James Grauerholz is the biographer and executor for the literary estate of William S. Burroughs. James edited or co-edited Burroughs’s work from 1981-2000, and co-edited Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader. Grauerholz also authored the excellent biographical sketches for that collection. His monograph, The Death of Joan Vollmer Burroughs: What Really Happened? is available online from the University of Kansas. All told, James spent 23 years of his life with Burroughs, and has devoted his life to maintaining and illuminating the legacy of one of America’s greatest authors. James graciously agreed to an interview concerning his work as a continuing curator of Burroughs’s life and work, and at my request, William’s magickal practices. He was extremely generous with his time and recollections, even going so far as to send me additional materials for context on both the new film Words of Advice, and the essay The Future of the Novel.
Steve Foland: I hear you’ve been working on a definitive Burroughs biography. How is that going, when can we expect it and is that going to be your final word on the subject?
James Grauerholz: In 1972, when I was not yet twenty, I wrote out-of-the-blue fan letters to Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, in New York and London, respectively.
Allen’s reply led to my meeting him in the Lower East Side in spring 1973, and when I returned to New York City in late January 1974, Allen told me William was in New York, too, and sent me over to meet him.
William’s reply in late ’72 is interesting. In mine to him, I had written something to the effect that I wanted to interview him, with a focus on his childhood, his school years, his early European travels.
Very little about the first 30 years of Burroughs’ life had been published, as of 1972. Only Alan Ansen’s late-1950s essay* offered any real detail, and it compared intriguingly against Burroughs’ own tight-lipped “Prologue” written — reluctantly — in 1952 for his first book, Junkie (1953), and there were only brief, superficial bios in the early “Beat” stories in LIFE, et al.
William’s first letter to me was one page, and midway through it, he said (I paraphrase): “Must say no to early years article. The life of a writer is, for the most part, quite solitary and uneventful in any case.”
I have written tens of thousands of words about William, and have gathered a dozen filing cabinets worth of primary research. Very few of the important physical locations of important periods or events in his life remain unvisited by me. But it’s hard right now for me to say I am “at work on a Biography” (and “definitive” is something other people may say about your book, not something for you to say about it — right?). I don’t know “when to expect it,” but I have lately returned to concentrate on some definite biographical projects.
Because I still want to write that book about William before he ever met Allen Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac, and I feel I really can, now.
Also I think often of my 23 years with William, and of how thousands upon thousands of items and materials created in those years, now preserved — correspondence, diaries, calendars, photos, manuscripts, audiotape, films, on and on — are finally concentrated into just a handful of major public institutional library collections, with no deep collections of primary materials remaining closed off from scholarly access (except of course my own collection, which I am — ahem — still using).
That’s a different sort of book, though, isn’t it? Soon enough I may be able to put those years — of my own life, if you see what I mean — into some proper perspective, and be able to tell all the great William stories. Also, I am now within a few years of William’s age, 60, at the time when I, age 21, first met him. It’s an understatement to remark that my insight, into how I seemed to him at that time, has grown absolutely by leaps and BOUNDS, my dear! Haha.
I hope to write many books about William, and his works. Since you ask about the “2012 prophecy,” I’ll confide that my 60th birthday falls with a few weeks of the End of the World. Therefore, I had better get busy right away. And I am.
SF: Assuming you could do whatever you’d like after the biography and its surrounding publicity tasks, what’s next?
JG: Oh, there’s lots to keep one busy. Who knows? But about “publicity tasks” — ehhhh, I dunno. I know that many writers complain about it, but most of them that I’ve known, who toured their books in the contemporary USA book world, appear to me to have not-so-secretly enjoyed the attention. And I can understand that, not callin’ no foul.
However, “fame” and “glamour” and the like have never been motivators for me — not even when I was young enough, and new enough at meeting big names in person, to feel impressed and wowed by them. Indeed, I’m much likelier to avoid all that. I have work to do, that’s a distraction. William is still counting on me.
SF: Were you involved with William’s magickal practices personally? And if so, would you describe an experience?
JG: Not really; let’s say, a few things early on. It’s all there in the Red Night Trilogy if you want to look for it.
But I followed my own spirit guides (so to speak), and they did not impel me to participate personally in the rather well-known “Sweat Lodge” experience that William had in 1991 — with Allen Ginsberg and Michael Emerton, as well as facilitator William Lyon, and the Shaman — whose name escapes me.
I kept the same distance — supportive, respectful, encouraging — from William’s developing contacts with the I.O.T.
(Author’s Note: I.O.T. refers to the Illuminates of Thanateros — A Chaos Magick organization founded in Britain in 1978 by Ray Sherwin and Peter J Carroll)
The way some people think of me as “controlling” William and all this horse shit is ironic to the point of bitter hilarity. The truth is, I made sure that I did not come between him and the people and experiences he had, and relationships he started with them, and kept up on his own. Ask Marcus Ewert, who — bless his heart — has charmingly revealed, to the printed (or electronic) page and the motion picture camera, more details about his affair with William in the latter’s, uh, latter years, than I can imagine very many people even wanting to know. But Marc is, like me, a disciple of Ginsberg (if not also of Warhol), and I can only applaud his let-it-all-hang-out policy about those days and nights with William. But Marcus will tell you, I ran our whole little crew away from that house with the two of them in it, postponed the lawnmowing, etc., so they could — well, do whatever they wanted to.
SF: William’s magickal experimentation, the aspects of recording what he called “Danger Sounds” and replaying them in proximity to his target, or using collage to hit a specific target has become the stuff of legend. Some attribute the closing of one particular establishment to William’s hexes. Is there another specific instance which you can recall that is as dramatic and apparently self-evident?
JG: Nope, not really. You are likely referring to the Moka Bar in London, where William said he received snide, snotty service and lousy, weak tea — and his tape-recorders-and-cameras mock-surveillance routine, back and forth on the sidewalk of Frith Street, and how the Moka Bar failed and was shuttered not too long after that.
Forgive me please, but my cast of mind leads me to suspect the Moka Bar, if it really did sell lousy tea with terrible service, might have been headed out of business, with or without the sound-text-tape-film sidewalk-pacing routine…
As with William’s long-ago theory that, because he had never known a NYC junky ever to get a seasonal cold, it was likely that Junk provided a protective covering to the cells (or else, maybe Junk kept the cells well-exercised and in-shape with a constant cycle of shrinking to kick, swelling back up in re-addiction, kicking, hooked again, etc.) — I pointed out that, because a junky with a good supply on hand rarely leaves his apartment to mingle on the sidewalk with other people (which would expose him to more airborne rhinovirus particles), maybe the apparent immunity was more the result of limited exposure to current pathogens…
This all might sound terrible to you, as if I was a bringdown — in fact, William and I were beautifully balanced. He appreciated that about me, and I appreciated his love for the fantastic and extravagantly-explained. Which is funny, when I remember now that it was William’s own mention of “Ockham’s Razor” in my 1966 copy of Naked Lunch that first alerted me to the existence of Occam’s principle of parsimony….
SF: William’s painting “Creation of the Homunculus IV,” graces the cover of Phil Hine’s Prime Chaos, and a glowing endorsement from William appears on the back of Condensed Chaos. Did William have frequent contact with the leaders of the Chaos Magick movement or was his involvement on an individual by individual basis?
JG: Yes, William was very serious about his studies in, and initiation into the I.O.T. Of course, you would have to ask (if they would even describe it for you) the persons who took part in that initiation — I didn’t. Our longtime friend, Douglas Grant, was a prime mover; William met and liked Peter Carroll and Phil Hine, I am pretty sure. I myself only got to know the good Doug Grant a couple of years after William’s death, in August 1997.
SF: William’s “Orgone Chamber” is well known to his devotees. Did you feel the effects of it as well? When did William’s interest in Radionics begin? Can you recall who introduced him to the subject?
JG: Yes, I suppose I could feel something in the various Orgone Boxes I have sat in. William’s 1940s letters reveal his early contacts with the works of Wilhelm Reich, although it’s evident (from, for example, several sources gathered by Ted Morgan for Literary Outlaw, 1988) that Burroughs had come into contact with some of Reich’s writings, in translation, by the 1930s. As to who brought it to his attention, my immediate guess would be his childhood friend, Kells Elvins. And there are several sources we might search for more evidence of that source in William’s life for that particular influence.
SF: Given his influence on Magickal theory and practice (The Cut-Up, Third Mind, Dream Machine and his writing) who would you say was William’s largest influence? Crowley, Spare, none of the above?
JG: Pardon me but I don’t see many direct influences by William’s thought upon Magickal theory — the other way around, heavens, yes.
But Burroughs considered Crowley a bit of a figure of fun, referring to him as “The Greeeaaaaaat BEEEEAST!” in that behind-closed-doors, queeny comic delivery he used sometimes: his voice rising straight up in pitch, into an hysterical falsetto. You can hear it in lots of tapes, I’m pretty sure.
William knew quite a bit about Crowley’s life and work, and he certainly dug deep into the Necronomicon (anonymous but often attributed to Crowley) when it became available in a snazzy, black-morocco, tooled-leather hardback binding. He appreciated much about Aleister Crowley. Influenced by him? I don’t really see it. And to be truthful, I knew more about Austin Osman Spare than William did, in the beginning.
SF: Did Burroughs have any opinion about the 2012 issue? Positive or negative societal transformation (with or without the supernatural whispers surrounding the date)? Any hope for mankind really figuring out the various mechanisms of control he’d been writing about all his life?
JG: I don’t know. People are searching his work for clues to that now. I don’t at all recall him emphasizing “2012″ in conversation, and he and I did often compare our studies in Mesoamerican pre-history and archaeology, enlarging each other’s knowledge, I believe.
William did go through a period of working from Mayan calendrical theories and his own fantasy/memory sources to create his own calendar. Barry Miles, more than any other Burroughs biographer to date, offers the best and fullest explanation of Burroughs’ personal calendar system, in Miles’ book, William S. Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible.
As for Burroughs’ level of “hope,” I must tell you that, the older he got, the less “hope” he had — for anything good ever to emerge from “the Human Experiment.” This is not uncommon in the elderly, you know. It definitely makes sense as a survival instinct: tell yourself it’s a good thing you won’t have to be around, to witness or suffer the universal Hell that is soon to descend upon all human life everywhere, etc.
You’ll notice I am resisting giving much credence to any “Apocalypse Soon” scenarios, that of “2012″ included — but you shouldn’t think for a second that I don’t recognize that these are truly “apocalyptic” times — if only for the way that mechanized humanity (an oxymoron if there ever was one!) has apparently damaged Planet Earth beyond the planet’s — or Mankind’s — ability to maintain climatic stability and predictability.
I submit to you that “The Future of the Novel” is a prophetic work, especially as he says: “A new mythology is possible in the Space Age, where we will again have heroes and villains, with respect to intentions towards this planet.”
SF: What, if any, opinion did William have for Jack Parsons’s work?
JG: William’s thoughts about Jack Parsons were, I believe, based far more on what he knew about Parson’s life, than on any writings or paintings by Parsons. William knew about the origins of JPL, the early ties to L. Ron Hubbard, and so forth. If memory serves, William was mainly impressed by the way that Parsons’ life ended.
(Author’s Note: Jack Parsons, a noted occultist and jet propulsion researcher was killed by a mysterious explosion in his laboratory in 1952. I strongly recommend the book Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons by John Carter, available from Feral House.)
SF: Any words of advice that you think William would want us to keep in mind at this point in history?
JG: I can hazard only a guess at what he might say, but based on his many published “admonitions for youth,” I’d say this sums it up:
“Think for yourself. Fortune and misfortune: take neither personally. You have to take a broooooaaaaad, general, view of things, you see.”
Oh yes, and here’s one he liked to remind people, noting “It may save your life!” Goes like this:
“If you are holding onto a rope to a lighter-than-air balloon, and it comes loose from its moorings and heads into the sky, LET GO OF THAT ROPE! IMMEDIATELY!”