From Science Fiction Monthly, 4th January 1975
Science Fiction Monthly Interview
By David Pringle and Jim Goddard
GODDARD: I'd like to start off by asking you to tell us something about your origins and background.
BALLARD: I was born in Shanghai in China in 1930. My father was a businessman there. We returned to England in 1946 after three years of internment by the Japanese. I went to school, and then to Cambridge University where I started off by reading medicine. After two years I gave that up and began writing. In 1956 I had my first short story published in New Worlds; After working on a scientific journal for a while I became a full-time writer - that was about fifteen years ago - and I've been at it ever since.
GODDARD: Do you think the period of internment under the Japanese has had any effect on the kind of fiction you produce?
BALLARD: I would guess it has. The whole landscape out there had a tremendously powerful influence on me, as did the whole war experience. All the abandoned cities and towns and beach resorts that I keep returning to in my fiction were there in that huge landscape, the area just around our camp, which was about seven or eight miles from Shanghai, out in the paddy fields in a former university. There was a period when we didn't know if the war had ended, when the Japanese had more or less abandoned the whole zone and the Americans had yet to come in, then all of the images I keep using - the abandoned apartment houses and so forth - must have touched something in my mind. It was a very interesting zone psychologically, and it obviously had a big influence - as did the semi-tropical nature of the place: lush vegetation, a totally water-logged world, huge rivers, canals, paddies, great sheets of water everywhere. It was a dramatized landscape thanks to the war and to the collapse of all the irrigation systems - a landscape dramatized in a way that it is difficult to find in, say, Western Europe.
PRINGLE: Your Far-Eastern childhood interests me. Did you live anywhere else apart from Shanghai?
BALLARD: No, but we travelled a fair amount in the Far East. We made a trip to America in '39, just before the outbreak of the war across the Pacific via Hawaii. By the time I came to England at the age of sixteen I'd seen a great variety of landscapes. I think the English landscape was the only landscape I'd come across which didn't mean anything, particularly the urban landscape. England seemed to be very dull, because I'd been brought up at a much lower latitude - the same latitude as the places which are my real spiritual home as I sometimes think: Los Angeles and Casablanca. I'm sure this is something one perceives - I mean the angle of light, density of light. I'm always much happier in the south - Spain, Greece - than I am anywhere else. I think a lot of these landscapes meant a great deal. The English one, oddly enough, didn't mean anything. I didn't like it, it seemed odd. England was a place that was totally exhausted. The war had drained everything. It seemed very small, and rather narrow mentally, and the physical landscape of England was so old. The centre of London now is a reasonably modern city - so much of it has been rebuilt. Then, of course, none of these high-rise office blocks existed, only the 19th century city. The rural landscape of meadow didn't mean anything to me. I just couldn't latch on to that. That's why the SF of John Wyndham, Christopher and so forth I can't take. Too many rolling English meadows. They don't seem landscapes that are psychologically significant, if that means anything.
PRINGLE: You mention light. The visual values are a strong element in your writing. Is this Just from growing up in a place like Shanghai, or did you have any artistic background? Were your parents artistic?
BALLARD: Not particularly. I've always been very interested myself I've always wanted really to be a painter. My interest in painting has been far more catholic than my interest in fiction. I'm interested in almost every period of painting, from Lascaux through the Renaissance onwards. Abstract Expressionism is about the only kind of painting I haven't responded to. My daughter, about two years ago, bought me a paint set for my birthday. I'm still waiting to use it. When I start painting I shall stop writing! I've said somewhere else that all my fiction consists of paintings. I think I always was a frustrated painter. They are all paintings, really, my novels and stories. The trouble is I haven't any talent - the Vermilion Sands stories - even the novels like Crash - as a sort of visual experience. I'm thinking particularly of painters like- I hate the phrase Pop Art because it has the wrong connotations - the British and American Pop Artists, or people close to them, like Hamilton and Paolozzi over here, and Wesserman Rosenquist... and Warhol above all: a tremendous influence on me. I composed Crash to some extent as a visual experience, marrying elements in the book that make sense primarily as visual constructs. - I've always wanted to paint, but never actually done any, never had any form of training.
PRINGLE: You talk about places and landscapes which you remember. I recall a three-word sentence in The Assassination Weapon where you simply say: 'Guam in 1947', and this evoked for me when I read it the landscape of some American airbase littered with rusty wire, etc. Have you actually seen these things?
BALLARD: Yes, I have, absolutely. A lot of that post technological landscape stuff that people talk about is a straight transcript. After World War II, the American war machine was so prolific - you got B-29s stacked six-deep on the ends of airfields. The riches of this gigantic technological system were just left. Right from early on I was touched not just in an imaginative way - but as though some section of reality, of life and movements of time, were influenced by the strange paradoxes that are implicit in, say, a field full of what seem to be reasonably workable cars, washing-machines or whatever, which have just been junked there. The rules which govern the birth and life and decay of living systems don't apply in the realm of technology. A washing-machine does not grow old gracefully. It still retains its youth, as it were, its bright chrome trim, when it's been junked. You see these technological artifacts lying round like old corpses - in fact, their chrome is still bright. All these inversions touch a response to the movements of time and our place in the universe. There's no doubt about this. I think perhaps my childhood was spent in a place where there was an excess of these inversions of various kinds. I remember when the Japanese entered China after Pearl Harbour. in December 1941. I was going to do the scripture exam at the end-of term examinations at the school I went to. Pearl Harbour had just taken place, the previous night I suppose, and I heard tanks coming down the street. I looked out the window and there were Japanese tanks trundling around. It doesn't sound very much, but if tanks suddenly rolled down this street you'd have a surprise: Russian tanks say. The Japanese took over the place, and they segmented Shanghai into various districts with barbed wire, so you couldn't move from Zone A to Zone B except at certain times. They'd block off everything for security reasons, and on certain days the only way of going to school was to go to the house of some friends of my parents who lived on one of these border zones, between I think the French Concession and the International Settlement. There was an abandoned night club, a gambling Casino called the Del Monte - this is just a trivial example - a huge building in big grounds. We'd climb over the fence and go through, and go up the main driveway on the other side of the border-zone, and go to school. This abandoned casino, a huge multi-storied building, was decorated in full-blown Casino Versailles style, with figures holding up great prosceniums over bars and 10 huge roulette tables. Everything was junked. I remember a roulette table on its side and the whole roulette wheel section had come out, exposing the machinery inside. There was all this junk lying around, chips and all sorts of stuff, as if in some sort of tableau, arranged, as I've said, by a demolition squad. It was very strange. Now I was only about eleven when this was going on. Examples like this could be multiplied a hundred times. Our camp was a former university campus, occupying I suppose about one square mile. In fact, we occupied about two-thirds of the campus. There was a section of buildings which for some arbitrary reason - maybe the Japs were short of wire - they'd left out. Something like fifteen buildings were on the other side of the wire. You can imagine a little township of big, two -or three- story buildings, the nearest of which was about twenty yards away. A complete silent world, which I looked out on every morning and all day from my block. After about ~a year the Japs agreed to allow these buildings to be used as a school, so we used to enter this place every day, and walk through these abandoned rooms. Military equipment was lying around all over the place. I saw rifles being taken out of a well. All rifles were taken away, but spent ammunition, ammunition boxes and bayonets, all the debris of war, was lying around. We used to walk through this totally empty zone. It had been deserted for years. I'm sure that that again must have had a great impact on me. There were curious psychological overtones. One's the product of all these things.
PRINGLE: The Marxist critic of SF, Darko Suvin...
BALLARD: Never heard of him. Go on.
PRINGLE: ... suggests that the fall of the British Empire is a 'hidden theme' in your work. What do you say to that?
BALLARD: I'd say that my stuff is about the fall of the American empire, because this is what I was brought up in. I wasn't brought up in a British zone of influence. The area was dominated by Americans, by American cars, by American styles and consumer goods. I remember when I landed at Southampton in '46 looking round at the little roads and mean houses by the docks. It was a sad place. The British working class, I suddenly realized, existed. They were nine-tenths of the population and they were appallingly treated. The little side-street away from the docks were lined with what seemed to be black perambulators with doors - too large for perambulatorsl - which I assumed were some sort of mobile coal-scuttle used for bunkering ships. Because cars were all black, you see. English cars were black, whereas American cars were every colour under the sun, in the '30s. These things impacted. Going back to your question: what I saw, what I've been writing about in a way, is the end of technology, the end of America. A lot of my fiction is about what America is going to be like in 50 years time, but it's an interesting idea.
PRINGLE: Do you regret the world of the past, the pre-war world, in any way? I'm thinking of your story, 'The Garden of Time', where one man appears to be trying to halt history.
BALLARD: No, I don't, I think some social changes that took place in this country in the mid-60s, are the best and greatest thing that ever happened here. It's slid back now, but for about five years this country entered twentieth-century, and a whole new generation of people emerged - the youth explosion. The class divisions began to break down which was so marvellous. It all slammed into reverse a couple of years ago, which is a shame. But I certainly don't feel nostalgic, because I came from a background where there was no past. Everything was new - Shanghai was a new city. The department stores and the skyscrapers were about my age. I'm exaggerating a bit, but not much. The place didn't exist before the year 1900. It was Just a lot of mosquito-ridden mud-flats. I was brought up in a world which was new, so the past has never really meant anything to me. The use in that story of an old aristocrat, or whatever he was, was just a convention.
PRINGLE: What was your favourite type of reading as a child?
BALLARD: I was one of those children who read a great deal. Up to the age of 14 or 15, I read everything from Life magazine, Reader's Digest, to American best-sellers. Plus all the childhood classics which, in those days, you read as part and parcel of childhood all the English children's classics, Treasure Island, Alice in Wonderland, etc., Nothing out of the ordinary. What everybody else of my age was reading.
PRINGLE: So you didn't discover SF then?
BALLARD: I was unusual in that I came, unlike most SF enthusiasts, very late to science fiction. I don't suppose I picked up a copy of Galaxy or Astounding or what-have-you until I was about 22 or 23. It was really when I was in the Air Force in Canada. There was nothing to do, nothing to read on the news-stands. There were no national papers, just local papers. These were packed with stuff about curling contests and ice-hockey. They relegated international news to about two columns on the back page. The papers were packed with ads for local garages and so forth - you know, this was Moosejaw, Saskatchewan. Time magazine was regarded as wildly highbrow. The only intelligent reading-matter was science fiction!. This was in '54. I suddenly devoured it. This was the heyday of these magazines, there were dozens of them, or seemed to be... some of which were really rather good. Magazines like Fantastic Universe - it was probably never distributed over here - published some great stuff. Plus Galaxy, which I thought was the best, the most tuned-in to me, and Astounding. I started reading it all then, and I started writing it very soon after I started reading it, and then I stopped reading it. There came a point when I just couldn't read it any more, particularly when the American writers - all credit to them - began to run out of gas a bit. By the early '60's they weren't really doing anything very new.
PRINGLE: Which authors impressed you?
BALLARD: A lot of American writers were very good. Bradbury above all I thought he was head and shoulders above everybody else. He had that wider dimension to his writing which the others, however good, didn't really achieve. I liked Sheckley very much - very droll and witty. Pohl, too I liked. Matheson, I liked - very much, actually, because he showed you why SF wasn't about outer space, wasn't about the future. So many of his stories were psychological twist stories. I liked those.
PRINGLE: The Incredible Shrinking Man?
BALLARD: That I liked - the film too. Yes, I read the book, But I liked Matheson's short stories - the sort of standard story where the character can't remember who he is. Those sort of stories I liked. They did them so well. Fritz Leiber I rather liked. Funny thing - I was throwing out a lot of my stuff the other day, and I came across a copy of a Fritz Leiber story the actual sheets that I had kept from Galaxy. The Big Time. I don't know if you've ever heard of it, but it impressed me enormously when I read it in the mid-50s. I thought, really, this was so brilliant.
PRINGLE: You must be a fan. It won a Hugo.
BALLARD: In its day, you mean? I thought how brilliant that story was. I remember when I first met Edmund Crispin.
GODDARD: Bruce Montgomery.
BALLARD: That's right. When I first met him about ten years ago, we were swapping anecdotes and swapping stories. I mentioned The Bug Time and he said: 'What a marvellous story!' anyway, I read it the other day, and I thought: 'My God, what did I ever see in this thing!' It wasn't really very good at all. But who else? I don't know. I never liked Asimov, I never liked Heinlein, I never liked Van Vogt that school of American SF I couldn't take. I never liked Astounding very much. I thought that fellow what's his name, I met him once, the editor....
PRINGLE: John Campbell.
BALLARD: I thought he was a baleful influence. He consolidated all the worst tendencies of American SF. He introduced a lot of bogus respectability, all that hard sociology thing. You know: 'I was up at MIT last week, talking about the future of...' something or other, and it all sounded very serious. He allied SF to the applied engineering, social engineering, and so forth, of somewhere like MIT. He gave SF a serious, real dimension which was all wrong because that isn't what SF is about, I couldn't stand those writers - Kuttner and all those people: they're all good.
GODDARD: You have none of the SF background that was almost regarded as obligatory for success as an SF writer at one time, and yet you've achieved an enviable reputation as one of the leading exponents of the field. Any comments?
BALLARD: Was it obligatory? I don't know.
GODDARD: Well, we read of people like Bradbury and Pohl and Asimov growing up reading the stuff, writing letters to magazines, joining clubs doing their own fanzines and so on, yet you have none of this background.
BALLARD: In America yes, that's true, but there have always been people outside that. Bradbury apart, I think the best American SF novel I've ever read is Bernard Wolfe's Limbo 90. He's never struck me as having anything to do with SF fandom. You're really talking about fandom, aren't you? Which is an entirely different kettle of fish!
GODDARD: Well, the writers who have come out of fandom.
BALLARD: There are some, I suppose, but I don't really know the American scene. It's very peculiar thing, after all - modern American SF was virtually invented by a single generation of writers. They lived in a sort of intense dosed world with each other. Everyone seemed to be married to someone else's second wife or third husband or something. I know Judy Merril very well, she was of that generation - in fact her second husband was Pohl, and she lived for a long time with Kornbluth I think, though I don't know if they ever married. She described to me this world of the American SF writers in the '50's, where they would move around the States like something out of On the Road, living together in little groups and enclaves. There were all of these collaborations going on, and they just surfaced now and again at an SF convention, and plunged around in endless car-rides - a strange sort of Bonny and Clyde existence. They never seemed to meet anyone outside that little circle The tremendous homogeneity of American SF, and the rigid conventions that sprang up concerning what was or wasn't the correct way to write a story, were all part of the self-protective ghetto they built. That's something that's never taken place over here. Americans are always surprised when they come over here and realize that for the most part SF writers don't need each other. There's no more homogeneity here among SF writers than there is among writers in general.
PRINGLE: You mentioned collaborations - would writing in collaboration with someone else be entirely unthinkable to you?
BALLARD: I'd love to collaborate, and I talked it over once or twice with Mike Moorcock. The Americans collaborated very easily, partly because they all produced this very standardized fiction. It's not all that easy to tell if you're given a paragraph of Pohl that it's not by Sheckley or Matheson or Kuttner. Particularly with all the pseudonyms they used, there are very few writers you can identify stylistically. Here the opposite is true -collaborations would be difficult because the writers have been free to evolve in their own separate directions; they've not been, for the most part, constrained by a set of house rules.
PRINGLE: Talking about style: to what extent are you aware that you evolved your style deliberately? I suppose it just happens with most writers but your style is very distinctive, and most readers who know your work don't confuse it with that of other writers. How conscious was this?
BALLARD: Totally unconscious. I've never given it a thought. I've written certain stories and novels in a particular style, the style that seemed natural to the subject, but I've never consciously tried to evolve a literary style that is unique to myself One writes the way one feels.
PRINGLE: One of the notable things about your style is a certain repetitiousness of words and phrases, particularly in The Atrocity Exhibition and to some extent in Crash. You repeat words, and this is something people have criticized. It was Martin Amis, I think, in his review of Crash, who went through and counted how many times you use the word 'metalized' and one or two others, and came up with a figure of forty or fifty.
BALLARD: That's very true, but I was using language, certain words and phrases, to a fixed and obvious end. The medical and pseudo-medical jargon that I use a lot is all deliberate these are particular notes that I can strike, which, I hope, signify something to the reader. It's all part of a second language, if you like, that is carried along by the surface of the narrative, a series of signposts with codes or whatever you want to call them. They're jokes on myself in a way, I suppose.
PRINGLE: Apart from the medical language that you mention, there's also use of emotional, rather poetic language, 'flowers and wounds', which reminds me of the French surrealists. Did they influence you?
BALLARD: Yes, they certainly did. Genet - not a surrealist - but Genet certainly, Jarry. Their sort of language was a big influence, there's no question about it. But not many English writers.
BALLARD: It's a funny thing, but when The Drowned World was published people said it was heavily influenced by Conrad. Oddly enough, though I was 31 or 32, I'd never read a word of Conrad. I remember Victor Gollancz the publisher, taking me out to lunch after they'd bought The Drowned World, and turning to me jokingly, and saying: 'Well, you stole the whole thing from Conrad'. I thought 'oh, what's this?', and going away and actually reading some Conrad - which I found rather heavy going, though he's obviously a great writer, with a unique evocative style - I could see a resemblance. But that's partly because if you're going to try and build up the atmosphere of steaming jungles, there's only one way of doing it.
PRINGLE: I think it was Graham Greene who compared The Crystal World with Heart of Darkness. Was there any influence there?
BALLARD: I don't know whether I'd read Heart of Darkness at the time I wrote The Crystal World. I honestly don't think I was influenced by Conrad. I don't mind being influenced - after all, we're all influenced to some extent - but if you're talking about conscious imitation: certainly not.
PRINGLE: Were you influenced by Graham Greene - because he was influenced by Conrad?
BALLARD: Probably, yes. There's something about Greene's handling of solitary characters, externalizing the character's mind in terms of the situation in which he finds himself, the particular landscape. He does this so brilliantly. He can have a solitary figure standing by a jetty in the Far East, looking at some sanpans, and he brings in a few things like the local police chief scratching his neck and so on, and within a paragraph one has a marvellous evocation of the psychology of the hero, and of what the hero and of what the book is about. Yes, I probably was influenced by Greene, but I never consciously imitated him.
PRINGLE: Were you attracted to Greene because of your Far East background?
BALLARD: What I liked about Greene, and still do, is that although he's snared by the English literary 'thing', he's very much a twentieth century man, and his fiction is generated by his experience of the world outside England. He couldn't be further apart from someone like Kingsley Amis or Anthony Powell, whose fiction is entirely generated by the closed world not just of England but of a very small part of England. In Greene's fiction one can breathe the smells, see the sights and hear the sounds of the whole world. Not having spent my childhood and adolescence in England, I received a very big shock when I got here in 1946 and found it was a closed little island, containing a whole lot of lesser islands - the world of English professional life. Professional middle-class life of those days was incredibly narrow. I just couldn't breathe it in. That's one of the reasons I started writing SF - one could get away from all this sort of thing. I certainly admire Graham Greene a great deal.
PRINGLE: You studied medicine at Cambridge. Many of the protagonists of your stories have in fact been doctors. Is there a rationale for this?
BALLARD: Well, I suppose if I hadn't become a writer I would have been a doctor. So in a sense the protagonists of these stories are myself. I couldn't make them writers - the obvious thing to do was to make them doctors. My training and mental inclination, my approach to everything, is much closer to that of a doctor than to that of a writer. I'm not a literary man. But I am interested in - admittedly popular - science. I approach things as a scientist would, I think. I've a scientific bent; it's obvious to me that these characters are what I would have been if I hadn't been a writer.
PRINGLE: Your National Service period in the RAF - did that influence you at all? Were you a bomber pilot?
BALLARD: No, I did a sort of basic training course but I left after a while. In fact, I didn't do National Service. I was exempt. I thought I'd like to try flying, to see what it was like. I thought I'd like to try service life, because it was at least sort of forward-looking and that helped. This was in 1954. I was in a bit of a dead-end. I hadn't started reading SF. I wanted to be a writer. I was writing short stories, planning a novel like any novice, but I wasn't organised. It struck me - I was very interested in aviation - that it might be worth going into the service for a couple of years - one of those short service commissions they had then. You could go in for a very short space of time, just to see what it was like. But in fact it wasn't anything. It was completely unlike anything I imagined. I didn't like service life at all. Also, I spent my entire period in Canada, out in the back of beyond. I was writing while I was there. The moment I got myself organised I wanted to get out of the RAF and get back to London, and start churning the stuff out. So I resigned my commission and came back to England. I had to get a job. Ted Carnell arranged for me to get a job with the parent company, on a technical journal. I moved from there to being assistant editor of a scientific journal. I stayed there until about 1961.
PRINGLE: You were actually writing before you'd read any SF?
BALLARD: Oh yes. I wasn't writing SF though. It never occurred to me. I started writing SF partly because it seemed very exciting - and the sorts of things I wanted to do in SF had not been done by anybody else - also because there were so many magazines. You could write for so many. This was when I was a complete novice, hadn't published a single story. I could see at a glance. There were ten American magazines and about four English ones. So there was a market greater than the literary field then. There were very few literary journals of any kind, and they were very prestigious - you know, Horizon, etc; It was obvious you couldn't make a career out of writing short stories for Horizon. It wasn't a matter of making money, but of actually being able to write a good deal, to write with freedom too, which you could do in SF magazines. You were free, within the rough conventions of the field. You don't have that sort of freedom in literary journals.
PRINGLE: The picture you draw of yourself as being interested in science, editor of a science journal and so on, makes me wonder for the first time why you wanted to be writer at all.
BALLARD: If one's got an imagination, if the imagination's going overtime, you have to start writing it down. If you've got a talent for that sort of thing, you write it down without too much difficulty. As a child, I was good at essays, writing stories. Even at school, I was writing short stories. It was something that just grew out of childhood. I would have qualified as a doctor, without any doubt, but for the fact that the imaginative pressure to write was so strong. I was beginning to neglect medicine altogether. I was primarily interested in anatomy and physiology. These were the subjects that I did for two years. Once I had covered the basic course in those subjects, I found more advanced medicine so technical that it didn't relate to the system of metaphors that, say anatomy is so rich in, or physiology, or pathology. Once you've dissected the cadaver - thorax, abdomen, head and neck, etc., - you go on to more exhaustive anatomy, of say, the inner ear, and the metaphors aren't so generously forthcoming. So I'd had enough of it in two years. I could see it then became a very technical mattes and also became applied. I'd go into hospital and .actually be lancing boils and looking at people with skin diseases. I didn't want that. I was more interested in the general scientific underpinning of medicine. In some ways I wish I had become a doctor. Such a mind-blowing course. If you've known anybody that's gone through the medical degree course, they all say that you leave half your mind behind. The feats of memory required are really absolutely gigantic.
PRINGLE: You won a short story competition at Cambridge. Was the story published?
BALLARD: It was published in a Cambridge student newspaper called Varsity, in '51, I suppose. That was my first published story.
PRINGLE: Could you describe it?
BALLARD: It wasn't SF. It was a story set in the Far East, set in Malaya during the British military struggle with the communist terrorists - whenever that began - in the late '40's, early '50's. It's difficult to describe.
PRINGLE: In an old New Worlds, I saw in the blurb for your story 'Escapement' in 1956...
BALLARD: That was my first story, I think for Carnell.
PRINGLE: Carnell said in his blurb that you had almost, at the time, completed a novel called You and Me and the Continuum.
BALLARD: That is interesting. The title must have been around in my mind. Before I started writing SF, before I went into the Air Force, I was writing some 'experimental' fiction, based on intensive reading of James Joyce and whoever else one was reading then. I was trying to get away from the English 19th century novel. I was writing these bits and pieces. I think I did have half an experimental novel lying around, which I probably just threw away. I obviously retained the title, which I liked. Do these old New Worlds and Science Fantasies still exist?
PRINGLE: There are avid collectors of them.
GODDARD: They're worth a lot of money too.
BALLARD: Are they really? How much are they worth? You mean more than their cover price? How amazing. Perhaps I should have hung on to my stuff.
GODDARD: How much of an influence was Ted Carnell on your development as a writer?
BALLARD: He was an influence in the sense that, but for New Worlds, I would have been in a bit of a spot. He had three magazines for which I was encouraged to produce a continuous stream of short stories over a period of getting on for ten years. He gave me every freedom, I don't think he ever rejected a story of mine. He gave me complete freedom to write anything I wanted at a time when.., you will remember that I began writing in '56-57', round about the time of the flight of Sputnik 1, which seemed to confirm anything that the SF fans, writers and publishers in America believed in: this was the millennium, it had arrived. It would have seemed, superficially, the worst time for moving away from writing a science-fictional art based on space, interplanetary travel, the far future and what have you. It would have seemed the worst time to stop writing that kind of thing and yet he encouraged me, said go ahead. One tends to forget how resistant to change and experiment of any kind SF is. That's the paradox: it ought to be dedicated to change and novelty and experiment. You found in the '50's and '60's in the States an absolute resistance to any kind of novelty. Ted Carnell was unique in giving me this freedom to write anything I wanted to, and he dealt with the American editors and publishers. I don't know whether Ted would have published the stories in The Atrocity Exhibition - possibly not, though he did publish ' The Terminal Beach'. I remember some of the rejection slips I got from American editors when that story came back. Ted established the possibility of change. He recognized that SF by the mid '50s had used all its material, it had built its world, the last brick, as it were, was slotted into place - there was no way out, there was no possibility of change: he recognized that. He used to caution other young writers who modelled their fiction on the kind of stories that appeared in Galaxy in the early and mid-50s, and he would caution them very much against the kind of SF that required an intense familiarity with science fiction before you even began to understand it. The kind of stories that Galaxy and Astounding, in their different ways, were publishing made very little sense to an outsider because they didn't know what the narrative and plot and subject-matter conventions were, and without that knowledge you were lost. Ted, even before I arrived on the scene, felt that the time had come for a change of direction. English SF has always been much more open to change and novelty. It always depresses me when I meet Americans who really believe that they invented SF round about Gernsback's first magazine, 1926, and the ten years after. In fact, what they did was to limit its range, conventionalize it, and fossilize it. English writers, who've been writing the stuff for a hundred years or more, have always had a much more open approach to the SF they've written, so English SF has always been much less homogeneous than American SF.
GODDARD: Did Carnell ever suggest ways in which your work could take new directions?
BALLARD: I think there were one or two stories where he suggested I could enlarge a particular aspect, but he never suggested any idea, or any particular directions I should take. Most of the stuff I wrote then is pretty conventional, at least outside the narrow little world of SF. Half of the stories aren't even SF within the popular definition of the term.
PRINGLE: Did you write The Wind from Nowhere as a conscious attempt to break into the paperback market?
BALLARD: Yes, I did. I wanted to give up my job, you see, I had my first story published in December '56. By 1961 I'd been writing SF for five years and I'd written quite a lot of short stories. I had this gap after I went to the SF convention in '57. Don't take this personally or anything I think times have changed - but it put me off. I didn't do any writing for about a year and a half, so there was a sort of gap. Then I restarted, and I wrote more stories. After five years, I realized I was getting old. I had three children. I was thirty or thereabouts, and I realized I was getting nowhere. We'd come to Live here, out of necessity. We were driven out of London -once you had small children you were anathema. I had this very long railway journey up to Central London to my office every day. There I was coming home with these small children running around, and I was absolutely exhausted. My wife had had all these babies and she was tired. I knew the one thing I had to do was make a complete break and become a full-time writer. I knew I'd never write a novel - a serious novel - while I was not getting home till 8 o'clock in the evening. I was just too tired. But I had this fortnight's holiday coming up, and my wife as a joke said - we hadn't enough money to go away - 'why don't you write a novel in a fortnight? So I thought: Good, That's sensible talking'. I'd already got, through Carnell, certain contacts with the American paperback people and I had a feeling that if I wrote a novel I could sell it, even if I wasn't going to get very much money. In those days £300 could keep you going for a long time. So I said: 'I'll write a novel in ten days, six thousand words a day, during this holiday', and I thought: 'What shall I do?' So I had this idea about a whirlwind. I was tempted to approach it seriously I mean, it could have been done on a completely serious level - by serious I mean on the level of the other novels, The Drowned World and so forth - and I nearly did do it that way. I don't know whether it would have been any better, because the wind thing isn't that interesting. So I thought I'd use all the clichés there are, the standard narrative conventions, and I sat down at the typewriter and I wrote the book. Six thousand words a day, which is quite a lot. I kept it up, and when I went back to the office I had the manuscript of a novel, which Carnell sold. He was then acting as my agent. I think I got £300 - then, though of course it's gone on and on. But that was enough and immediately I sat down and started writing The Drowned World. I wrote it in a short version first, and then expanded that to a novel.
PRINGLE: What about The Crystal World? wasn't that published in three versions?
BALLARD: Originally, I wrote it as a short story, The Illuminated Man. Then Mike Moorcock, when he took over New Worlds as a small format magazine, asked me to write a lead serial. He wanted a novel, in short. I didn't want to write a novel at that point. My mind was already beginning to change, I was starting to think about the Atrocity Exhibition type of approach - this was in 1963 or '64. So I said to him: 'I'll expand this short story if you like', because I'd got a lot more ideas. I felt that the short version was incomplete. It was too much of a science fiction fantasy. I wanted to develop more of the serious implications of the idea - which I did, I think, in that serial. When I'd done that, it occurred to me - or it occurred to my agent - that I'd got a novel. So I then expanded it even further, It was a peculiar way of writing a novel, but it just happened that way.
PRINGLE: Was The Drought written before, or was it written between versions of The Crystal World?
BALLARD: The Drought was my second novel, written after The Drowned World. I didn't like it very much at the time. There was something rather too arid - something of the aridity of the landscape spilled over into the novel, and it didn't take off for me. I still don't care for it very much, but it contains so many of the ideas - quantified image, isolated object, and emotion detached from any human context - that I began to develop in The Atrocity Exhibition and in Crash. They were all implicit in that book.
GODDARD: One of the most popular areas of your work is the series of Vermilion Sands stories. A critical reading of these shows that they are all, to some extent, variations on the same theme. Could you tell us something about why you wrote these stories?
BALLARD: I've never really analysed them myself. I suppose I was just interested in inventing an imaginary Palm Springs, a kind of world I imagined all suburbs of North America and Northern Europe might be like in about 200 years time. Everyone will be permanently on vacation, or doing about one day's work a year. People will give in to any whim that occurs to them -like taking up cloud-sculpture - leisure and work will mesh in. I think everybody will be very relaxed, almost too relaxed. It will be a landscape of not so much suburbia but exurbia, a kind of country-club belt, which will be largely the product of advanced technologies of various kinds, for leisure and so forth. So you will get things like computers meshed into one's ordinary everyday life in a way that can be seen already. I'm just writing about one direction that the future is taking us. I think the future will be like Vermilion Sands, if I have to make a guess. It isn't going to be like Brave New World or 1984: it's going to be like a country-club paradise.
PRINGLE: Is this a sort of literary conceit, or what you really think the future's going to be like?
BALLARD: I'm not a literary man at all. That's my guess at what the future will be like!
PRINGLE: It's not the impression of the future people would get from your books as a whole, where you tend to write about disaster and doom.
BALLARD: I think that's a false reading of my stuff. I don't see my fiction as being disaster-oriented, certainly not most of my SF - apart from The Wind from Nowhere which is just a piece of hackwork. The others, which are reasonably serious, are not disaster stories. People seem to imply that these are books with unhappy endings, but the reverse is true: they're books with happy endings, stories of psychic fulfilment. The geophysical changes which take place in The Drought, The Drowned .World and The Crystal World are all positive and good changes -they are what the books are about. The changes lead us to our real psychological goals, so they are not disaster stories at all. I know that when The Drowned World was accepted by my American publisher about twelve years ago he said :'yes, it's great, but why don't we have a happy ending? Have the hero going north instead of south into the jungle and sun.' He thought I'd made a slight technical mistake by a slip of the pen, and had the hero going in the wrong direction. I said: 'no, God, this is a happy story.' I don't understand the use of the word 'disaster'. I don't regard Crash as a disaster story. In a sense, all these are cataclysm stories. Really, I'm trying to show a new kind of logic emerging, and this is to be embraced, or at least held in regard. So I don't really see any distinction between any of my work - between Vermilion Sands on the one hand, and the rest on the other.
GODDARD: Why are the female characters in Vermilion Sands all movie-queen types?
BALLARD: Well, those stories are frolics of a kind, aren't they? I've never been to Palm Springs, but I dare say if you go there in season, or to St. Moritz in season, which are equivalent places, you'll find a lot of movie-queens and all the rest of them. You'll find a lot of pink Cadillacs and men in rafia trousers these are all elements of that kind of place. If you wander around Shepperton on a Saturday in high summer - Shepperton being a modest cut-price Malibu down by the river, a Malibu of the Thames Valley -you'll find that sort of atmosphere, an exurbia of the future. The more well-off places are particularly like that.
GODDARD: Why have you never produced a work with a sympathetic male/female relationship?
BALLARD: That's an interesting question, actually! Such as in who's novels? What other writer does that sort of thing?
PRINGLE: It's in the great tradition' of the English novel!
BALLARD: Being serious, of the twentieth-century writers which would you say do this?
GODDARD: Some of. Hemingway...
BALLARD: Now that's interesting, really. What? Which? Where? You're thinking of the film version of For Whom the Bell Tolls presumably?
GODDARD: No, I've never seen that.
BALLARD: I suppose the relationship in To Have and Have Not, between the tough guy and his wife, is happy in a way. What I'm really saying is that sympathetic male/female relationships - and your question is quite a pointed one - are not all that common in fiction, are they? The serious answer to your question is that my fiction is all about one person, all about one man coming to terms with various forms of isolation - the total sense of isolation, that the hero of 'The Voices of Time' feels, various other kinds of isolation, psychological isolation of the kind the hero of 'The Terminal Beach' feels. Tie protagonists of most of my fiction feel tremendously isolated, and that seems to exclude the possibility of a warm fruitful relationship with anybody, let alone anyone as potentially close as a woman. I don't think this has anything to do with any quirks of my own. I've got three children with whom I'm extremely close, and yet I've never introduced a child into any of my stories.
PRINGLE: There have been one or two dead children.
BALLARD: Yes, that's true, but there are no living children in my fiction - yet all the people who know me closely know that I'm a very fond father and all the rest of it. It's just that children are not relevant to my work.
GODDARD: Could you tell us more about your four disaster novels, which you insist aren't disaster novels? The Wind from Nowhere, The Drowned World, the Drought and The Crystal World all have disaster in them, in the classic British SF form.
BALLARD: You're right when you say that it's a classic English SF form, but that's the reason why I used the formula of the disaster story. Usually these disaster stories are treated as though they are disasters, they're treated straight, and everyone's running for the hills or out of the hills or whatever. If it's going to be cold they're all pulling on overcoats. I use the form because I deliberately want to invert it- that's the whole point of the novels. The heroes, for psychological reasons of their own, embrace the particular transformation. These are stories of huge psychic transformations -I'm talking retrospectively now . and I use this external transformation of the landscape to reflect and marry with the internal transformation, the psychological transformation, of the characters. This is what the subject-matter of these books is: they're transformation stories rather than disaster stories, The Day of the Triffids, I think it's probably fair to say that there's absolutely no psychological depth. The characters react to the changes that are taking place, but they are not in any psychological way involved with the proliferating vegetation, or whatever else is going on. They cope with the situation in the same way as the inhabitants of this town might cope with, say, a reservoir bursting. In the classic English disaster story there's no involvement on a psychological level with whatever is taking place. My novels are completely different, and they only use the form superficially.
GODDARD: Why did you stop writing them when the plot permutations seem endless?
BALLARD: Did I? That's a good question. I don't think I did, Crash is a disaster novel, an urban disaster story, so is Concrete Island. So is the one I've just finished about a high-rise apartment block.
PRINGLE: The disaster 'has happened' in your more recent stories - or that's the implication.
BALLARD: Well, it is happening. Even the stories in The Atrocity Exhibition are disaster stories of a kind. The book is about the communications explosion of the '60's. From my point of view, the '60's started in 1963 with the assassination of President Kennedy - his death and Vietnam presided over the whole of the '60's. Those two events, transmitted through television and mass communications, overshadowed the whole decade - a sort of institutionalised disaster area. But what you mean ~s why did I stop using the SF formula? I don't know. I probably got more interested in other things. You say in your question that there axe limitless possibilities -well, what are they? You've got to have a convincing and interesting transformation of the physical landscape.
PRINGLE: You've mentioned your admiration for Ray Bradbury. Did you try to 'do' a Bradbury in your story The Time Tombs, with it's dying planet setting reminiscent of The Martian Chronicles?
BALLARD: I don't know why I wrote that. I certainly wasn't imitating him. Maybe you can't write about a dying, abandoned planet without sounding like Bradbury.
GODDARD: I think that was the first Ballard story I ever read.
BALLARD: Was it? A mistake. In a way, it's very, easy to extract those elements of nostalgia, a sense of past time never to be regained, by using those sorts of landscapes, the clichés of interplanetary SF. You describe an abandoned planet, empty palaces, silent computers that haven't ticked for ten thousand years, fossil seas and all that stuff. It's very easy to do that. It's much more difficult to do it here and now, to find those dimensions of time, nostalgia, dream, imagination and all the rest of it, in the real world.
PRINGLE: On the question of space travel: you imply that it's an improper subject for SF writers, but of course increasingly it is taking place.
BALLARD: No, you're wrong. Decreasingly it's taking place. I wrote a review of some book, a mad book . . .
PRINGLE: The Next Ten Thousand Years?
BALLARD: Yes. I wrote a review of it in New Society, in which I said The Space Age lasted about ten years. It's true. That's the extraordinary paradox. At the time of Gagarin's first flight in '61, everybody really thought that the Space Age would last for hundreds of years. One could say: 'Now the Space Age begins, and it's going on for ever'. In fact, it ended with the last Skylab mission.
PRINGLE: You really believe that?
BALLARD: Absolutely. It happened. I'm sure there will be a Space Age, but it won't be for fifty, a hundred, two hundred years - presumably when they develop a new means of propulsion. It's just too expensive. You can't have a Space Age until you've got a lot of people in space. This is where I disagree, and I've often argued the point when I've met him, with Arthur C. Clarke. He believes that the future of fiction is in space, that this is the only subject. But I'm certain you can't have a serious fiction based on experience from which the vast body of readers and writers is excluded. It's absurd. In fact there are very few manned flights, if any, planned now. I think there are none.
PRINGLE: There's the Soviet-American linkup flight this year.
BALLARD: Sorry, yes - orbital flights, but not lunar flights. Public uninterest became evident in the '70's, really. People weren't even that touched by Armstrong landing on the moon. That was a stupendous event. I thought the psychological reverberations would be enormous, that they'd manifest themselves in every conceivable way - in department store window displays and styles of furnishing, etc. I really did believe that the spin-off from that event, both in obvious terms and in psychological terms, would be gigantic. In fact it was almost nil. It's quite amazing. Clearly, the Space Age is over. Also, I think it's rather difficult because, when SF writers have a monopoly of space travel they can define, they can invent the machinery literally, and they are the judges of their own authenticity. This is one of my objections to SF, that the decks are all stacked, the reader doesn't have a chance. As I've said for years, the stuff isn't won from experience. It lacks that authority therefore. Now the SF writers are competing with the facts of real space flight. I haven't read any recent SF. Perhaps it's good, I don't know.
GODDARD: Could you tell us something about what it was like to work for New Worlds during the time of its change from an SF magazine to a literary magazine in a wider context?
BALLARD: What's the period you're actually thinking of? The period of Mike Moorcock's editorship basically?
GODDARD: Basically that, but more specifically the time when it changed from paperback format to glossy magazine format.
BALLARD: Right. I've been tremendously lucky - that was the most exciting time, there's no question about it. The ]ate '60's was a period of totally unprecedented excitement in almost every field. I think by the time the change from a small to a large format magazine took place it was really the final break with the American dominated SF of the '40's and '50's - the break was complete, the battle had been won. The group of writers that Moorcock published in New Worlds, myself included, had proved their point, and the old guard had run out of gas. At that time New Worlds was not just the most exciting SF magazine in the world - it made all the American mags like Analog terribly dull - it was one of the most exciting magazines of any kind in this country and was extremely lucky to have Mike Moorcock running it. I think, with the benefit of hindsight, it ceased to be an SF magazine at all, even within my elastic definition of the term, and became something much closer to avant garde experimental writing. Perhaps that was inevitable.
GODDARD: Why did it change from an SF magazine to an avant garde magazine?
BALLARD: Why? Well, it's not a case of blaming anyone....
GODDARD: No. I mean was it a matter of editorial policy, or did the writers orchestrate it?
BALLARD: Oh, I think it was that the writers themselves rather lost touch with SF. A group of writers came along who weren't really interested in SF. Many of them are close friends of mine and they won't mind me saying this, but writers like Sladek, Disch, Spinrad, Pam Zoline, Mike Moorcock himself, none of these are really science fiction writers in the sense that I am a science fiction writer. These dominant New Worlds writers began writing outside the genre. I think the magazine suffered from that, but for heaven's sake don't make too much of it. I'm not knocking New Worlds. I'm extremely grateful to Mike Moorcock, and before him to Ted Carnell - without those two it's hard to see how I would have published any of my fiction at all over the years. It was a very exciting period, and it's a pity there's no magazine like it now.
GODDARD: For a few years in the mid-60s your work had a sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde nature about it. You were producing both linear SF stories and the so-called experimental stories. Were you testing the water before taking the plunge, gauging public reaction?
BALLARD: They weren't called experimental by me - I dislike that term. It implies a test procedure of uncertain outcome. The trouble with most British experimental writing is that it proves one thing, and that is that the experiment has not worked. I wasn't influenced by market considerations at all. In fact, all through the '60's 1 was writing conventional short stories at the same time - there weren't very many of them but 1 was still writing them. I've started writing some more now. In a review that Peter Linnett wrote he said something about my giving up writing those Atrocity Exhibition pieces for financial reasons. I don't know where he got that idea from. The simple fact is that the ideas that went into that book, good or bad, took years to generate. I'd like to write a follow-up to it, but it will take me ten years, probably, to accumulate the material inside my own head.. Also, the climate is wrong now.
PRINGLE: There may have been no financial reasons for you to stop writing them, but were you at all influenced by adverse criticism?
BALLARD: Criticism by whom? By the SF readership? The literary critics or reviewers? I don't know. Obviously a book like that is not going to be as popular as a conventionally-written book, there's no doubt about that, just as a book like Crash is not going to be popular. I found those stories in The Atrocity Exhibition produced more response from people than anything else I've ever written; people whom I'd never had any contact with, from all over the world, took the trouble to get in touch with me, which is a sure test of something. I felt the response to that book was better and larger than anything else I've ever had. In fact, I was encouraged to go on, because as I wrote the stories over a period of four or five years the response grew.
PRINGLE: Have you written some stories in this mode since the book was published?
BALLARD: Only one, actually. They've more or less come to an end.
PRINGLE: I'd like to ask about the change from the non-linear style of The Atrocity Exhibition to the more conventional style of the two recent novels. Does this reflect a change of mind on your part about the worth of such techniques?
BALLARD: No. Maybe, when I was writing the stories and people questioned me about why I broke everything up, I tended to exaggerate a bit in the hope of getting something through. I may have made overlarge claims for non-linear narrative or whatever you want to call it, but basically 1 still feel that the subject matter comes first and the technique you adopt comes second. It was the subject-matter of those stories that defined the way in which they were written. At the same time it's true that once you develop an approach like that it, of itself, opens up so much more territory. I once said those condensed novels, as I called them, are like ordinary novels with the unimportant pieces left out. But it's more than that - when you get the important pieces together, really together, not separated by great masses of 'he said, she said' and opening and shutting of doors, 'following morning' and all this stuff - the great tide of forward conventional narration -it achieves critical mass as it were, it begins to ignite and you get more things being generated. You're getting crossovers and linkages between unexpected and previously totally unrelated things, events, elements of the narration, ideas that in themselves begin to generate new matter. I haven't read any of those stories for a long time, but I remember it comes out of them - the crossovers become very unusual. It was very exciting to do. But those stories were written very much about their period, which was the middle to late '60 s. I know I shall write more stories m that style, but a) it takes a long time to generate material, and b) - Mary McCarthy said somewhere that the novel should be news, and those things were news - they were like newsreels above all. There isn't any news in that sense, nothing is happening. It sounds silly, I suppose, but in a way the events in the external world are not equal to the requirements of that narrative approach. It would be very difficult to write stories of that kind about 1975. But I'm waiting for the subject matter to come along. Meanwhile, other ideas occur to me.
GODDARD: How do you view your books since The Atrocity Exhibition in the greater science fiction context, in which you maintain they still have a niche?
BALLARD: You're entirely right, and I've said so myself, they do still have a niche. I was tremendously exhilarated when I started reading American science fiction - the excitement, the enormous power of imagination, etc. But I felt they weren't really making the most of their own landscapes and subject-matter. Right from the start what I wanted to do was write a science fiction book that got away from spaceships, the far future, and all this stuff which I felt was basically rather juvenile, to writing a kind of adult science fiction based upon the present. Why couldn't one harness this freedom and vitality? SF is a form, above all else, that puts a tremendous premium upon the imagination, and that's something that seems to have left the English novel in the last 150 years. Imagination is enormously important, and I felt that if one could only harness this capacity to think imaginatively in an adult SF, one would have achieved something. Right from the beginning ] tried with varying success 10 write a science fiction about the present day, which is more difficult to do than one realizes. because the natural tendency when writing in a basically allegorical mode is to set something at a distance because it makes the separateness of the allegory that much more obvious. I wanted to write about the present day, and I think Crash, Concrete Island and the book I've just finished, which are a kind of trilogy, represent the conclusion of the particular logic I've been trying to unfold ever since I began writing. Are they SF? I don't know - maybe the science fiction of the present day will be some-think like Crash. They come into the category of imaginative fiction, don't they? With a strong moralistic, cautionary and exploratory note. But I don't know whether they're SF or not.
PRINGLE: What do you mean by 'moralistic'?
BALLARD: Trying to say something about the quality of one's moral direction in the ordinary sense of the term.
PRINGLE: There's one thing that people who dislike your work often talk about, and that's a lack of moral standards, a lack of some sort of touchstone, where you stand....
BALLARD: I would have thought there was too much moralizing in my stuff.
PRINGLE: .... this disturbed a lot of people who reviewed Crash.
BALLARD: They were supposed to be disturbed. When I set out to write Crash, I wanted to write a book in which there was nowhere to hide. I wanted the reader, once I'd got him inside the book, never to lose sight of the subject-matter. As long as he continued reading he was face to face with the subject-matter. It would have been very easy to write a conventional book about car-crashes in which it was quite clear that the author was on the side of sanity, justice and against injuring small children, deaths on the road, bad driving etc. What could be easier? I chose to completely accept the demands of the subject-matter, which was to provoke the reader by saying that these car-crashes are good for you, you thoroughly enjoy them, they make your sex life richer, they represent part of the marriage between sex, the human organism, and technology. I say all these things in order to provoke the reader and also to test him. There may be truth in some of these sentiments, disagreeable though they are to consider. Nobody likes that they'll think 'God, the man's mad', but any other way of writing that book would have been a cop-out I think.
GODDARD: Was Crash in any way an experiment in self-exorcism? I believe you did experience a serious car-crash once.
BALLARD: Yes, but that was after I'd finished the book. One's attitudes and feelings to a whole range of human activities are ambiguous aren't they? This is the whole problem - what one's real motives are. There are elements of self-exorcism, I suppose. I'm an introverted person, my real life is going on inside my head. Obviously I can see that in writing Concrete Island and describing a man who resembles me to some extent, I am playing on my awareness of my own obtuseness. ] probably wouldn't mind being marooned on a desert island, or put in solitary confinement as much as a lot of other people. There's an element of that, but the books are not, in any way, biographical pieces.
GODDARD: Why did you call the protagonist of Crash, 'Ballard'?
BALLARD: Well, that was part of the whole business of being absolutely as honest as I could. I wanted a first-person narrator to stand between Vaughan and the reader - the honest thing to do was to give him my own name. Although the superficial landscapes of the book's 'Ballard' and my life are different, there are many correspondences. Also, I wanted to anchor the book more in reality; I had a named film-star, who never speaks, of course. The constant striving of the writer over the last few years has been to lower the threshold of fiction in what he writes, to reduce the amount of fiction. One's seen this in the theatre over the last fifteen years, and in the visual arts it started a long, long time ago. The move is to reduce the fictional elements in whatever one is doing and get it to overlap reality as much as possible, rather than keep it separate from reality and ordinary experience.
GODDARD: How do you react to criticism of your books? I'm thinking particularly of inane criticisms. Going back to Martin Amis and his review of Crash - he said something like: 'he uses the word penis 147 times'.
BALLARD: I didn't read that. I didn't read any of the reviews of Crash in this country. There didn't seem any point after the reviews of The Atrocity Exhibition - nobody read the book. Having been a reviewer myself, I can always tell when somebody has stopped reading the book he's reviewing. As for criticism in general, well, science-fiction writers have always been handicapped by a lack of intelligent critical response. That's why it's so encouraging to find intelligent magazines like Cypher around now, and intelligent critics like David Pringle here - they didn't exist ten years ago. On the other hand, in America particularly, the critical response to SF has got totally out of hand. Now and then someone shows me a copy of The New York Review of Books, and I recently saw an ad for some of the most extraordinary stuff, either a series of lectures someone was giving, or a series of publications - sort of Levi-Strauss and Heinlein's such and such - all of them sounding like self-parodies, the application of serious literary criticism to popular SF authors.
GODDARD: In Billion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss said of your early work that you had never resolved the problem of writing a narrative in which the central character pursues no purposeful course of action. That seemed rather harsh.
BALLARD: It ties in with what I was saying earlier. I think Brian is at heart an SF fan, and he approaches my stuff - about which he is very generous and always has been - like an SF fan. He judges what he sees. To him, these books have a sort of vacuum at their centre - the character's behaviour superficially, seems to be either passive or meaningless in the context of the events. Why don't they Just run for the hills ? Why don't they head north ? There won't be a problem - there won't be a novel either, of course. Therefore I think he fails to realise that, in a novel like The Drowned World - and this applies to all my fiction - the hero is the only one who is pursuing a meaningful course of action. In The Drowned World, the hero, Kerans, is the only one to do anything meaningful. His decision to stay, to come to terms with the changes taking place within himself, to understand the logic of his relationship with the shifting biological kingdom, and his decision finally to go south and greet the sun, is a totally meaningful course of action. The behaviour of the other people, which superficially appears to be meaningful -getting the hell out, or draining the lagoons - is totally meaningless. The book is about the discovery by the hero of his true compass bearings, both mentally and literally. It's the same in the others: in The Crystal World the hero decides to go back and immolate himself in a timeless world. In The Terminal Beach why does the man stagger ashore on an abandoned island, what is he doing there ? I can well understand that to the SF fan his behaviour is meaningless or lacks purpose - this, I think, means that Brian may have read too much SF.
GODDARD: He goes on to say, in the same book, that the stories of your Terminal Beach period will probably be best remembered.
BALLARD: Which stories does he mean?
GODDARD: Well, he says your Terminal Beach period - that came about '62 or '63, so I suppose he means the stories you were writing around the late '50s and early '60s.
BALLARD: What he means, I think, is that the traditionally constructed stories will last the longest. A lot of American and British SF is extremely well-written, well constructed, really very old-fashioned in construction. They're all based on the author's early reading of Maupassant or Somerset Maugham. All SF is really constructed in the classical mould - stories like that do tend to survive, not because they're particularly important or anything like that, but because they're well told.
PRINGLE: Can you tell us about your physical methods of writing, and whether they've changed over the years?
BALLARD: They haven't changed. I don't find that I work late in the evening now unless I really have to. My eyes are tired. But basically I haven't changed my approach. I set myself a target, about a thousand words a day - unless I just stare out of the window, which I do a lot of anyway. I generally work from a synopsis, about a page when I'm writing a short story, longer for a novel. Unless for me the thing works as a story, unless it works on the anecdotal level, unless I feel it holds the attention of the reader, I don't bother with it. It's got to work on that level, as a pure piece of storytelling. If it does I begin writing. I spend a tremendous amount of time, I won't say doing research, but just soaking myself in the mental landscapes, particularly of a novel. Most of the time I'm thinking about what I'm writing, or hope to write. Particularly with Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition. I was carrying these for something like six or seven years. I was totally immersed mentally in this very overcharged world. It was an exciting time, but very tiring.
PRINGLE: Did you actually visit motorways and inspect the landscape?
BALLARD: Oh yes, I did a lot of research of that kind. I photographed this, that and the other.
PRINGLE: Was the inspiration for Concrete Island an actual place?
BALLARD: No. I've always been interested, since it was built, by the Westway motorway near Shepherd's Bush, where I set the novel. It always struck me, driving around these complex interchanges, what would happen if someone stood by the wayside and tried to flag you down? Of course, nobody would stop. You can't stop - you'd just have a multiple pileup You'd be dead if you tried to stop. France is a much more technologically oriented country than England, with the big high-speed boulevards that circle Paris. You can drive on the motorway from the Channel - it's not the outskirts of Paris by any means, you can see the Eiffel Tower half a mile away - on their equivalent of our circular road. You can circle Paris if you want to, and you can pick up the motorway going south without stopping at a single traffic light. It's an enormous complex of interchanges and multilevel high-speed avenues, and the French seem to drive much more aggressively than people do over here. It often struck me there, every summer if you were marooned up on one of those balustrade ramparts - it's not just a two-dimensional island, they've got three-dimensional islands up in the air - you'd never get off. The traffic seems to be flowing 24 hours a day. The French are ruthless, they don't stop for anybody. Jesus Christ himself could be crucified by the wayside and nobody would stop. It was an obvious sort of idea to have. What's so interesting about the technological landscape is the way it plays into people's hands, people's possibly worst motives. It's difficult to maroon yourself on the A1, but much easier to maroon yourself on Westway.
GODDARD: Would you care to tell us something about what your future plans are?
BALLARD: Well, I finished a novel about three weeks ago, and since then I've written a couple of short stories and am writing a third now, and just catching my breath a bit.
PRINGLE: What's the new novel called?
BALLARD: I call it The High Life provisionally. I may change it, I may stick to it. I don't know.
PRINGLE: And you've written some short stories?
BALLARD: A couple have been published.
PRINGLE: I've seen one in Ambit called 'My Dream of Flying to Wake Island'.
BALLARD: I only wrote that about a month ago! That was quite extraordinary. Martin Bax, the editor, wanted me to write a short story for his sixtieth number. I wrote that in about one day, from a standing start. I think I wrote it on the Saturday, and 1 got the copy through the post on -something like Wednesday. An incredible turnaround, and very exciting when that happens. One of the nice things about writing for magazines is that there is always such a tremendously quick feedback. I wrote another - 'The Air Disaster' - for a girl I know called Emma Tennant who's just published a new magazine called Bananas.
GODDARD: You've no plans for another trilogy of novels on the lines of the last three?
BALLARD: I just tend to write whatever comes mentally to hand, and what I find interesting at a particular time. These decisions as to what one's going to write tend to be made somewhere at the back of one's mind, so one can't consciously say: 'that's what I'm going to write'. It doesn't work out like that!