This interview, with cult author David Ohle on the subject of William Burroughs, Jr., originally appeared at Hobart in September 2006.
Hobart Interview: "Motorman Meets the Son of Naked Lunch"
David Ohle, author of the epic science fiction dystopia Motorman, will release a posthumous memoir of William S. Burroughs, Jr. through Soft Skull Press in September . Like his original cult-classic, published by Knopf in 1972 and reprinted by 3rd Bed in 2004, and its eagerly anticipated follow-up, The Age of Sinatra (Soft Skull, 2004), Billy Burroughs’ memoir is itself a record of exceptional Beckett-like adversity. Still, it is not a subject one might expect to fit into Ohle’s decidedly more futuristic and politically despondent oeuvre. In the interview which follows, Ohle explains how he became involved in the production of Billy’s memoir and what he found once he opened the three file boxes that contained the last physical remnants of Billy’s life.
A pure Beat distillation, Billy’s voice seems an unspoiled synthesis of his father’s stygian humor and Kerouac’s seemingly offhand literary anarchism. His prose fairly clacks and rattles with Kerouacian rhythm as he catalogs the results of his ignominious conduct. Also, in his most lucid and formal prose—that intended for the novel itself—there is a robust beauty to his imagery. It is in his description of the Rio Grande alfalfa farm on which he was born, the droning of its locusts, the analogous contours of tree roots and scorpions, and the family’s horizontal white farm house.
Still, the book is replete with a candid kind of horror: the quarts of blood that spew from Billy’s nose and mouth when his liver fails, the inability of his doctors to pinpoint the source of his ailments, the erroneous diagnoses of hysteria and outrageous prescription for the liver-weakening drug Haldol, the time spent in the mental hospital. There is a panic telegraphed by his word choice and--in the particularly difficult periods of detox and convalescence--mental leaps and disjunctions that are stunning. In letters to his father, he skips across the surface of his condition with a self-effacing, expressively Chaplainesque wittiness. There are moments of incisive humor, like his description of a doctor and nurse who, in their thorough examination of him, end up seeing each other from both his ends: “I say, doctor. Is that you down there?” While he accuses himself of griping and bleating, Billy is actually very matter-of-fact. He acknowledges his baffling inability to rise above that which emotionally hobbles him. In his own commentary, Billy’s father identifies him as simply unhappy and without knowledge of what makes him that way. And it is this, which leads to repeated tumbles from the wagon, persistent attempts at reform, and chronic personal failure.
Ohle’s work on Billy’s memoir offers readers historical perspective and cultural documentation. It is a record of the tail end of the Beat generation, a depiction of the greasy, downhearted bohemianism left in the movement’s rowdy, avant-gardist wake. It also offers an additional angle to Burroughs’ scholarship: a retrospective, sideways (albeit, somewhat idiosyncratically Billy-filtered) view of William, Sr. and the direct impact made by his incendiary literature and personal actions.
Billy Burroughs is the genuine Million Little Pieces article, but one who never does recover. He seems the definitive cautionary tale and an argument for the inextricable link between creativity and psychosis. Ohle has provided a invaluable window onto the life and interior world of the self-described “Son of Naked Lunch,” the progeny of William Burroughs and bennie-addled Joan Vollmer Adams, whom Burroughs, Sr. accidentally shot dead while playing a William Tell-like game of marksmanship. The following interview was conducted via emails sent from Lawrence, Kansas, where David Ohle writes and holds a lectureship at KU.
Savannah Guz: What prompted Bill, Sr. to ask that you compile Billy’s papers and last novel? Was it Motorman that sparked his interest and alerted him to your abilities?
David Ohle: I knew William Sr. for the last ten years of his life here in Lawrence [Kansas]. Saw him at least once a week, was a pall bearer at his funeral. I also know his assistant, James Grauerholz. Burroughs Sr. and James both knew I was a dependable researcher, editor and writer. I had done preliminary editing and transcriptions of three of Bill Sr.’s own works Queer, Western Lands, and The Cat Inside. Two other people had tried and given up on doing Billy’s “book.” So Burroughs hired me for a fee to “edit” Billy’s last novel, Prakriti Junction. But when I got to Ohio State, where the filed boxes were stored, there was no novel to speak of, so I conceived the idea of doing a memoir, a compilation of his writings, his letters and testimonials about him. This is all explained in the Introduction to Cursed from Birth.
SG: How many years have you been working on putting Billy, Jr.’s prose and letters in order? I know that these began as a series of file boxes.
DO: James [James Grauerholz, Bill Sr.’s assistant] probably has a better answer to this, but to me, it seems like we started on the Billy project about 10 years ago.
SG: How did you first meet Bill, Sr.? Had he read Motorman when he asked that you edit and transcribe his own novels?
DO: I met Bill in the late 70s when I was teaching at the U. of Texas in Austin. He was invited there for a reading and I hosted him a few days, along with his assistant, James Grauerholz. It was actually Grauerholz who asked me to transcribe certain Burroughs manuscripts into electronic form for further editing. Grauerholz had read Motorman. I don’t know whether Bill had or not.
SG: Do you feel that Bill, Sr. wanted to ensure that his son’s last novel would not die along with him? That is, do you feel that the memoir is a sort of memorial to Billy by his father?
DO: I do think Bill Sr. wanted some sort of literary memorial to Billy and, as I understand it, contracted with Grove/Atlantic to produce one, namely Billy’s last (unfinished) novel, Prakriti Junction, which I later found to be woefully inadequate for publication.
SG: In your own view, how does Prakriti Junction, in its original, unedited form, relate to Speed and Kentucky Ham? Bill, Sr. mentions in a letter-reply to Billy that autobiographical work eventually runs dry and fictional work inevitably begins. Yet, in Prakriti Junction, Billy seems to begin his personal story all over from birth. From your vantage point, was Prakriti Junction undertaken as something else but ultimately became a mode of catharsis while working through the swansong of his various addictions and the gory prelude to and aftermath of his liver transplant?
DO: It related to Speed and KH [Kentucky Ham] in that it was autobiographical, this time dealing with events that took place after KH – his marriage and divorce, his liver transplant, his plunge into hopeless alcoholism and addiction. I guess Billy thought some background was necessary to provide context for readers who were not familiar with his entire life. I thought the same thing when I was compiling Cursed From Birth, and so used background material from Speed at the beginning to provide context. I think Billy began Prakriti Junction before his liver transplant, which changed everything and made it impossible for him to continue in any organized, coherent way. He continued writing, but not regularly, and always obsessively about his physical degradation, suicidal thoughts, and hopelessness. I suppose his post-transplant writings were a form of catharsis. Perhaps writing about suicide prevented him from doing it (directly).
I think Billy began Prakriti Junction before his liver transplant, which changed everything and made it impossible for him to continue in any organized, coherent way. He continued writing, but not regularly, and always obsessively about his physical degradation, suicidal thoughts, and hopelessness.
SG: As you worked on Billy’s manuscript, interleaving letters and commentary between chapters of his unfinished novel Prakriti Junction, did you find any affinities between Billy’s life and your character Moldenke of Motorman and The Age of Sinatra? There seems to be a distinct Beckett-like adversity and an explicit body-centrism to both stories (the arrhythmia of Moldenke’s four sheep hearts, the birds with tongues that retract around their brains; and for Burroughs, the failing liver, subsequent post-surgical sepsis, the pavement-stone-wide surgical scars and multitude of blown veins).
DO: I did see some affinities between Billy and Moldenke, although Moldenke was a more patient sufferer. I think one of the reasons WSB Sr. and I got along well was that we shared an interest in things clinical and scientific (and Beckett). While Bill Sr. seldom talked about Billy himself, he was always glad to discuss the medical aspects of Billy’s transplant, the level of his morphine dosage, the odor of the wound, the length of the surgery, etc.
SG: Did your work on this memoir have any impact on your own fictional characters or plot constructions? Did you find that there were cross-fertilizations during the research or editing process?
DO: That’s hard to answer. Sifting through all Billy’s sad jottings probably did have some sort of influence. In the The Age of Sinatra, voluntary deformation was a fad. For Billy it was involuntary and awful. Although I had begun that novel long before confronting Billy’s predicament, it may have driven me into using even more clinical images in my final revisions.
SG: You mentioned in your introduction that you’d found photographs and audio tapes in Billy’s archival boxes. What did these contain?
DO: There were only three or four insignificant photographs, of him in his apartment kitchen, etc. The tapes were interviews with Ginsberg, Waldman, Burroughs Sr., done by Richard Elovich. Those tapes had been transcribed and I used the transcriptions in compiling the book. One other audio tape was Billy riding in a car and talking to Jim Jarmusch – but the sound quality was poor and I used very little of it.
SG: None of Billy’s letters are dated. How were you able to determine their sequence?
DO: In some cases I was able to match the events described in the letters to real, datable events. His father always dated his letters, for example, so if his father responded to one of Billy’s letters, I had a pretty good idea when that letter was written. Or if Billy wrote that he had spent a week in detox – those dates were in his medical records. And so on. It involved a bit of guesswork, but I think they’re pretty close to the date actually written.
SG: You end each chapter with commentary on Billy, provided by Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldeman, James Grauerholz, et al. This addition truly gives a three-dimensional force and substance to Billy’s character. The reader is not forced to rely on his words alone, but receive the perceptions of others that fill him out and project onto his narrative spirit a distinctive psychological meatiness. How did you get this commentary…was it based on transcribed interviews specifically conducted for the book or were their observations pre-existing?
DO: The observations were pre-existing, left by others who had worked on the “Billy Book” before me – they are acknowledged in the book.
SG: The book was originally slated for release with Grove/Atlantic in 2001. What occurred that allowed Soft Skull to take over its release?
DO: When Grove/Atlantic passed on the project for legal reasons (Billy says some actionable things about still-living people), the book sat idle for a couple of years. No other publisher made an offer. Soft Skull had published my novel, and I knew them to be risk takers. Richard Nash was not frightened by the potential for litigation, so I asked if he’d be interested and he was.
SG: The memoir adds another valence to Burroughs scholarship. It could be construed as another angle by which to approach Bill Sr.’s oeuvre—from Billy’s retrospective view. (I can see the graduate theses now!) Have you conducted classes on Burroughs’ literature because of either your work with Bill, Sr. or Billy’s memoir?
DO: I have had no classes on Burroughs or Billy. I teach only Fiction writing and screenwriting. Besides, James Grauerholz, who knows more about Burroughs than anyone, has taught classes about him here.
SG: Do you anticipate (or hope) that this memoir will awaken interest in Billy’s literature or that, based on the tenor of his language, his literary output, and live-fast die-young trajectory Billy is destined to become a cult icon like his father?
DO: There never was a tremendous lot of interest in Billy’s books, but I think this will certainly spark a renewed interest in them - they may be out of print now – I’m not sure. I can’t imagine Billy becoming the cult figure his father was, but those who read Cursed will have a new insight into his father’s character that perhaps few people knew.
SG: Now, about you: what prompted your own writing career and when did you first begin writing stories?
DO: I always wrote stories, even as a kid. I had a little yellow roll-top desk and sat there often, writing stories about bears and monsters in a tablet that I wish I still had.
SG: What prompted the development of the character Moldenke [the main character of Motorman] and what specifically about him (and/or his shifting moral potential) continues to place him at the forefront of your fiction?
DO: There was a graduate student in the Biology department here at KU named Andrew Moldenke. I never met him, but a friend of mine knew him. The name fascinated me. Just the sound of it. I simply constructed the character around the name. His role in my fiction is generally as an observer, or a focus. It’s the odd world he inhabits that’s the real protagonist. Moldenke is simply swept along by the tide of events. He has no real character of his own. He’s just a name.
SG: I’ve read that you are working on a new book, The Pisstown Chaos. Will it pick up where The Age of Sinatra ended? Could you provide a sneak-preview of the coming attractions?
DO: Moldenke is a minor character in The Pisstown Chaos. This time the story follows the Balls family: Ophelia, her brother Roe, and her grandmother Mildred and grandfather Jacob. It explores things like stinkers that were treated in Sinatra, but not in depth. The ultimate political power this time is the Reverend Herman Hooker, who seems to be in charge of things, though no one knows why or how.