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The Reading Life: Interviewing William Burroughs

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This is part of the occasional series "The Reading Life" by book critic David L. Ulin.

The latest issue of Sensitive Skin, a magazine "by and for ne'r-do-wells, black sheep, blackguards, scoundrels and wastrels," features a long interview with William S. Burroughs, conducted by his friend and running mate Allen Ginsberg in the early 1990s, when both men had achieved an uneasy status as elder statesmen of the underground.

Burroughs, who died in 1997 at the age of 83, was living at the time in Lawrence, Kan., where he settled in the 1980s; Ginsberg had come to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony to exorcise "the ugly spirit," a possessing force Burroughs felt had influenced, among other tragedies, the accidental shooting death of his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, in Mexico City in 1951.

According to a note by editor B. Kold, the interview came to him in 1995 by way of Ginsberg himself; it was mislaid when Sensitive Skin went on a long hiatus, and subsequently rediscovered after the magazine was revived in 2010. It is accompanied by a suite of Ruby Ray photographs, originally shot for RE/Search, which ran a special Burroughs issue in 1981.

If all of this sounds like ancient history, that's true in its way, I suppose. But reading the interview, a couple of impressions linger. First is just how prescient both Burroughs and Ginsberg were, talking about politics and advertising as a virus, a decade before viral marketing. Even more, there's Burroughs' diffidence, his taciturnity, even around a lifelong friend. In fact, one of the secret joys of the interview is seeing how it unfolds: Ginsberg asking questions in long paragraphs, which Burroughs often answers in a word or two.

For anyone who ever spoke to Burroughs, this was the challenge. As Charles Platt recalls in Ted Morgan's Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs: "Burroughs turned out to be almost as difficult to talk to as I feared. He is polite and perfectly willing to tolerate my presence, but many of his remarks are dismissively brief, as if the questions bore him.... Typically, he makes a brief categorical statement, then stops and regards me with his pale eyes as if waiting to see if I really intend to ask any more dumb questions."

That was my experience also, when I visited Burroughs in Lawrence in April 1996.

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Feds grab 11 pounds of marijuana headed for St. Martin's Press

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Two parcels shipped from San Diego never made it to their destination, the New York publisher St. Martin's Press. The Smoking Gun reports a post office employee in California noticed a smell emanating from the packages and alerted the authorities. With the help of a drug-sniffing dog and a search warrant, they discovered the packages contained more than 11 pounds of marijuana.

The marijuana was sent from "ABTBooks," an invented company with a fictitious return address. The drug-filled packages were sent to Karen Wright at St. Martin's Press in New York City. St. Martin's publishes popular fiction and nonfiction books, including the bestselling "Hungry Girl" cookbooks.

Yet the intended recipient remains a mystery. The Smoking Gun turned up no St. Martin's employee named Karen Wright. After trying, and failing, to find a clever literary allusion in the nom-de-marijuana, the website Galleycat asked, "Who is Karen Wright?"

The value of the marijuana shipment could be close to $70,000, writes the Smoking Gun, "depending on its quality." I suppose that's one way to save publishing.

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Jonathan Lethem talks about pot, virtual worlds and 'Chronic City'

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: A sample of medical marijuana available at Green Oasis, a dispensary in Los Angeles. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Tom Sizemore to write memoir of drug addiction and recovery

  Actor Tom Sizemore is writing a memoir of his drug use and recovery for Atria Books
Actor Tom Sizemore is writing a memoir of his drug use and recovery for Atria Books. Sizemore, whose acting chops landed him roles in the Academy Award-winning "Saving Private Ryan" and "Black Hawk Down," has had very public struggles with cocaine and heroin. There were arrests, and then recovery on reality TV.

Deadline Hollywood wrote:

Sizemore, who once romanced Elizabeth Hurley and Sharon Stone and whose performances in films from True Romance to Black Hawk Down elevated him from character actor to the star of his own TV series in Robbery Homicide Division, lost it all due to his substance abuse struggles. At his lowest point, Sizemore was accused of domestic violence by Heidi Fleiss and traded a Beverly Hills mansion for a solitary confinement cell at Chino State Prison.

A possibly lower point was when Sizemore, trying to pass a drug test, was busted for using a device called "The Whizzinator." That was in 2005, when the actor, who was on probation, was required to take a urinalysis before leaving to shoot a film in Cambodia. The Whizzinator included a pair of men's underwear, a repository for drug-free pee, heat packs and a prosthetic, um, male pee-delivery device.

Another unusual moment in Sizemore's struggles and recovery was when Charlie Sheen appeared on his behalf at a sentencing hearing in 2007.

But that's behind him now. "The fact that I'm now sober over two years -- and that I'm acting as much as I did before -- proves that people can overcome obstacles even when they’re sure they can't," Sizemore told Deadline Hollywood. "I hope that this book can inspire other people to never give up."

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Tom Sizemore in 2006. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times

L.A. noir in poetry, fiction and film

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There are 8 million stories in the naked city. This will be a month of them.

Starting Oct. 15, the Los Angeles Poetry Festival and Beyond Baroque Literary Center present a month of readings, discussions and presentations about and around Los Angeles noir. The monthlong, citywide series is called Night and the City: L.A. Noir in Poetry, Fiction and Film.

L.A. noir in fiction is an easy sell: from James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler in the 1930s and '40s up to the noir revival kicked off by James Ellroy, the dark stories have been a match for our sun-drenched city. So, too, for noir film: French film critics gave name to the moral morass in "Double Indemnity," "Gun Crazy," "The Big Sleep" and the other classic noir films shot, and often set in, Los Angeles.

But noir poetry? That's a new one.

The series hopes to make the connection clear, and the kickoff event seems up to the task. Poet and critic Robert Polito will give the keynote speech on Oct. 15 at Beyond Baroque. Polito is the editor of two on-topic Library of America collections -- "Crime Novels of the '30s and '40s" and "Crime Novels of the '50s," and the night will include musical guest Cristy Knowings, described as a "virtuoso noir singer" plus a short film inspired by Polito's poetry collection, "Hollywood & God."

Other notable events in the series include mystery writers Gary Phillips (pictured), Dick Lochte, poet Richard Modiano and writer Judith Freeman, author of "The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved," talking about Raymond Chandler and his legacy on Nov. 4. That discussion will be followed by an evening with Ellroy, author of "L.A. Confidential," "The Black Dahlia," and, most recently, "The Hilliker Curse."

On Oct. 29, Edgar Allan Poe Award-winning writer Naomi Hirahara and poet Carol Lem will discuss women in noir before a screening of "The Crimson Kimono," with an introduction by film noir scholar Alan K. Rode, all at the Japanese American Museum in Little Tokyo. Later that evening, a literary noir bar crawl, organized by PEN, will hit the streets of downtown.

On Nov. 5, the South Pasadena Library will screen the noir film "Union Station," with an introduction by historian Tom Zimmerman. The evening will include a tribute to star William Holden, who also starred in the noir classic "Sunset Boulevard" by actress Stefanie Powers.

Other events include poetry readings, theatrical performances, a continental noir breakfast with a featured noir guest, open mics, film screenings and literary discussions. The events take place across the city; some have free admission, others with ticket prices going up to $15. See the L.A. Poetry Festival site for complete schedule and details.

"They spoke quickly, as if they were saying things that scalded their mouths, and had to be cooled with spit," James M. Cain wrote in "Mildred Pierce." Now that's poetry.

RELATED:

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Playing L.A. Noire: A book nerd detects and tries to drive

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Gary Phillips in 2005. Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

Coloring book used in failed drug smuggling attempt [updated]

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Friends and relatives of three jail inmates in New Jersey tried to use a coloring book to smuggle drugs into their relatives, authorities announced Tuesday. The attempt was foiled by officials, who recieved a tip that the coloring books were filled with more than just messy scribbles and adorable notes from children.

In fact, patches on the coloring book pages were the drug Suboxone, normally used to treat heroin addiction, which is also considered a controlled dangerous substance. Reuters reports that the Suboxone "was dissolved into a paste and then painted into the coloring book.

Talk about going outside the lines.

[Update 5:25 p.m. Thursday: An earlier version of this post called the drug "Subozone."]

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: A coloring book page used in an attempt to smuggle drugs into jail. Credit: Cape May County handout /Reuters

On making a new William Burroughs documentary

Williamburroughs_1996 Yony Leyser had been kicked out of CalArts and recently celebrated his 21st birthday when he landed in Lawrence, Kan., and decided to try to make a documentary about William Burroughs. 

Despite the fact that Burroughs had been dead for a decade and Leyser had never made a documentary before, the result is the quite excellent "William S. Burroughs: A Man Within." It's a star-studded portrait of the author, his peculiarities and the deep saturation of his persona through underground arts and culture in the late 20th century. It's been playing in festivals for the last year; it airs Tuesday night on PBS stations nationwide.

Leyser came to Burroughs through his iconic book "Naked Lunch," which someone gave to him as a high schooler in Chicago. "It was so obscene in such a good way, shocking and amazing all at once," Leyser told The Times in a phone interview from Berlin. Burroughs' book was, he says, "my entry point to punk rock, surrealist art, literature, the Beat Generation -- it was an amazing diving point."

So how did a kid with no experience and few connections get directors David Cronenberg, John Waters and Gus Van Sant, actor Peter Weller, rockers Iggy Pop, Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith, Genesis P-Orridge and literary agent Ira Silverberg to talk to him? "When you're young, people want to help you out," he says. "When they heard it was about Burroughs, they were very receptive."

Much of the film's rarely seen archive footage came from this general goodwill toward the project, people digging up old films and videotapes that had been stashed away in basements. "Even Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth had Super-8 that had never been transferred," Leyser says.

As fitting a documentary about Burroughs, the film isn't exactly linear. Leyser uses stop-motion animation with wire figures to frame sections focusing on different aspects of Burroughs' life: his books, his boyfriends, the accidental killing of his wife in Mexico, his move to Kansas from New York, his art, his drugs, his guns.

And through it all, there is Burroughs' distinctive voice. "If you had a choice, would you rather be a poisonous snake or a nonpoisonous snake?" he reads in voiceover. And later: "I bring not peace, but with a sword."

The version of "William Burroughs: A Man Within" that will broadcast Tuesday night on PBS has been cut to fit the slot of the show Independent Lens. A longer, 88-minute version that has been showing at festivals is available on DVD from Oscilloscope Pictures for $23.99. 

The trailer for "William Burroughs: A Man Within" is after the jump.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: William Burroughs at the Earl McGrath Gallery with his art piece, "Don't Sit On This Chair." Credit: Michael Edwards / Los Angeles Times 

Continue reading »

James Franco's buying spree

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On Tuesday, D.J. Waldie sent around an e-mail announcing that James Franco had bought the rights to "Holy Land," Waldie's memoir of growing up in Lakewood in the 1950s. New housing tracts! Fallout shelters! Strange neighbors! Suburban ennui! According to Waldie, Franco read "Holy Land" while an undergraduate at UCLA.

It seems like Franco has been on something of a literary shopping spree. Two weeks ago, news spread that he was optioning Stephen Elliott's "The Adderall Diaries," a book that is, for the most part, also a memoir. "If it were to be made, the idea is that James would write, direct and star in it," Elliott told the Observer.  "He seems like a pretty busy guy, so I don't know when he's going to find the time for it, but I hope he does."

In 2009, Franco told a New Yorker Festival audience that he'd optioned "The Broken Tower," a biography of poet Hart Crane, and Franco's brother Dave told GQ that the two were working on an adaptation of Charles Bukowski's "Ham on Rye."

Of course, that's not all James Franco is up to. He recently starred as Allen Ginsberg in "Howl"; appeared at New York Comic-Con on Friday to preview the stoner comedy "Your Highness"; was interviewed Tuesday at the Hamptons International Film Festival; appears in the upcoming film "127 Hours," which brings him to the Mill Valley Film Festival on Sunday; has been acting in General Hospital; enrolled as a PhD student at Yale; directed the short film "The Clerk's Tale"  and ... well, I'm sure I'm missing something.

Oh, that's right: He's publishing his first collection of short stories, "Palo Alto," with Scribner. It officially hits shelves Oct. 19.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photos, from left: D.J. Waldie in 2006. Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times. Stephen Elliott. Credit: rachelkramerbussel.com via Flickr

 

 

Two tales of decadence and desire

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Two French stories of drugs and decadence, both translated by John Baxter, have been brought back in a single two-sided volume. The double book consists of "Morphine" by Jean-Louis Dubut de LaForest on one side and, on the other, "My Lady Opium" by Claude Farrère.

Claude Farrère was the pseudonym of Frédéric-Charles Bargone, born in 1876, who served in the French navy. He wrote tales of the exotic places he traveled, including Istanbul, Japan and Saigon. "My Lady Opium" -- originally published as "Fumee d'Opium" in 1904 -- is a collection of stories set on different continents, linked only by the drug. Farrèr/Bargone won the first-ever Prix Goncourt, France's premiere literary prize, in 1905. "A group of us were lying on the mats as usual. Not alone, for opium loves company. There were two women upon the mats," Farrèr/Bargone writes in one story. "One of them, I can't mention her name. Her husband has a steamer run, and the moment he's upped anchor, she's down to the fumerie for a pipe, and whatever else may be on offer."

If "My Lady Opium" sounds racy, it is -- but it doesn't outstrip "Morphine," which has drugs, sex, crime and ruin.  Its protagonist, Captain Raymond de Pontaillac, is described as being "sufficiently handsome even to startle the two courtesans, who surreptitiously pulled down their bodices a little to better expose their decolletages, and pinched their cheeks to give an additional flush." Published as part of a series called Les derniers scandales de Paris (The Latest Paris Scandals), it was less classy than trashy. It was published in 1891 and reprinted several times over, but it has been out of print since 1914; this is its first English publication.

The two-sided "My Lady Opium" and "Morphine" was published by Harper Perennial in April.

-- Carolyn Kellogg
twitter.com/paperhaus

Photo: Smoke (from incense, not opium). Credit: Vanessa Pike-Russell via Flickr


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Even agriculture academics have something nice to say about marijuana

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The problem with academic writing is that, well, it’s boring. When scholars write for other scholars they try to show off how scholarly they are. The result is that books that might actually be of interest to the general public end up reading like finalists in a competition to see who can be the greatest pedantic gasbag.

That's why I picked up Paul F. Starrs' and Peter Goin's "Field Guide to California Agriculture" with some trepidation.

As you'd expect from such a publication, the "Field Guide" is packed with information. Academics love data and there are statistics and descriptions of everything you could possibly think of -- and some that you wouldn't -- involving food production in this state. From almonds to bees (bees are livestock!), goats to garlic, eggplant to marijuana (“the largest value crop by far in the state’s lineup”), hogs to hay, Starrs and Goins document the shocking amount of stuff we humans put in our mouths. The sheer amount of encyclopedic information should make this book required reading for every serious foodie, gardener and farmer’s market junkie on the West Coast.

Yet despite the trappings of academia, all the well-researched information and scrupulously fact-checked statistics, this is not your typical academic book.  For starters, it’s stuffed with colorful photographs -- including a fantastic gallery of art photos entitled "The Paradox and Poetics of Agriculture" -- and maps with various regions delineated by splashes of color and growing areas marked by bright orange dots. (I was disappointed to see that my friend's Southern California basement wasn’t marked by a dot. He’s got quite a farm growing there.)

But what grabbed me the most about this book is how it's written. The authors use prose with real style and charm. It's witty writing that shifts from erotica ("The handsome form of pendulous Hass avocados") to science fiction fantasy ("Looking for all the world like an alien spaceship tinged light green or purple by long travel, kohlrabi..."), making the "Field Guide to California Agriculture" the summer beach read of academic writing.  

-- Mark Haskell Smith

 Mark Haskell Smith is the author of the forthcoming novel, "Baked."

Photo: Marijuana, like these buds seen at a pot dispensary, is California's highest value crop, according to the authors of the "Field Guide to California Agriculture." Credit: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

It's not too late for the obligatory 4/20 book post

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Marijuana sample

Today, April 20, is 4/20, or four-twenty, or 4:20, a phrase whose origins are hazy but which basically has  something to do with smoking marijuana. Four-twenty has entered legend, despite the fact that smoking pot isn't legal -- for now, anyway, although that might change after the November ballot initiative  on legalizing marijuana.

In January, with the help of writer Mark Haskell Smith, we came up with a list of our top 10 weed books:

The novels "Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me" by Richard Farina, "Budding Prospects" by T.C. Boyle and "Vineland" by Thomas Pynchon; "Burning Rainbow Farm: How a Stoner Utopia Went Up in Smoke" by Dean Kuipers, "Cannabis: A History" by Martin Booth, "The Emperor Wears No Clothes: The Authoritative Historical Record of Cannabis and the Conspiracy Against Marijuana" by Jack Herer and "Marijuana Horticulture: The Indoor/Outdoor Medical Grower's Bible" by Jorge Cervantes, all nonfiction; and essays, memoir and more in "The Drug User: Documents 1840-1960" edited by John Strausbaugh and Donald Blaise, "The Hasheesh Eater" by Fitz Hugh Ludlow and "Red-Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes" by Terry Southern.

Today at the Daily Beast, author Sam Munson lists six significant stoner novels. Our only overlap is Boyle's "Budding Prospects" -- check out Munson's complete list here.

And if you get distracted and forget to click, don't stress. Famous stoner comedians Cheech and Chong, whose new film "Cheech and Chong's Hey Watch This" was released today, were asked by the website LAist if they have celebrated 4/20. Chong's response: "With me it’s usually 4/21, because I always forget it’s 4/20. They go, 'Well, it was 4/20.' Oh, really? Okay, well, let’s celebrate. It’s never too late."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: A sample of Blue Goo at Green Oasis, a medical marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

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