Cinefantastique, Volume 22, Number 5, April 1992, p.12-13

William S. Burroughs, possessed by a genius

Drug addict, murderer, novelist, Burroughs, now 77,
looks back on the book and the life that inspired Cronenberg.

By Gary Kimber


William S. Burroughs is a true American original, self-invented to a large extent, a character of mountaineous personal beliefs and contradictions. The author of Naked Lunch is now 77, a venerable age for an avowed homosexual and drug addict who so abused his body well into his sixties. In a profile in last October´s Spin magazine, Burroughs was dubbed "America´s favorite junkie" and "the father of post-World War American radicalism." Wrote Spin´s Legs McNeil, "More than any other man, Burroughs is responsible for introducing deviancy into the mainstream of American culture."

Talking by phone from his comfortable ranch house in Lawrence, Kansas where Burroughs was recovering quietly from triple bypass heart surgery, the radical author intoned with his distinctively nasal mid western twang, "Good as new. Practically back to normal." Burroughs, however, sounds old and tired. Hard of hearing, our interview is often mediated by James Grauerholz, Burroughs´ long-time personal aid and manager of his business affairs, who repeats each question.

Though the wild sex and drug scenes of Burroughs´ book have been eliminated from David Cronenberg´s film adaptation, Burroughs noted that he approved of Cronenberg´s approach. "I very much like what he has done, although it is quite different from anything I would do," said Burroughs. "Cronenberg pointed out that 400 different films could be made out of Naked Lunch and that is true of most novels. You have to concentrate on just one theme. His script bears down heavy on special effects. He took one aspect and played that up, the whole matter of the danger of being a writer. All the drugs in the film are made up, so you cannot say it´s a film about drugs. The sex is never explicit, but symbolic. He has avoided those pitfalls."

Cronenberg´s effect-ladden approach was suggested by the passages from Burroughs´ book involving the Mugwump, the only creature common to both works. Burroughs noted that Cronenberg´s movie Mugwump differed from what the author had envisioned. "A little bit more benign, a little larger," he said. "They sent me one which I keep in a separate room in the house. Quite impressive."

Burroughs first met Cronenberg at the author´s 70th birthday party at the Limelight theatre in New York. "I had admired his work for some time," said Burroughs. "It´s a new precision in horror films. The special effects of THE FLY is what immediately comes to my mind. He has a touch of cold precision that I think is unique. You can tell it´s a Cronenberg film after seeing just a few minutes." Grauerholz interjected that Burroughs is not really much of a movie buff and has not seen Cronenberg´s weird film about drug-addicted twins, DEAD RINGERS. Burroughs continued, "From what I have seen of his work I think he has the one who has the mostgrasp about what the book is essentially about. I could not think of anyone to equal him doing Naked Lunch."

Burroughs´ book, the last to be banned in America, in 1963, was once a project of low-budget British producer Anthony balch (HORROR HOSPITAL), with a script by Burroughs associate Brion Gysin. "The scripts by Brion Gysin abd Anthony Balch were as different from Cronenberg as they possibly could be," noted Burroughs. "They were not heavy on special effects. Gysin´s script would be very dated now. He had worked on Broadway in the ´40s in musical comedies. It was written as a burlesque musical comedy. The wild, out-of-control routines in the book were acted out. In spirit, it was akin to the 1969 film THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN."

Presently, Gus Van Zant (DRUGSTORE COWBOY, MY PRIVATE IDAHO) wants to make a film of Burroughs´ The Wild Boys, a short novel of homosexual warrior packs roaming a violent future world. And John Mcnaughton of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER fame has options on Burroughs´ original screenplay, THE LAST DAYS OF DUTCH SCHULTZ, the stream of consciousness ruminations of the gangster as he lay on his deathbed.

Burroughs maintained he didn´t miss doing a cameo in NAKED LUNCH, on the heels of performing so wonderfully as the junkie priest in Vant Zant´s DRUGSTORE COWBOY. "I agreed with Cronenberg, who said , 'What you´ve got here is a bizarrem, fictional construct," said Burroughs. "To introduce someone everyone would know would destroy the whole effect. I decided that even before we discussed it. It would have been a very bad idea. There had been some talk of Burroughs appearig in David Lynch´s TV series TWIN PEAKS, but when he asked what they wanted him to do, they never called back.

Burroughs said he was favorably impressed with actor Peter Weller in NAKED LUNCH, playing William Lee, a role inspired by Burroughs´ life and writings. "We had a number of talks in Toronto," recalled Burroughs of his visit to the Cronenberg set. "He is certainly very enthusiastic and I think he is doing a good job." Interjected Grauerholz, "I don´t think William was particulary aware of Peter´s acting before filming and I was only vaguely aware of him. William and I had no qualifications or standing to have any influence on who played William Lee."

Everyone from Weller to Burroughs himself took care to downplay the drug angle of NAKED LUNCH. But there is no getting around the fact Burroughs was a heavy drug abuser for most of his adult life. Burroughs claimed he was only using marijuana while writing the book in Tangier, and sees his drug use as neither a help nor a hindrance to his career. "I think it is not an either/or proposition with regard to my drug usage," he said. "I don´t see how I would have written what I did without it, anymore than Thomas de Quincey could have written Confessions of an Opium Eater. I took drugs simply because I found the effect pleasant. Then, of course, it becomes a necessity, a habit the body craves."

Norman Mailer said of Burroughs, "This man might have been one of the great geniuses of the English language if he had never been an addict." Grauerholz took objection to the observation. "With all due respect to Norman Mailer, who is a friend of William´s, I must say his comment is fatuous," said Grauerholz. Burroughs concurred. "I think so too," said the author. "What he did say was I might be possesse by genius on occasion when I am lucky. That can be said about any writer. They don´t possess genius, it possesses them, when they are fortunate. I certainly think David Cronenberg would fall under that category."