William Burroughs

This year has been an incredibly busy year for me. As well as completing my Master’s degree, working on my short stories, novel, editing, and teaching, I’ve also been reading a lot – or rather I’ve been listening – to a lot of audio books. I’m not a big fan of radio, too much jibber jabber and too many commercials, so when I’m stuck in traffic I like to listen to podcasts or audio books.

One of the audio books I listened to earlier this year was Junky by William Lee, which is of course William Burroughs’s pseudonym (the audio book was published as Junky). Considering my novel is about a gay, drug addicted rock star, I thought it might be good inspiration. Now that I have read it, I can honestly say that it is one of my favourite novels of all time – if not my actual favourite novel of all time.

William Seward Burroughs was an American post-modernist author, homosexual, and unapologetic drug addict. A primary figure of the Beat Generation (authors who explored and influenced American culture post-World War II), he wrote novels and short stories, he was a satirist, an essayist, a painter, and a spoken word performer.

Born into a social register family in Missouri in 1914, his parents sent him to boarding school in New Mexico when he was fifteen. One account of his life suggests he lost his virginity to the boy in the next bunk when he was sixteen. Another account suggests he lost it to a female prostitute when visiting an Illinois brothel.

After graduating from Harvard with an arts degree in 1936, his parents gave him a monthly stipend that would support him for the next twenty-five years. This meant Burroughs was free to live wherever he wanted, and able to pursue activities that sparked his interest. After Harvard, he briefly studied anthropology at Mexico City College as well as medicine in Vienna.

When he returned to the US, he held a strong of tedious jobs including that of an exterminator. In 1939, he chopped off the end of his little finger in order to impress a man with whom he was infatuated.

His veins were mostly gone, retreated back to the bone to escape the probing needle. For a while he used arteries, which are deeper than veins and harder to hit, and for this procedure he bought special long needles. He rotated from his arms and hands to the veins of his feet. A vein will come back in time. Even so, he had to shoot in the skin about half the time. But he only gave up and "skinned" a shot after an agonizing half-hour of probing and poking and cleaning out the needle, which would clot up with blood. ~Junkie

In 1942, Burroughs enlisted in the U.S. Army. Classified as infantry, he soon became dejected. His mother arranged his discharge on the premise that his mental instability should have precluded enlistment. In 1943, when he was twenty-nine years old, Burroughs moved to New York where met and befriended Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Kerouac and Ginsberg were also renowned writers of the Beat Generation and both men figured prominently throughout Burroughs’ career. In 1944, Burroughs began his life-long affair with heroin.

When a game involving Burroughs’ common law wife ended in tragedy, Burroughs fled to Mexico. There he went in search of the most powerful drug known to man – Yage. Shortly after that, he made his way to Tangiers where he could indulge in all the heroin, marijuana, and rent boys his body could stand. It was in Tangiers that he finally began to write.

I didn't feel compelled. I had nothing else to do. Writing gave me something to do every day. I don't feel the results were at all spectacular. Junky is not much of a book, actually. I knew very little about writing at that time. ~Burroughs

A prolific writer, Burroughs penned 18 novels (or novellas) six short story collections, four essay collections, appeared in several films, and collaborated with several musicians including Kurt Cobain. His influence on artists of all disciplines is extraordinary.

His impact on other artists was profound. Lou Reed was influenced by the text. The Velvet Underground was inspired to write Heroin and Marianne Faithful was compelled to writer Sister Morphine. And of course, the Beatles immortalised him on their Sgt. Pepper’s album cover.

In 1960, Burroughs went to London to see Dr. Dent, a medical doctor who promoted a heroin withdrawal treatment using the drug apomorphine. In the early 20th century, apomorphine was used to ‘treat’ homosexuality. More recently, it is used in treating erectile dysfunction and Parkinson’s disease. Keith Richards underwent the same ‘cure’. Sadly, Burroughs never recovered from his addiction. When he died from a heart attack in 1997, he was physically dependent on methadone.

Most critics proclaim Naked Lunch to be Burroughs’ magnum opus. I disagree. I read Naked Lunch many years ago and while I liked it, it didn’t impact me the way Junkie did. Maybe that’s because I’m writing a story with similar themes, I don’t know… If you haven’t yet read Junkie, I encourage you to do so. For some of you, Junkie will be a hard read. However, if you can come to terms with the subject matter, it will be well worth the read. Burroughs is an author who lives up to the hype. Plainly and simply, he is a literary genius.