Interview with William Burroughs
Contemporary Arts Review
Volume 1, Number 1 (1979)
A major influence in writing during the past twenty years, William Burroughs is particularly noted for his use of the cut-up technique, i.e. the rearrangement of words manually. In Breething he used a combination of words and pictures to create hieroglyphic vignettes. Cities of the Red Night, his most recent novel, as yet unpublished, promises a return to the narrative style. This interview was conducted by Clarence Major and Michael Tucker through correspondence with Mr. Burroughs.
Clarence Major: I would say that you are among a few, say, thirty or forty American writers who are writing truly innovative fiction. It seems to me that in the post industrial world the responsibility of fiction has radically changed. Fiction once had the responsibility of trying to reflect and totalize experience, to serve as an organizer of and giver of meaning to life. That may have worked fine in the developing countries and the industrializing
countries of the late 1890s and through the decades of this country up until about 1950. After that it seems to me fiction had a new set of responsibilities. I’m curious about your sense of all of this and especially about what you think the responsibility of fiction was and has become.
William Burroughs. Jean Genet said “There is good writing and bad writing.” The word responsibility is not relevant. What responsibility is reflected in the Mona Lisa? The only responsibility a writer may be said to have is doing his best work.
Michael Tucker: Do you see Naked Lunch as an outgrowth of Junky? ls it a more blown out version covering more ground?
W.B. : Yes. I see Junky as the more or less factual basis transmuted into Naked Lunch. Exactly the same could be said of The Yage Letters.
M. T. : How did you feel about the first publication of Junky on an Ace paperback with the other side being a book by a narcotics agent?
W.B: A shrug.
M. T. : Do you see the use of cut-ups and blatant descriptions of violence as capable of shocking readers into a greater awareness of themselves and what’s going on in the outside world?
W.B. : It is not my intention to shock anyone into awareness of what is happening in the outside world. On the contrary much of my work is in the area of fantasy. If people are not shocked into awareness by the newspapers and TV they will certainly not be shocked into awareness by my writing.
M. T. : would you say that your experiments with cut-up technique gave you new insight into language?
W.B. : Yes. The cut-ups enable the writer to touch and handle his medium.
M. T. : When does experimental writing go too far? You mentioned Finnegan’s Wake as an example of this. Does editing the cut—up prevent it from being unintelligible to the reader while lacking the immediacy it had when first
W.B.: Experimental writing, in my book, goes too far when no one can read it. Cut-ups are not pasted together. They are simply shifted around to obtain new word combinations. It can be both immediate and intelligible. Depends on the selections made by the writer. Any writing is a process of selection.
M. T. : Would you say the techniques used in film are more responsible for changes in literature than the development of new modes of painting? Has literature responded to the challenge of film adequately or is it necessarily limited by the exigencies of the written word compared to cinematic possibilities? Is the reader capable, without a great deal of effort, perhaps more than he is willing to expend, of following the montage technique when applied to words?
W.B. : There is no equivalent in writing for the new modes in painting like for example minimal expressionism. Film and writing are getting closer and closer and so many books now are virtually screenplays. Writing is of course an integral part of films. It’s known as the screen play. The montage technique is old hat in films, sometimes successful, sometimes not.
C.M. : You are obviously concerned with the moral, social and political state of humanity. These concerns have been demonstrated in your books. Have these concerns changed for you in relation to the making of fiction? In other words, looking at the 1960s and the 1970s, and seeing how you gave expression to those years and to yourself in them, how do you see yourself facing the moral, social and political concerns of the 1980s?
W.B. : Wait a minute. I am not all that concerned about moral, political and economic issues. Certainly not directly. That’s what I meant in my first answer.
M. T. : Do you see the power of the word as expressed in ]ulian ]aynes’ The Origin of Consciousness
in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind as being more pervasive in our society than in the bicameral pre-conscousness societies he describes? Are the new voices of the gods commercials, propaganda, etc. , that work their way into the right hand brain and assume positions of hidden authority muchlike Freud’s super ego? ls the artistic muse perhaps located in this right side of the brain, the vision that recognizes words which combine aesthetically and rejects those that do not? Do you feel that your years of drug experience have increased your contact with the inner voices of creativity?
W.B.: Power of the word is probably more pervasive if less articulate and concentrated. Very likely the artistic muse is located in the nondominant hemisphere. Drug experience increases contact with the nondominant brain hemisphere.
C.M.: In The Ticket that Exploded you explore the problems that threaten the future of so—called civilized man in a technological society; in Naked Lunch you probe the inner being, consciousness, the body, and its relations to the
immediate world beyond it. Does this subject matter obsess you first in starting a novel or is it the process, the possibilities of techniques such as the cut—up method that get you started? Are subject matter and technique of
W.B. : Subject matter and technique are inseparable. A novel may start with an idea, a story, then develop as it is written into something quite different from the original concept.
C.M. : In your novels you use many real people in what appears to be fictional and sometimes real situations (such as the 1968 Democratic Convention scenes in The Exterminator.) . What is fiction? How does it relate to your day to day reality?
W.B. : There is no clear line between fiction and so-called real life.
M. T. : Do you see your characters as an extension of yourself, those that you have encountered or a combination of the two? What is the derivation of Dr. Benway?
W.B. : All fictional characters are to some extent extensions of the writer’s psyche. Some more directly than others. Dr. Benway was a dream image evoked in collaboration with Kells Elvins in 1938 and later elaborated in Naked
C.M. : How do you see your work in relation to American fiction generally, looking back to both sequential and digressive trends, to naturalism, realism and the more experimental forms signaled by writers like Melville?
W.B. : I see my work as clearly in the picaresque tradition as exemplified in The Satyricon, The Unfortunate Traveler, and Journey to the End of the Night.
M. T. : I understand your forthcoming book Cities of the Red Night will signify a return to the narrative style, do you see this as the direction you will be taking in subsequent works and if so, why?
W.B. : The cut—ups were never intended to replace the narrative style but simply to supplement it. Admittedly, I am now more sparing in the use of this technique than I was when it was first brought to my attention by Brion Gysin in 1959. So probably future books will be more in a narrative style than the books in which cut—ups were first used; Nova Express, The Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded.