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Loving William 

Talking with James Grauerholz about Mr. Burroughs -- writer, myth, cat lover

Wednesday, Mar 10 1999
Photo by Jenafer GillinghamJAMES GRAUERHOLZ, THE ONLY CHILD OF A PROMInent Coffeyville, Kansas, couple, grew up wanting to be a beatnik. A Kansas U. dropout, an acid-head, a rock & roll guitar player, he started writing poetry at 14 "with the idea that it should be good."

In the early '70s, Grauerholz wrote Allen Ginsberg a fan letter and enclosed a photograph. Ginsberg responded, asking to meet. A year later, when he was 20, Grauerholz -- tall, blond, blue-eyed behind thick glasses -- came to visit him in New York. Ginsberg sent him over to meet William Burroughs.

Burroughs was 60 at the time, just back in the U.S. after 24 years of exile in Mexico City, Tangier, Paris and London. He'd already published Naked Lunch, a book that helped obliterate literary censorship in the English-speaking world; and the cut-up trilogy of intergalactic detective stories, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express, was also behind him. Already an underground literary hero, Burroughs was hardly a household name. He lived on the Bowery in "the Bunker," the nearly windowless locker room of a defunct gym.

For a few weeks, Grauerholz and Burroughs were lovers, but James soon met someone else. From then on, for 23 years until Burroughs' death on August 2, 1997, Grauerholz served the writer as friend, secretary, companion, editor and career mastermind extraordinaire. Grauerholz's astute and passionate marketing helped assure Burroughs a decent annual income, a comfortable home in Kansas, and fame that most writers only dream of (though few could actually stand).

When I first met Grauerholz in the late '70s, he still seemed a boy, steely and ambitious. Now, worn down a little, a widower still coming out on the other side of grief, he's the executor of Burroughs' literary estate. At 46, with a bit of a gut on him, his life is inextricably entwined in Burroughs'. Probably no one alive knew Burroughs as well.

Along with Ira Silverberg, former editor in chief at Grove Press and a longtime Burroughs friend, Grauerholz has just published Word Virus, a generous and judiciously selected William Burroughs reader spanning 65 years, from a jokey 1929 essay Burroughs wrote for his prep-school magazine, to selections from the last book released during his lifetime, My Education: A Book of Dreams (1996). Grauerholz's biographical prefaces to each of the eight chapters are models of their kind: precise, accurate, knowledgeable and intimate.

Word Virus illuminates many of Burroughs' recurrent themes: his obsession with the human body, his mistrust of all forms of authority and control, and his utopian vision. For the serious "Burroughsian," there are excerpts from the fugitive Crawdaddy magazine columns and a chapter from the very early Kerouac-Burroughs collaboration And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. For the nascent Beat reader, Word Virus is an indispensable introduction to Burroughs' work.

On a recent visit to L.A., Grauerholz talked Burroughs, Word Virus and everything in between.

 

L.A. WEEKLY: You were intimate with Burroughs right up until the end. How did he approach his death?

JAMES GRAUERHOLZ: William was in really good shape, actually, for his age. He wasn't senile. He had cut down on his drinking. He went shooting with his friends a few days before he was stricken [by a heart attack] and turned in a lot of good targets.

Was he still writing?

Right up to an hour before he was stricken. He was sitting there writing in his diary and just had a major heart attack. He had a very quiet period of about 24 hours, the doctors watching to see if there was going to be a comeback. He had left instructions against extreme measures to resuscitate, and he really just slipped away. I'm very proud of him. I mean, he was having a vodka Coke and a Mexican cigarette at the last minute before it was all over. He's my hero.

What do you see in yourself that brought you to Burroughs, and kept you with him for a quarter-century?

It's kind of mystical, isn't it? Well . . . I'm very loyal. I put a real premium on that. But the real thing is, I love William. I spent the day yesterday working with Hal Willner on the remix of the Naked Lunch CD and listening to William's voice. It doesn't make me sad. It's not creepy. It's great.

On what did you and Silverberg base your Word Virus selections?

I wanted to present a series of through-lines through the oeuvre. Plant the seed of every idea that would be important in the later part of his writing -- as early as it first appears. William looked it over. He had a lot of faith in me and in Ira. The manuscript, which was like 8 inches tall in a box, was like -- thunk! -- on the table. And William goes, "Looks like a tombstone."

What are the most common misconceptions about Burroughs' work that the book might clarify?

A lot of people seemed to be fixated on a kind of a mythified image of him based on his existence in the late '50s­early '60s, sort of the William Lee of Cronenberg's movie [of Naked Lunch] or something like that -- this real tough guy . . . weird . . . extreme . . . reptilian . . . whatever. The William I knew was just a great storyteller and a very humane, lovable person -- kind of boisterous at times -- who drank too much and got a little bit wild, but generally a very considerate person. You know, he had the bypass in 1991, and he had already gotten into being a cat lover and had written in The Cat Inside how that opened up his heart. But those last six years -- those bonus years, as I think of them -- were so precious because he was able, in my opinion, to finish his spiritual journey. He was able to make peace with himself and his creator as he saw that, and when the end came, he was almost saintlike.

Do you see Word Virus as the beginning of a literary career for you?

I am going to write a biography of William, a real biography. It is not going to be the biography to end all biographies. It doesn't aim to be longer or bigger or "better" than the work that was done by Ted Morgan [Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs], which is monumental, really, or Victor Bockris [With William Burroughs: A Report From the Bunker] or Barry Miles [William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible: A Portrait]. I don't want to write a memoir that would be like "James' version of the universe" -- settling scores and all that. Basically, what I want to do is go to the documents. There's a mountain of documentary material -- manuscripts, letters, tapes, photographs, a wealth of material that's never been tapped, like arrest records, real estate records, medical records. I just want to write a biography that is complete, accurate, that dispels any prevalent myths and gives a complete road map to all the documentary material. Above all, I want to do what I tried to do in Word Virus, and that is, portray William -- I mean, really portray him as the person that I knew, try to explain what I think his motivations were. I want to write a life of William that gives some idea of why one person found him so lovable. I loved him, and I want to demonstrate why that could be so.

WORD VIRUS: The William S. Burroughs Reader (includes a sampling of a best-of- Burroughs CD) Edited by JAMES GRAUERHOLZ and IRA SILVERBERG; introduction by ANN DOUGLAS Grove Press | 332 pages | $27.50 hardcover

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