Interview with James Grauerholz
The following is an e-mail interview with James Grauerholz of Lawrence, a longtime friend and editor of William S. Burroughs who also knew Billy Burroughs, subject of the new book “Cursed from Birth” by David Ohle.
Q. When I’ve mentioned this book to several people in town, they’ve expressed surprise that William had a son – they didn’t know. Do you run into that often? How aware are people of Billy Burroughs?
A. Billy’s two published books, “Speed” (1970) and “Kentucky Ham” (1973), are still in print from Overlook Press, but it is 30-plus years since the latter was published, and Billy has been dead for 25 years. Therefore, the only people likely to be familiar with his existence and his writings are those who are already aficionados of Burroughs Sr., or the Beats in general. As you can imagine, most of the people I hear from fall into that category. So my answers would have to be “No,” and “The general public is more aware of Paris Hilton than William Burroughs Sr., let alone his son Billy.” But I am concerned only with readers who are aware of the lives and works of them both, father and son.
Q. What do you think/hope the book will do as far as awareness and understanding of Billy?
A. Billy had an authentic literary gift, and although his style shows some echoes of his father’s sense of humor and ear for speech, any such literary influence can be attributed to the fact that, inevitably, he read and re-read his famous father’s books. His father’s first published book, Junky, was in print since 1953, when Billy was 6 years old. Billy was 12 when Naked Lunch was first published in English in Paris, in 1959; and 19 when the Grove Press edition of “Naked Lunch” was finally published in the USA, in 1966.
But Billy had his own voice: ironic, sardonic, comic, and wry – with a look-at-me quality, like a stand-up performer’s routine. This, too, resembles his father’s work, but more in Billy’s approach to his subject matter than in his writing style. Unlike his father (except in “Junky”), Billy took as his subject matter his own life story. All of Billy’s finished work is based directly on his recollections, his thoughts and reflections, and his impressions of real people in his life – and of himself.
All biography, and especially autobiography or memoirs, tends to be evaluated by its readers more for some pre-existing interest in the subject, than for its writing style. Thus, the book reviewers of Ted Morgan’s groundbreaking Burroughs (Sr.) 1988 biography, “Literary Outlaw,” commented more on the man and his life, than on the biographer’s accomplishment as a writer. Any ingrained tendency to “disapprove” of the life, per se, often spills over into a book review which seems to disapprove of the book itself – as unfortunately happened to Mr. Morgan’s book.
Billy’s life is inherently interesting, even though it is largely his father’s life (and notoriety) that draw readers’ attention to it. This is quite understandable. But what I hope is that “Cursed From Birth” will also bring new attention to Billy’s own, very personal, writing talent and stylistic integrity.
Q. How would you describe William’s relationship with Billy? How did it change over the years?
A. I usually defer to what is called in law the “best evidence” – namely, what William and Billy each said and wrote about their own feelings and attitudes.
There are at least six different angles from which to view that “relationship”: William’s relationship to his son, as seen by himself, by his son, and by others; and Billy’s relationship to his father, as seen by himself, his father, and by others. Since both father and son were part of my life for many years, I am one of the “others” listed above; but I did also have personal access to William’s feelings about his son, and to Billy’s feelings about his father.
In his first two published books, Billy wrote little about his father – except for a chapter in “Kentucky Ham” that was first created in 1971 as a magazine article for Esquire, whose editors commissioned a “profile” of his William Sr. (It appears as Chapter 3 in that book; for “Cursed From Birth,” David Ohle re-used key portions of Billy’s two earlier books, to complete the autobiographical story.)
In this posthumous book, Billy’s writings and letters reveal much about his perspective on the father-son relationship. Likewise, William’s letters to Billy and to friends, as well as the interview excerpts (collected by Richard S. Elovich), reveal how he saw their relationship. The interviews in “Cursed” – with Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, myself and other friends and acquaintances of Billy’s – are examples of “others’ views.”
But since you ask for my own description, I would say that for the first years of little Billy’s life – in rural Texas, New Orleans, and Mexico City – William adored his baby boy … and yet he was unable to be consistently attentive to Billy and his emotional needs. (DOJ doc, p. 8) Similarly, Joan Vollmer Burroughs, Billy’s mother, was loving but very distracted.
William also reportedly had some very unconventional ideas about child-rearing, which could be summed up as “totally permissive.” (DOJ doc, p. 11) In practice, this often took the form of frank neglect; for example, Billy and his half-sister Julie were allowed, even encouraged, to run around naked on the Texas farm, and Billy himself writes that he had no shoes for his feet until about age three.
My research for “The Death of Joan Vollmer Burroughs: What Really Happened?” shows that in Mexico City, William and Joan often left their children in the care of their Mexican neighbors for long periods, while they drank and socialized with their American friends in the bars frequented by the students at Mexico City College.
When William shot Joan in September 1951, Billy was 4 years old. Although Billy sometimes claimed to have been present at the scene of the shooting, the available evidence indicates that he was not in the fatal apartment. In the aftermath Billy was taken to St. Louis by William’s parents, who raised him. They moved to Palm Beach, Florida, in spring 1952, and William visited him there a few times.
When Billy, age 14, wanted to visit his father in Tangier, William agreed; the experiment did not work out. A few years later William was ready to receive him in London, but before that happened, Billy was arrested for drug charges and William traveled to Florida instead, to help with his defense.
By all accounts, including their own, the father and son had a difficult, awkward relationship. After Billy married in 1968, and became a published writer soon after, he and William kept in touch by letters – in which William offered him encouragement, advice and help.
Here is a transcript of Billy talking in Howard Brookner’s 1983 documentary film, “Burroughs: The Movie”:
WILLIAM BURROUGHS JR: In my growing up, you know my grandparents raised me because after that tragic accident when I was much younger with my mother Bill went and started traveling around the world and stuff. But we kept in sort of psychic communication one way or another most of my life. Just as I reached puberty he started sending me copies of Rimbaud to read, and stuff like that. Every so often things like a plaster cast of a shrunken head from the Amazon would appear in the mail. Beautiful Amazonian butterflies in little glass cases, and things like that. You know, I’d keep in touch with physical objects that he would send to me.
During 1976-1980, William saw Billy quite often. Billy’s liver failure and subsequent transplant occurred in the Boulder-Denver area in summer 1976; during his convalescence that winter, William remained in Boulder and made daily trips to the hospital in Denver to visit Billy. I know, because I, and my partner Richard Elovich, did most of the driving on these hospital commutes. William remained in Boulder during 1977-78, and Billy often visited him at his apartment (#415, Varsity Manor).
All I can say is that, while I knew him (from age 60 until his death, 23 years later), William Burroughs did the best he could to be a father to his only son. But I cannot really say that he did very well, by any standards – including his own. As he wrote in his final journals, published in 2000 as Last Words: “Mother, Dad, Mort, Billy – I failed them all -” That was less than a month before William died.
Q. How do you think that relationship affected William’s writing? Billy’s writing?
A. The only part of William’s writing that was directly affected by his relationship with his son was the quasi-autobiographical late-life texts such as “The Cat Inside,” “My Education,” and “Last Words.”
Since Billy’s oeuvre was entirely autobiographical, a great deal of it (mainly after “Speed”) specifically addressed his memories of his father, and his feelings about him. “Cursed” is especially replete with such references.
As to Billy’s style, or indeed his choice of writing as a vocation in the first place, it would be fair to say that he felt compelled to imitate, and perhaps compete with, his father. It was an unfair match, though; William’s flagship novel, the one that launched him to international fame, was published long before Billy would have been able to start out on a writing career.
The greatest effect of the broken father-son dynamic upon Billy, however, can be seen in his existential emulation of his father’s way of life – rather than any artistic emulation. That is, since his father was famous for having been a drug addict and a “wild man,” Billy seems to have felt fully licensed to become a drug-addict / wild-man writer, himself. His first book is very comparable to his father’s first book; it is even similarly named.
Q. Do you see this book being more about Billy, understanding William through Billy, or some of both?
A. I think Cursed adds a great deal of information that allows us to understand William better, and to understand Billy better, too. Ultimately, though, I think the book is all about Billy – perhaps even more so than his own two books, in a way.
Q. What were your interactions with Billy like? Were there specific moments or stories that seemed to encapsulate him for you?
Q. I first met Billy in March 1974, when he visited William in New York; at the time I was still living with William in a sublet loft at 452 Broadway. I had read both of Billy’s books and I eager to meet him. I was then 21 years old, and he was 26. After drinks at William’s loft, Billy and I took off on foot to wander around the neighborhood. He was looking for a woman he used to know, who he thought was living in a loft on the Bowery. As we walked in lower Manhattan, Billy and I took turns swigging from a pint of cheap whiskey he had bought. I was impressed by how “hardcore” he was – how cynical and funny.
In 1976 in Boulder, I was a horrified (but calm) eyewitness and participant in Billy’s serious illness and hospital treatments. I say “calm,” because it seems to me, now, that in my younger years I was somehow much tougher, less squeamish, and braver in the face of tragedy, than I probably am today.
I remember seeing Billy after his porto-caval shunt – a kind of liver-circulation bypass procedure that was attempted, but which failed, necessitating his whole-liver transplant. He was unconscious, his breathing forcibly supported by a respirator – whose mask was clamped over his face and whose gusts of artificial breath made his inert body heave rhythmically, accompanied by loud wheezing and puffing sounds from the machinery. And his skin was horribly yellow, or rather, orange. He was a helpless, sleeping zombie – more dead than alive. It was a shocking sight.
I was often with William in Boulder in 1977-78, and frequently was with Billy, too. I remember one time, after he was finally out of the Denver hospital and able to go around on his own, he and I were walking downtown in Boulder, near the Pearl Street pedestrian mall. Boulder had then (probably still has) a giant store called Liquor Mart; it was the biggest liquor store I had ever seen, at the time. Billy began to guide our steps toward Liquor Mart – he wanted to buy a sixpack of beer.
I tried to dissuade him, attempting to “keep it light” and to distract him with humor or indirection … to no avail. Finally we were in front of Liquor Mart, and I began doing a “sidewalk checkmate” with him, moving to put myself in front of him, as he stepped to the right, then the left, unwilling to get violent with me or force the issue by pushing me aside. Suddenly he yelled out to some passersby, “Help me! Help! This man is threatening me! He’s blocking my path! I can’t get past him!” And some Do-Gooders stepped up to confront me about this.
Billy’s gambit had worked; while I was busy trying to explain the situation to them, Billy dashed into Liquor Mart and came out with six tallboys. Then, on the principle of “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” I shared the sixpack with him as we walked down to Boulder Creek to sit on the grass.
Q. In what ways did the death of Joan affect the relationship between William and Billy? Did that define their relationship or simply affect it?
A. Well, remember that “the death of Joan” is not something that Billy directly experienced. That is, he only vaguely remembered his mother (as a 4-year-old would), but surely it was a few more years before he even comprehended that his mother was gone. His grandmother, Laura Lee Burroughs, was as a mother to him – in St. Louis briefly, and mostly in Palm Beach. The fact that his father had killed his biological mother was undoubtedly an abstraction – albeit a disturbing and incomprehensible abstraction.
What Joan’s death did contribute to was a mounting series of painful, disastrous life-decisions by William, in the aftermath of having killed her. And this must have shattered the foundations of his feelings about their son, Billy; the boy was, after all, more or less a living reproach to Burroughs Sr. As intoxicated and preoccupied as William would have been in any case – conditions that would have continued to distance him emotionally from his son – the situation was vastly worse when he remembered, again and again, that he himself had killed the boy’s mother.
So Joan’s death did in many ways “define” William’s emotional stance toward his son, yes. And though William did consciously try to bridge that gap, he could not – or in any case, did not – get very far in that effort.
Billy’s life was more affected by the absence of his famous, renegade-artist, father, than by the absence of his mother, Joan. When events brought father and son together again in Colorado in the 1970s, it was probably too late for either one of them to repair the other’s wounds.
Q. What about the evolution of the book itself?
A. When Billy died in March 1981, his surviving papers and personal effects were faithfully gathered up by close friends: Teina De Bakey; Allen Ginsberg; and I (among others) preserved his last writings. Allen had Bonnie Schulman, a Naropa Institute colleague, type-up the bound journals and notes that Billy left. Ultimately, all these materials ended up with William and me. (Billy’s estranged wife, Karen Perry Burroughs, made a legal effort to gain control of these papers and their copyright, but the Florida probate court ruled in favor of Burroughs Sr.)
The Overlook Press offered contracts in 1982 for three Bill-Jr. books: reissues of “Speed” and “Kentucky Ham,” and a first edition to be edited from Billy’s last writings, under the working title he gave to his unfinished post-transplant memoirs: “Prakriti Junction.”
At Allen Ginsberg’s suggestion, Jonathan Robbins (then a young protege of Allen’s and now a respected academic classicist known as Jakob Rabinowitz) came to Lawrence in 1984 to edit the materials. This project was abandoned within two weeks.
Later that same year, Richard S. Elovich came to Lawrence and stayed a month here, working on the papers; when Richard returned to New York in fall 1984, he expanded the source materials in a crucially important way, by conducting interviews – by mail and phone, and in person – with a dozen key people who knew Billy very well. But his efforts on the book project languished, and eventually he turned over all his work to William and me. By the late 1980s William’s agent, Andrew Wylie, had arranged for Overlook to drop the book from the three-book contract, and there was no publisher waiting for its completion.
When our close friend Ira Silverberg was an editor at Grove Press in the late 1990s, he made another multi-book contract with William, which included Prakriti Junction (since William had inherited his son’s copyrights). William retained our good friend David Ohle, whose work as a writer William and I had always admired very much, to attack the three manuscript-boxes of material from a fresh perspective.
David came up with the approach of blending all the source materials as you see them here. Unfortunately (and I must take most of the blame for this), the process of correcting and re-editing David’s first drafts lagged for several years, and Grove ended up also releasing William’s Estate from any book-delivery obligation. It might be added that Grove was never extremely enthusiastic about this book in the first place, and were further put-off by various hassles in obtaining clearances and permissions for the non-Billy material in it.
So David Ohle deserves credit, not only for bringing this successful editing concept to the book, and doing the hard work of creating the early drafts of this version, but also for finding Richard Nash, the publisher of Soft Skull Press, and interesting him in the book.
And now, finally – literally 25 years after Billy’s death – his oft-rumored, little-seen final writings are available to readers, in a form that does optimum justice to Billy’s talent as a writer … and that deals respectfully with the human failings of Billy, and William, and everyone else, myself not excepted.
It has been well worth the wait!