From "The Times", 28 November 1987:
The film of the Booker (sic)
Chris Peachment talks to JG Ballard about Spielberg's film adaption of the author's prize-winning novel
"The Empire of the Sun" cast a weird, backward-looking beam of light over the previous landscapes of J G Ballard's novels. The cracked, distempered world of the Japanese detention camp in Shanghai, the barbed wire, and the bombed-out ruins in which young Jim came of age, this was the stuff of Ballard's own life. Suddenly the drowned world, the terminal beach, the atrocity exhibition, the concrete islands of his previous works seemed a lot less like the "science fiction" which the unknowing had labelled them. Here was a man who knew all about living on the edge of things; a man who had realized at first hand that a landscape of broken concrete and sudden death was closer to the true experience of most people on this planet than were the green fields of the home counties. If he chose to set his novels in the future, that is hardly surprising for a man with such a past.
These days he lives in Shepperton. His is a suburban street full of sunrise wooden gates and Ford Fiestas. A widower, he now lives alone since his children have flown the nest. Only the very unimaginative would find some sort of paradox in a man living in such ordinary surroundings and yet spinning such outlandish yarns. Nonetheless, one can't help wondering what his neighbours make of his fiction. He doesn't stray from his fastness much either; once a year he comes up to town for a party thrown by "Ambit" magazine, which he co-edits with Martin Bax. Other than that, he steers clear of literary bashes. "I'd rather write the books than stand up behind a lectern and pontificate," he says. "God knows there are enough people doing that. And few enough of us actually writing the damn things."
"Empire of the Sun" is the first time a book of his has been filmed, although he did once express the desire that George Miller, director of the "Mad Max" trilogy should make a film of "Crash", which would suggest that as far as film goes he can recognise a winner. He is well pleased that Spielberg ended up with the project, "because he has an unequalled gift for handling children and a proven ability with very large action scenes." Ballard himself makes a small appearance as a guest at a fancy dress party.
"The Day of Creation" (published by Gollancz) occurs in the Third World. And again one is forced to a new realization: that all of his novels have been set in a third world of some kind. Somewhere between Chad and Sudan, in the diseased part of Africa, Mallory, a doctor who has been drilling for water, uncovers a natural spring and brings to life a huge river. It promises a new Garden of Eden for the area, but to Mallory it represents an unacceptable part of himself. He bought it to life, now he must travel its length in an old ferry boat, and engineer its extinction. "People do react like that," Ballard says, "to things which they have created and which grow larger than themselves. Parents often resent their children's successes. But Mallory is constantly dogged by his own attempts to understand exactly what is happening between himself and the river."
Ballard himself is also dogged by the same problem. "I'm not too sure where all this stuff comes from," he says. "Somewhere at the back of my brain there is some weird device, spinning out this web ... it's all a great mystery to me." On his wall is a Delvaux-like dreamscape, with naked women stalking a sunless plain of flagstones. It was always an article of faith with the surrealists that the strange exists in the everyday, and exists, moreover, without possibility of explanation. "Exactly," Ballard says. "I have always thought I was close to the surrealists in that respect. The more I think about dreams, the more I believe they are insoluble. They must just exist in a state of mystery."
Nonetheless, the essential realism of the book should be stressed. The landscape may be hallucinatory, and Ballard may write about it more tenderly than he does his characters, but it is still a landscape which is true to the romantic tradition of reflecting the character's feelings and thoughts. It is also recognizably real. "Never for one moment did I think it was an imaginary landscape," says Ballard, "I may stretch the limits of the normal, but to me it was absolutely real."
Journeying alongside Mallory, in his trip up-stream to the heart of darkness, is a charlatan TV presenter desperately trying to make a third-rate nature programme about the river and Mallory's twisted relationship with it. Overlaid on Mallory's own desperate strugglings to understand the first-hand nature of his predicament is this presenter, lamely creating his own fictions, unaware that they are a secondhand order of experience. It is a very good satire.
"It is exactly what we have to contend with all day from the television," Ballard says, "where everything is a replay. Indeed the replay comes to be seen as the first order of experience, the thing itself. Whether it is Vietnam or football, it is all recreated to suit the clichés of the medium. Nature is being turned into a theme park before our very eyes. Everything is given a bushy tail. By the next century, the world will have been completely packaged by wildlife documentaries into something homogenized and sanitized, with the texture of cheap ice cream."
"Look at Reagan," he says, warming to his hatred of the media grip on our lives. "It is extraordinary enough that an actor can become President, but what is even more worrying is that Americans seem to like it. Supposing that brain surgeons were suddenly replaced by actors pretending to be brain surgeons. No doubt you'd get a terrific bedside manner. But when you are finally in the operating theatre ..." This sounds like an excellent idea for a new J. G. Ballard book. "Yes," he says, "the problem is, it's already been written. It's called Reality."