An Evening with William Burroughs Richard Goodman Essay

person_pin An Evening with William Burroughs

by Richard Goodman

Published in Issue No. 131 ~ April, 2008

(The following article was based on a meeting with William Burroughs in London in 1972, and previously appeared in

I arrived at Burroughs’ London flat off Picadilly in the early evening. Burroughs opened the door, and I saw a smaller man than I had expected from the photos, with thin grey hair pushed over to cover baldness. He appeared to be in his late fifties, but it was difficult to say exactly. He wore slacks and a turtle neck, both of which were too large for him. We shook hands, and he motioned me in. He seemed shy, even a bit awkward, as if I were perhaps the host and he were the guest.

His apartment is sparse, with plain adequate furniture and pleasant. He has a living room, bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. All our conversation took place in the small living room. He has only a few books, and these are mostly copies of his own works. A few other authors, including Terry Southern, are represented.

A “young man” named Johnny was there. He was English and wore tight slacks and a turtle neck. He was friendly, obviously not a student of the arts. He served the drinks, lit the cigarettes, emptied the ashtrays, and for the most part was content to stand and not say anything. Occasionally, he would add a Goofy-like affirmation to something. He left, with a pound note from Burroughs about an hour after I arrived.

Burroughs sat on a stool in the center of the living room with a cigarette almost always pressed to his lips or dangling from his hand. Ashtrays seemed to grow hills of butts quickly, and quite soon the room was very smoky. Though Burroughs was silent to begin with, almost forcing me to prod him, he answered all my questions politely and sometimes anecdotically. He carries with him a flavor of formality. He speaks with an inflected drone, and he did not always look at me when he spoke. I began by asking him what his latest project was.

“I’m writing a novel. It’s over there.” He pointed to the desk next to the window.

“I just got back from New York. I flew over there with the film script of Naked Lunch. A producer said he was interested: I think he does ‘The Dating Game’ or some quiz show. So, Terry Southern and I flew out to LA at his expense. When we arrived, this big black shiny Rolls-Royce met us at the airport, whisked us on into town. Well, it turned out he wasn’t interested. He was worried about all the sex and violence. He said we’d have to cut out all the sex scenes and a lot of the scenes with violence. But what’s Naked Lunch without sex and violence?” He spread his arms to indicate “nothing.”

“Terry and I did some cutting, but he still wasn’t satisfied, so we gave it up. When we went to leave the Rolls had shrunk considerably, down to some kind of mini. I said to Terry, ‘We’d better get out of here fast before he decides not to pay the hotel bill’.”

Did he have anyone specific in mind for parts in the movie version of Naked Lunch?

“Yes. We wanted James Taylor, Mick Jagger, or Dennis Hopper for Lee. Taylor and Jagger said no, and Hopper was all set to go, but it was dropped since there was no financing. We wanted Groucho Marx for Dr. Benway, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

“It’s terribly difficult to get backing for a film. Distribution’s a problem, too. Most of the time you end up not making any money on the damned thing, so you have to get everything on that first sale. After that, baby, it’s gone. I’ve got several other film scripts here. Some just in idea form and some full shooting-scripts. I did one on the life of Dutch Schultz. But I’ll never sell that. Too expensive to produce. Too many scenes.” What did he think of the movie A Clockwork Orange, very popular in London at the time? He had praised the book.

“I thought the movie fell apart exactly where the book did. In the middle. Everything goes along quite well, then you come to the middle section. During that whole prison sequence I kept wondering what the hell Kubrick was doing.

“Did you see The Godfather? I liked that. Very good. But Pacino stole the show. That scene when he comes out of the john with the gun hidden, and the guy thinks something is wrong for that split second, but he’s too late. Then bam! two slugs in the belly.

“I wanted to see the film, because an old friend of mine’s in it. One of my former customers. That was in New York, years ago. He was a member of the Mafia then, and they didn’t like the fact that he was on junk. They said he was a disgrace to the family. So, they told him either get off junk or else. Apparently, this frightened him into his senses, and he quit. I saw him recently, and he told me, ‘Baby, I don’t need junk. I don’t want it.’ I thought he did pretty well in the film.”

He picked up a thick volume and handed it to me.

“Here. Take a look at this,” he said.

It was the full report on the President’s Commission on Pornography, replete with color photographs. It had been given to him by Terry Southern.

“When I was in New York, I saw a lot of pornographic films, about twenty of them, mostly gay films. All around the Times Square area. And very good quality, with close-ups both oral and genital. Good-looking models, too. The fact is, if you can’t perform, you just don’t make it. You go in someplace, and immediately you’re in front of the camera; if you can’t do it, baby, they can get somebody else.”

“Those animal pictures are disgusting, aren’t they?” he said in reference to some of the harder hard-core photographs.

“I’m going back to New York in a few months. They’ve asked me to be a judge in the Erotic Film Festival. I’ll be there for about a week. But I don’t like New York. Can’t stand it. Can’t get out of there quick enough.”

Now that the subject of sex was about, I asked Burroughs what he thought about homosexuality. I thought I had discerned a conflict in his writings: While it is obvious that he is much more interested in homosexuality than heterosexuality, he often satirizes his homosexual characters and their behavior, even to the point of overtly putting them down. There is one long sequence in Naked Lunch in which a “straight” boy is mocked and mentally tortured into making homosexual admissions by a mad doctor. Why? Did he have a negative view of homosexuality…


But what about the satire?

“Well, I say so when they get a little out of hand. But that’s not my view. No, not at all.”

“We know that the brain can be electronically made to produce any response,” he said in reference to the Naked Lunch sequence I had mentioned.

I asked him about Jack Kerouac. Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg had been “students” of Burrough’s back in the early Beat days. Did he miss Kerouac?

“Oh, Jack, Jack. Well, I hadn’t seen him for years. I saw him briefly in New York in 1968 after I had returned from Chicago (Burroughs was covering the Democratic National Convention for Esquire) and was staying in the Hotel Delmonico writing the article for Esquire. He came up to my hotel room and brought his three Greek brothers-in-law with him. They ran up a two hundred dollar liquor bill. Esquire didn’t want to pay the bill, but I told them they had to, and they ended up paying.

“They asked Jack to debate William Buckley on television. He was champing at the bit. But I said to him, ‘You can’t go on there. You’ll be cut to ribbons.’ They wanted me to go along as a spectator, but I wouldn’t have any part of it. So, Jack went on, and it was a farce. That was the last time I saw him.”

What about Jean Genet in Chicago? Genet had also covered the Convention for Esquire. Did Burroughs have much of a chance to talk with him?

“Oh, yes. Quite a bit. He doesn’t speak a word of English, and my French is very limited. But we got on somehow.”

I had read that Genet had escaped a beating from the Chicago police by simply, well, shrugging his way out of the situation.

“Well,” said Burroughs, “what happened was that he was being chased by a cop, and he turned around and shrugged as the cop was about to hit him with his club, and the cop veered away. But more cops were coming, so Genet took refuge in the nearest apartment building. Then he just knocked on the first door he came to. It turned out to be a student’s apartment. This guy with a beard opened the door and Genet said. ‘Je suis Monsieur Genet.’ And the guy said. ‘Oh, great. Come on in. I’m doing my thesis on you’.”

What, if anything, did Burroughs miss most about America?

“The food. It’s impossible to get a decent meal here. I miss Horn and Hardarts. For about a buck-fifty you can get a really decent meal. I could eat there every day of the week.”

Why was he living in London?

“Taxes, Baby. I get off much better here than I would in the States. It’s purely monetary. Oh, London; well, I don’t much care for London itself. No, I could just as well live somewhere else. The services here are terrible. If I want an electrician or a plumber, I have to practically start a war before I get him. Awful. The trouble is that they don’t pay those people a damn thing.”

About seven o’clock, a young friend of Burroughs’ named Miles dropped by. He immediately made himself at home, lying on the couch to Burroughs’ left. Miles is a collector of Burroughs’ work. He is presently, at Burroughs’ request and under his supervision, putting together “The Archives.” This is a collection of Burroughs’ books, articles and letters, along with pieces published about him. The collection will eventually be sold to the highest bidder. Miles, quite affable, often added to Burroughs’ conversation, addressing Burroughs as “William.” Miles showed B. what he had done that day on The Archives. B. examined the small file Miles handed him and pulled out a few items.

“I don’t think we’ll include the laundry slips,” he said as he eliminated an item.

When I heard that his personal letters were going into The Archives, I told Burroughs that I hoped he would soon publish more of his correspondence. (B., I found out later, makes a carbon copy of every letter he writes, He does plan to publish more of his correspondence.) I told him that I liked The Yage Letters very much (a book consisting of an exchange of letters between Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg) but that I didn’t like Allen Ginsberg’s contribution. I thought it was self indulgent and petulant.

“Oh, well,” he said. “Allen has this idea that the whole world is love. Everyone is everyone’s brother, that kind of thing. He’s always felt that way. But I have a different view. I think there are sinister people about, trying to do you harm.”

Junkie? Did Burroughs himself ever carry a gun?

“Ohhh, yeah. When I was in Mexico City. I used to have this big ol’ .380 automatic. Used to stick it in my pants, right here.” He pointed to his stomach-belt area. He was talking like a cowboy now. “I remember one day I went into this pissoir, and I was waitin’ for my turn, when this man comes in — a typical Mexican punk — and he pushes his way in front of me. So, I opened my coat and tapped the handle.” Pause. “He didn’t go into that pissoir ahead of me.”

A little later, another friend named John dropped by. John had long white hair: he might be fifty or he might be forty. He sat down at Burroughs’ right, and he and B. bantered each other about why B. hadn’t called him that day as he had promised. This was well past the time when we had begun drinking Burroughs’ liquor, and B. was loosening up a bit.

“Well, look, Baby, I did,” B. said. ”I’ve got the number right here.” He got up, walked to his desk, and began searching for the number. “I called you this afternoon, five o’clock, Baby. But the only person who answered was this Italian waiter. I mean, I’m sure he’s very nice, but he wasn’t you.”

“Well, I’m sure I gave you the right number, William,” John said.

“Baby, it couldn’t have been the right number, because all I could get was this goddam Italian waiter who spoke Italian, and I don’t speak Italian. Now, just wait a minute while I get that piece of paper you gave me with the number on it.”

After this was finally settled — John had mistakenly given Burroughs his “old” number — John proceeded to explain to me that he was the first person ever “cleared” from Scientology. A sort of black belt achievement. He talked about that and reincarnation and his appearances on the Joe Pyne television show.

“This is not my first life,” he said. “Oh, yes, my last life was very good, very interesting. But it was so good to be able to finally say good-bye, to lay my body down and just give it all up. But I loved working with all those silent film stars. They were wonderful, kind people. When I was on the Joe Pyne show, Joe asked me, ‘Were you Rudolph Valentino in your last life?’ I wouldn’t say yes, and I wouldn’t say no.”

He and Burroughs then talked about personal matters for a bit.

About nine o’clock, B. had a little entourage in his apartment. There were murmurs of, “I’m hungry,” and, “Let’s get something to eat.” Someone suggested a Mexican restaurant in Soho. Everyone agreed, but Burroughs maintained control.

“Ok, now let’s not go into this thing too hastily,” he said.

Finally, he had the plan. We all got up to leave, and immediately someone was reaching for Burroughs’ coat, while someone else went for his hat. After one person had helped him put on his coat and another had given him his hat, he turned to me and said with a wry smile, “Around here, I’m known as ‘The Don’.”

We took a cab to Soho. It was a good restaurant and a good Mexican meal, but Burroughs wasn’t talkative. He preferred to sit back easily at the head of the table and listen to the talk of Scientology and reincarnation. I felt it was a waste. I asked him about Norman Mailer.

“I like Norman,” he said slowly and precisely, “A lot of people say they have trouble with Norman, but I don’t. Get along with him quite well.”

He seemed distant, so I left him alone.

The check arrived, and Burroughs examined it carefully.

“Ok, boys,” he announced, “looks like we’ve run up quite a bill here.”

We paid and strolled out into the street. It was about ten-thirty. Pub closing time, nearly. Although Burroughs hates pubs, he suggested we all go to a gay pub. So, we walked on, Burroughs in command. Most of us had had our share of liquor by then. The talk on the way over was easy.

The pub itself wasn’t at all like some of the gay bars in America: no overt theatre, no whining sweet-sarcastic voices. Burroughs struck up a conversation with a friend of a friend, and I talked with Miles.

“William’s amazing,” he said. “He must do three or four versions of each work. I’d say he only publishes twenty percent of what he actually writes. The other things are mostly first, second and even third drafts. He works very hard. Eight hours a day, I’d say. Often more than that.”

When we left the pub it turned out that Burroughs was going one way and the rest of us were going another. Burroughs seemed a bit wobbly to me, and I was worried that he might have trouble finding his way home. He was going to walk. He shook my hand warmly.

“Ok, Baby.” he said. “You’ve got my address. Next time you’re in London, look me up.”

He waved and ambled off down the street. We watched him disappear into the blackness of the night. Then we turned away and began walking.

“Will he be all right?” I asked Miles.

“William? Oh, sure. Somehow he always seems to find his way home.”

(Republished with permission from

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Richard Goodman is the author of The Soul of Creative Writing and French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France. Goodman has written of a variety of subjects for several national publications, including the New York Times, Harvard Review, Vanity Fair, The Writer's Chronicle, Ascent, and the Michigan Quarterly Review. Goodman's essay, "In Search of the Exact Word," appears in the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus and he wrote the Introduction for Travelers' Tales Provence. He is also the Fine Presses Editor for Fine Books & Collections, for which he writes a regular column. He teaches Creative Nonfiction at Spalding University's Brief Residency MFA Program in Louisville, Kentucky. He also teaches at New York Writers' Workshops and Gotham Writing Workshops, both in New York City.