William S. Burroughs was a Beat Generation writer known for his startling, nontraditional accounts of drug culture, most famously in the book Naked Lunch.
“Beginning of the Beats”
William Seward Burroughs
a film by Thanasis Panou
based on the writings
of William S. Burroughs
William Seward Burroughs
February 5, 1914 – August 2, 1997)
was an American novelist, short story writer, satirist, essayist, painter, and spoken word performer. Burroughs was a primary figure of the Beat Generation and a major postmodernist author who wrote in the paranoid fiction genre, and his influence is considered to have affected a range of popular culture as well as literature. Burroughs wrote eighteen novels and novellas, six collections of short stories and four collections of essays. Five books have been published of his interviews and correspondences. He also collaborated on projects and recordings with numerous performers and musicians, and made many appearances in films.
(Writer, philosopher, artist, and co-founder of the Beat Generation, William S. Burroughs — who died in 1997 at the age of 83 — continues to be a vital cultural force today. The author of books like Junky, Queer, and Naked Lunch, Burroughs forged the cornerstone of a modern American cultural movement with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and other visionary writers and artists. His buttoned-up, three-piece exterior cloaked a dark genius that hungered for hustlers and heroin — way back in the 1940s. On February 5, William S. Burroughs would have been 97, but his spirit undoubtedly lives on, with more about him still coming out.)
Writing 'Junky' and 'Naked Lunch'
Burroughs published his first novel, Junky, in 1953 under the name William Lee. The work featured an unflinching, semi-autobiographical look at drug, or "junk," culture. He continued to travel and eventually ended up in Tangiers, strung out and running out of financial resources. He realized he would perish if he didn’t change his path and so traveled to London to receive apomorphine treatments, which he credits as curing his addiction.
With the help of Ginsberg and Kerouac, Burroughs wrote the novel Naked Lunch in Tangier, which continued to follow the exploits of William Lee in a disturbing drug culture journey. The book featured nonlinear narrative forms with elements of sadomasochism, metamorphoses and satire. Published in 1959, the book wouldn’t be released in the U.S. until the 1960s due to a highly publicized governmental ban over its content, which pushed Burroughs into the spotlight. He became a figure both acclaimed and spurned.
Around the time of Lunch's release, inspired by artist Brion Gysin, Burroughs began to experiment with the cut-up technique, where random lines of text were cut from a page and rearranged to form new sentences, with the intention of freeing reader's minds from conventional, linear modes of thought. Using this technique with elements of satire and sci-fi, the '60s saw Burroughs releasing novels like The Soft Machine (1961) and Nova Express (1964), which indicted consumerism and social repression, and the nonfiction work The Yage Letters (1963).
Burroughs played with audio cut-ups as well via tape recordings. He released his first album in 1965, Call Me Burroughs, which featured his readings of text from Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine. Burroughs not only made waves in the literary world but became a huge influence for many musical artists of the day. The acts Soft Machine and Steely Dan took their names from the writer’s work and Burroughs went on to collaborate with artists of the avant-garde like Laurie Anderson, Sonic Youth and Genesis P-Orridge.
Burroughs continued his literary pursuits as well in the early ‘70s, publishing The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead (1971) and Exterminator! (1973) and penning a screenplay, The Last Words of Dutch Schulz. By the end of the decade, he worked on a book with Gysin that delved into their cut-up philosophy—The Third Mind (1978).
Burroughs would face family tragedy yet again as his son Billy Burroughs Jr., also a writer, succumbed to substance addiction and died from alcohol-related trauma in 1981.