With William Burroughs - A report from The Bunker
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WITH WILLIAM BURROUGHS - A REPORT FROM THE BUNKER
By Victor Bockis
William Burroughs and Susan Sontag after diner at Victor BOCKRIS' apartment. Photo Gerard Malanga
DINNER WITH SUSAN SONTAG, STEWART MEYER,
AND GERARD MALANGA: NEW YORK 1980
BOCKRIS: What is writing?
BURROUGHS: I don't think there is any definition. Mektoub: It is written. Someone asked Jean Genet when he started to write, and he answered, "At birth." A writer writes about his whole experience, which starts at birth. The process begins long before the writer puts pencil or typewriter to paper.
SUSAN SONTAG: Do you write every day?
BURROUGHS: I feel terrible if I don't; it's a real agony. I'm addicted to writing. Do you?
SONTAG: Yes. I feel restless if I don't write.
BURROUGHS: The more you write the better you feel, I find.
SONTAG: I've trained myself to be able to produce some writing that I tell myself quite sincerely is never going to be published. Sometimes something comes out of those things.
BURROUGHS: People will get ahold of them unless you destroy them. Papa Hemingway got caught short with a whole trunkload of stuff !
SONTAG: Do you write on the typewriter?
BURROUGHS: Entirely. I can hardly do it with the old hand. I remember that Sinclair Lewis was asked what to do about becoming a writer and he always said, "Learn to type."
STEWART MEYER: I remember waking up at the Bunker and hearing the typewriter going like thunder. James Grauerholz told me every morning Bill just gets up, has coffee and cake, and hits the typewriter . . .
BURROUGHS: The world is not my home, you understand. I am primarily concerned with the question of survival?with Nova conspiracies, Nova criminals, and Nova police. A new mythology is possible in the Space Age, where we will again have heroes and villains, as regards intentions towards this planet. I feel that the future of writing is in space, not time?
SONTAG: This book [Cities of the Red Night] which is 720 pages long, did you just write it out? I'm not asking if you revise. Is your method to write it out and then you have a version to revise, or do you write it in pieces?
BURROUGHS: I used a number of methods, and some of them have been disastrously wrong. In this book I tended to go ahead and write a hundred pages of first draft and then I'd get bogged down in revisions. What I do personally is make ten-page hops. I do a version of a chapter, go over it a couple of times, get it approximately the way I want it, and then go on from there, because I find that if I let it pile up I suddenly get a sickening feeling Df overwrite. The whole matter of writer's block often comes from overwrite. You see, they've overwritten themselves, whereas they should have stopped, gone back and corrected. No writer who's worth his salt has not experienced the full weight of writer's block.
BOCKRIS: How long did it take you to write your book about cancer?
SONTAG: That was easy and fast. Everything is hard for me, but it was easy. I was inspired. When you're really full of a subject and you're thinking about it all the time, that's when the writing comes, also when you're angry. The best emotions to write out of are anger and fear or dread. If you have emotions like that you just sail.
GERARD MALANGA: I used to think it was love until love took a third place.
SONTAG: Love is the third. The least energizing emotion to write out of is admiration. It is very difficult to write out of because the basic feeling that goes with admiration is a passive contemplative mood. It's a very big emotion, but it doesn't give you much energy. It makes you passive. If you use it for something you want to write, some strange languor creeps over you. which militates against the aggressive energy that you need to write, whereas if you write out of anger, rage, or dread, it goes faster.
BOCKRIS: William, have you ever written anything out of admiration?
BURROUGHS: I don t know what this term means. It does seem to me an anemic emotion.
SONTAG: Bill, suppose you agreed, which maybe you couldn't even conceive of doing, to write about Beckett. Somebody offered you a situation at which you said, yes, I'd like to say what I want to say about Beckett, and my feeling about Beckett is mainly positive. I think that's harder to get down in a way that's satisfactory than when you're attacking something.
BURROUGHS: l don t see what's being said here at all.
SONTAG: Victor asked me how long it took to write the little book about illness. I wrote it in two weeks because I was so angry I was writing out of rage at the incompetence of doctors and the ignorance and mystifications and stupidities that caused people's deaths, and that just pulled me along. Whereas I just finished writing an essay on something I really adore, Syberberg's seven-hour movie about Hitler, and it took months to write.
BURROUGHS: I see what you mean, but it doesn't correspond to my experience.
SONTAG: I think you write more exclusively out of some kind of objection or admonitory impulse.
BURROUGHS: A great deal of my writing which I most identify with is not written out of any sort of objection at all, it's more poetic messages, the still sad music of humanity, my dear, simply poetic statements If I make a little bit of fun of control with Dr. Schaeffer, the Lobotomy Kid, they say, "This dark pacifist who's paranoid, who's motivated completely by rejection of technology." This is a bunch of crap. I just make a little skit that's all. I am so sick of having this heavy thing laid on me where I just make a little slapstick and someone comes upon me with this "Oh, God, he's rejecting everything!" shit. I always get this negative image from critics, but the essays in Light Reading, for Light Years will make me sound like some sort of great nineteenth century crank who thought that brown sugar was the answer to everything and was practicing something he called brain breathing. You know, he believed in Reich's orgone box. I think the real end of any civilization is when the last eccentric dies The English eccentric was one of the great fecund figures They're the lazy men. One man just took to his bed and died from sheer inertia another would just walk around his estate and he was so lazy that he would have to eat the fruit without plucking it see which caused a lot more trouble than if he had actually plucked it. Yes, the English eccentrics were a great breed.
SONTAG: There are southern eccentrics .
BURROUGHS: Oh by heavens yes living on their crumbling estates controlled by their slaves.