James Grauerholz first read Naked Lunch in 1966 when he was 13 years old and he immediately “fell in love” with the book’s author. Eight years later, when Burroughs had just turned 60, Grauerholz showed up at the author’s door in downtown New York City for their first meeting. Two weeks later they were living together. Grauerholz quickly became Burroughs’ friend, lover, companion, collaborator, assistant, manager, and eventually the executor of his literary estate.

Grauerholz has devoted most of his life to Burroughs and his literary legacy, and he has done so out of an intense love for the man and his work. “It was always romantic,” he has said. “I loved the man … before I met him, after I met him, after he died, and until right now … I’ve never loved anyone the way that I loved him.”

James has kindly agreed to answer a few questions pertaining to what I’ve been calling “Burroughs Studies” over this past month. You can learn more about Grauerholz and his relationship with Burroughs in a wonderful podcast from Wake Island. (Available on YouTube and Spotify.)

David: Hi James. As you know, we’ve been looking at the state of Burroughs Studies over this past month as a celebration of the 110th anniversary of his birth. It seems to me that the centenary ten years ago kicked off a resurgence of interest in his work, with a host of new books published and many events. We even have a major independent motion picture of Queer, coming out later this year, to look forward to. What’s your view on the state of affairs?

James: I think William’s life and work will continue to be studied throughout the coming century, as they were through the four decades from the publication of Naked Lunch to the turn of the last century.

What’s more important is that they should continue to be enjoyed, and I think they will be. From the first moment when I opened the Grove Press mass-market paperback edition that a junior-high-school classmate gave me, I couldn’t stop laughing. I wanted to read every word this person had ever written. Little did I know that eventually it would happen.

I miss William terribly sometimes, but I usually feel he’s still with me. The sound of his voice echoes in my head, and not only when I’m hearing a recording of his inimitable voice.

Many times each day I think: “What would William say about this? What would he suggest to do?” So he sort of guides me from the spirit realm to this day.

David: A couple of weeks ago, I asked various people who’ve written about Burroughs what they’d like to see in the next ten years of Burroughs Studies. There were calls for better translations, a more interdisciplinary approach, and more attention being devoted to understudied parts of his life and work. What do you hope for? Is there anything you’d like more or less of, or any areas you think have been insufficiently examined?

James: Some of the earliest translations read very well today; others do not. Naked Lunch has been translated into almost three dozen languages, although most of those are no longer in print. I am something of a polymath, but the only languages I can definitively read are American English, British English, and Spanish (especially Central American Spanish). French, Italian, and European Portuguese I can read well enough to know whether a given translation is any good.

Keep in mind that William was a bit of an “underworld linguist” himself. Think of the “Glossary” he wrote for his first published book: 1953’s Junkie from Ace Books, by “William Lee.” He had his ear to the ground in subterranean worlds from St. Louis, Santa Fe, Cambridge, New York, South Texas, and Palm Beach … to Mexico City, Panama City, Bogotá, and Lima … to Tangier, Paris, and London — and that’s to name only the best-known places he explored or where he resided.

Many have observed that William was an explorer and an anthropologist. He did study advanced anthropology at Harvard and Columbia and Mexico City College between 1932 and 1953. He found his way to the underworlds of homosexuality, medicine, psychiatry, narcotics, and psychedelics on four continents before I met him.

Also, William was not really “famous” before the age of forty-five. But those prior eras of his widely-travelled life are what always fascinated me the most. Specialists like Barry Miles, Ted Morgan, Oliver Harris, and Rob Johnson made the earliest major contributions in this field, followed by José Férez, Chad Weidner, Thomas Antonic, and a dozen others.

I myself have written extensively about Burroughs’ life in St. Louis and Los Alamos in the Nineteen-Twenties, Cambridge and Central Europe in the Nineteen-Thirties, and Chicago, New York City, and the Rio Grande Valley in the Nineteen-Forties.

So that answers you about translations and under-studied life periods. As for “interdisciplinary” stuff, I’ll just quote what the Burroughs character in And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks says to the Jack Kerouac character: “Aw, Jack. We don’t wanna hear anything literary.” My sentiments exactly.

David: One of the most positive developments of recent years – from my perspective, at least – has been the work done by Moloko+ Print in producing fascinating books about Burroughs, including Amongst Nazis (Thomas Antonic) and Two Assassins (Oliver Harris and Farid Ghadami). Could you tell our readers a little about the book you have published with them?

James: You refer to The Death of Joan Vollmer Burroughs: What Really Happened? That book was published by Ralf Friel’s Moloko+ Print in Germany last year. It’s a facsimile edition of my 2002 illustrated essay of the same name. They tell me Ralf’s small edition quickly sold out, but I’m sure there are “dealers” who still offer it new — and used copies of everything are always available somewhere.

David: You mentioned in an email that you consider Burroughs a “stealth revolutionary” for his ability to “fly below the radar” in these troubling times when books are being banned. This was a fascinating observation for me because it’s true that after the initial shock and horror surrounding Naked Lunch in the 1960s, and the early obscenity trial, he has sort of become a giant of the underground, a role that has allowed him to be occasionally studied and acknowledged by academics without being banned or cancelled. You see more fuss made over Allen Ginsberg, for example, perhaps because he came closer to mainstream acceptance. How do you think this position as a “stealth revolutionary” has shaped Burroughs’ literary legacy?

James: I don’t know. He just is one.

David: Finally, it occurs to me that you first met Burroughs in 1974, making this year the 50th anniversary of you entering his world. I realise you are quite self-effacing and reticent to boast about what you’ve done in your life, but of course it cannot be denied that you did and continue to do a hell of a lot for Burroughs and his art. So I’m curious – of all that you’ve done for him and for his work, what are you proudest of? 

James: You ask me to choose from the cornucopia of a whole lifetime — which isn’t over yet! My ancestors were very long-lived, from my Mother’s father (101 years) to my Father’s little sister (almost 100 when she died a year ago). I plan to stay around and continue working.

I’m proud that William chose me to be his closest companion for the last twenty-three years of his long life. And I’m not done yet.