From The Guardian, 5 September 1991. This interview appears to be one of a series entitled "Writers at Work":
"This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish."
Clare Boylan on the strange world of J. G. Ballard
"I work in a small sitting room overlooking my garden and have done for 30 years," James Ballard says. "I keep office hours. By about six o'clock I'm thinking of the first gin and tonic. As a rule I don't write on Saturdays or Sundays, I write 10 pages a day and I get so tired I sometimes finish in the middle of a sentence." He writes in long-hand on A4 paper with a fibre-tipped pen; "but before I begin a novel I always work out a synopsis and this is typed for easy reading".
Ballard's synopses are extensive affairs taking six months of preparation and sometimes running to 30 or 40 pages. "An idea floats about for perhaps a year before I find it has the makings of a novel. Then I begin a detailed synopsis, I like to have a sense of the dramatic shape and internal atmosphere before I start to write." In one instance, with his 1979 novel, "The Unlimited Dream Company", the author's detailed plan overran the length of the finished novel by some 10,000 words.
The author's elaborate advance preparations once involved organising an exhibition of crashed cars at the now-defunct Arts Laboratory in Camden. "I had a theory about the effect of car crashes on people. I had noticed how celebrities such as James Dean who were killed in cars became mythologised. I went to a breaker's yard and picked out three wrecks and had them delivered to the gallery. The effect on viewers was extraordinary. People drank enormous quantities at the opening. The cars were constantly attacked. One was overturned and another daubed with white paint. These objects touched profound psychological chords and I knew then that I had my novel."
The novel, "Crash", about a man with an erotic obsession with motor accidents, had an even more dramatic impact on its first assessor. "This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish," the reader at Cape advised in her report.
"Fortunately Mr Cape did not heed the young lady," says Ballard. He is calm about this, as about the American reaction to his 1969 work, "The Atrocity Exhibition", (concerning the role of iconic figures such as John F. Kennedy in America). This so upset the US publishers, Doubleday, that they pulped the entire first edition. "I didn't mind," he insists. "Americans are very protective of their myths and those early books were designed to provoke the reader."
Those stark words were written during a bleak period in the author's life. His wife Mary died in 1964 when his children were four, six and seven. Ballard brought them up alone, while writing from the semi-detached house in Shepperton where he still lives (an episode poignantly adapted to fiction in his new novel). He refutes any charge of heroism. "It wasn't hard. I just got them up in the morning and gave them their breakfast and took them to school. Most of my writing was done when they were in school. The noises of family life never bothered me."
Ballard wrote his first creative work when he was 10 and a student at the Cathedral School in Shanghai. "The headmaster was an extremely tyrannical clergyman. He was always giving us lines from improving texts to write. One day I was given 30 pages of "Westward Ho" by Charles Kingsley to copy. I suddenly felt I could save a lot of time if I invented the narrative myself. All I had to do was imitate the grandiloquent style. It was very exhilarating, but I didn't quite get away with it. 'Next time, don't choose such a trashy novel to copy,' the head commented." His next work was a book on contract bridge, written at the age of 11.
This precocious progress was interrupted by the invasion of China by Japan and his internment in 1942 in a prison camp (the inspiration for his 1984 novel, "Empire of the Sun"). "It wasn't so bad. At that age it was more an adventure than an ordeal. I didn't write there because there was nothing to write on, but already I had developed an observer's eye."
Ballard expresses few regrets in his life, apart from the demise of an old pal, Dr Christopher Evards, [sic] a computer scientist at the National Physical Laboratories who for 10 years sent the author the contents of his wastepaper basket every week. "That was absolutely marvelous. Do you realise what was in there - scientific papers and press releases from every possible source all over the world? I was fascinated as much by the language of the papers as the research."
As a writer he professes himself a happy man. "I have written about things that were extremely painful but I have never had to compromise. I have always made enough money to live on. I studied medicine at Cambridge but did not practice and when my first novel, "The Drowned World", was published in 1962, I worked out that it earned me about the same in a year as a newly qualified GP. Naturally my subsequent earnings did not keep pace but when "Empire of the Sun" was published, I was pleased to note I was making as much as a consultant."
J. G. Ballard's latest novel, "The Kindness of Women", is a sequel to "Empire of the Sun" which was short-listed for the Booker Prize and filmed by Stephen Spielberg. It is published by Harper Collins on September 26.