From Hardcore Magazine, 1992
An interview with J. G. Ballard
When J G Ballard recently released his novel “The Kindness of Women”, the sequel to “Empire Of The Sun”, he supported it with a U.K. tour. The Hardcore sent two information terrorists, Phil Halper in London and Lard Iyer in Manchester to dominate the proceedings and make sure any questings about “Empire Of The Sun” and Ballard's childhood were at all costs avoided. We tried.
HC: Did you consider “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” a prediction, or just a story?
JGB: Nothing is just a story. Watching Reagan's commercials when he was running for Governor of California in 1965, and a lot of these were shown on television because of the novelty value of having a Hollywood actor running for political office. Then it was seen as extraordinary, it was treated as a joke by the British media in particular. I thought there was something about Reagan which was a sign of things to come. I can't say I was convinced he would become president, but I thought someone like him would become president eventually, because he understood how the media landscape worked. He realised no one in this huge television audience was listening to what he was saying, all they were interested in was his body language. He came on with this friendly sports caster manner or like a Buick salesman, yet he was pitching this -- at that point, in the mid-sixties -- extreme right-wing image which picked on all these phobias and fears in his audience. He was the first of the new style politicians who instinctively took the lowest common estimate of their electorate. He succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.
Audience: You mentioned the sixties and your fascination with Kennedy and LSD, would you say your artistic loyalties were with the surrealists or with Pop Art, and have you been to the current Pop Art exhibition at the Royal Academy?
JGB: Well they're strongly with the surrealists. Pop art was a wonderful source of ideas for me. I remember going to the “This Is Tomorrow” exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1957 [sic] when Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton virtually single handedly created Pop Art, long before the Americans got into the act. I may say the British have always had a more analytical approach to the iconography of consumer society than did American Pop, which tended to be passive and celebrate the more vacuous elements. Although Warhol was of course a genius. But the surrealists were much much closer to me. I enjoyed going back to the show last week, I was very, very impressed, although the British contribution was played down. The surrealists have been the biggest influence on me, because they anticipated by about fifty years the fact that the external environment can be re-made by the mind and this is the world we inhabit now, where external reality is a complete fiction in every conceivable way. I can remember days when you saw a balloon in the shape of a hamburger people would say “oh that's a publicity stunt”. No-one ever says that now. They assume a balloon in the shape of a hamburger is the real thing, not a real hamburger, that’s the point. But the fact this image of a hamburger is real, that it is not a publicity stunt but part of the fabric of ordinary life. It is more real than a ordinary hamburger. When you eat one you think “who made this?” It’s probably been in storage in a suburb of Dusseldorf for the past three years, whereas the balloon floating overhead does have some genuine authenticity, a genuine uniqueness and you embrace it as the real. The surrealists anticipated the way the mind can remake the world. Sometime in the seventies the media landscape wrapped itself around the planet and redefined reality as itself, and the amazing thing was that we all went along with it. I think that’s a huge shift in the mass consciousness. We accept the fictions of the mass media are real and most of us would be hard put to define what the real is in personal terms. Are they the little obsessions in our head? They're about all we cling to. So we have this doubly fictive universe and I leave it to the next generation of writers to deal with it.
Audience: Do you think you are a bit guilty of that yourself with the new novel and “Empire Of The Sun”; with a sort of fictionalised look at yourself, in a way you are imagining yourself.
JGB: No. These are novels, “Empire Of The Sun” and “Kindness of Women” are novels, they draw on my own life. Had I been born in Goldaming, worked on the TLS, moved to the BBC and wrote a novel about it, no-one would say “Ah, an autobiography”, that's the perfect Hampstead novel. It would be regarded as a proper piece of fiction. But because my childhood and to an extent my later life in England is a bit out of the ordinary, people assume it's autobiography. It's comforting to think it's all really [sic]. In fact it is substantially fiction. In “The Kindness of Women” as in “Empire Of The Sun” almost all of the characters are invented. There are no original women in “The Kindness of Women”. I don't want to disappoint anybody. Even the narrator/myself is, to some extent, invented. I did many of the things that took place in “The Kindness of Women” but not quite in the same way they are described. Because I am trying to reach the imaginative truth, which is more important than the literal truth, if you are drawing on the experiences of a lifetime. To some extent drama consists of what people say if they had two minutes to think about it. That is a very important point. It’s a reworking of life and I think that’s what writing is all about.
HC: So was “The Unlimited Dream Company” based on any surrealist painting in particular? When I went to the Max Ernst exhibition…
JGB: ...You saw where I got all my ideas. No I don't think that in particular… I suppose it is a surrealist’s vision of Shepperton where I live. But it's a sort of parable of my own life. I fell to earth there thirty years ago and got to work transforming the modest little town into this exotic pagan universe. I wait hopefully everyday for the scenarios laid down in the book to come to pass.
Audience: Do your early apocalyptic novels have any relationship to “Empire of the Sun”?
JGB: Well, people who know my stuff well can see in “Empire of the Sun” - well “Empire” is like a prequel, but written after the rest of the stuff - can see the sources. A large part of my imagination (although not all) comes from childhood. I've never lived in a desert area, although I've written about deserts. Obviously we are all influenced by our childhoods. But mine was, as it happens, particularly traumatic and it has spread itself to my fiction. I think for particular reasons, I postponed facing that fiction, and I wrote all those SF novels in my early days, which are kind of disguised versions of that subject matter, and for some peculiar reason I got around to writing about it in the last few years.
Audience: What inspired you to write “Crash”?
JGB: Good question [long pause]. It was a serious undertaking. I don't want to give the idea that it wasn't a carefully pondered decision. In fact I tested the waters before I began to write it, by mounting an exhibition of crashed cars in 1969 [sic]; to test this hunch that violence, sexuality and technology were making this sort of nightmare marriage. I certainly exhibited three crashed cars. Setting up an exhibition of crashed cars is an extremely easy thing to do. I thought it would be very difficult, but in fact the technology of moving around crashed cars is highly developed and we toured a few breakers yards in North London and pointed to a crashed Pontiac and a crashed Peugeot and a crashed Mini, and said “Can you move these to central London?” “No problem sir, it'll be done this afternoon.” And it was. These huge cars were lifted into the gallery of the first floor Arts Lab and just left there like these huge pieces of sculpture, which I advertised them as, and I had an opening party. Art critics came and a whole demimonde of the whole of the late sixties, and I was very interested to see what would happen: because it was a psychological experiment, it was part of my research. I hired a topless girl to interview the guests on close circuit television in a deliberate attempt to provoke them. In fact the young woman had originally agreed to appear naked, but when she saw the crashed cars she said “No I'll only do it topless.” I thought this was a very interesting glimpse of the psychology of the enterprise. Of course the whole evening fell apart at the seams, everybody got extremely drunk and attacked the cars; the topless girl almost got raped in the back seat of the Pontiac. Later I found a review of the show in an underground magazine called "Friends" and the headline was "Ballard Crashes" and that convinced me that I should embark on “Crash”.
HC: What happened with “Crash” the film?
JGB: It is supposed to be going into production next spring [‘92].
HC: Have your children read “Crash”?
JGB: Yes, they have.
HC: What did they think of it?
JGB: I never asked them.
HC: You describe the bombing of Nagasaki as “the birth of a new sun” in the chapter entitled “Empire Of The Sun”. Does the novel relate to the nuclear age?
JGB: It is related I suppose, it's hard to pin down.
HC: In the sixties you talked a lot about your optimum sex death, what would it actually be?
JGB: My optimum sex death? At the time, I think the leading character in “Crash” who dreamed of an optimum sex death, his dream was to die in a head on collision with Elizabeth Taylor. I once nearly bumped into the lady in a revolving door in the Savoy Hotel and so I got an indication of what it might be like. Needless to say “Crash” is to be taken metaphorically.
HC: In “RE/Search: Ballard”, you mentioned a Disney version of "Crash", but now David Cronenberg is scheduled to direct, after he's finished Burroughs's “The Naked Lunch”. How do you feel about that, and who would you prefer to direct?
JGB: Cronenberg is planning to direct it. Plans in the film world are like dreams. One has to wait until the first frame of celluloid is exposed to daylight. It is supposed to go into production sometime next year, but I'll take that with a pinch of salt until it happens.
If anyone films “Crash”, and many people have been interested in doing so, they'll have to stylise it. Otherwise the director, actors and audience in the cinema will all be arrested. I'll be safe in Patagonia. I think far better it be stylised by a classical film director like Cronenberg who sticks to the rules of filmmaking where story is paramount and special effects, well interpretation takes second place. Better Cronenberg who has this wonderful, visceral imagination, than say some new wave director who would make some mad, helter-skelter, Kaleidoscope of crazy images and leave the audience totally distracted and looking for the exit. So I'm quite happy. I met Cronenberg and talked about “Crash” with him and he impressed me. Like Spielberg [director of “Empire of the Sun”] himself, he's an extremely serious man. If you want frivolous empty headed people, meet writers.
Audience: In “The Day of Creation”, did you know that Mallory was going to live at the end of the book? Because it was a great shock to me, I was sure he was going to die. The whole thing felt like a hallucination carried to the extreme, and then it ended naturalistically, you let him off the hook as it were.
JGB: Well, my heroes have a bland version of self-immolation. But I think it is important that he survived his own dream. In “The Day of Creation” for the benefit of those who haven't read it, a doctor working at an aid station in darkest Africa, on the edge of an approaching Sahara, accidentally starts a stream running and he is convinced he has created this river and becomes obsessed with it and decides to sail up to its source and you can imagine where that source lies. By the end he is absolutely convinced that this river is flowing from his psyche. And I think it is important that he survives his dream so he can reflect upon it. At the end of “The Day of Creation” the dream disposes of him. The river decides to as he reaches its source, it literally dies in his arms, as a tiny trickle, the river is rejecting him and dismisses him, I think it is important that he is able to reflect upon his dream which remains ambiguous to the end.
Audience: Yes I looked at the ending again, and he's waiting for the girl to come back and he's waiting for the river to come back.
JGB: Absolutely, so the cycle will begin again. The whole thing is a vision of his own deepest possibilities and it touches his own imagination.
Audience: Did you think of “Heart of Darkness” as you wrote it?
JGB: I don't think I'm allowed to forget “Heart of Darkness”. If the phone rings, it'll probably be Joseph Conrad, saying “Mr Ballard, you stole it all from me”. But to be fair to myself Conrad in “Heart of Darkness” is not in the least bit interested in the river. The River could be a super highway. The river is just something that gets Marlow, the narrator, up to Kurtz's station in “Heart of Darkness”. Whereas the river is all important in my novel, but it is impossible to write a novel just about a river without people automatically thinking of Conrad. I just console myself with the fact that no-one will be able to write a novel about car crashes without giving me a credit.
Audience: Well that brings us onto people calling you a science fiction writer, as people do.
JGB: Mustn't despise science fiction …
Audience: I don't, I like it, but to call you a science fiction writer …
JGB: … It's the literature of our age. Mustn't forget that.
Audience: [A garbled question about moving from science fiction to mainstream and how it relates to changes in the world].
JGB: Change moves at such a rate today that it does overtake almost anything we can anticipate. Certainly in “War Fever” they're sort of written off of today's headlines, well not exactly written off of today's headlines, but in many cases in anticipation of today's headlines. I mean there are hints of one or two of the stories, there are hints of the Gulf Conflict and were written a few years before the event, not that I take credit for that. I like writing about the present, it's always interested me and I like writing about change, and although I began as a science fiction writer... but science fiction has evolved enormously since the day I began. I began writing in the late fifties when SF was interested very much in the sociological topics of the present day. This was the sort of American SF that Kingsley Amis was writing about in “New Maps of Hell”. But sadly in the seventies and eighties American SF has veered up to out-and-out fantasy. Whether that was a response to the Vietnam War, Watergate, Nixon's problems and the Americans just wanted to forget about the real world and launch into pure intergalactic escapism. That might be the reason. Now SF has, I think, shot the bolt. I think it's a form of fiction that has come to an end. I think if I were starting again I wouldn't need to become an SF writer because everything that science fiction has achieved has been annexed into popular consciousness and many mainstream writers, these days, have written out and out SF novels. I'm always telling “literary” people that Doris Lessing has written more SF novels than I have and people think that I am joking. I constantly see “Crash” referred to as an SF novel, and of course it isn't in any conceivable way. But by calling it SF, it's a way of distancing the book from reader. It's a way of not facing up to what the book is trying to say. I think SF has probably come to an end, it's in the air we breath. Kingsley Amis, Anthony Burgess, Calvino, Borges. Not to forget William Burroughs. There are many, many contemporary writers who use science fiction because it is in the air we breath and because it is the uniquely able method of dealing with the present day. The Mainstream novel, which for the most part is basically a nineteenth century form, isn't able to do so.
HC: Why is it in your novels, for example “Crash”, “Empire Of The Sun”, “The Drowned World” the characters always embrace the disaster that's around them. For instance, Vaughan wants to die in a car crash in “Crash”, Jim runs out onto the runway in the middle of it being bombed in “Empire Of The Sun”, in “The Drowned World”...
JGB: ...they are following the logic of their own... they formulate, they construct these private mythologies through their lives and once they create these dreams, they follow them to the end. That's what my fiction is all about, people following their obsessions and their private mythologies to the end, whatever the cost. That way they find fulfilment. I've got a hunch that's how the mind works, it's as close as people can come to happiness. Try it.
Audience: Do you perceive Freud and Jung metaphoricaly?
JGB: Well I've always thought of Freud really as a great novelist. Thomas Szaz (the American anti-psychiatrist) describes psychoanalysis, and by implication psychiatry, not as a science but an ideology. I think the ideology underpinning psychiatry is a great work of imaginative fiction. After all Freud sees the unconscious as a narrative stage on which these archetypal constructs, the super-ego and the ego, work out (not to mention the Oedipal Complex)... are working out a powerful fundamental drama that takes place in our brains whatever we have to say about it. Now this is very close to the way in which fiction works. Psychoanalysis has not got a good record therapeutically and it's not surprising that the greatest concentration of psychoanalysts in the world live in the USA; which is the greatest generator of fiction this century. I see Freud rather like one of the great surrealists. Whatever you read about the man confirms enormous strengths of character. Very few people have such strengths of character against such adversity; pushing what were absolutely revolutionary notions. He was a completely respectable man, that was the extraordinary thing. It wasn't as if William Burroughs was pushing something new at you. This was a highly respectable Viennese Doctor living in one of the most respectable communities that ever existed, actually announcing that children had sexual desires for their parents. It would be like… the equivalent today… well I can't think of anything, it would be like approving of paedophillia. It would be as be as revolutionary as that. One admires him for that but I think like the surrealists, he integrates the imagination into a logical-rational system which is not scientific but akin to science; which is what the surrealists did. Freud is a vastly greater novelist than I am. But I think my fiction is true and might even have therapeutic properties, possibilities; I might market it as such.
HC: Does the angle between two walls have a happy ending?
JGB: You tell me. Does the angle between two walls have a happy ending? Well it's a serious question actually, which I won't try to unravel at this stage. But everything around us constitutes -- well, everything you see, the man sitting on the stool, people I see sitting on chairs are all fictions generated by the central nervous system. There are fictions that match so we can all cope with each other. But they are fictions generated by the central nervous system none the less. The angle between two walls are part of that huge image that the brain generates; that explanation for the world that surrounds you. Now the brain is looking for happy endings all the time. The brain is in the business of finding happy endings; whether it's something to eat or whatever. Does the angle between two walls have a happy ending? It's worth asking.
HC: Is that what you meant when you said fiction is a branch of neurology?
JGB: Yes. Yes it is of course. The brain is generating a huge range of images. I mean the brain is generating a huge range of explanations for what is going on and fiction is a part of that system of explanation. Yes that is exactly what I meant.
Audience: Is there any possibility of collaborating with William Burroughs?
JGB: I know Burroughs well and have done so for about twenty-five years. He is immensely courteous, but there is a huge barrier between us which I have never been able to breach. He is very mid-western. He comes from a rich mid-western family. But he is the equivalent of a Bournemouth Colonel, he is upper-crust, upper-class, mid-western provincial American, and his family strata look down on doctors, politicians, lawyers and feel a sort of off-hand concern for blacks. But he's really the equivalent of a Bournemouth Colonel and he's also very homosexual and very much into the drugs culture; which leaves me out. So sadly, much as I would love to collaborate with William Burroughs, I do not think it will happen, and he's a very, very old man.
Audience: When you were in China, I was wondering, just how much fear you actually felt?
JGB: I never remember feeling any fear, either during or before the war. This is something which has absolutely baffled me. I brought up three children of my own. I live in one of the most tranquil suburbs in the western world, Shepperton in West London. I used to get nervous every time my kiddies ran out to buy a Crunchy, I thought they would fall into the hands of some childhood rapist or get run over or I'd never see them again. Whereas, I as a child was living in one of the most dangerous cities the world has ever seen. Even before the Japanese invaded in 1937, I was only seven years old, before then it was an extremely dangerous place to be. The Guomindang forces under General Chiang-Kai-Shek even then was battling with the Chinese communists led by Mao and Chou Enlai who made their start in Shanghai. There were terrorist bombings and atrocities, the city was full of gangsters of the most ruthless kind. Yet I used to pedal my little bike all over the place, some sort of magic preserved me. I went back for the first time about two months ago. The streets were extremely narrow, how I survived, these vast American cars would roar everywhere, and there were violent gangsters who would just kick anyone out of their way, me included, giant French trams were screaming all over the place. This was a place widespread with kidnapping and God knows what. But some magic preserved me. I don't know why I'm here at all.
Audience: Were you aware at the time you were having an unusual childhood?
JGB: No, of course not, it was the only one I knew. I assumed that the whole world was like that, it was quite a shock to come here, I must say.
Audience: So looking back now that you know you've had an unusual childhood ...
JGB: Oh no, wait a minute. I mean people have said to me “Ah yes, Ballard, a special case, with this weird childhood”. But in fact the childhood I had was very much closer to the way in which the human race has lived in this century and in previous centuries. Most people in this century have endured a background of civil war, disaster etcetera, etcetera, that I observed and to an extent was part of in Shanghai, than life in these very secure enclaves in Western Europe and North America. Life in Western Europe today is an anomaly, even Western Europe today in the twentieth century rocked by world war, civil war, civil unrest. Let alone the Near East, Middle East, USSR, Eastern Europe. “Empire of the Sun” is much truer to the way most people lived on this planet in this century and in previous centuries than the novels of ... dare I say it [hesitates] fill in the blanks.
Audience: But it's unusual because you belong to this side of the world.
JGB: My parents belong to this side of the world. My parents were both English. My father actually came from Manchester. They were wholly English. I'm making a bit of an effort here, but I still think of myself as a bit of a visitor here after 46 years. I haven't changed the lino in the kitchen because I'm only staying for Easter.