Lucky Jim

Lynn Barber Reporting

J G Ballard, bestselling author of “Empire of the Sun” -- the inspiration for Spielberg's forthcoming blockbuster -- is a contented man. Not for him the flash car and the lavish country house, although he is partial to semis in Shepperton and Belgian surrealism...

Has his success changed J G Ballard? That was the question I went down to Shepperton to ask, but as soon as I arrived it seemed potty, and when I finally managed to get it out, Jim roared with laughter.

“Look around!” he boomed. “What do you think?”

Well, no, success has not changed Jim Ballard. He is someone I have known on and off for 20 years and he has always been the same jovial, generous, larger-than-life figure, talking 19 to the dozen and waving his hands excitedly. When I first knew him he had already published “The Drought” and “The Drowned World” and was a name to conjure with among science fiction addicts, but to the general reader he was still JG who?

Then, in 1984, came “Empire of the Sun”, his 20th book and a complete departure from all the others. It was based on his childhood experiences in Shanghai and in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. He was 11 when the Japanese invaded, and he was whisked suddenly from his affluent home with its chauffeurs and governesses to all the horrors of the camp where disease, starvation and death confronted him daily.

Moreover, the camp was right next to a Japanese airfield, so it was bombed by the Americans much of the time. The inmates, including Ballard, only knew the war had ended when the Americans one day started dropping food canisters on them instead of bombs.

Many critics felt that “Empire of the Sun” should have won the Booker prize, but it did win “The Guardian” and James Tait Black Memorial prizes and sold half a million copies in the UK alone. Worldwide, it sold more copies and made more money than all Ballard's other books put together.

It is now being made into a film by Steven Spielberg, adapted for the screen by Tom Stoppard and due for release early next year. So it seemed reasonable to suppose that Jim Ballard might have changed his lifestyle -- just a bit.

But no. He still lives in the same grotty two-up two-down 1930s semi in Shepperton, with the same rusting Capri parked outside. There seems to be much the same junk piled in the hall, the same encrusted saucepans in the tiny scullery, the same collapsing sofa -- but with a few more springs hanging out. I wouldn't be surprised if one of these days “The World of Interiors” didn't feature J G Ballard's house as a frightfully amusing and authentic (my dears!) example of a pre-War semi.

“But you made at least half a million from ‘Empire,’” I wailed. “Didn't you buy anything?”

Yes, he said proudly, he had. He commissioned an American artist friend to recreate two paintings by Delvaux, the Belgian surrealist, which were destroyed in the Blitz, from surviving black and white photographs. The trouble is they are both so huge he has to keep them standing on the floor and mantelpiece because they would bring the walls down if he tried to hang them, and his sitting room is so small you can't get far enough away to see them properly.

What else had he bought? “Nothing. I gave most of the money to the taxman and the rest to my children. Honestly, Lynn, you've become terribly bourgeois. Why do you keep wanting to talk about money?”

Instead, he was keen to talk about his new book, “The Day of Creation”, which Gollancz publish this week. It is a strange adventure story about a man who “creates” a river in the central African desert, and then tries to destroy it. It marks a return to his pre-Empire style -- not science fiction, because he hates that label, but an imagined subject, rich in metaphor. Longstanding Ballard fans will love it; he hopes his new “Empire” fans will enjoy, it, too.

For a while, after “Empire of the Sun”, he doubted he could ever write again. He was exhausted by the media attention (“I am quite shy really”) and the process of remembering his own past. “It opened a lot of windows in my mind and exposed all these buried memories that I'd really hidden from myself. Of course, they had surfaced in my fiction for 20 years or more -- the drained swimming pools, the abandoned hotels, they were all memories of Shanghai -- but for the first time I was seeing them undisguised.

“The whole thing was quite an unsettling experience, like opening Pandora's box, and I was frightened about letting it go. That's probably why I waited so long to write it. Most people would have written it as their first book, but for a while there I thought it might be my last.”

He had another unsettling experience recently when Spielberg asked him to appear as an extra in “Empire”. Most of the film was shot in Shanghai, and in Spain where they recreated the POW camp, but this particular scene -- a party -- was filmed in a house just 10 minutes from Ballard's.

“I played a guest at the party the night before the Japanese invasion. Actually, Spielberg offered me a line, but I looked around at all these real actors and said, ‘No, I'll stick to what I can do’, which was to stand around at this party holding a glass of whisky.” (Indeed, he used to be famous for drinking a glass of whisky on the hour every hour from 9am but he's sobered up a lot since then.)

“The film people had done their research well. Although this house was just down the road, it felt exactly like Shanghai and I suddenly realised why. Because most of the people who lived in Shanghai had come from places like Shepperton and built houses just like the ones they'd left behind in England.

“So when you -- and not only you but all my friends -- ask why I live in Shepperton, I now know the answer. I was drawn here because, on a subconscious level, it reminded me of Shanghai. But I had to wait 25 years to understand my reason for doing so.”

Actually, my private theory about why Ballard lives in Shepperton was that his early years were so unsettling, so terrifying, that he'd deliberately opted for a boring life. But he proved me wrong.

“I didn't come here till my early 30s, and I had quite an adventurous life before that. I was a medical student, a pilot, an encyclopedia salesman, a Covent Garden porter. It was really only because of the children that I settled here. And that wasn't boring; that was the biggest experience of my life."

His young wife died suddenly of pneumonia when the children were four, five and seven, and Jim brought them up himself -- no au pairs, no childminders and no boarding schools.

“Yes, I washed all those knees, I ironed all those ties,” he laughs. “They were wonderfully happy years and I would gladly do it all over again.”

He thinks it was easier being a man. “You don't have to maintain high standards of tidiness,” he said, gesturing to the sofa piled high with papers. “I suppose if a woman lived like this she'd be regarded as a slut -- jolly unfair, I agree.”

Still, now the children are grown up and off his hands, will he move? “I could, but why should I? It's true, of course, that when I got this great gush of money from ‘Empire’, I thought, like you, that I should do something, make a fresh start. I’m sure you'd like to see me living in a big house with lots of expensive furniture and a flash car standing on half an acre of gravel, but would I be happy? No, I wouldn't.”

Five years ago, when I interviewed Ballard for the series “Things I Wish 1'd Known At 18”, he said would happily change everything about his life: “I wish I'd done so many more things than I have done. I wish I'd had more children, I wish I'd had more dogs, I particularly wish I'd had more wives. What's so sad about most people’s lives, my own included, is that they accept the roles that are given to them. We're like people who always go to the same restaurant and always order the same meal.”

The success of “Empire” meant suddenly, that he had the chance to change his life. And what happened? He didn't change a thing. He always was a happy man, really, but now he knows he's a happy man. Lucky Jim.