Chris Kelso is an award-winning writer, the author of nine novels, three short story collections and editor of five anthologies. His writing, celebrated for its transgressive style and dysfunctional subject matter, has appeared in Evergreen Review, Sensitive Skin and 3AM Magazine. The British Fantasy Society described The Dregs Trilogy – a degenerate platter of snuff movies, psycho killers and high-culture –as “a battle-scarred landmark that will stand the test of time.” His latest work, Burroughs and Scotland (Dethroning the Ancients: the Commitment of Exile) was recently published by Beatdom Books.
Hi, Chris. Burroughs in Scotland, as the blurb states, explores the relationship between the writer William Burroughs and “a country very much attuned to the Beat author’s provocative, transgressive sci-fi style of literature.” Let’s start with a simple question: Why Burroughs? What first drew you to the gentleman junkie?
As a committed exile of my own small-town milieu, anyone who actively kicked against the pricks was a formative idol to me. Since arriving in Glasgow for university, I was expanding my circle of interests and enveloping myself in a newly discovered counterculture biosphere. Surrounded by hipsters and people who were generally better read than me was the only meaningful education I took away from my time at university, but I got caught up in the band-wagon immediately; identified with his sense of profound alienation; was mesmerised by his avant-garde take on the novel. I never looked back.
In the introduction to Burroughs and Scotland, you slash your hometown(s) of Cumnock – “unforgettable images of abject horror” – and Kilmarnock – “an underlying threat of violence” – in Stanley knife splices that wouldn’t be out of place in Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night. How is it you haven’t been tarred and feathered?
It could be because no one from these places has the slightest interest in anything I do or say. No one will have bothered to read the book.
The book initially focuses on Burroughs’ appearance at the 1962 International Writers Conference in Edinburgh, and the subsequent furore his attendance caused among the old guard literati. The conference, organised by Scottish publisher John Calder (no stranger to controversy himself) took place during the world famous Edinburgh Festival. Just for the uninitiated, i.e. me, can you lay down a few words on what the International Writers Conference was aiming to achieve…
John Calder, using his political sway to convince Lord Harwood to host another event in Edinburgh, sought to bring about a sea change in the nations artistic consciousness. It was deliberate. Calder wanted to organise an event that would change everything. Basically, the Conference was a five-day seminar designed to showcase some of the finest writers from around the world and expose the Scottish public to a new wave of expression. It was here that Burroughs cemented his friendship with Trocchi.
You foreshadow the main thrust of the narrative in Burroughs and Scotland with a chapter on the Scottish serial killer Peter Manuel, who, in the late ’50s, raped and/or murdered seven people. Jeff Nuttall in Bomb Culture (1967) did a similar thing in placing Myra Hindley and Ian Brady into his thesis on the rise and demise of British counterculture. Nuttall aside, why did you choose to do that?
I saw Manuel as a kind of spiritual antecedent to the shift in Scotland’s collective awareness. Of course, there were numerous other factors – but an American-born Scot who came over and caused a fuss by killing a lot of young women was certainly significant. There was a lot of suspicion among Presbyterian Scots towards America and its intruders (Manuel and Burroughs, for example). I believe Scots can see and relate to the same possessing ugly spirit they both harboured.
Calder invited some seventy writers to the conference: including Henry Miller, Mary McCarthy and Norman Mailer representing an American contingent; and the Grand Old Man of Scottish letters Hugh MacDiarmid, and the heroin addict and nihilist Alexander Trocchi, author of the controversial Cain’s Book, taking up the Scottish corner. There were writers from other countries, of course, but in placing MacDiarmid alongside Trocchi, Calder seemed to be putting a tiger among the pigeons. Did he do that deliberately, do you think? Was that always the plan?
I absolutely believe this was his intention.John Calder had the Beat spirit, man – and, with the help of Sonia Orwell and Jim Haynes, was responsible for organising the most important conference in Scottish literary history. It was an event that sought to bridge a gap between the stagnant conservatism of the ’50s and the experimentation of the early ’60s.
But let’s not forget that Calder was experienced in controversy long before the conference. He stood for the Liberal Party at two elections against the former Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, at Kinross and West Perthshire. He staunchly believed in self-determination and freedom of expression. He was also a fearless publisher of underground literature – single-handedly bringing the translated works of Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller, and Leo Tolstoy to Scotland. The man was a veritable mastermind of PR, orchestrating cultural cataclysms across the land by introducing new innovative theatre to the Edinburgh Festival. The national establishment feared him and he got off on that.
In many ways, Trocchi was even more transgressive a figure than Burroughs. I mean, Burroughs accidentally killed his wife, Joan Vollmer, but he didn’t whore her out to pay for his smack habit; something Trocchi did. Described by writer Ned Polsky as “an evil man, because he made junkies out of people,” Trocchi was someone who knew no bounds. He truly was an utterly irredeemable cunt, wasn’t he?
Utterly irredeemable. Trocchi is a man I would struggle to defend – even in the old separating-the-art-from-the-artist debate. As much as Burroughs was this marauding, gun-toting, wife-expunging Insect-Man, Trocchi was ten times as despicable. I’m sure chronic drug-saturation played its part in the corrosion of Trocchi’s soul, but nonetheless…
According to Jeff Nuttall,Trocchi once told him that he took heroin for “the sense of inviolability it gave him”. Do you think he used drugs as a defence mechanism?
I suspect it may have been more than that. I mean, Trocchi would shoot up in public places or on live television and goad passers-by as he went about his practice. He used drugs like fuel, but he did it proudly. Drugs were his muse, but also something he could use to put himself at the centre of everyone’s attention. Classic god-complex. He wanted to decide who lived or who died; who was happy and who was sad. People would be happy because he made them happy, but they would be sad because he made some conscious decision to make them sad.
Speaking of Burroughs shooting his wife, at one point – I have to pull you on this, Chris – at one point, you describe that terrible event as an “execution.” I mean, really? An execution?
Perhaps ‘execution’ is the wrong word. At the same time, I think it’s difficult to defend what happened as a simple drug-induced accident – and Burroughs himself refers to some subconscious desire to see Joan die. That ugly misogynistic demon of malicious desire. The mark inside.
I was surprised to read in Ted Morgan’s Burroughs biography Literary Outlaw that, at first, MacDiarmid and Trocchi held similar views on Scottish literature; MacDiarmid railing against the English language for imposing itself on the Scots, and Trocchi dismissing his home country’s culture as “turgid, petty provincial, the stale porridge, Bible-class nonsense.” What state was Scottish writing in at that time?
I’m sure it’s vastly improved, but I’d be the wrong person to ask. There are a lot of Scottish writers I love who I believe are innovative/legitimately talented, but the general bassline is as tepid now as it ever was. I would say there are some fantastic authors beneath the subcutaneous film of the mainstream, just like every other nations literature I suppose.
Hugh MacDiarmid, who you portray as a “stuffy, political clack-box”, famously dismissed Burroughs writing as “all heroin and homosexuality” – which, to be fair, isn’t entirely wide of the mark. It’s puzzling, however, that MacDiarmid, a poet and political writer, a confirmed communist who nonetheless once flirted with fascism, an iconoclast in his own peculiar way, would seem so threatened by Burroughs and the shock of the new. Was he threatened? Was he battening down the hatches?
I think MacDiarmid was confused and wildly inconsistent in his beliefs, a bit like Burroughs and Trocchi in many ways. He was a flighty character prone to act or behave on a whim. He was ultimately a typical selfish capricious artist. He rallied against censorship, but only when it suited him – of course, when it was in keeping with the orthodox values of the Ancients they fought tooth and nail to impose it. He had this strange sense that sexual literature like Naked Lunch might “weaken warlike potential because it tends to drain it.” I’m sure in many ways he wanted to bridge the gap as much as Calder, but the duality of the man wouldn’t allow him to embrace the radical writers in attendance.
In Marshall McLuhan’s prophetic 1967 thesis The Medium is the Massage, he wrote: “‘Time’ has ceased, ‘space’ has vanished. We now live in a global village… a simultaneous happening.” I say prophetic, but – correct me if I’m wrong – this bears remarkable similarity to what Burroughs, Trocchi and Mary McCarthy were arguing five years earlier at the conference; particularly to what McCarthy termed the “stateless novel” – and what you yourself have identified as “heterotopias”…
Yes, these heterotopias offer an idealised potential for freedom from the engrained make-up of a particular society. They are outside of all places. This was how the Scotland-hating Trocchi was able to write about Scotland outside of Scotland. A stateless nation of multiple temporalities, all of his own making. I think many writers do this – I’m thinking of Alasdair Gray writing about ‘another’ Glasgow, one free of the restraints of an imposed reality of what Glasgow actually ‘is’.
Burroughs wasn’t entirely unknown before the conference, but for anyone who attended, friend or foe, he could never again be unknown. In its wake, Calder became Burroughs’ new publisher and effectively kick-started his post Naked Lunch career. Is it an exaggeration to say Burroughs owed much of his writing career to Scotland?
I don’t think so. I think specifically he owes it to people like John Calder – and probably the university students crammed into the 2,300-capacity McEwan Hall.
Burroughs returned to Scotland in 1968 during his dalliance with Scientology, which you discuss in the latter part of the book. It has always been a great mystery to me as to why a man who spent most of his life fighting and trying to eliminate forces of “control” would be interested in a cult that is clearly a form of subjugation. Obviously, I’m speaking with the benefit of hindsight. Is this something we can only understand by placing it in that specific time and place in Burroughs life?
Well, Burroughs was always something of a religious experimentalist, forever scanning the spiritual marketplace for the latest fix. Imagine the trauma he would have internalised after the death of Joan, his debilitating drug habit, and a constant royalty battle with publishers – that’s the whole reason people get embroiled in religion. It’s comfort. A panacea. I don’t think WSB was any different.
In 1973, Burroughs considered moving to Scotland, even looking into buying Aleister Crowley’s former residence on the shores of Loch Ness. He would ultimately choose to move to New York in 1974, but for a man who despised London for its damp climate and terrible food, Scotland was a strange choice, no?
Absolutely. But maybe it was a psychic wellbeing choice. Burroughs thrived on misery, and we are fucking master alchemists of defeat and misery here in Scotland.
You are best known for your fiction. Does Burroughs and Scotland represent a future-shift in your own space/time continuum? What I mean is can we expect more works of nonfiction?
I think that’s my new goal. It has been a decade of sweating in obscurity with fiction. Burroughs and Scotland has already generated more interest than any of my imaginative stories. I’ve also been reading some David Shields and he puts forward quite a convincing case that fiction is an exhausted medium. I firmly believe that The Dregs Trilogy will be my last novel.
Is it difficult to suppress your own prejudices and presumptions when writing about real events?
It is in a way. I used to be a journalist and, believe it or not, you are imbued with a code of ethics that never leave you. I’ve also studied Law in the past and have a strong social conscience. It’s important to remove the ego from non-fiction – in saying that, I spend half of Burroughs and Scotland talking about his personal impact. I’m a narcissist, what can I say?
Your writing has been variously described as “balls-to-the-wall fragmented and experimental”, “sharper than a fine-honed razor” and “grotesque and surreal and confounding.” Have you ever been disturbed by your own words?
Always. What I write doesn’t reflect some inner landscape of desire. I write what I write because that’s what comes out. I’m a slave to it. I’m as easily appalled by abuse and violence as the next person.
You don’t have to answer this of course, but have you ever experimented with drugs in order to write? Personally, I find the occasional hit of amyl nitrate can produce remarkable sentences. A rush of blood to the head and it’s screaming to get out.
Honestly, never. I’ve looked into things like micro-dosing, but I don’t have the temperament. I need to be in complete control and even alcohol takes something vital away from my process. It’s often a barrier rather than a bridge to enlightenment for me.
You are a huge fan of horror – of course you are, you’re Scottish – but where do you stand on Jaws? Over-inflated B-movie or absolute classic? If you don’t say absolute classic, I’m going to drive up to Scotland and kick your fucking teeth down your throat. I’m only joking, of course. I can’t drive; I’ll have to get the bus.
Absolute classic. Now take my money and leave me alone…
Adjectives like dystopian, transgressive and nihilistic follow you around like crack-addled puppies, and yet in a recent interview for the Burroughs website realitystudio.org, you said you were a “pretty optimistic person in daily life.” As your writing career moves forward, do you find your concerns and beliefs shifting?
Definitely. I’ve always had a good moral centre, but I also find things like being a teacher influential in my thinking. I feel the weight of responsibility towards the students in my care. I’m also due to have my first child later this year and I feel more of a desire to out distance between my life and all the dark transgressive ghosts that follow me around.
Do you want to write until you can’t write anymore? Until your ageing, arthritic hands curl in on themselves like a dead crab?
I don’t think I’ll have a choice. I’ve wanted to quit writing so many times, but I always come back full of some new energy that drives me on. I’ll be writing unpopular stories on my death bed.
I asked this question of Victor Bockris, who circumvented the question, but if you could kill, with impunity, anyone alive on this Earth today, who would it be and why?
I don’t believe in the whole eye-for-an-eye thing. I don’t think there is anyone out there who couldn’t benefit from incarceration or deep psychoanalytic treatment. Plus Trocchi is already dead…
Thanks, Chris. It’s been real.
Burroughs in Scotland is available now on Amazon or through Beatdom Books at www.beatdom.com