A few weeks back, we ran a transcript of the Willam Burroughs talk in 1982 at Naropa on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road celebrations. The Q & A that followed now follows:
WSB: Well, I think we can now have some questions now..we’ve got about an hour left..I don’t think we need a microphone (sic). Go ahead.
[Editorial note: Oh yes we do! – Many of the audience questions, as they appear on the tape, are considerably hard to decipher (even Burroughs himself has difficulties at times deciphering things). Burroughs himself is mic-ed, so his answers are, for the most part, clear, but in the following transcription significant editing and elision has been deemed necessary with regard to the audience’s participation. A number of the questions have been presumed and/or paraphrased]
Question: What about the use of a word-processor in your writing? do you use a typewriter?
WSB: I never used a word-processor. I wouldn’t know how. But I know that.. I had a recent experience, that they’re terribly useful in editing. No, I don’t think in composition so much, as in editing. No, I use the typewriter, just the plainest sort of typewriter. I’m practically illiterate long-hand.
Q: You said the other night that you’re seeing in pictures rather than words, how do you conjure up these images that you’re writing about?
WSB: You see them both It’s like a film. Exactly. A writer is sitting there and he’s looking at a film and he’s trying to get it on paper, that’s what’s happening.
Q: What do you prefer, love or sex?
WSB: Well that’s an either/or proposition that presupposes there’s some line down the middle. That would be unfortunate if there were. Look, artist’s don’t think correspondence to the facts. I don’t know what “love” means – lord knows! Presumably, it’s a sort of mixture between “sex” and “liking” – that’s as close as I can come.
Q: What do you think of your factual novel, Queer…?
WSB: Ah well, I’ll tell you. I read it over and I thought it was pretty terrible, so it’s in the archives..I did save it, but I wouldn’t want to publish it. I’m not going to take out my high school themes and publish them. It just wasn’t good. I can do a hell of a lot better now. There wasn’t any point, really, in publishing it. [Editorial note – this Q & A took place, of course, in July of 1982 – Queer was, indeed, subsequently published, bought out by <
Viking Books three years later, with a new Introduction to the book especially written by Burroughs]
Q: What’s..what’s behind your current spurt of activities, your appearance on “Saturday Night Live” and your record with Laurie Anderson… ?
WSB: I don’t understand the question.
Q: What was the impulse behind.. We’re seeing more of you now than we have in recent years?
Q: There’s a certain joyful playfulness in some of (Jack) Kerouac’s writing and his style (I’m thinking particularly of the poem about (in) Big Sur). Do you see a relationship between..and with Kerouac.. do you think Kerouac was (much) influenced by (James) Joyce and Joyce’s love of (playing with) language…?
WSB: Well he was a.. Kerouac was a.. quite a reader. He had read Joyce extensively, and I know he was influenced, certainly he was influenced, by Joyce (he was certainly influenced by Thomas Wolfe, and by (Louis Ferdinand) Celine), but he really read (him) to an extraordinary extent. Yes, I think that there probably was an influence there, yes.
Q: It seems that he was one of the writers which you recommended to him, was that something that happened a great deal, writers that you had told him about… ?
WSB: Well, sometimes it works one way and sometimes another. I think I turned him on toCeline. I believe he turned me on to one of the principal influences in my work – Denton Welch. So it worked both ways.
Q: In your book Ah Pook Is Here, you write “Control..needs time..Death needs time”. Can you explain that a little please?
WSB: Oh for heaven’s sakes, it means control needs time in which to control. People even need time in which to die.
Q: So is that another means of control?
WSB: Well, yes, it’s the principal means, I would say.
Q: You mentioned Denton Welch. I’ve been looking for his books for a number of years now and I’ve never been able to find them.
WSB: I think they have them in the library here (at Naropa)
WSB: Are you sure? Because at one time I got one of them from the library.. The.. I forget which one.. the main ones are.. well, there’s not so many You see (there’s) Maiden Voyage, In Youth Is Pleasure, A Voice Through A Cloud (that was the last that he wrote). There’s also some short stories, Brave and Cruel (it may have another name somewhere else)- [Editorial note – Where Nothing Sleeps – The Complete Short Stories and Other Related Works was published by the Tartarus Press in 2005] ) – and then the Journals, and then some fragments. You see, he died when he was thirty-one [Editorial note – Denton Welch died in 1948 aged thirty-three]
Q:Do you know who published those?
WSB: Huh? He killed what?
Q: Who published those?
WSB: I forget who it was in England. [Editorial note – Hamish Hamilton] – Somebody named Fisher published some of them in America, but I don’t know. I think about five years ago the University of Texas brought out A Voice Through (The) Cloud..A Cloud.. and I know I did get one of them here in the library. I found someone here who had them all.
Q: Do you ever use any type of process to determine your Cut-Ups, or are they always completely arbitrary?
WSB: Well no.. It’s ..You can give any process you want. I mean..
Q: For instance, John Cage uses the I Ching sometimes when he’s working with Thoreau’s journals and so I was just wondering if you’d ever used anything equivalent to that..
WSB: Er no, it’s usually, I just want to get a new angle on what I’ve just written. I don’t do it all the time but sometimes I’ll do it and I’ll get a sentence that’s useful or a sentence that orients me in some way (I do it sort for orientation now)
Q: Is it sometimes groups of words and sometimes whole sentences?
WSB: Well, usually, I’ll take a page, take a page, cut it up, arrange it around, see if it looks any better that way. That’s about what it amounts to.
Q: In your new work…Cities of the Red Night…
Q: You seem to be turning away from that..
WSB: That’s right – Well, yes, it isn’t.. No, it’s just a method, it’s just a method, like, a technique, in fact, in painting. It’s nothing like that. It may be suitable in one place and not in another. I was just trying to tell a straight story there. There are cut-ups in there. It’s still useful – A straight context for transcribing something that is confused, say, like a delirium, a fever delirium, or something like that, you’ll do much better by taking what you want and cutting it up than you would by trying to concoct a fever delirium.
Q: So, in other words, there is room for play with more traditional narrative.
WSB: That’s right
Q: (…to stimulate the memory in the fiction)
WSB: Absolutely, yes.
Q: You said, at one time, poetry might (be redundant) and I wonder if you could elaborate on that?
WSB: Well, it just seems to me.. that, in many cases, poets are lazy prose writers. I can take.. I’ve just done it, I can take a page of poetic prose and cut it up into lines and rearrange it and call it poetry. As soon as you get away from strict metric traditions, then what’s the difference between prose and poetry? There isn’t any.
Q: I interpreted it to mean that the words themselves were perhaps used up..
WSB: Well there’s no sign of that. There’s certanly no substitute in sight that I can see, (in any wide sense)..
Q: Also, one more thing, what about your notebook-keeping habits?
WSB: Well it depends on how much time I have. Sometimes I won’t do it for a long time and then I’ll do it, but I always.. I always, naturally, I keep my eyes open for material.
Q: A couple of days ago Tim Hunt referred to Kerouac’s writing, or just the possibility of writing as “creating ritual with words” – (that) there was always the sense that you could do (that) with words. And you just refered to seeing actual films. And it seems to me that the relationship between that process and that, also, it seems, imagery – that was an awesome sense of optimism. I also think that if you can, if you can “tape” those (it’s almost like taping them, by doing that), then you create things with that, and there’s a whole process. And perhaps (Jack) Kerouac opened the door (and also you, to a certain extent), opened the door) to.. on.. well, it’s almost a Pandora’s Box, but there are conditions, and to.. into.. a structure, to that whole language trip, you know , the whole magic…
WSB: Well, if I can’t see it, I can’t write it. If I can’t see (as) the writer, the reader’s not going to see (him or her). So I’ve got to see it. And there’s no difference between seeing or hearing. I mean, you’ve got the prisoner. What’s.. what would such a person say?, what tone of voice would he say it in? (Acually, a lot of the general sort of tradecraft of writing is quite similar to the tradecraft of intelligence – that is – teach students to keep their eyes
open on the street. If they see a person more than three times, take a good look. It may be someone who has something to say to you. Maybe he’s a character trying for an audition,you see. I click. I get many of my characters right out of the street like that. A writer shouldn’t try to create in a vacuum (just the writer and his typewriter), and these people who hole themselves up to write “the Great American Novel” – they’re cutting their in-put, >they haven’t got anything to write about. A balance, of course. You’ve got to find a balance there because it takes a.. just tell me how many books someone has written and I can tell you how long he had to sit at a typewriter. That is one of the things about the profession. You have to be able to sit hours and hours and hours, years and years and years, at a typewriter (or, well, most, all.. ) That’s one of Sinclair Lewis‘ pieces of advice to young writers – “Learn to type” – I agree entirely. Almost nobody uses long-hand anymore.
Q: Could you tell me what kind of influence people like (Alfred) Korzybski and (Oswald) Spengler had on Kerouac’s writing?
WSB: What affect they had on Kerouac’s writing? – Well.. I don’t know. He talks more about them, without incorporating their ideas into his writing, it seems to me. I can’t think of a very clear examples of influence there.
Q: (Why write at all? …)
WSB: I don’t understand you. Why do what?
Q: (Why write at all? You take a tremendous risk (in writing today))..
WSB: There is. If there isn’t, it isn’t much good. There’s.. I remember (Jean) Genet talking about Julien Green, he says, Il n’a pas le courage d’être un écrivain (he doesn’t have the courage to be a writer). He was talking about the courage for one thing to take full responsibility for your characters, your creations. It is a dangerous profession. That’s implicit in the profession. Very dangerous to be a writer.
Q: Then why do it?
WSB: Because it’s my job! – If I don’t do it, I’ll starve to death
Q: You need a collaborator when you do that
Q: You need a collaborator when you do that.
WSB: I need a what?
WSB: Not unless I collaborated with someone. There have been very few successful collaborations. Very few indeed.
Q: Who do you read?
WSB: Oh I read.. lets see, I read a lot of unspeakable horror, that kind of stuff, you know.For airplane-trips, it’s terribly dull and I read some spy stuff, a lot of spy stuff (I read all the (John) Le Carre). I don’t do too much serious reading, or if I do it’s mostly re-reading.
Q: Who are you re-reading?
WSB: (Joseph) Conrad, Denton Welch, (St John) Perse, (Arthur) Rimbaud, mostly
Q: Are you interested at all in the possibilities of film for some of your books, say, Naked Lunch would be a prime example [Editorial note – again, note this is 1982 – David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (adaptation) would come out, in 1991, some nine years later]
WSB: Oh my god, we spent about six or seven years on that project. I could write a novel about it. “Oh yeah, yeah, we’re going to do this film. Ten million dollars”, and the next day you can’t (even) get through to the secretary. That’s the way it is. Nothing happens untilmoney actually changes hands. And that only happened once. And that’s another story. In other words, we have more than thought about it, done a great deal about it at one time or another. Terry Southern and I went out to Hollywood once and tried to sell it, the Naked Lunch script, and so on…
Q: Is the title Blade Runner.. did they give it that title?
WSB: No. This is a funny story. I read this book called The Bladerunner and then I wantedto..I wanted to write something based on it, very loosely based on it I may say, and so we got in touch with the author, the author is Alan Nourse, a writer of science-fiction, so we got in touch with him, and he gave his permission to use the title, (figuring it would be good publicity for him). Then.. now, somebody [Ridley Scott] has taken just the title (which has nothing to do with the original title) which is good, as far as I’m concerned, but there’s no relation between.. even my concept of the Blade Runner and his.. it’s..… (I thought it was a great movie, by the way – fantastic. I mean, the sets there – wow! – that’s the most impressive sci-fi movie I’ve seen – very definitely, far and away, yeah).
Q: How do you overcome your own writer’s block?
WSB: How do I overcome my what?
Q: Your writer’s block.
WSB: Well, general directions.. I do something else. I don’t stew about it. Well, I didn’t want.. in this case, I tried this art, this “big bang” art, did a lot of target-shooting, just waited for it to come out, that’s all. Some people have it and never get over it . I know people who have written one book and they just won’t write another. (Alexander) Trocchi is an example. He wrote Cain’s Book and he hasn’t written since.
Q: Have you been in touch with him at all?
WSB: I haven’t seen him in a long long time. I will see him. I’m going to England and I will see him then.
Q: That’s a great book.
WSB: Oh, it is a great book, and he just wouldn’t write.. he just won’t write anything. He’ll rather do anything than write.
Q: Tell me the truth, if you’re using drugs while you’re writing, what sort of drugs do you take now?
WSB: Oh, everybody uses pot
Q: Excuse me?
WSB: Everybody uses pot, That’s the most useful all-around drug. – Just an adjunct.
Q: What do you mean by writing in space and time?
WSB: I mean the whole question of … not writing (I wasn’t talking about writing). I was
Q: You mentioned shooting a hole through time, what ammunition?
WSB; That is a…that is exactly what I’m describing in my current book, The Place of Dead Roads, which starts out as a Western, and I’m exactly describing what kind of ammunition. So in order to answer your question, I’d have to read the whole book. It’s about..it’d be about five hundred pages (or two-hundred-and-fifty book pages)
Q: When do you think it’ll be out? [Editorial note The Place of Dead Roads was published in 1983]
WSB: Well. You’ll get the manuscript in September. I don’t know, it might..it might possibly make the Spring list, but I doubt it very much. I would say probably next Fall. I mean..let’s say, a year from this September.
Q: When you were in Waverly, Texas, were the people there very curious about what you were doing, and, also, can you remember exactly where it was that you lived?
WSB: Well, of course I remember where I lived! I don’t know what’s there now. Well, they were small-town people, they were curious, naturally, curious and somewhat malicious. Like in any small town, you have your friends, your allies, and your enemies. There is this store – he’s hostile, and this store’s friendly. And so you have your.. (you) set-up your route. Yes, of course, they’re small town people, they’re very curious – about anything.
Q: (The Yage Letters. You mentioned that a couple of times about how..)
WSB: Yes.. I was.. There’s nothing discreditable (there), god-knows..
Q: Recently, reading Cities of The Red Night, I recognized some incidents I’d seen in other of your books. and references you made.. and… I was wondering, do you regard your set of works as having, like, an overall being (like, say (the way), that (Jack) Kerouac often felt that all his books were (inter-connected), and (so) I just wondered, if you had some kind of overall scheme to your works?
WSB: Why yes, I think it’s all, it’s all in a sense, one work. You can trace a progress. A project like this, Cities of the Red Night is the first of a trilogy. Like Naked Lunch, The Ticket That Exploded, The Soft Machine and Nova Express sort of formed one group and The Wild Boys and Exterminator! and Port of Saints formed another, and now I’m starting a new..new group with Cities of theRed Night. And the book that I’m writing now, that I’ve just finished is a sequel to Cities of the Red Night, taking place in (the) late 1800’s and early 1900s in America and Europe
Q: Why did you decide with Cities of the Red Night to make it slightly more conventional..
WSB: Because the theme lended itself to that. I just was.. That was the.. I had a complicatedenough story anyway. I have two stories going at once, and unless I maintain some sort of coherence it would just.. you know, people, they don’t want to read something that they can’t understand at all, so I felt that I really had to make it coherent, make accessible.
Q: (I’m not saying this isn’t true of other of your books, in a way, but) people don’t understand it, maybe, in a conventional way – (in most books) the character, Joe Blow, goes through these emotions, and ends up at the end of the novel – but with yours, it was, like,for me, in fact, like, sort of walking down the street with you, and being guided by you, and (it) just (so) happens (that) some the music and bits of conversation when you go by some place, came in, and… I guess my own personal feeling is that Cities of the Red Night,perhaps successfully (I’m not saying that you always have to get locked in to..)… (Well,) I’m just wondering how you, personally, feel about Cities…
WSB: Well, I feel it was sucessful in accomplishing what I set out to accomplish, that’s all. I wanted to write quite a straight story, but, actually, it is a complicated story, very complex story (and I’ve followed more or less the same method in the book that I’m writing now. It’s quite straightforward but a very complicated story (straightforward in writing, I mean).
Q: With the concept of “rub out the word” and conventional word use (and..) ..I was wondering how you as a writer rationalized the fact that you have to work with words?
WSB: I never feel any necessity to rationalize anything. I’m a writer, it’s my job, that’s all. What’s to rationalize? I’m working with words. I think they’re a very inadequate means of communication and maybe will be replaced in time, but right now it’s what I’m working with. So?
Q: (Have you developed, or have, and are going to read, (something) that implies what the true author feels, not just the person you think is the author).. You’ll (happen) to read an accompanying biography (and)..
WSB: Well, it’s very confusing, actually. The confusion between.. I’ve got something here on that subject – [Burroughs reads] “There’s nothing more elusive than a writer’s “main character”, the character that is assumed by the reader to be the writer himself actually doing the things he writes about.But this main character is simply a point-of-view interposed by the writer, he’s not the writer at all. The main character, then, he becomes
another character in the book, but usually is the most difficult to see because he is mistaken for the writer himself. But the isn’t. He’s simply the writer’s point of observation” – rather like a camera.
Q: (This past Spring, I attended a theatrical performance in New York and I was wondering what you had to do with that?)
WSB: Oh, I didn’t have anything to do with it. It was.. Well, it was a group called the Chicago Project, and they came to me and asked me if they could make these.. act out these sections (of Naked Lunch), and I said, sure, go ahead.
Q: (But you disapproved?)
WSB: No, not at all, not at all. Well, it was made not too badly, even made a little money.
Q: Have you read The Executioner’s Song and what do you think of Norman Mailer?
WSB: Have I read what?
Q: The Executioner’s Song
WSB: I have not read The Executioner’s Song, no. I like Norman Mailer very much and I read The Naked and the Dead and some of his.. a little bit of his critical writing, but I don’t know hie work well at all, not well enough to really formulate an opinion..
Q: On the subject of (books), have you read anything by Thomas Pynchon
WSB: Yes, I read Gravity’s Rainbow, and I found it very, very..I mean this is a great book but..my god, it’s hard to read! It’s like wading through molasses!. So.. well, that’s it -“the great book that nobody could read” (but a lot of people did read it – I think it was rather a good seller). I understand he’s very reclusive, that’s what I heard. Yes?
Q: I’ve got copies of Ah Pook Is Here from England. What is the status of the American publication and is that going to have pictures too?
WSB: As far as I know, no American publication is planned at this point. There probably will be eventually, and as to whether it would have the pictures, I don’t know, but we, we [Burroughs, Malcolm McNeill and his publishers] just haven’t got anything together on that
Q: Is it possible to get a copy of So Who Owns Death TV?
WSB: Of what?
Q: So Who Owns Death TV?
WSB: Oh, I think it was just a title for a short piece . Well I think there was.. Somebody put out a magazine or a pamphlet or something, I don’t know, I’m not sure. [Editorial Note -Beach Books, San Francisco, 1967] – It was a long time ago – or some time ago. Yes?
Q: Looking back now, how would you sum up Kerouac’s literary and cultural contribution?
WSB: How would I sum up the whole… Kerouac? – Well I really couldn’t, I really couldn’t sum up Kerouac. As I said, he’s a writer, was a writer. He wrote. He was a poet and he reached and touched millions of people. And was very influential with millions of people (and) the whole life-style that we see today.
Q: (Can you say something about other writers in the ‘Fifties and their experiments with form, the art world, other things that were going on, like Action Painting and some things like that?)
Q: I don’t know much about the art market. But there seems to be a tendency to break down the lines between.. So many writers (are) going in for some kind of art now
Q: Are still making contact with Genesis P. Orridge and Throbbing Gristle [2014 update – Genesis Breyer P-Orridge]
WSB: Oh, very definite, very definite contact. Yes.
Q: (That) RE/Search number that you were in… I was interested in the presentation of that magazine.. and…
WSB: Well I don’t know, He (V Vale) always had an element of sort of outrage. That seems. to be one of the… [tape ends]