Five Fascinating Facts about William Burroughs

Interesting William Burroughs facts: concerning his life, his work, and his links with other writers

1. Before he became a famous novelist, William S. Burroughs worked in pest-control as an exterminator. Many writers started out in somewhat surprising jobs. Douglas Adams was a bodyguard to a Middle Eastern family of oil magnates; Tarzan creator (and William Burroughs’ namesake) Edgar Rice Burroughs was a pencil sharpener salesman. But William Burroughs, who was born in 1914, started out working as an exterminator in Chicago. (Fittingly, Burroughs would later title one of his short-story collections Exterminator!) Burroughs would quit this job and move to New York, where he would meet Allen Ginsberg an Jack Kerouac, and the Beat Generation would take over the world.

2. William Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch got its title when his friend Jack Kerouac misheard the working title ‘Naked Lust’. Fellow Beat Generation icon Jack Kerouac later claimed he had misheard ‘naked lust’, William Burroughsand one of the catchiest titles of the decade was born.

3. William Burroughs accidentally shot his common-law wife Joan Vollmer dead at a party during a drunken game of ‘William Tell’. This happened in Mexico City in 1951; Burroughs was subsequently convicted of manlaughter. (He was released on bail, but left Mexico when, in a bizarre turn of events, his Mexican attorney accidentally shot and killed someone and fled the country.) In his 1985 novel Queer (actually written a year after the event, in 1952), Burroughs wrote that ‘the death of Joan brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I had no choice except to write my way out.’ At college, Vollmer had been the roommate of the woman who would later marry Jack Kerouac.

4. His work has had a considerable influence on science fiction. Although not an SF author himself, Burroughs – and the cult that grew up around his work in the 1960s – struck a chord with a number of important writers of speculative fiction and science fiction, notably J. G. Ballard and William Gibson. (We’ve offered some facts about J. G. Ballard here.)

5. William Burroughs coined the phrase ‘heavy metal’. The genre of loud rock music got its name from Burroughs’ 1961 novel The Soft Machine, in which a character named Uranian Willy, the Heavy Metal Kid, appears. The music world has been grateful ever since – and indeed, Burroughs has exerted a powerful influence over popular music. The rock band Steely Dan took their name from a dildo which features in William Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch. Kurt Cobain asked Burroughs to appear as Jesus in the music video for the Nirvana song ‘Heart-Shaped Box’; Burroughs declined.

If you enjoyed these William Burroughs facts, we’ve taken a look at the work of another Beat writer in our post detailing some facts about Jack Kerouac. We’d also recommend our compendium of great William Faulkner facts.

Image: William S. Burroughs at the Gotham Book Mart celebrating the reissue of JUNKY, NYC, in 1977 (via MarceloNoah), Wikimedia Commons.


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  3. Looking at his photo it’s difficult to believe he was one of the influentials of The Beat movement. He looks more Oxfordian than Beat.

  4. Burroughs spent the last fifteen or so years of his life in Lawrence, Kansas, a mid-sized college town west of Kansas City, Missouri. I knew two or three people who went to his house, just to say hello and that they admired his work, and from what I can recall of the story, he didn’t seem to mind all that much. Remarkable, considering his stature.

  5. he didn’t have to work he was heir to a fortune his family invented a adding machine