Martin Amis talks to JG Ballard shortly before the publication of "Empire of the Sun", from the Observer's magazine section, 2 September 1984:
The bizarre and shocking science fiction of J. G. Ballard is written in the tranquillity of English suburbia. His latest novel looks set to bring him unprecedented success. On the eve of its publication, Martin Amis visited him in his semi.
England's least conventional writer lives his life against type: in a little Shepperton semi, among the sculpted hedges, the parked Escorts, and the neighbouring houses with their fond appellations - Fairview, Gladecourt. Here in the deep innocuousness of garden suburbia, James Graham Ballard, the glazed SF stylist, the counter-cultural adventurer, the poet-technologian of our modern setting, calmly counts out the days. He has always been a vivid exponent of Flaubert's Law: orderly and regular in his life, savage and original in his art.
"What would you like?" he asked me. "Scotch? Gin? Vodka?" Actually it sounded more like "Scotch! Gin! Vodka!" Ballard's voice is strongly musical and resonant, every other word vehemently stressed in the cadences of high sarcasm. It is how I remember him. I'd better explain that I have known Jim Ballard, vaguely, for nearly 20 years. A friend of my father's, he would show up fairly often - affable, excitable, and noisy. He still cuts a pleasantly rounded figure, with his loose shirt and flipflops, his panting laugh. It was 11 o'clock in the morning. There was a time when Ballard used to drink all day (a Scotch every hour, starting at nine), but he can't take it any more, and neither can I. So he brought coffee to the dusty back room.
"What you see here is a vacuum. Until quite recently it was a happy family house. All these French 'Crash'-freaks used to come out here to see me, expecting a miasma of child-molestation and drug-abuse." ("Crash" was a big hit in France, perhaps because of the Baudelaireian waywardness of its theme: the sexuality of the road accident.) "What they found was a suburban house full of kids, and their friends, with a big dog, and me writing a short story in the middle of it all." Ballard's wife died of pneumonia 20 years ago "almost to the day", suddenly and bafflingly, during a family holiday in Spain. He raised the three children himself. They're grown up now, all of them thriving professionals. One imagines Ballard as a profoundly tolerant and pragmatic father. None of his children has read a word of his stuff, which delights him. "No! None of them! Not a word. Why should they? They know me well enough as it is."
Ballard has already had an unprecedented pre-publication success with his new novel, "Empire of the Sun", and now his life is suddenly open to change. That success has been long delayed, and fully deserved; but Ballard doubts whether he can be bothered to gentrify himself at this stage. "It's very difficult to remythologise one's life. You tell yourself these tales of gold, to sustain yourself, to inspire this one-man team. You need a new set of dreams, landscapes, forests. And what happens? I just sit with a whisky and soda, watching 'The Rockford Files'."
It is a fairly routine irony that "Empire", as he calls it, is in some ways the most conventional novel that J. G. Ballard has ever produced. Based on his childhood experience as a detainee in Shanghai, it is a survival story, harshly naturalistic, with little of the wicked spin that Ballard usually imparts to time and space. And yet it is also thoroughly Ballardian, a drama of extremity and isolation played out against an "inverted landscape" which, for all its horror, attracts and compels the actors who move within it. "Empire of the Sun" uses the familiar abstract imagery, the unmistakable lilts ("The Abandoned Aerodrome", "The Cemetery Garden", "The Terrible City" are typical chapter headings), and the childlike amorality we find in all Ballard's work. Vanished, ruined, forgotten, disused, drowned, drained - these are the keywords of his lexicon; it is as if, in his landscapes, human life has gone, passed through, absented itself, leaving only icons and totems for the next wanderers to interpret. The new novel shines a light back through Ballard's entire corpus, and in the end the circle is satisfyingly complete. The trauma of Shanghai determined his course as a writer. And now, in "Empire of the Sun", he gives shape to what shaped him.
"How closely does the book follow your own experience?" I asked him. "This is what everyone will want to know."
"Ah, God. Well look. I'm the same age as my hero, I was born in Shanghai as he was, lived in that big house as he did. I was interned in that camp but I wasn't separated from my parents - as Jim is in the book. The vast body of Jim's experiences are invented, though psychologically true. You fictionalise to reach the truth ... I've always wanted to write a book about the war and I've always put it off. Oh, I'll do it next. Three years ago I reached 50 and felt that the memory might begin to fade. Originally I took it for granted that I would have an adult central character. A doctor, something of this sort. But I couldn't get into the book, nothing came alive, despite the big emotional charge that was waiting, ready to go off inside my head. Then I thought, what about a 13-year-old, someone my age? And - boom - the cannon went off. I knew it was the only way I could write it. Because of course I don't have the benefit of hindsight. I have no adult response to that experience and couldn't imagine one."
Later, when I replayed the tape of this interview, Ballard's voice was eerily underscored by two distinct sound-effects: the premonitory surge of airliners as they banked for Heathrow; and the poppings and squawkings of Ballard's swivel chair. He writhed as he talked, partly through natural restiveness, and partly through the difficulty of recalling these times. The memories cannot be assimilated, or purged.
"In the book, I played it all down. The beating to death of the rickshaw coolie, for instance -- I wasn't 100 yards away when that happened, I was 10 feet away. No, they were very violent times. Executions, public stranglings, disbanded soldiers wandering about, starving armies. You'd have to go to Uganda during the last days of Idi Amin, or the Congo during the civil war, or Cambodia, perhaps, to get some idea of what life was like for the ordinary Chinese. Shanghai was a huge city. Anything could happen. If you fainted in the street from hunger or illness ... you just died where you lay. When I went to school every morning - with chauffeur and governess, to prevent kidnap attempts - I would see a body every 200 yards. People brought up in the social democracies of Western Europe have no idea of this kind of savagery. No they don't, actually, and it's a good thing that they don't."
In 1946, aged 15, Ballard sailed to the exotic land that he had only heard and read about: England. "The culture shock is still with me," he says. "I was genuinely stunned. I wasn't prepared for the latitude. The angle of the light, almost as much as the ambient temperature, plays a vital part in one's responses, as if one has a sextant in one's head. I wasn't prepared for the greyness, the harshness of the light, the small, exhausted, shattered community, the white faces, the closed nature of English life. I wasn't prepared for the 'furniture' of England. I remember looking down from the ship at Southampton, seeing the little houses and these black perambulators like mobile coal-scuttles. They were English cars. I was used to Packards and Cadillacs. It flummoxed me to think that people drove around in these things."
He lived with his grandparents and attended the Leys School in Cambridge - "just like the camp, only the food was worse." His mother returned to Shanghai to rejoin her husband, who had stayed on.
And so began Ballard's worldly "career". But of course he was one of life's surrealists - a natural misfit. He read medicine at King's College, Cambridge. He was interested in Freud, Sartre, Camus: "My fellow undergraduates hadn't heard of them. Neither had the dons." Thrown out of King's, he read English at London. Thrown out of London, he became a trainee pilot in the RCAF. Thrown out of the RCAF, he ... "The only thing I wasn't thrown out of was advertising. After I'd been in advertising for a while, I suddenly realised that I hadn't been thrown out of it." What did this tell him about advertising? "It told me run don't walk. I threw myself out."
In 1955 Ballard stopped reading SF and started writing it. His early, "hard" SF stories were as brilliantly imagined and executed as anything in the genre - but it soon became clear that Ballard was sui generis, and that SF wouldn't hold him for long. His galaxy was the planet Earth, his terrain that of "inner space". During a three-week summer holiday he wrote "The Wind from Nowhere". In this novel, since disowned by its author, a global hurricane accelerates until the atmosphere consists of a high-velocity avalanche. Established as a full-time writer, Ballard proceeded, in his next three books, to subject the planet to death by water, dehydration and mineralisation - but these were psychological disaster stories, their landscapes internal as well as actual. At the end of "The Drowned World" the hero heads south, to embrace the terminal heat and insanity of the swamped jungles. "The American publisher said, 'We have a problem with the ending. It's too negative. Couldn't we have him heading north?' But it's a happy ending. South is where he wants to go. Further. Deeper. South!"
The vein of tranced perversity in Ballard's writing found its limits in the late Sixties and early Seventies, with his hard-edge, concrete-and-steel period, an exploration of high-tech atavism, of wound-profiles and sex-deaths, neatly summed up in the first title of the phase, "The Atrocity Exhibition". "Highrise" [sic] begins as follows: "Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events ..." The first editor who read "Crash" said in her report: "The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help." Ballard was thrilled. "To me this meant total artistic success. Actually even I was rather startled when I saw the proofs. But the pornography was used for serious purposes - cautionary purposes."
"Does the new book signal the end of your hard-edge phase?"
"It probably signals the end of everything," said Ballard contentedly. By now we were having a pub lunch on the riverbank, among the gulls, the launches, the cheerful middle-management of Shepperton. In a more recent novel, "The Unlimited Dream Company", Ballard imagines the arrival of a sexual messiah who transforms Shepperton into an apocalyptic theme park, igniting all the fantasies of ordinary minds. Like everything he writes, the book is faintly ludicrous, bizarrely logical and deeply haunting. In summer, Ballard finds Shepperton "lunar and abstract".
"You seem to be in pretty good nick," I said, "considering what you went through."
"Those were hard times. Don't be deceived by my friend here," he said, patting his belly. "By the end of the war the food had pretty well dried up. The Japs could hardly feed themselves. Why should they bother about an enclave of Allied detainees? Why? These are the realities. We ate cracked wheat, warehouse scrapings, weevils. You'd shift the weevils to the side and eat them last. I often had three rings of them on the edge of my plate."
What do they taste of?
"They don't taste of anything, funnily enough. Absolutely nothing. We had to eat them for the protein. I remember those years in the camp as a time of high interest and activity. Some of the prisoners behaved with great steadfastness. Most were withdrawn and listless. A few were scrimshankers, petty thieves, or open collaborators with the Japanese. But you'd expect that. I was happy there. It was like having a huge slum family."
Ballard didn't see as much of the war as his alter ego in the novel. He didn't see the sinking of the Petrel in front of the Shanghai Bund. He didn't see the light in the sky after Hiroshima and Nagasaki (as if God were taking photographs of the end of the world). But he saw every form of human extremity by the time he was 13. As a result, nothing can surprise or startle him - except his own fictions. It occurred to me that if I had turned up for the interview three days late with a carload of drunken hitch-hikers, Ballard would not have been displeased, far less disconcerted. He would have said, "Scotch! Gin! Vodka!" He is a writer for whom anything is possible, as many new readers will soon discover. The way ahead now looks intriguingly unresolved; but we can safely say that J. G. Ballard will go too far - in all directions.
"Empire of the Sun" is published on 13 September by Gollancz. £8.95