Another article/interview in connection with the publication of "The Kindness of Women", this time from "Scotland on Sunday", 6 October 1991:
Author J G Ballard talks to Stuart Bathgate about his journey from savage satire to painful honesty.
Age has not withered him. Pushing 61, the most famous former inmate of the Lunghua prison camp, Shanghai, is almost identical to the man he was 20 years ago: the same rounded, well-fed features; the same pointed observations. This may be the man who wrote a savage satire on the psychosexuality of the car crash, and, as early as 1967 penned a touching little tribute entitled "Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan"; but there remains something childlike, a hint of wide-eyed eagerness in his approach to the everyday world.
It's a theme which looms large in his new novel, "The Kindness Of Women". Denied a normal childhood by his wartime imprisonment by the Japanese, he eventually regained the innocence of infancy as his own children - he brought up all three alone after the death of his wife - were approaching adolescence. Billed as a sequel to the bestselling "Empire Of The Sun", but more explicitly autobiographical, "The Kindness Of Women" begins by going over the same ground from a different perspective before embarking on an extended trip through the author's life, from abortive careers as doctor and fighter pilot to his eventual success as a writer.
While it is a cliché to describe a confessional work as "painfully honest", in this case it's true: at times one can almost see the author, in some bizarre re-enactment of his days in anatomy class, peeling back his own epidermis to allow the public to peruse his exposed sensitivities. The process must have been all the more difficult in as much as, "Empire Of The Sun" excepted, Ballard has never before dealt in characterisation to such a degree, nor - without exceptions, this time - has he examined human relationships. Even the title of the new book hints at a departure for Ballard; while typical abstract nouns in the titles of previous volumes have been "atrocity", "fever" and "disaster", now we have "kindness".
Although asserting that all of the new novel is psychologically, if not literally, a faithful account of his life, Ballard is eager to emphasise that his most extreme experimental fiction of the late 1960s and early 1970s was definitely not autobiographical. "It's always been a bit of a surprise over the years to people who come to visit me in Shepperton," he says. "They expect to be confronted by some child-molesting, drug-ravaged psychotic, and they meet someone who is quietly bringing up his family and doesn't take anything stronger than whisky and soda.
"My life has always been separate from my writing, unlike, say, William Burroughs, whose life and work are a continuum."
That distinction between fiction and reality has often been lost on Ballard's readers. Most famously, there was the publisher's reader whose verdict on a draft copy of "Crash" was: "The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help. DO NOT PUBLISH."
While "The Kindness Of Women" ends with the 1987 American premiere of "Empire Of The Sun", the publication and subsequent filming of which enabled Ballard to escape at last from the science-fiction ghetto, the core - of the novel and the author's life - is the 1960s, the period he is fond of describing as "a 10-year pharmaceutical experiment".
"The 1960s - Swinging England and all that - didn't really get under way until about 1963, the same time as the Beatles," says Ballard. "In fact I date the start of the 1960s from the Kennedy assassination. We were all so outraged that Lee Harvey Oswald could kill this electronic prince."
The early years of that decade were tough financially, Ballard having to find enough money through his writing to bring up three children, at the same time as performing the all-too-time-consuming task of actually bringing them up day by day. Indeed, only with "Empire Of The Sun" did he really become comfortably off.
The thing is, he always bit the hand that fed him, partly because of a refusal to compromise, and partly out of a certain perversity. As prose editor of "Ambit", he saw the magazine lose its Arts Council grant after he ran a competition for short stories written under the influence of drugs. (The winner later committed suicide). Stereotyped as a science-fiction writer, he was more concerned with exploding the cosy conventions of the genre, pouring scorn on "planet yarns", and writing stories about spaceships which had actually never left earth, just been closed off from contact with the outside to see how the "passengers" would react.
He once called science fiction "the authentic literature of the 20th century", but sees things differently now. "I think SF has had its day," he explains. "It's been absorbed into the mainstream, and of course so many mainstream writers have written SF books - Doris Lessing, Anthony Burgess, Kingsley and Martin Amis, among many more. What happened in the 1970s in America was that they wanted reassurance, and so SF degenerated rather into stuff like Star Wars."
He is glad, too, that "Empire Of The Sun" confirmed his escape from the SF ghetto. "I picked up a whole new audience from that. I don't think real SF obsessives were ever very fond of my stuff."
All the same, he retains a fondness for earlier works such as "Crash", which he does not, in any case, regard as science fiction. Indeed, how could one classify a work whose central character plans to achieve orgasm at the moment his car crashes on top of Elizabeth Taylor's, having plunged off the Heathrow flyover? There was a certain, greatly understated element of black humour in such works, as there was, too, in shorter, experimental jeux d'esprit, such as the story "Princess Margaret's Face-Lift". ("I got a textbook of cosmetic surgery and I used the description of a face-lift word for word except I made it all happen to Princess Margaret.")
In a published career which now spans 40 years, Ballard has remained faithful to a strictly limited number of themes, chief among them being what he calls "the death of affect" - his belief that everyone is slowly being desensitised by the media, in particular television. And if you forget where you were on the day of the Kennedy assassination, J G could probably tell you, so closely has he studied the whole affair. His other favourite icon is former president Reagan: an inveterate analyser of media trends, Ballard had Reagan marked as something different in the mid-1960s - even before the old ham became governor of California.
All these themes crop up in "The Kindness Of Women"; a disarming book, its linear chronology renders it apparently artless. Those familiar with Ballard's ouevre will be interested in it as a roman à clef, a clue to his past obsessions and friends, and the explanation of where so many of his ideas first came from.
None the less, those with little or no knowledge of the man's previous epics of apocalypse will still find the new book a rewarding read. Ballard's themes may be few, but, in the case of "The Kindness Of Women", they constitute a narrow furrow ploughed to perfection.
The Kindness Of Women is published by HarperCollins priced at £14.99.