Writing, Studying and Teaching Burroughs: An interview with Sean Bolton Recorded and Transcribed by Benjamin J. Heal

National Chiao Tung University, May 12, 2014.


BH: Benjamin J. Heal – PhD candidate, University of Kent, UK.

SB: Sean Bolton – Lecturer National Chiao Tung University, Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, Hsinchu, Taiwan.

BH: Ok, tell me generally about your new book Sean.

SB: Ok, what to say about it this time…like any good Burroughs work it should change every time. I should probably say the impetus for the project occurred as I was teaching as a TA [Teaching Assistant] at ASU [Arizona State University]. Students would find out that I would possibly be doing some work on Burroughs for a dissertation, and they would come up to me and say they’ve been trying to read Naked Lunch or ‘I’ve been trying to read the Cut-Up Trilogy and I just can’t figure out how to get into it, are you going to be teaching any classes on this?’  These are good questions: How do you read Burroughs? Aside from a couple of articles, one by Tim Murphy [Timothy Murphy, writer of Wising up the Marks: The Amodern William Burroughs (1997)] “Intersection Points”, and some others, there hadn’t been much that I’d seen of people breaking it down, saying ‘how do we approach this, these narratives? How do we make sense or get some kind of meaning from these very chaotic texts?’ So I started thinking about it: How do you read this, what advice would you give? And that’s where I started thinking about the thesis of the book.

BH: So the thesis looks at the narrative strategies of Burroughs, how he tried different experiments to ‘tell a story’?

SB: Yeah, this led to a number of ideas about what the place of his work is within the tradition of experimental literature and experimental narrative, what things he was doing differently, what things he was drawing from – from things that came before, like what you’re talking about in you thesis…

BH: The European ideas and Art movements, like Surrealism and Surrealist techniques…

SB: So I didn’t go into that area because, as you know, that is a completely different project, instead it led to a slightly odd place where I began to realise that part of Burroughs’ project, and I think it is fairly explicitly stated in the early novels, Naked Lunch and the Cut-Up Trilogy, is to change the relationship of the reader to the text, and that’s where I discovered, ‘oh that’s what the book is about, what these strategies are,’ and so of course doing the instruction on reading Burroughs’ books is the basis of what my book is.

BH: I think I read in your book, and how I understand it is, that you are saying that a lot of critical approaches to Burroughs take an almost negative, anti-establishment, counter-cultural perspective on Burroughs as tearing up History and destroying literature. I know in my Masters thesis I wrote about Naked Lunch as an anti-novel; it is a novel in a broad sense because that is how it is marketed but at the same it is totally contrary to all the conventions, it is totally anti-convention and is subversive, whereas you are saying Burroughs is taking a positive perspective towards the novel as an enabling strategy to enable readers to get more out of a novel, and to understand ideas through the novel form. Is that getting close to what you are saying?

SB: Yes, he is offering an alternate narrative, that’s not based on the linearity or non-linearity that we are used to in most novels. Most of the time when we see something called anti-novel or anti-narrative I think we can come at these works from a different perspective on narrative. I was given the opportunity to teach a ‘special topics’ course and I wanted to do something taking Tim Murphy’s advice on contextualising Burroughs in a class along the lines of that idea. I decided to do something on human subjectivity and technology, which got me started on the Posthuman angle. While putting this class together it became very clear that Burroughs’ cut-up narratives were doing very similar things to what hypertext and electronic literature were doing contemporarily. And so I started looking a lot more into the theory being written about electronic literature and hypertext, and made some big leaps in what my thinking on Burroughs was and what my book was going to be. That research gets used in the fifth chapter of the book where I bring all the implications of the chapters that came before to bear on how Burroughs can be read now with this new theoretical language and how his influence extends into the literature that is coming out of the influence of electronic and digital methods of writing mediations.

BH: So what are the theories that you bring to bear on Burroughs, which theorists in particular are important in the book?

SB: Jacques Derrida [French Philosopher] has a central place in the book, but I am approaching the use of Derrida in a way that I at least haven’t seen in Burroughs interpretation…

BH: I find that interesting, as when you are using a theorist or philosopher like Derrida you have to be very careful how it is employed and what perspective you take on their work, I think.

SB: Right, I mean I haven’t read everything that everyone has ever written about Derrida!

BH: That would take forever!

SB: So I can’t be certain that I’m doing anything original, but I think my application of that kind of theory is at least different from what I’ve seen in other Burroughs scholarship, different from what Robin Lydenberg [writer of Word Cultures: Radical Theory and Practice in William S. Burroughs’ Fiction (1987)] did…

BH: In Word Cultures

SB: And in the pivotal chapter, the fourth chapter, on subjectivity and narrative subjectivity, Jacques Lacan [French psychoanalyst and theorist] comes into that prominently with his theories on subjectivity, and Jean Baudrillard [French philosopher] is important and the idea of the hyperreal, particularly in the third chapter, and then in that last chapter Katherine Hayles (N. Katherine Hayles, author of How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics (1999)] on Posthuman theory and Espen Aarseth [Espen J. Aarseth, author of Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (1997)] from his book Cybertext. That was really important in making my case for how Burroughs’ print novels serve as early versions of what we see later as hypertext and electronic formats.

BH: How do you see Baudrillard’s hyperreality intersecting with Burroughs’ work?

SB: I think, in the way Burroughs seems already to understand in some intuitive way as he’s writing Naked Lunch, as he’s amalgamating all the different places he’s visited and the features of these places he is seeing something that is not a real place, a real territory, but he is creating a map on a model that does not exist, so it’s very much this construction that Baudrillard theorises later as ‘hyperreal’ using examples like Disneyland.

BH: Can you think of any examples in Burroughs’ texts where that also happens?

SB: I would definitely be remiss to not mention the section in The Yage Letters, “The Composite City”, that shows up almost word for word in Naked Lunch, and we’ve got also the section [“A Distant Thank You”] from Nova Express of the Bill and Iam coming in to create the house for a couple who’s name I don’t remember, and it’s all this permutating and transforming, transmorphing construction of all these time periods, styles – so that’s another place in Burroughs where we have a very hyperreal place that is being constructed.

BH: Yes, I think “The Composite City” is a central piece in Burroughs’ writing, is very formative for things that come before The Yage Letters and things that come after as well. [note: The Yage Letters were mostly written before Naked Lunch, but published after]

SB: Right, and you really do also have to look at Cities of the Red Night, because -the title – and those cities that are talked about bear a strong resemblance to the “Penny Arcade Peep Show” strategy he uses in The Wild Boys and the way that he constructs those cities is again very much in the hyperreal.

BH: I can’t remember who it was, but I’m sure critics have referred to Cities of the Red Night as a metafictional text, do you see it as a metafiction?

SB: In terms of the narrative?

BH: Yes.

SB: Well it’s probably metafictional in a way that’s quite unique to Burroughs, because in terms of the characters that the narrative focuses through, we do have the shifting from Noah Blake to Clem Snide, but there is so much slippage between the narratives and at times they are Faulknerian, where we’ve got a narrating consciousness that seems to belong in a different narrative thread that has slipped into the narrative we are reading. In terms of metafiction there is the Clem Snide moment where he is reading the book itself, which Burroughs does several times in his novels, but there is also the metafiction that’s generated by the tape experiments that Snide is doing his magic with, and the play that we get toward the end that brings all the narrative threads of the novel to bear, yes a lot of metafictional strategies at work there.

BH:  So, going back to the book, how long did it take you to write it, how did that process work?

SB: The process of writing this book, I have to theorise that now! The book started as a dissertation, “The Narrative Strategies of William Burroughs”, and so that started as I assume most dissertation processes start, except for one thing I think I did differently in my exam process for the portfolio papers. Instead of drawing from a paper I had written for another class during coursework or something like that I wrote a paper from scratch that was intended to a be a synopsis for what the book was going to be, and it was very much focused on the issues of the fourth chapter.

BH: I’m not familiar with the portfolio process in American Universities, can you explain that?

SB: Sure, there are few different stages of the PhD exam process, you get done with the coursework, then you get started with the portfolio papers and these are usually two or three papers which the committee deems to be of publishable quality. I had to do two papers, sometimes a bibliography is also required, but for some reason that had been dropped in the programme I was in, even though I wrote something like that in my prospectus later. In the portfolio process you develop these papers to a publishable quality, then you take your comprehensive exams, written or oral, it can depend, and you go through the broader scope of your project, mine would have been 20th Century American Literature, and you go off of your reading list for the exam. The last part is to create the prospectus of the exam itself and to defend that, and that’s the exams. Once you’re through the exams then you’re ABD – ‘all but the dissertation’, and you work on the dissertation from that point, and defend it.

BH: Ok, I have a similar thing coming up, a submission review. I have to submit a quality 10,000 word chapter, then we’ll have a review exam after that and discuss whether I need to have a continuation year, which I inevitably will!

SB: Well it sounds like you’ve been doing the writing of the dissertation, and then you have the exams.

BH: Yes, it’s slightly the opposite way round. It’s interesting to hear how that process works I think, particularly for people in Europe, or people who have different systems around the world. It’s interesting to know those differences for people thinking about studying the Beats or doing a dissertation on the Beats. You also mentioned earlier about The Parasite, Michel Serres [French philosopher], and you have an article on that?

SB: I have a big revision to do on the article, but I’m sure I’ll get it in good shape so it will be accepted for publication. What I ‘ve done with that article, since my scholarship is headed more into focusing on Posthumanism and how we might apply theories of Posthumanism to literary interpretation and criticism, is to look at Burroughs more specifically with Posthumanism in mind. I’ve always thought that one of the more interesting brief sections of Robin Lydenberg’s book was on Burroughs and the parasite. Lydenberg very briefly mentions Michel Serres.

BH: It’s almost like an offhand remark…

SB: She spends about a page or so on it, and doesn’t really make connections between Burroughs’ use of the parasite and Serres’ idea of the parasite. I understand why she did it this way, as her book was not about that kind of criticism of Burroughs, but I always thought it would be really interesting to pursue that relationship more, so that’s what the article is that I’ve been working on. I presented a paper on it at EBSN’s second conference in Denmark, which was well received, so when I got back to Taiwan I sat down before the semester started and worked on fleshing it out into that article, and now I just have to get it revised to a clean, publishable state.

BH: Well, you say ‘coming back to Taiwan’, so do you want to say a little bit about what it has been like working and living in Taiwan as a Beat scholar, or Burroughs scholar?

SB: Probably more Burroughs scholar in my case. It’s interesting in a number of ways. I’ve kind of come back to Burroughs after taking a break to focus more on writing about different authors, Posthumanism and those issues.

BH: I think that’s really important, that’s partly why my dissertation is about Burroughs and Bowles. My specialism is Burroughs, but I needed to have a counterpoint. I considered other writers to look at alongside them, but it just seemed to me that Burroughs and Bowles, in the context that I am looking at, work very well together and in parallel.

SB: Very interesting…so I’m sort of returning to Burroughs in my second year in Taiwan, and there’s not any very easy way to get hold of current scholarship and some of the more recent stuff being done, so it’s been challenging to come back to it and to apply the same kind of rigour that I had been doing before. It was also very nice as a contrast, where I’m living in a country where I am illiterate, I don’t speak or read or write the language, to come back to Burroughs which also presents many struggles of meaning and signification and for that to be a kind of comfort zone!

BH: I see! There’s an irony there!

SB: Right! It was kind of a pleasurable experience to know, ‘okay, I might be confused, but I’m not as confused as I am in my real life!’

BH: So…challenging, certainly. I’m also interested to ask you about the publication of the book as well, did you get external people in to help with the editing and how were your dealings with the publisher?

SB: I had a wonderful experience with the publication, and with corresponding with and working with the publisher. A great deal of the work was placed at my desk, but I’m a bit Type A so that was really fine with me, ‘if I do it it’ll be done right’ whether or not that’s true! So I did have the responsibility of doing most of the copyediting although I did get feedback and very useful recommendations and suggestions, and I did the formatting with a lot of help from the publisher emailing back and forth. I took on the responsibility for doing the index so maybe I should apologise to some of the readers for the quality there, I don’t quite know how to judge the quality of it myself!

BH: As we’re talking about Posthumanism and hyperreality I think a lot of people use amazon previews to search texts these days, so that can be used if the index is no good!

SB: Right, I hope that the index works well, but being completely inexperienced coming to it it’s probably not the best index that could be done!

BH: I found working on an index a very strange experience.

SB: It’s a different kind of experience, again with my kind of detail-focussed attitude I kind of enjoyed doing it, but I would not want to make a career out of it, I know some people do.

BH: I agree with you, it feels a bit like tetris, you know, putting things into little boxes all the time.

SB: And making sure that the pages are matching up after all the formatting is done, it can be a little maddening!

BH: Slightly infuriating! Who was the publisher?

SB: Rodopi.

BH: Ah, I have an article on Bowles and Burroughs’ I’ve been waiting on publication since 2010…

SB: That happens!

BH: So hopefully that’ll be coming out later this year.

SB: One of the very nice things about working with this publisher is that as long as I was diligent in getting the work done on my end they were very fast on their end.

BH: Excellent. I think they had a problem with my publication. One of the editors died, which held up production of the series they do, so that was a difficult time period for everyone.

SB: I had a horror story from a colleague recently who said that a journal that had accepted one of his articles and had been holding onto it for several years, the editorial staff changed, the chief editor changed and the new chief editor didn’t like the article anymore and wouldn’t follow through.

BH: And the problem again with that is if the article is then out of date or seemingly out-dated it is difficult to peddle it to other journals.

SB: And how much time do you want to spend going back and updating when it could be another two or three year delay?

BH: Patience is a virtue in academic publishing. I know I co-wrote a review not so long ago for a newspaper that we were going to get paid for, they thanked us for the review, but until it gets published we don’t get paid, and there’s no guarantee it’s going to get published.

SB: We do a lot of that!

BH: Frustrating! A frustrating business!

SB: It’s not one of the worst businesses; there are some nice perks to it, though it can be pretty frustrating.

Sean Bolton’s Mosaic of Juxtaposition. William S. Burroughs’ Narrative Revolution. is out now from Rodopi. http://www.rodopi.nl/ntalpha.asp?BookId=PMS+51&type=coming&letter=

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