’s divided into very definite themes and chapters
WSB: Yes, so is Port of Saints
AG: Exterminator!, though has some elements being mixed with essay, like “Do Easy”
WSB: What easy material?
AG: Exterminator! Isn’t “Do Easy” in Exterminator!?
WSB: Oh yes! Yes, I did feel that Exterminator! was possibly too much, too miscellaneous. The first pieces in The Wild Boys , actually, should have been in Exterminator! That was not really in sequence there. Uh, that’s true.
AG: Is there some one paragrpah summary of the basic theme of say, The Soft Machine, Nova Express?
WSB: The basic theme is that the planet has been invaded by Venutians and the book attempts to cope with invasion
AG: And the intention of the Venutians is planetary takeover?
WSB: Planetary takeover, probably not just enslavement but extermination. Shall we say that there conditions are different? And they want to reproduce conditions that would probably be fatal to the earth.
AG: So that they can live here?
AG: In other words, they’re like the Reds, except from Venus.
WSB: Yes, like the White Man arriving in the New World
AG: How dies it end though? It ends with the virus being exterminated by the realization of the situation.
WSB: It doesn’t really end.
AG: Well, the anxiety of the invasion seems at the end to be dispersed by the dissolution of space and time, or the dissolution of time.
WSB: Yes, it is. That dissolution was necessary in order to neutralize the conspiracy. From this comes the theme that the only future is to enter into a spirit, a completely spirit state.
AG: Grasping the matter? There is a notion that most conspiracies are actually spiritual conspiracies, in the sense of power takeovers involving people’s minds.
WSB: The people conspired against.
AG: Oh, yes.Yes.
WSB: Just as we destroyed the Indians by destroying their spiritual life.
AG: I’m still a little fuzzy on the last part. My point was that most conspiracies are mental anyway.
WSB: They are. But usually if you want to destroy people, destroy their Gods. Destroy their Maker.
AG: Except that then the Gods being destroyed are, say, Christ or Baptist visions of Christ.
WSB: On the contrary, those are the Gods being used. In other words, these are concepts that are very useful for the invaders because they are spiritually empty.
AG: Actually, it’s a very good statement on it. Is there some passage…that could be cited, for summing it up in a nutshell, in either Nova Express or The Soft Machine?
WSB: I would say that Nova Express would probably have the clearest statement.