Tales of Ohle

An interview with David Ohle

David Ohle met Burroughs in the mid-'70s while teaching at the University of Texas at Austin. They became close friends after Ohle moved back to Lawrence in 1984.

Ohle is the author of two novels (plus one forthcoming) and many short stories. He earned his master's degree from KU in 1972 and teaches fiction writing and screenwriting at the university. These are some of his stories...

lawrence.com: How did you meet Burroughs?

Ohle: I got to know him through James Grauerholz. I was teaching on the grad student level a course in fiction writing. James briefly was in it and dropped out of school altogether. ... He was kind of bored with school, but he was very interested in the Beats. He was a scholar of the Beats even then, when he was a freshman in college.

Burroughs always needed an assistant of some kind or another to get his shit organized and be his secretary, answer his mail. He always needed somebody like that. Even Jack Kerouac at one time did that kind of stuff for him. Various friends always helped him out with the more mundane tasks involved with being a famous guy like him, and editing his work and getting it in good shape.


Lawrence author David Ohle.

James really started organizing Burroughs' life, and I think helped him out considerably. His career never would've been the same, and maybe wouldn't have lasted nearly as long, if James hadn't appeared on the scene.

At the same time, about 1975, I went down to teach at the University of Texas, in Austin. I was gone from Lawrence from '75 to '84. Burroughs came to Austin as part of a reading series with Ken Kesey and a few other writers. And that's the first time I actually met him. ... They stayed at my house while he was there.

I came back to Lawrence in '84, and by that time William was here and established. : Wayne Propst was regularly going to William's house on Thursday nights-I don't know why it was Thursday, but it was-to cook dinner for him. At some point I offered to come over and cook. Don't tell Wayne this, but I'm a much better cook than Wayne is. In fact, at that time Wayne was a really bad cook. He's much better now. William was not all that crazy about his food, so I started going over there on Thursday nights. And it became a regular routine.

What were these dinners like?

(Burroughs) would sit in his bedroom and talk while I cooked in the kitchen. These evenings became kind of like, I don't know, salons. : Patti Smith came a few times. Allen Ginsberg showed up a few times. Various people-famous and non-famous-would come to dinner.

At some point James and his boyfriend at the time (Michael Emerton), who later committed suicide, moved to San Francisco. They were gone for a year and during that year I took William to the methadone clinic once a week in Kansas City.

Audio clip

David Ohle: Ginsberg, stop that tai chi!

Where is the clinic exactly?

A little building secretly behind KU Med. It's in an old motel. No sign or anything. It's kind of half secret. There was no doctor in Lawrence that was willing to deal with all the federal regulations involved with being a methadone clinic.

When I arrived here in Lawrence I had a computer and James didn't. He didn't know anything about computers. So I offered to take the work that William was writing at the time, which I think was "Western Lands," and type it into computer files. Then James got a computer so he could edit these files.

So I started doing work like that. They paid me to do it by the hour. I did a lot of transcribing of "Western Lands," "Queer"-all of "Queer"-"The Cat Inside," and a few other of his writings.

He would hand me his raw typed pages and I would go back and make initial corrections, because he was a terrible speller and his punctuation was just terrible. I would fix some of it, which I thought were genuine mistakes. But sometimes he would repeat them. If you've read his stuff you can see that he does weird things with punctuation. Some of it is intentional and some is not.

Two books, "Queer" and "Junky," are written in a regular, standard style. There's nothing unusual about the writing style. Everything else he wrote is in another kind of style. So those are my two favorite books of his.

Audio clip

David Ohle: Burroughs' driving

What are some of your favorite Burroughs stories?

I took him out shooting one time. He and I were the only ones on this particular shooting trip. : William was just first beginning to get the idea to do shotgun art-to take something and shoot it and make art out of it. So he had brought out, I believe it was a piece of plywood that day, and he asked me to hang an ink bottle, like from a rubber band, on the plywood. He was gonna shoot the ink bottle and that was gonna splatter onto the wood and make some kind of art.

He had one of his fairly large-caliber pistols, and he had on his ear protectors. I didn't have any ear protectors so I went in the cabin so I didn't have to listen to this while he popped off his shot. But I could see him through the glass door. I couldn't see the target, but I could see him standing there with his gun.

He fired, and when he did all this ink came back and splashed him in the face and he thought he had been hit. He thought it had ricocheted and hit him in the head-the bullet. He thought it was blood. He started screeching and panicking, "Oh my God!" And he started wiping it like this and looking at it and going, "Wait a minute:that's not blood." But the expression on his face I'll never forget. He was absolutely terrified that he had been shot by a ricochet.

Another incident I remember was when I took him to the methadone clinic one day. Allen Ginsberg was riding along in the back seat. We got to the clinic and William went in. He was usually in there like 15 minutes or so.

Allen remained in the car. While we were waiting Allen got out and went out into the parking lot and started doing tai chi. William came out and saw him. And he again screeched, "My God, Allen, stop doing that! They're gonna lock you up!" He thought somebody was gonna see him doing these crazy things in the parking lot and lock him up.

Audio clip

David Ohle: a target shooting incident

Any other stories?

One expression that I remember. : One night we were having dinner, and he always had quite a few drinks. He liked vodka and Coke. That was his drink of choice: cheap vodka and Coca-Cola with no ice. He'd always have two or three of those before dinner. And somebody, I forget who, asked him if he'd ever done speed-cocaine-and he said, "The only way I like speed is mixed with heroin and shot right up the main line." : That was a cute little expression, I thought-a speedball, in other words.

He did say on more than one occasion that heroin was the best thing that ever happened to him in his life. What he meant by that, I don't know, because he certainly suffered a lot behind it. But toward the end of his life I guess he thought in a way that's what made him what he was-being a heroin addict.

He always went around armed. He never went anywhere without at least one gun with him. His .38 Special was always in his pocket, even when he went to Dillons.

When he first came to Lawrence he'd been living in cities : all of his life. He hadn't driven a car in a long, long time. And in New York that's fine. You take the subway or a taxi wherever you want to go. But when he moved here he thought maybe he should have a car. And he hadn't been driving since, well, the mid-'40s.

So he thought the best thing to do would be to get a car that was made in the mid-'40s, because he might remember how to drive it. So they bought him this old, I don't know, it was like a '46 Dodge or something they found somewhere. He tried to drive it. I don't think he ever got it out of the driveway. It was a huge car-clunky, old, ratty-ass car.

They decided, "No, that won't work, so we have to get him another car." So he took driving lessons, somehow got a driver's license, and for a while he drove a little Datsun around town, briefly. He was a terrible, dangerous driver.

He could be dangerous with guns, too. He often got pretty drunk and then pulled out a gun, started waving it around and everybody in the room would be ducking. He was a good shot but he was a little bit careless when he was drunk. His wife found that out.

In Search of Burroughs

An excerpt from a documentary about the Beats, wherein the filmmaker visits Lawrence trying to find Burroughs. (7:29)

Did you ever hear him talk about Joan Vollmer, his wife, and when he shot her?

No. : He never talked about it openly around me, ever. It's not anything he talked about.

What did he think about locals who said he brought a bad element to town?

He didn't take any of that seriously. He didn't like being famous; he didn't like that at all. And he was perfectly happy if no one around here recognized him.


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