Reading Burroughs Reading

Interview with Michael Stevens, author of The Road to Interzone

By Paul Hawkins

The Road to Interzone is the result of a fascination with the works of William S. Burroughs and the literary influence that made his legendary canon of work possible.

Michael Stevens
Michael Stevens

Here, the raw material of the shaping spirit of the imagination, is analyzed by presenting quotes and selections from Burroughs’ works (novels, interviews, criticism, etc.) alongside the primary literary sources that influenced him.

Also contained herein are listings from the recorded archives of the books Burroughs read through most of his lifetime. Redacted from university archives and WSB’s personal libraries, these listings attempt to catalog the source materials of what was to become Burroughs’ literary legacy.

The Road to Interzone provides the skeleton for an interpretation of the operational processes of influence and the function of artistic inspiration.

Michael Stevens has found the right vein, circulating raw material of the mind of visionary genius in post modern literature and art. His exhaustive compendia and matrix is like the fractal’s pattern bringing similarities that could reveal whole equation. He has provided the reader with the sources of allusion, influences, critiques, and the spirit of scatological obsessions of the late William S. Burroughs, the well-read innovator, inventor, and investigator in literature, art, culture and cosmology. Ezra Pound once advised readers who thought the Cantos too obscure, to just think of them as people throughout history sitting around talking. This book allows me the conversations with Uncle Bill that I unfortunately neglected in his presence. — Charles Plymell

We spoke earlier about the significance of the Literary Outlaw you would always refer to, way back in your early days. In what way did you use that?

Yes, when I first became interested in Burroughs I used to refer back to Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw a lot. I would make notes and seek out other authors to read based on Burroughs’ recommendations or his mention of this author or that book. If I found a new lead I would always check to make sure it met Burroughs’ seal of approval.

And when would that have been, Mike?

1990. Early 90s.

What was it that made you bite on Burroughs?

Oh, I picked up Naked Lunch in 1989 for the first time and I hated it. For some reason I picked it up again a few months later and still hated it. It wasn’t until the third try that I got it. I was missing his humor. I didn’t realize how funny he was at first and was using this satirical voice to get across or make people see the savage madness that is the world. Once I figured that out I was onto something. It took some time.

Yeah, I had similar experiences with Naked Lunch. In that it took me some time to get it. So the humour was your door in. Mike, did that mean you then read Burroughs’ work voraciously?

Once I got it, yes. I read everything in print, then I started seeking out the more obscure books. I became a Burroughs junkie. James Musser, out in Forest Knolls, was sort of like my dealer. I spent a lot of my student loans and sold my car to keep up the addiction. In the meantime I was seeking out Burroughs’ influences and his reading because I needed more.

Wow! What was the most challenging area(s) of his work for you?

The Road to Interzone
The Road to Interzone

That’s a good question. The Ticket That Exploded was the most difficult book for me. I love the cut-ups, but that book was very challenging because it completely abandoned all narrative structure, as far as I could tell.

Burroughs excelled in that, chopping up and throwing structure to the north, south, east, and west, in order to create another narrative, a challenging one … did you get through that challenge?

Maybe. I thought that I needed to approach it from a different perspective which is another reason I wanted to research the books/authors he was reading. I needed to know what was going in in order to understand what was coming out.

Which led to some pretty hard-core research on your part. Where did you start, Mike?

Well it all started with notes. I had no intention of putting a book together. I was working in bookstores in the late 90s and spending most of my time seeking out and discovering Burroughs blurbs on books and reading Burroughs looking for references to other works. I moved to Spicewood, Texas in 2000, which was when I decided to make it a full time job to compile my notes and put this book together. I carried around lists. I was a bookscout for ten years with lists falling out of my pocket crazily searching for these books. Most of my reading at the time consisted of what you see in The Road to Interzone.

I like lists. Its an ongoing present time record of where one is within a certain task or discipline. Your book pulls raw data, magical connections and archaeological literary research together. In short, it’s like a never ending pool to dive into … When were you aware that these lists would provide the backbone of your book?

When I moved to Spicewood I decided to put these lists to some use. They would no longer just serve me, but anyone else who was interested in Burroughs, 20th Century literature, books or research. I tried to see what it would look like in 2001, while in the thick of the work, by putting out a little chapbook called A Distant Book Lifted. That was just a listing of blurbs, intros, and other Burroughsiana that I thought I would test out on the world. It was more successful than I’d expected it to be. Folks were interested and I had no idea. A Distant Book Lifted was sort of the rough draft for sections two and three of the current book.

That would have been very encouraging for you, Mike, there seems to be much interest in Burroughs; his motivations and areas of enquiry were so far reaching. That background reading, his reading from a long way back must have been a mountain to climb. How did you find the energy to follow your muse?

Oh, that wasn’t difficult at all. If I have a passion for something there is no lack of energy. Our culture and time is different than what it used to be, obviously. What people refer to today as obsessive was once called research or a meticulous work ethic.

That's a good point, Mike…

People can call it what they want, but I’ll stick with meticulous and passionate. I learned more from my research and reading for this book than I did my entire time in public school and my nine years in college. Burroughs was a great teacher and I was willing to listen.

That’s a great energy to have. This supposition that JL Lowes had regarding his work on Coleridge began to resonate with you Mike and you cover that in your essay The Bladerunner and The Shootist. Tell me about the connection with Burroughs?

Well, I discovered Lowes’ book, The Road To Xanadu, several years into my work. Burroughs was a student of Lowes at Harvard and I think it was in a letter to Allen Ginsberg that he mentioned the book. I found it, read it, and realized that what Lowes had done so long ago was what I was doing. I immediately felt a connection to him, and the title, though not the method, is an homage to his book, The Road To Xanadu, which was an investigation into the reading and drug use of Coleridge during his writing of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Could you trace Burroughs’ drug use to have an enervating presence in his writing, in the same way Coleridge did?

Yes, I think so absolutely. Burroughs’ drug use was essential to his development as an individual and as a writer but, that isn’t really my area of expertise.

What were the conclusions of your essay The Bladerunner and The Shootist I just mentioned? You mentioned a relationship to what Lowes called “the deep well”.

Lowes referred to “the deep well” as being that place in the unconscious that somehow shapes the writers’ experience, reading and input into what is later written. He saw influence as a shaping force of the imagination, as do I.

Yes, I feel that gathering of information has to bear upon one’s creative or artistic output.

I do believe that studying Burroughs’ reading is as important, if not more so, than studying his life experience. In other words, I think it’s an essential part of understanding the Burroughs mythology.

I agree with you, you cannot place a great visionary and communicator in a bubble, without definite reference to the culture(s) he lived in and through. His command of letter-writing and his ability to turn such correspondence into threads of his writing was especially poignant in Naked Lunch and other books.

Yes, definitely. His letters were the source of all later output and if it weren’t for his desire to communicate, his need to send and receive, I don’t believe he would have ever been able to do what he did.

When did you meet with Burroughs?

I met him in August 1995.

How did that come about, Mike?

I’d sent him a painting I did and we went back and forth through letters concerning art and the Stendhal Syndrome. He invited me to stop by if I was ever in Lawrence. Well I found a way to be in Lawrence soon after. Wouldn’t you?

Yeah! I would be in Lawrence sharpish … like you.

He was brilliant in real life too. He said his cats liked me. I think it was Jane who sat in my lap. I had orange spice tea and he had a tumbler of vodka and coke. He’d recently had the front of the house repainted red and was worried about the smell of paint. He talked about Brion Gysin, his cats, and a boy who had been gutted by a bull, which he thought was funny and in context, it was.

The boy was gutted?

William Burroughs bookcase
William Burroughs’ bookcase

Yes, he had harassed the bull. He thought it quite humorous and it was great to hear him laugh. I couldn’t stop looking at the books on his shelves though. I found myself unable to listen to everything he was saying. I couldn’t pay attention to him because I was too busy looking at his shelves.

What did you see?

Doctors of Death, Mark Twain, The Tibetan Book of the Dead was near the front door. Brian Stableford, random true crime and ghost stories caught my eye. William Lyon, the guy who wrote that great book about Black Elk was there. He was trying to find his copy of True Hallucinations by McKenna. Burroughs claimed he couldn’t find it and looked at me with a grin and said, “scout’s honor.” The book was in his library when he died. I guess Lyon never found it.

Were you taking notes?

Mental notes, yes. I went back in 1998 to document the books. Mr. Jim McCrary of Burroughs Communications provided me with a list and I did some research while there with spiral bound notebook and pencil. Two of the greatest days of my life.

I bet…

Everything I’d done up to that point seemed justified.

Mike, where did you hear of the Naropa reading list Burroughs had compiled?

I think John Bennett sent that to me when I discovered it among the Ohio State University archives. James Grauerholz provided the table of contents for the projected, but unpublished, Granta anthology that was to collect Burroughs’ favourite bits. These lists were like holy grail stuff to me. I was in awe and spent months and months on them. Seeking, reading, researching. It was like discovering a new gospel, man!

Yeah, I can dig that sermon, Mike! Getting back to your book, The Road to Interzone is a truly amazing, informative, and depth charging handbook to me. It is in a second edition now as well. You published it yourself, Mike: tell me about that process?

Thank you. I’m glad you like it. I had finished the book in 2004 and sent it off to Grauerholz, who made encouraging and helpful suggestions on the presentation and order of the book. I then spent another year putting it together in what seemed a comprehensible format. The book then floated around in the hands of the initiated for several years until early 2009, when I decided to start a publishing company called Suicide Press. I already had a book so I thought I would try it out. I called my editor friend, Brian McFarland, who lives in South Carolina to see if he’d be interested in polishing it up and helping me with the final months of editing. He was thrilled to do it and so from March until September of 2009 we performed those final edits. In the meantime, I was learning about formatting and design because I didn’t want to just have a great book of research about Burroughs’ reading, but also an interesting and artistic product to offer folks. My friend, the Australian artist, Peter Maloney is responsible for the cover art, which I find to be incredibly appropriate and beautiful. Now The Road to Interzone exists for Suicide Press, not the other way around.

That’s great, Mike. The artwork is especially beautiful and captures the contents with energy and passion. Yeah, I see that…

And Supervert over at Realitystudio, was very helpful with publicity. He also published my essay The Bladerunner and The Shootist on his site.

The Realitystudio website is a great resource. So do you have any other plans for Suicide Press?

Oh yes, yes, thanks for asking. I certainly do. Upcoming books will make my work on The Road to Interzone look like a curious teenager in the shower. I'm very excited about future Suicide Press publications. I’m currently working with three separate authors for different projects that I expect to be wildly successful. All works of personal passion and love. I’ve spent the last couple of years getting Suicide Press ready and am also working on cataloging Larry McMurtry’s personal library, here in Archer City. I’ve currently catalogued 20,000 volumes of his 28,000 volume collection, which is a Suicide Press activity in that it has helped fund current and future publications. Also, it’s interesting and that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

YES! energy and creativity, connections spiral into new works of love and meaning, I wish Suicide Press the best. I will be keeping a close eye on what the air bubbles contain as they rise to the surface! Any clues as to when a release may occur and by whom?

Yes, I expect at least two books by year’s end, but cannot say who or what because I want to blow the lid off the world suddenly!

Cool. I am looking forward to those releases and further Suicide Press activity.

Thank you for giving me this time, and a big thanks to everyone out there who’s helped me get this goddamned thing off the ground.

That’s kind of you, Mike, its been a joy for me and very interesting. The Road to Interzone has great things in it, things that will provoke the rampant searching you entered into in new Burroughs fans, students and old hands around the globe.

Thanks so much, Paul. I hope it will be helpful in spreading the virus.

A fascinating and richly helpful piece of literary archaeology, tracing as broadly as possible the sources William Burroughs had available to him as he wrote. Both the title and the method echo the classic “Road to Xanadu”, John Livingston Lowes excavation of Coleridge’s reading: Coleridge, like Burroughs, being more than a little interested in drugs. It is a work for which all Burroughs students should be grateful. — Larry McMurtry

To scan Michael Stevens’ bibliography is to dream of entering into William Burroughs’ head from a new angle — not from his writings but from his readings. You can't live Burroughs’ life, but you can read the books he read. You can infect yourself with the same word virus he picked up in writers ranging from Abrahamson (Crime and the Human Mind) to Yeats (“cast a cold eye on life, a cold eye on death…”) Will these get you any closer to the mutations Burroughs performed on the word virus? Doubtless you’ll understand the man and his work better. And perhaps, with the help of the creative reading Burroughs espoused, Road to Interzone will even put you in position to subject the same viral sources to a few new mutations of your own. — RealityStudio.org

Check out the Suicide Press website for more info and to purchase The Road to Interzone by Michael Stevens

Read The Bladerunner and The Shootist by Michael Stevens on realitystudio.org