William Burroughs -- A Sketch
John C. Kramer, M.D. Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry,
   University of California of Medicine, Irvine, California 92717.
~Journal of Psychoactive Drugs~ Vol. 13(1):95-97 Jan-Mar, 1981
A recolection of a talk with William S. Burroughs.
O.C.R. by Dr. Rat, I.C.R. Laboratories Inc. 1992

William Burroughs -- A Sketch
  John C. Kramer, M.D.

Late in July 1978 I spent an afternoon with William Burroughs at his summer
apartment in Boulder, Colorado. We were to talk together and record our
discussion on tape. It would be the starting point for a chapter of a book.

The conversations are from the transcript of the tape. They are much
abbreviated; phrasing and words have often been changed and are not
necessarily in the order they occurred.


[Photo deleted. -- Dr. Rat]

The light was too dim when the photo of Bill Burroughs was taken. The
shutter speed was slow, probably 1/15 of a second, and the camera moved.
The picture is irretrievably blurred. And the negative was stored roiled
up. There are fine cracks all over, like in an old oil painting. But it's
him. No doubt about it. The look could be called sad or grim. It really
looks like Bill Burroughs.

He wouldn't say anything about what he was writing now. Maybe he wasn't
writing anything, just taking it easy and didn't want to say so. But maybe
he just didn't want to talk about it.

Considering the language in his books you'd never know it when he talked.
He was like a near-retirement State Department man I'd once met -- eastern,
good school accent, just loud enough to hear and sometimes not. Courtly.
Good manners, not in a formal discomfort-making way, but so that you felt
you never could do anything wrong.

His place wasn't what I expected. A student apartment. Usual furniture.
Areas: kitchen area; eating area; living-room area. No hall to speak of.
Two bedrooms and bath. Books and magazines neatly stacked. Boy lives there.
Almost certainly plans to be a writer. Cobble Hardy. Good name for a

People entered, talked, left. Bright lady who wondered who I was. Probably
partly a collector of famous people. Didn't show disappointment when she
found out who I wasn't. Two young sisters knocked. Their mommy wanted her
pot back. My breath caught a notch watching what Burroughs was taking from
the kitchen. It was a pot. He wished he could have kept it a little longer.

Richard Evans Schultes' name came up. Burroughs said, ``Know him well. We
took a trip to South America together. He has a definite disagreement with
the attempt to eradicate cocaine there. He says that it doesn't hurt them
at all. That's what Dick Schultes says. I think it must cut off the
circulation in the gums. That's what does it. Teeth fall out. It's a
disgusting habit, I think. Just physically. I tried it. All it did is
freeze up my mouth. No systemic effect. It seems like a waste of time to

``Have you ever shot coke?''

``Good heavens, yes. Lots of it. When I was on junk. With heroin.''


``Yeah. When I take it alone it makes me too nervous.''

``What role did junk, opiates, play in your life as a writer?''

``My experience as an addict was very useful to me as writer: the whole
syndrome of addiction and withdrawal and the extensions of that and other
forms of addiction. It gave me a great deal of material. A writer can
profit by something that someone else may not be able to profit from at
all. Yet they were very disagreeable experiences. Very boring

Was that all there was to Burroughs' junkie life -- material for novels?
``Okay, it was important in the sense that it provided material. But did it
do something to your soul?'' The question was real but it couldn't be said
with too much intensity. Then it would sound melodramatic.

Burroughs, laughingly, ``That's a metaphysical question.''

``Of course it is.''

``The whole experience of addiction and withdrawal does change people in
some ways. Any basic experience is like that, like being in prison for a
long time. Nobody who hasn't been there knows what it means. It does make
some changes, yes.''

Burroughs' first book was ~Junkie~. Later books were surrealist extensions
of that realistic biographical novel. Addiction gave him the impetus as
well as the material. I didn't follow up on the idea of ``impetus.'' I
should have. Instead I told him how I had found something deadly honest in
the addicts I had known, at least when you didn't have the power to give or
withhold anything from them. Falseness, it seemed to me, had been burned
away. Was this what had happened to Burroughs?

He agreed. ``Addiction... the mere fact of addiction does put someone in
touch with certain fundamentals. It's something you can't deny; it's there
and it gives you a sense of reality that maybe you would not have without
it. I've always said that maybe if schizophrenics were addicted to opiates
it would get them out of their catatonia. You would say, `well, you won't
move -- now there it is, over there, go and get it.' I've never seen an
addict schizophrenic when he was on junk. They've got to be in touch with
reality. At least enough to get the drugs and administer them.''

But whatever else it did for schizophrenia, junk didn't carry them much
beyond sanity. ``Addicts are,'' he said with finality, ``as boring a bunch
of people as I ever encountered. They've got this one track mind.''

``Scoring and fixing.''


I recall being told that they sat and stared at T.V. for hours. Burroughs
sighed, ``That they do. Billie Holiday said that she knew she was cured
when she stopped looking at T.V.''

Dr. John Yerbury Dent, gone now these several years, was the one that
William Burroughs says cured him of his addiction. Did it with apomorphine.
Its chemical structure is very much like morphine but different enough that
the nauseating effect is emphasized. But it isn't the nauseating effect
that does the job, Burroughs says, but that it is a metabolic stabilizer.
He doesn't understand why it hasn't been more widely used.

Old Doc Dent was great. Had some marvelous stories. He was strictly for
voluntary treatment only. Burroughs liked Dent for this, but it was still
the apomorphine and only the apomorphine that did the job for him. Maybe

Thunder and a sudden deluge punctuated the Colorado afternoon. Lipton tea,
sugar, no milk. Lemon? Sorry, no lemon.

Other junkie writers. Coleridge. De Quincey -- his confessions told the
story with precision. I always thought so. Good to hear it from Burroughs
-- Bill.

What about psychedelics?

``Well, cannabis is useful. When you're stuck and don't know where you're
going you smoke cannabis and then you see four or five ways the narrative
can go. No one is going to become a writer from taking any of these drugs
but they can get beneficial material from them.

``I don't like any of the stronger psychedelics. I would never take LSD...
I hate it.''

``You've tried it?'' (Obviously.)

``I've tried it. I just hate it. I don't like the feeling.... It makes me
nervous. My coordination isn't good and there's a metallic taste in my
mouth and there's nothing I like about it. I've taken mescaline,
psilocybin. The only one I've been able to use with consistency is

``Has anything useful come to you with mescaline or psilocybin?''

``Yes, but mostly of an unpleasant nature. There is one interesting one
though, yage', but I've never been able to get any since I left South
America. There's ~Banisteriopsis~ in it; that's the main ingredient but not
the only one. The medicine men use it to potentiate their powers, to locate
lost objects and that kind of thing. But I'm not impressed much by their
performance. Everybody has telepathic experiences all the time. These
things are not rare. It's just an integral part of life. The faculty is
probably increased to some extent by any consciousness expanding drug.''

We talked dope talk some more. Opium smoking and opium dreams. Life in
Morocco and how it was the old people, not the young ones, who smoked
cannabis. And about majoun, marijuana candy. And I told him about khat in
Arabia. And he told me about the lies that Anslinger spread. And we told
each other about Hasan-i-Sabah and how the ~haschischins~ were not driven
to murder because they were stoned. And he got back to his apomorphine

And then we talked about writing. Burroughs was turned on to his style
through a suggestion of his friend, Brion Gysin, a painter. Gysin had said
that writing was 50 years behind painting. What Burroughs decided was to
apply the montage method to writing.

``That would be,'' he said, ``actually closer to the facts of perception
than would, say, a sequential narrative. For example, you walk down the
street. You see it and you put it on canvas. That's what they did first.
But that's not how you really see it or remember it. It's more jumbled.
There are the street signs and the vendors and the houses and people
walking. You don't see them like a photograph. You look at diverse images.
Painting it that way is montage. I merely applied it to writing. So there's
nothing very new there.''

``Do you rearrange with great thought or do you toss it up in the air and
however it comes down...?''

``Both. You get a random factor. Your choice comes in what you use.''

``If it doesn't sound right you toss it out and try again?''

``Yeah. You see the random factor in life every time you look out the
window or walk down the street. Your consciousness is being continually cut
by random factors. I try to make this explicit by taking words and cutting
them up. That's what happens all the time anyway. That's my theory about
art. Art is making you aware of what you know and don't know you know. That
is, the actual facts of perception.

``When Cezanne's paintings were first exhibited people didn't realize that
this was an apple, that was a pear, seen from a certain angle. They were so
upset they actually attacked the canvasses with umbrellas. Now, anybody,
any child, would know what it is.

``The same way Joyce made people aware of their own streams of
consciousness... on one level, that is. Consciousness is much more complex
than that. Now we don't feel that Joyce is at all unintelligible.''

``Didn't Joyce spend a hell of a lot of time putting complex phrases
together, each with several meanings?''

``No doubt about that. He spent 20 years on ~Finnegan's Wake~. It's very
difficult to read.''

I raised the question of hearing versus reading. which registered better?
Bill said he had given 60 or 70 readings in the past few years and that
some things read well and some didn't. Fitzgerald, he thought, was better
left on paper.

Enough about writing. Burroughs wanted to talk about endorphins, those
natural morphine-like molecules, and about opiates in invertebrates. I
would send him what I had, I said.

How about some pictures? Fine. Don't you ever smile, Bill? A grin flashed
out, lingered and faded.

Tea time was over. Cocktail time was here. Gin and tonic? Sure.


And another.

In kitchen tumblers. A couple of ice cubes. No lime.

The pictures came out blurry. (Like a first impression?) There hadn't been
enough light and exposure time was slow. But one of them worked out. Blurs,
cracks and all, it looked like Bill.

~He 's just my Bill~ ~An ordinary guy~...

You ain't no ordinary guy, Bill.



~Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict~. New York: Ace Books,

~Naked Lunch~. New York: Grove Press, 1962.

~The Yage' Letters.~ (Coauthor, Allen Ginsberg). San Francisco: City Lights
Books, 1963.

~Nova Express~. New York: Grove Press, 1964.

~Cities of the Red Night~. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1981.