Corridor No. 5, 1974, pp 5-7
JG Ballard Interview
By Peter Linnett
LINNETT: How did you come to be a writer?
BALLARD: This goes back to when I was a child. In fact the first book I ever produced was when I was about 12 years old, on how to play contract bridge. But my real start, oddly enough, came at school. The whole form was given, for some reason, 10 pages of lines to copy out. The masters didn't give a damn what we wrote out -- all they wanted to see was all this paper covered. I was copying lines out of a thriller, and I found it was easier if I didn’t bother to transcribe, but just made up the story myself. That was the first time I realized it was exciting to invent things, That set me off. 1 was writing all through school.
Then when I went to Cambridge there was an annual short story competition in Varsity I entered it, and won it. By that time I was about 20, and pretty well convinced I wanted to be a writer.
LINNETT: How about Science Fiction, was that what you were starting out to do?
BALLARD: At that stage no. When I came out of the Air Force at the age of 24 I'd written a lot of short stories of a general kind, and was vaguely writing a novel, but there was something missing from all this, as well as from most of the fiction being published then. It didn’t seem to me interesting enough or about the real world. I saw the middle fifties as bring more and more dominated by science and technology; and the only fiction that was about life then was science fiction. If the whole of previous fiction had not existed, if you started out from scratch in 1956, to write about the world in which you lived, you would write pretty close to SF. You had to write it, to write about your own world.
It’s a paradox -- people thought of SF as something fantastic and remote from ordinary experience. But I felt that was a wrong impression; in fact here was a marvelous area, a tremendously exciting area, that ought to be explored. 1 wasn’t interested in interplanetary travel and time travel and so on -- this was the other thing, I felt SF hadn’t really tapped its own possibilities. This was what I set out to do.
LINNETT: I think your first published story was ‘Prima Belladonna', in Science Fantasy in 1956. I don't suppose the SF markets were very lucrative at this time?
BALLARD: No, the payments were extremely small -- a flat rate of £2 per one thousand words. But over the years a lot of the short stories have made a good deal of money for me, through being reprinted so many times. Some I've made a total of £1,000 from each. And many have been anthologised 30 times. The point about writing for the SF magazines was, the demand was unlimited. You were under pressure by the editor, if you had any talent at all, to go on writing. You could have a short story in every issue of a magazine for a whole year. Which was quite unlike any of the general fiction magazines like Argosy, or the literary magazines -- they would take a story from you but they wouldn't want another one for a long while. That's still true today. So there was this great pressure to produce material; and it was a tremendous test of one's talent and imagination.
LINNETT: Your first published novel was ‘The Wind From Nowhere', in 1962, which seems rather different from the rest of your work.
BALLARD: That was really done as a kind of joke. At the time I wrote it, in 1961, my wife and I were extremely short of money. The one thing I wanted to do was to be able to give up my job as an editor of a scientific magazine so that I could write a decent novel, to think about where I was going as a writer.
We’d moved to Shepperton in 1960, and I had this tremendously long railway journey in the evenings, coming home from work; there were all these small children running around. I was absolutely exhausted. The future looked extremely dismal, professionally speaking; I'd been writing short stories since 1956, but I felt I was getting nowhere. I needed a break. I didn't want to begin lowering my sights and begin churning out novels that were partly serious -- you know, money-spinners. I had two weeks' holiday -- I think my wife suggested it: why don't you, just for the hell of it, write a novel in two weeks? I'd always been intrigued by the idea of writing a novel very quickly, and I still am, I'd like to be able to write a novel in three days. So I sat down and wrote 'The Wind From Nowhere', in literally I think 10 working days. I set myself a target of something like 6,000 words a day, which I kept up for 10 days. I didn't make very much money from it. but I made enough, straight away, to be able to give up my job. Soon after I wrote my first serious novel. 'The Drowned World'.
LINNETT: Why did you use the form of the disaster story in your three subsequent novels?
BALLARD: 1 wanted to deal with a large canvas. I was interested in events, if you like; systems of a very large area. The entire biological kingdom viewed as a single organism, as a single continuing vast memory. In fact I've never thought of them as being disaster stories, because I don't see them as having unhappy endings. The hero follows the logic of his own mind; and I feel that anyone who does this is, in a sense, fulfilling himself. I regard all those novels as stories of psychic fulfillment.
LINNETT: The apocalyptic scene is really just the means of sending the hero on this journey?
BALLARD: Right. Also I was dealing with states of tremendous psychological crisis and transformation. Possibly because of my own background in the Far East during the war, and so on. I've always felt that there are situations such as great natural disasters, or wars -- huge transformations of ordinary life where the barriers between external world and internal world of the mind begin to break down, and you get a kind of overlap. All this seemed to me a very potent, very powerful area --- for my imagination anyway.
LINNETT: That's inner space? Did you coin that term?
BALLARD: I don't know whether I was the first person to use it; when I first used it I was using it in conversation, in the late fifties. When I began writing I used it specifically within the context of SF, as a counterstroke against the phrase 'outer space', which roughly speaking summed up the whole of SF. I wanted inner space, psychological space.
LINNETT: Do you prefer using a specific locale in your work? In 'The Crystal World', for instance, you set the scene in Central Africa.
BALLARD: I use the locales that seem suitable to the subject at hand. I'm drawn to certain kinds of landscape: deserts, jungles, deltas, certain kinds of urban landscape. I suppose I like very formalised landscapes, like great dunes or sand bars. I'm drawn to freeways, concrete flyovers, the metallised landscapes of giant airports.
As far as naming a particular place goes -- well, take something like 'Atrocity Exhibition'. It's not really set anywhere. It probably is England, in fact, but it could equally be elsewhere. A lot of Americans think it's the United States. It's not specifically the U.S., but it could be. It's really a landscape we see in our minds, which we carry around with us, which we might see as we dream.
LINNETT: Why did you start writing the so-called condensed novels?
BALLARD: I wanted to write directly about the present day, and the peculiar psychological climate that existed in the middle sixties, when I started writing them. I think the key to that book was Kennedy's assassination in Dallas, which I saw -- and still do see -- as the most important event of the whole of the nineteen-sixties. It seemed to me that to write about this, and about similar events that were taking place, like the suicide of Marilyn Monroe, and the emergence of political figures like Ronald Reagan, and the whole tremendous explosion of the mass media, the way politicians and advertising corporations were using them -- well, it was to try to come to terms with all this. It seemed to me it was creating a landscape around us that was almost like a gigantic novel; we were living more and more inside a strange, enormous work of fiction.
LINNETT: Reality and fiction were crossing each other.
BALLARD: Yes, they'd begun to reverse -- the only point of reality was our own minds. It seemed to me that the only way to write about all this was to meet the landscape on its own terms. Useless to try to impose the conventions of the 19th century realistic novel on this incredible five-dimensional fiction moving around us all the time at high speed. And I tried to develop -- and I think successfully -- a technique of mine, the so-called condensed novels, where I was able to cross all these events, at right angles if you like. Like cutting through the stem of a plant to expose the cross-section of its main vessels. So this technique was devised to deal with this fragmentation and overlay of reality, through the fragmentation of narrative. Although the plot lines are very strong in those stories.
And they're all variants. Each of the main stories in that collection describe the same man in the same state of mental crisis, but they treat him, as it were, at different points along a spectrum -- as you might compile a scientific dossier about someone, explore various aspects of his make-up. On the one hand a story like ‘The Summer Cannibals', where a man and a woman have turned up at a kind of super-heated resort. This is a completely naturalistic account of two people on the level of their sweat glands. In fact they don't have names, because their names are not important. Right through to the other extreme, where the character is seen as a kind of cosmic hero, a second coming of Christ, in ‘You And Me And The Continuum'. The same character appears in a whole series of different roles. Any of us could be fragmented in the same way, we are all to some extent.
LINNETT: The three heroes of your earlier novels seem to be variations of the same character. Do you worry very much about character -- getting across a person's character?
BALLARD: This one figure is a dominant character of mine; I suppose he’s a version of myself. It’s a journey towards myself -- I suppose all writing is. On the whole, SF is not that interested in chacterisation; it's interested in psychological roles which operate on a slightly different level.
LINNETT: 'Atrocity' wasn't liked very much by critics.
BALLARD: I had very bad reviews over here, on the whole. But in Europe, oddly enough, the response was completely different. Denmark, Germany, Holland -- it had a terrific reception, absolutely stupendous. What impressed me about the reviews was not that they were flattering, but that they grasped straight away what the book was about. Most of the English reviewers seemed to resent not just the technique, the style in which the book was written, but also the subject matter, that I should want to talk about such things.
In America the entire Doubleday edition was destroyed, on the orders of an executive, for similar reasons. The book has just been published in America*, under a different title, by Grove Press. As far as response to the stories on the US SF scene goes, you've got to bear in mind that there I was seen as the originator of the so-called New Wave -- terrible phrase -- and I was absolutely loathed by most of the American SF establishment. The old guard -- Isaac Asimov and company -- would almost go red in the face with anger. But that particular storm, New Wave vs Old Wave, has died down; it was just a sort of last spasm of the old guard, I think.
LINNETT: Do you see any good writers emerging from the so-called New Wave?
BALLARD: I don’t think there ever was a New Wave. There was a generation of younger writers, writing largely within New Worlds magazine, and trying to do something different with SF. Americans like Tom Disch, John Sladek, Pamela Zoline they’re really all individualists, not a school of writers. They’re all very different.
LINNETT: Who do you think lumped them together?
BALLARD: They were lumped together by being published, to some extent, in New Worlds. The so-called New Wave began long before it was seized on by the old guard SF fans. When Ted Carnell was still editing the magazine, in the late fifties, he was already publishing the sort of material by me that was going to outrage American fans. He published ‘The Terminal Beach’, a story which actually started me off on the series that led to ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’, in 1963. Some of my early stories were already arousing tremendous hostility on the part of the British fans. They were writing to Ted and telling him, stop publishing this nonsense. So the trouble was brewing a long, long while ago.
LINNETT: ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ was published in 1970 could you say anything about what you’ve done since?
BALLARD: Well, my last novel I finished three weeks ago. I’d rather not give the story away as it won’t be published here for a year. But a previous novel, entitled ‘Crash’, will be published in June by Cape. I spent about two years writing that. As the title implies it’s about the motor car, and its whole role in our lives. It’s a cautionary tale in a sense, how I see the future. Sex times technology equals the future. In the novel I take the motor car as most clearly representing technology in our lives.
LINNETT: Taking off from 'The Atrocity Exhibition'?
BALLARD: In a sense it’s a follow-on, but it's written in completely conventional narrative. I felt that was the best technique to use.
LINNETT: So you still feel it’s OK to use conventional structures?
BALLARD: I think one has to adjust the style to the subject matter. People have accused me of being an experimental writer, but I've written 90 short stories and six novels, of which 80 short stories and six novels are completely conventional, in technique and form. I think the subject matter comes first; the style and technique serve the subject matter; and I still think there's a place for conventional narrative. It's the idea that needs to be needled. My real criticism of most of the fiction written today is that the content is so banal, so second-rate, so imitative of itself. It's a fiction based on fiction, other people's fiction, rather than based on experience and ordinary life.
LINNETT: Finally, have you any advice to offer to budding writers?
BALLARD: Yes. I'd warn anyone against beginning his career, that the days when a writer could think of having a career, writing fiction as a main life’s activity, are probably over. I think it's going to be more and more difficult for the novelist and short story writer to make a living of any kind over the next 20 years. All the signs are that fiction sales are sliding downwards, continuously. Don't regard yourself as being anyone special, as having any right to even a modest financial success, because you're a writer. So be very wary about committing yourself entirely to being a writer. I think the writer's role is very much in decline, at least for the time being.
As for SF, it's one of the healthiest fields in fiction -- sales of SF books all over the world are going up, one's stuff is endlessly reprinted. I would say that SF is one of the few areas where you could actually be successful, if you have the flair. There's no problem within SF; it's outside the field that the problems lie, for the writer there.
* this interview took place in February 1973