Around 1930, when he was sixteen, William S. Burroughs was expelled from the New Mexico high school where he was keeping a journal of his make out sessions with another boy and taking chloral hydrate, thereby cementing the major themes of his life: writing, drugs, gay sex, travel, and trouble with authorities. Twenty years later, fleeing a drug arrest in Louisiana, Burroughs established himself in Mexico with his common law wife Joan. Drunk, he and Joan thought it would be a good idea to re-enact the William Tell escapade, but rather than shooting the apple he killed his wife. The tragedy seemed to jolt Burroughs into action, and in 1953 with the help of Allen Ginsberg he published his first novel, Junky. He wandered in South America, then Palm Beach, then New York City, then Rome, then Tangier, where he lived in a gay brothel and experimented with new drugs and new styles of writing. One result was that in 1958 the Chicago Review published sections of Naked Lunch, immediately called obscene. The U.S. Postal Service ruled copies could not be sent through the mail. The controversy got the full novel published in 1959, and in 1960 Massachusetts was the first state to prosecute on grounds of obscenity. Six years later, in the nation's last case obscenity case involving only words, not images, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled the novel was not obscene. Although Burroughs had been the cover story of Life magazine, and championed by critics like Mary McCarthy, he continued to struggle for more than a decade. In 1981 he published Cities of the Red Night followed by The Place of Dead Roads in 1983, when Ginsberg succeeded in nominating Burroughs to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1984 literary agent Andrew Wylie began to represent Burroughs, procuring a deal for Queer, Burroughs' unpublished novel from 1953 and a contract for six additional books. Burroughs appeared in Gus van Sant's 1989 movie Drugstore Cowboy, and in 1991 David Croenenberg filmed a much praised adaptation of Naked Lunch starring Peter Weller and Judy Davis. He died in 1997.
Among the many artists who consider Burroughs to be an important influence on their work are: Peter Ackroyd, Laurie Anderson, J.G. Ballard, Charles Bukowski, Angela Carter, Kurt Cobain, Dennis Cooper, Ian Curtis, Jean Genet, William Gibson, Ken Kesey, John Rechy, and Patti Smith. As for Burroughs, he said the greatest influence on his own writing was the shy and delicate gay Englishman Denton Welch.