Phil Baker on William S. Burroughs

by dollydelightly

“William S. Burroughs’ life is a gift,” Phil Baker tells me as we sit talking in his red-brick mansion flat in the curtilage of Tate Britain. He also tells me it was a “sad life,” but one full of incident, a treasure trove for any biographer. While Phil makes tea I glance inquisitively around the room that constitutes his office, unwittingly charting his occult and tribal interests, passions and travels. The bookshelves are bowing under the weight of numerous hardbacks. His desk, with myriad apothecary draws at either side, is chaotically lined with scattered papers. The Persian rugs and the red leather sofa upon which I perch are unmistakably time honoured. And there are bibelots and bagatelles to fill a generously sized curiosity shop. It is a very cosy office I conclude when Phil returns with tea and a chocolate cake I brought him. Phil’s biographical study of William S. Burroughs – published by Reaktion Books in their Critical Lives series – chronicles this most controversial and illustrious counterculture figure’s life from his boyhood to his eventual death in Kansas in 1997. It is a fascinating book, but one Baker says was simply waiting to be written. “You can’t really go wrong with Burroughs,” he explains, “because it is such a good life. And the ending is there, it’s natural, it’s ready-made.”

As we settle down to tea and cake, Phil confides: “I don’t eat cake very often, but this is very good.” I query him about his beginnings in teaching, which is something he aspired to do when he started his PhD. He subsequently taught at Oxford and “did quite a stint at Royal Holloway”. More recently, after publishing a couple of books, including a cultural history of absinthe, a book on Samuel Beckett, as well as Dennis Wheatley and Austin Osman Spare’s biographies, he has been granted a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship and has been “helping post graduates with their writing”. While he tells me about teaching, I wonder, whether or not he thinks style can be learned. “I do think style and form can be learned,” he nods, “you can’t teach people to have an opinion but you can teach them the mechanics of how to write. You can teach that it’s about beginnings and endings and that it has to flow.” Phil also works in the literary trade, reviewing books for the likes of Times Literary Supplement and the Guardian. When I ask him about writing books he becomes pensive. “I think it kind of happened by default,” he muses, “when I was young I think I probably imagined I would write novels. I never had an ambition to write poetry, ever. But novels perhaps…and it just never happened. And I don’t think it ever will.” What about reviews, I say. “I sort of do and I don’t enjoy them” Phil wavers, “there’s something very exhilarating about writing, I mean it is quite compulsive…I do find journalism a strain but I think everybody does, so I’m not going to complain. I do, however, think that once you have a beginning and an ending the stuff in the middle writes itself. It’s the same with books – you have to know where it’s going. And you have to have a good start.”

This is one writer’s rule that Phil seems to adhere to when it comes to his own work. In his book on Burroughs, Phil opens with a hook that draws the reader in immediately. Chronicling his subject’s early years, he notes that Burroughs was almost exclusively attracted by the unorthodox and the occult. The foundational point of this allure was an autobiography of a criminal, Jack Black’s You Can’t Win (1925). Speaking of it later, Burroughs remembered being “fascinated by this glimpse of an underworld of seedy rooming house, pool parlours, cat houses and opium dens.”  In many ways, Phil explains, it propelled Burroughs’ “journey into deviance, a kind of deliberate journey into deviance,” which saw him enjoy the murkier side of life, drugs in particular. Burroughs’ own varying accounts of drug-taking are often contradictory, but Phil suggest that he really saw them as a means to “psychic exploration,” which led to his “great literary breakthrough” Junky. His interest in drugs and the macabre was on-going throughout his life, often melding fantasy and reality together to the point where it is almost impossible to differentiate between the two. Burroughs’ constant “self-mythologising,” is something Phil has been wary of, especially because a vast majority of his writing is geared towards this particular undertaking.

With regard to the shooting of his wife Joan Vollmer in 1951, in the infamous William Tell act, for example, Burroughs later wrote: “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I never should have become a writer but for Joan’s death.” This is in fact not true. “He had this dream of being a writer as a child,” Phil clarifies, “and when he comes to write his own short, and very potted, autobiography ‘The Name is Burroughs’ he says something like ‘as a young boy I wanted to be a writer because writers lounged about in Singapore, wore silk suits, smoked opium and explored jungles with native boys.’’ Burroughs was fascinated by the mystique of writing, but what his craft actually sprung from was mainly his friendships. “All his writing was extremely interpersonal, until much later on when he had become an established writer,” Phil says, “it developed from him trying to impress friends, so he collaborated on his first piece of short fiction [Twilight’s Last Gleamings] with his friend at Harvard Kells Elvins and then the major works really grew out of his letters to [Allen] Ginsberg that eventually turned into Naked Lunch.” Ginsberg and Burroughs’ relationship was a troubled one. Phil suggests that Burroughs never really got over Ginsberg’s rejection, or that famous cruel rebuff about “his ugly old cock,” which wounded Burroughs very deeply. Love is something that always eluded Burroughs. And yet, toward the end of his life he found it in his cats, particularly in Russky. “Burroughs’ cats reminded him of people he had known,” Phil writes in his book “he felt them as autonomous, struggling, mortal beings, and he found again the sense of essential contact that he had always sought in relationships.”

By 1981, having travelled the world and hung out with the likes of Andy Warhol, Joe Strummer and Mick Jagger, Burroughs decided to settled down in Kansas. “He went out there because James Grauerholz [onetime lover, friend and literary executor] had roots there,” Phil tells me.With time, Burroughs became highly valued in his adopted hometown, where he earned himself a name as a lovable “old gink” in the words of Grauerholz. “He was the local star I suppose,” Phil says, “and he gave the place more of an identity. He was very well looked after in the end by a whole crew of people, who took it in turns to cook for him and take care of him. I think I was a little sentimental in the book. If I were to have qualms about it, it would be that maybe I played a little bit for sentimentality with the idea of Burroughs in old age singing Adiós muchachos and thinking about his friends.” I contradict Phil, saying the ending fits wonderfully with Burroughs’ story, which concludes with the most unpopular boy from St Louis realising that the most important thing in life is love. One wonders, however, how Burroughs’ later years of globetrotting and multi-genre experimenting shaped his legacy. “I find the idea of multimedia Burroughs a complete dead end,” Phil says resolutely, “because the only thing that he was really good at was writing.” One cannot help but agree as Burroughs’ painting, filmmaking and other artistic side-lines seem mediocre and half-hearted. Still, Burroughs has momentous significance in terms of the great American literary canon as the last “honourable literary deviant” and “neo-primitive, counter-enlightenment thinker” who rejected mainstream values and culture until the very end. “Burroughs was also the man that kept his tie on through the 60s,” Phil adds, “and I think you have to admire him for that.” 

Publisher: Reaktion Books 
Publication Date: July 2010
Paperback: 192 pages, 30 illustrations
ISBN: 9781861896636