In Conversation with J.G. Ballard
By Christopher Bigsby
James Graham - J.G. - Ballard was born in Shanghai in 1930, and interned with his family by the Japanese during the Second World War. He drew on this experience for his most successful novel, Empire of the Sun (1984). His early reputation, however, was as a writer of science fiction, with books such as The Drowned World (1962), The Drought (1965) and The Crystal World (1966). He collected many of his stories in The Four-Dimensional Nightmare (1963) and The Terminal Beach (1964).
Other books include The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), Crash (1973), The Unlimited Dream Company (1979), The Day of Creation (1987), a sequel to Empire of the Sun, The Kindness of Women (1991), and Cocaine Nights (1998). This interview was conducted in October 1991.
Bigsby: You were born and raised, for your first fifteen years, in Shanghai. Quite irrespective of the war, Shanghai seems to have been a world in which violence and death were a commonplace.
Ballard: Yes, they certainly were. Of course, Shanghai was a vast industrial and commercial centre created by the West in the closing decades of the nineteenth century but it was a magnet for the Chinese, millions of whom flocked into the city during the first half of this century. Unrestricted venture capitalism was the name of the game there and, together with a very unstable China during the first half of this century -- civil wars, famine, floods -- the whole mix absolutely ignited in Shanghai. There were political bombings as the rival Comintern and the Communists fought it out on the streets. There were tens of thousands of gangsters, kidnappings and machine gun attacks, coupled with the Chinese talent for absolutely bizarre advertising in every conceivable form. The Western population, meanwhile, rode around in American cars, went to nightclubs, poured out of the hotels, racetracks and so on. The whole thing was really a cross between Las Vegas and ancient Babylon.
Bigsby: But what amazes me, in both Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women, is that this violence is glimpsed just out the corner of the eye. In half a sentence you refer to the fact that somebody is being taken away to a public execution.
Ballard: Well, it is very hard, living in the protective enclaves of Western Europe and North America, to realize that, far from unusual, my childhood in Shanghai was very close to the sort of life that most people on this planet -- in previous centuries and the greater majority in this century -- have always lived. Arbitrary arrest, violence. crime, disease, civil war have been the lot of mankind. My life was actually much more typical of the human race over the centuries than those of, say, my children brought up in a quiet London suburb.
I was in a peculiar situation there in that, since Shanghai had been created by the West, Westerners there enjoyed very privileged lives, and the forces of law and order made sure that Westerners were able to move around without any real concern for their own safety. I used to illicitly get on my bike and ride all over Shanghai at the age of eight, nine, ten, eleven, and never to any harm and never thought I would. Riding around in my parent’s car, sitting in the back seat, looking out through the passenger window, I could see, only a few feet away, beggars dying on the pavements and police brutality to the Chinese and, later, Japanese brutality to the Chinese. One got a sort of built-in disengagement of a very peculiar kind. It was as if the whole city was a huge film or a violent television programme that I switched on when I went out into it. Then I would retreat into my parents' home and other British, American and French homes of people my parents knew in Shanghai, and one might as well have been in Sunningdale, or Walton-on-Thames, or a quiet suburb of Paris.
Bigsby: Presumably that was sinking down into your sensibility. Are you able to say, looking back, whether that shaped your values, your attitudes, or even the images that run through your mind?
Ballard: I think it probably did in a very important way in that it gave me a sort of in-built distancing device. I could look at disasters and bizarreries of all kinds -- particularly when I came to England after the war, and around the world when I travelled [sic] -- with very much the eye of a neutral observer who has been parachuted into a sort of armistice zone but is watching what goes on in some kind of continuous civil war of the psyche. I think being virtually a foreigner in England, which I was for a great many years after I arrived here and still am to some extent, has always allowed me to look on English life, Western European and American life from the same detached viewpoint that I had sitting in the back of my parents' Buick riding around Shanghai, untouched but enormously absorbed in what was going on.
Bigsby: So there are advantages to you as a writer in a detachment that comes partly from being born elsewhere and partly from this disassociated sensibility which doesn't allow the things that you see to go too deep into you.
Ballard: I think that is true, though of course the process came to a full stop after Pearl Harbour. Up to that point I had been in the audience, as it were, sitting in the back of my parents' American car, protected by the chauffeur and the nanny from any threat of kidnapping. Suddenly, after Pearl Harbour, from being a member of the audience I was one of the cast on the stage. That was a severe jolt. I suddenly realized that reality was like a stage set with cast and scenery that could be moved literally on a day’s or even an hour’s notice, as it was in Shanghai after the morning of Pearl Harbour. The British and French forces were all cleared away by the entry of the Japanese. When they seized the international settlement and became the occupying power we became one with the Chinese proletariat. Then we were interned.
That sudden reversal of fortune -- a reversal of the magnetic poles of my life -- had an enormous effect on me because it gave me the sense, for the rest of my life, I imagine, that reality -- even the reality of the London streets and the London suburbs -- is not to be trusted, that the same sudden reversal of poles can take place, that there may be some sort of hidden logic at work that may upend everything.
I think that turned me towards science fiction when I first began to write, because I brought to the rapidly changing landscape of the 1950s -- when the blueprint of the consumer societies that we live in now was being laid down -- that same suspicion and conviction that there was a kind of latent content beyond the manifest content. England might be virtually a dream, but it was a dream with two levels and I was very interested in the hidden level and what I saw as the hidden agendas running through the changing Britain of the 1950s. This emerged, in due course, in my speculative fiction and in my novels of the 1970s, like Crash and High-Rise and so on.
Bigsby: You make that sound very logical, but would it not be more logical to expect you to have addressed this traumatizing event in your life directly and much earlier? It wasn’t until 1984 that Empire of the Sun came out and 1991 before The Kindness of Women. Why not 1974, 1964, 1954?
Ballard: I think the reason was that soon after I arrived in England, within a couple of years, in 1949 the Communists took over China and I realized that I would never go back there, that I might as well forget all that had happened to me. Also, despite what I have said about the security of sitting in the back of my parents' car and seeing everything through a pane of glass, I was involved, of course, emotionally and in every other way, particularly as I grew older and went through the experience of the war myself. I looked back at what I had seen as a small child and some set of moral yardsticks began to govern my memories, so that when I came to England I think I decided I wanted to forget it all, I wanted to repress it. It was almost a conscious act and when I met my wife I don't think I ever told her that I had been born in China and had been through the war there. Or, I may have only mentioned it in passing -- I didn't hide it from her and since it meant absolutely nothing to her she thought Shanghai was a bit like Singapore or Bombay and other British possessions, which of course it wasn’t -- she was never surprised or curious and I never laboured the point. I don't think I really told my children when they were young.
Bigsby: Why? Why would you wish to suppress something that was so important to you?
Ballard: Well, in many ways there were a lot of unhappy memories, of course, but also there seemed no point. There was no point in trying to remember it all. I did remember it all, vividly, but nothing that I had experienced in China seemed to apply to this baffling place called England. When I first arrived in England in 1946, like most visitors from abroad, I was struck by the incredibly inbred nature of English life, this completely stratified society strangled by the class system. Things have changed enormously since, though not as much as some people imagine. But in those days England, I felt, had lost the war and the middle class had lost their confidence and there were deep undercurrents of dissatisfaction.
The working class, who I had never met in Shanghai -- I had never been allowed to meet -- constituted about three-quarters of the population and were very badly treated, poorly housed, poorly educated and confined to a sort of ghetto existence as second-class citizens. To understand the social complexities of middle-class life, you practically needed to be a social anthropologist. It took me a long time to decode all those little things, like why gentlemen don't wear brown suits and, more than that, to realize why such matters were important. How you opened a boiled egg was immensely important to the British middle class. I was occupied with decoding this huge, cryptic universe and I think all my energies were taken up with that.
Bigsby: But you were also a would-be writer and one piece of advice that rends to be given to would-be writers is to write about your own experience. The 1950s, whatever else they were, were full of books which were looking back to the war: memoirs, people recounting events and so on. I am still slightly baffled as to why you didn't engage in this then.
Ballard: I think, looking back now, having written Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women, I realize I was writing about my Shanghai childhood, but I was doing so in disguised form. I leaped over the English life to the present, in the 1950s; I vaulted over it into the near future and began to write science fiction. I was charting what I saw as the arrival of the twentieth century in English life.
I think the twentieth century arrived about fifty years late in England. It arrived during the 1950s and I could see all the elements of America that were present in life in Shanghai arrive in England: the consumer society, American cars, a lifestyle involved with consumer goods and leisure activities, having a good time -- which was something the English had clearly forgotten how to do by 1946 when I arrived -- the first jet travel, the first package holidays, instalment [sic] buying, the consumer landscape of our high streets, motorways and so on. Most of these came from across the Atlantic and I saw them beginning to appear on the English scene. The traditional English writers of the day ignored these factors completely. If you read the novelists of the time -- Kingsley Amis, P.H. Newby, C.P. Snow and so on -- you would not be able to reconstruct the England of the 1950s from their novels. So, I wanted to write about this changing land, this world of change, and it seemed to me that science fiction was the best way of doing it.
Bigsby: Before you turned your hand to writing, you went to Cambridge with the intention of becoming a doctor -- in fact, a psychiatrist -- and you stayed on the course for one or two years, like the character in The Kindness of Women. Did you give it up for the same reason as your character, Jim, does in the novel?
Ballard: Partly I think, yes, that is true. I knew that I wanted to be a writer, a professional writer. I was already writing short pieces and making a stab at starting a novel, and I knew that if I went on and became a doctor I would have no time to write. I would be totally exhausted by my walking the wards and working as a young houseman. But I think two years of anatomy, physiology, pathology at Cambridge had given me a very rich vocabulary that I felt I could put to use; a scientific vocabulary, though a humanized one because it was medicine and its centre was the human body and I was intensely interested in psychiatry So I felt I had a complete vocabulary with which I could get to work, imaginatively, in exploring what I saw as the landscapes of late-1950s Britain. I felt that, having stuffed myself with two yeas of anatomy and physiology, this was enough.
Bigsby: How were you going to survive as a writer?
Ballard: Well, thank God, when you are twenty-two or whatever I was, such thoughts do not occur to you. You trust in some sort of benevolent fate. I soon found that I would have to make a living and I went into advertising. I finally got a job on a scientific journal where I worked for about three or four years. But I became a professional with the publication of my first novel, The Drowned World, when I was about thirty-two.
Bigsby: You began as a science-fiction writer. Would you, if you were starting your career now, also begin as a science-fiction writer?
Ballard: I don't think I would need to because the elements of science fiction have been absorbed so much into the mainstream novel. Many mainstream novelists -- Doris Lessing, Anthony Burgess, Kingsley Amis, to mention only a few -- have written straightforward science fiction novels. I often say that Doris Lessing has written more such novels than I have, which is strictly true. I have written very little science fiction in the true sense of the term since the end of the 196os. A novel like Crash is not science fiction by any conceivable definition.
I don’t think now one would need to become a science-fiction writer because the novel has annexed into itself, partly thanks to science-fiction, large elements of science, large elements of the scientific vocabulary This was not true back in the mid- to late 1950s. Then there was a very clear separation between the mainstream novel and reality. The mainstream novel was stuck in the late nineteenth century. There was scarcely a scientific image in the entire body of fiction being produced then. So, if I began now, I don't think I would need to write any science fiction.
Bigsby: Why is there such a powerful apocalyptic strain in that early science fiction of yours?
Ballard: To be quite honest, I think the world is an apocalyptic place. I mean, looking at the mid-twentieth century, it certainly is a prevision of all kinds of nightmares, some of which materialized during the Second World War and some of which threatened to materialize like the Third World War which, fortunately, didn't. I think I was looking hard at the world of' the late 1950s and early 1960s and seeing all kinds of concealed logics which I then followed to their conclusion. Many of the themes of my earlier novels the sort of ecological disasters in a novel like The Drought or, to some extent, The Drowned World, -- are now part of the public consciousness: global warming and the rising flood levels threatening to inundate large areas of this planet during the next ten or twenty years. When I was writing The Drowned World or The Drought, in the early 196os, these seemed like fanciful projections but now they have virtually come true. I am not paying myself a compliment because I was thinking about these things all the time, and I could see them on the horizon, but I almost feel that I writing the headlines of the 1980s in my novels of the 1960s.
Bigsby: Is that an important function of science fiction?
Ballard: I think so, at its best and at its most serious. It looks at the future and tries to put the emotion in as well, so it is not a cold, theoretical prediction of what the future is like. It is a visualized future in which human beings move about and react to these changed circumstances, and that is its function. Anyone can make a prediction of what life thirty years from now may be like, but one has to visualize how human beings will behave in changed circumstances, and this is what science fiction does. I think it offers clear-cut warnings and it may have done some good. It may be the only form of fiction of the twentieth century that significantly altered the course of events, for example, by its predictions of the horrors of thermo-nuclear war, which we have seen in so many novels and films. This may have tended to cool the ardour of the extreme rightwingers on both sides of the East-West divide who were ready to risk Armageddon.
It may be that science fiction has exerted some sort of benevolent influence in preparing a climate of opinion in all sorts of ways, from ecological green topics, the barbarisms of unnecessary animal experimentation, the dangers implicit in, say, organ transplant surgery, or a global threat such as Aids, which is almost like a science-fiction disease. I think that the very sensible response of people worldwide to Aids and its threat has been assisted by the familiarity people have with the huge, sinister epidemics that one has often read about in science-fiction or seen in science-fiction films over the last thirty or forty years.
Bigsby: Those early novels seem to stare down a steepening incline towards an apocalypse. If we turned around and looked in the other direction, would we go back to a period of innocence? I have been reading Don DeLillo, and he pinpoints a moment -- on 22 November 1963, when Kennedy was killed -- when he believed anarchy came into the world. Do you feel there was a moment when the spine of history was snapped?
Ballard: I certainly think the Kennedy assassination was a tremendously important moment. I think it marks the point at which the 1960s began. It was also a point where the pre-electronic era gave way or to met head-on, in this nightmare murder, the advancing electronic media landscape, and a radical shift in people's attitudes towards fiction and reality took place. The manufactured myths of the media landscape -- television above all -- began to be regarded as the real whereas, previously, anything concerned with the mass media -- newspapers, magazines, radio -- had been regarded as part of the world of fiction. Radical change took place.
By the end of the 1960s -- and this is even more true now, of course - people accepted the fictional elements in our everyday landscape, by which I mean everything from advertising and politics conducted as a branch of advertising, to the entire consumer society which lays levels of unreality like the strata of an electrographic Troy. We assume that this is the real. For example, nobody today uses the term I used to hear when I was a young man -- publicity stunt. If a balloon in the shape of a hamburger floated over the rooftops people used to say, ‘Oh, it’s a publicity stunt.’ Now they don't; now they know that huge balloon in the shape of a hamburger is real.
Bigsby: I suppose that behind my question was the idea that you are a romantic, and that perhaps by turning the process that you identify on its head and looking backwards we come to a moment of innocence, that you believe in the notion of a lost innocence.
Ballard: I’d like to think that. Yes, I think I am a romantic. I feel my links are not with any writers or school of writing but really with the surrealists. I am an old-fashioned surrealist, probably the last of them. I think there is a strong strain of romanticism running through surrealism. It is romanticism making a strange mixed marriage with psychoanalysis. It is the informed waking dream. But it is still a dram in some ways and I think there are dream-like and romantic elements running through my fiction. I am glad they are there.
Bigsby: In the late 1960s, and particularly into the 1970s, your work seemed to move in a new direction, reflecting what you are saying about the nature of' culture and the growth of the image and the media, with books like Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition. What were you looking to do with Crash, a book that some people find very difficult to swallow?
Ballard: Well, the book is intended to provoke the reader in the most direct way. I think The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash were both written towards the end of the 1960s, though the 1960s, in fact, ended in something like 1971 or 1972. By then I think one began to see the downside of all that excitement and positive activity that went on. I thought the 1960s were a wonderful, liberating period, in English life in particular. Change was in the air and it was a tremendously hot mix of fuel. The catalyst of it all was probably the Kennedy assassination, endlessly repeated on television, frame by Zapruder frame. Everything seemed to flow from that.
The peculiar reversal of values, where sensation ruled and sensation was all that mattered, led to what I called in The Atrocity Exhibition the death of affect, the death of feeling. Nothing mattered as long as it generated a powerful, galvanic response, sent a surge of current through the public sensorium. I felt that human values, moral values had inverted. Death became sexy, as we saw from the extremely frank and lurid newsreels every night on television from civil wars in the Congo, Vietnam and so on, and there was a kind of cult of death in life.
It seemed to me that this was intimately bound up with the very nature of the mass media, that they demanded levels of pure sensation that inevitably screened out, filtered out all human feelings which, after all, act as an anchor on pure sensation. And I was looking at the sinister logics that were emerging by the end of the 196os that allowed people to sit, glued to TV sets, watching cars crashing, or to go to the cinema and do the same thing. Did technology and the mass media act as some kind of facilitator for a radical change in the human psyche that was taking place? I wrote Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition in an attempt to try to understand what was going on.
Bigsby: But that meant that you had to inhabit that alien moral universe. Was that a disturbing process?
Ballard: Writing Crash certainly was because I had very young children then, crossing the road ten times a day, and nature could have played a very unpleasant trick on me. Also I had to will myself into this deliberate psychotic state, suspending all values and embracing the nightmare logic that the book sets out, which it does deliberately as a way of testing the reader to the maximum. It would have been very easy to write a novel taking the view that car crashes are a thoroughly bad thing and that all these horrible, violent strains in human nature should be curtailed and sent off on some life-enhancing picnic. But that would have been cheating. So I had to be true to the central idea.
Bigsby: Science fiction, particularly in the 1950s and 196os, is one of the few areas where the short story flourished, and you have written many collections of short stories. What are the form's advantages?
Ballard: I think the form has a great number of advantages. I think one has to accept the fact that, for all the experimentation that has gone on in the novel, the novel resists experimentation. It resists change. The very timescale involved in reading a novel, and in the internal narrative of the novel, tends to demand a level dramatic structure, simply to hold this suspension bridge together. That tends to eliminate any tampering with straightforward linear narrative. I myself have tried to experiment but I think the novel resists experimentation. Now this is not true of the short story.
Bigsby: But the novel can contain anything, go in any direction, be anything, can't it?
Ballard: Yes, but I am talking about novels that are read and engage the reader’s emotions and the reader's concerns. It is very easy to write an experimental novel that can contain all sorts of revelations about the nature of narrative structures and the world we live in, but do they engage the reader's concerns? I think one accusation that can be leveled at Ulysses is that it completely fails to engage the reader's emotions, certainly after the first hundred pages. It is excessively internalized; it doesn’t really accord with the way we experience the world.
Bigsby: So it is the very constraints of the short story, like the constraints of poetry, which give it some of its force?
Ballard: Yes, I think the only constraint from which the short story suffers is that it is short, but this gives it an enormous scope because you are never going to exhaust the reader's interest or concern. You can tamper with the nature of narrative in every conceivable way.
I have written a short story in the form of an index. I thought it would be unreadable but a lot of people seemed to have enjoyed it. I have written another story, in my recent collection, War Fever, which was entirely in the form of footnotes to a ten-word sentence. One can get away with these serious games in the short story and one can also focus on some small aspect of human behaviour without having to fill in the background, which you have to do in a novel. I like the short story very much and I am sorry that it is probably a dying form.
Bigsby: Science fiction, if you go into a bookstore, tends to be relegated to an area a long way away from another area of the bookstore called 'Literature', almost as though it were illicit in some way, under the counter.
Ballard: That is its great charm.
Bigsby: So this isn't something you regret; it is something you embrace, is it?
Ballard: I think it has probably had its day, and the science fiction of the 195os and 196os which, for example, Kingsley Amis admired much, no longer exists in the strict sense. It has been overtaken by commercialized sci-fi whose main inspiration comes from mass-market entertainment movies. The serious and thoughtful science fiction that Amis admired thirty years ago is scarcely written any more. Its heyday was the period when the popular imagination stirred and fascinated by the huge transformations that science bringing about in the world, roughly, if you like, from the 1930s to 1960.
And now that science has been absorbed into everyday life -- we are all familiar with computer terminals and high-tech hospitals and international jet planes, we all know what VDUs look like and a huge range of scientific gadgets in our homes -- science no longer touches our imagination in the same way. If anything, it touches our fears. So, it may be that science fiction, as a form, has maturity and has reseeded itself in the mainstream novel.
Bigsby: In 1984 you put science fiction on one side and wrote Empire of the Sun, the central character of which is Jim, very close to yourself. How difficult did you find it to recapture your own younger self forty years on?
Ballard: I didn't find it at all difficult, in fact. I stepped back into my fourteen-year-old shoes without feeling the toes pinch at all. I think had I gone on living in Shanghai, say, after the war, come to maturity there, married, had a family of my own, it might have been much more difficult, after a lapse of forty years, to go back to my younger self, because there wouldn't have been this abrupt break in my life. As it was, when I came to England, I could always remember my feelings when I was running around Shanghai during the war and just after the war. It was like a film that I could replay through my head. So I had absolutely no difficulty in getting back inside my younger self.
Bigsby: Were you tempted to tell it through the eyes of Jim, then, as a first-person narrative?
Ballard: I was, but I thought that I couldn't really. A man of, I was then something like fifty-three, can't really get that close to a first-person narrative, particularly of a twelve year old, as Jim
is when the book opens. I thought it was better to write about my younger self in the third person, as I was in fact doing by looking back on my younger self.
Bigsby: On the other hand, in the sequel, The Kindness of Women, you do tell the story through the first person.
Ballard: Yes, in The Kindness of Women I use a first-person narrative, but then he’s an adult -- apart from the short prologue set in Shanghai during the war. For the bulk of the book, my alter ego for the narrative is an adult, and I can easily get into my own adult mind. There was no difficulty there.
Bigsby: What's the difference between using 'I' and 'he'? Does it change what you perceive?
Ballard: Yes, of course. Everything in a first-person narrative localizes all experience within the skull of the first-person narrator, everything is seen through his selective eye, his judgements [sic], his set of moral values, his hopes, his dreams, et cetera. A third-person narrative, even if it is seen as though from the point of view of a single central character, does have a wider but possibly less intense focus on events. I felt that the third person was right for Empire of the Sun, when I was watching myself, after all, go through events that happened a long time ago and from which I have been absolutely separated by crossing halfway around the planet. However, in The Kindness of Women I am describing a subjective world, although the book is - I hasten to say - a novel. All its characters are fictional. Nonetheless, many of the events are those I experienced, usually in a different form. I did mount an exhibition of crashed cars in 1969 but it wasn’t quite as described in the novel, where I do involve imaginary characters in the exhibition.
Bigsby: Were you tempted to tell the story which you set out in Empire of the Sun as an autobiography at any stage? Why did you choose fiction?
Ballard: Because I think in fiction you can reach the psychological truth or the imaginative truth of a set of events in a way that you can’t in an autobiography. Autobiographies, particularly if they are written in later life, tend to be retrospective, they tend to be written with the advantage of later and more mature reflection on an experience of life, and they tend to impose on earlier events the benefit of hindsight. It is difficult to dramatize events as they occurred with the same sort of vividness that you can when you are writing fiction. Also, I think it is the element of psychological truth that is important.
For example, I have never made a secret of the fact that, unlike Jim in Empire of the Sun and in The Kindness of Women, I was not alone in Lungwa camp. I was with my parents and sister. People have asked me why I didn't include my parents, and I think the reason is that it was psychologically truer to my own experiences in real life to make my fictional counterpart alone in the camp because, in fact, I was alone for much of the time. I felt a certain estrangement from my parents, I suppose, through no fault of theirs, simply as a result of the pressures of the war and the conditions in the camp. And that is an example of how a work of fiction can reach and describe psychological truth that a literal account in an autobiography couldn't.
Bigsby: The Kindness of Women covers some of the same territory. You wind the film back and we go through the early years again, but there are some changes. There is no mention of Jim's American friend and tormentor, while Jim himself, who in the earlier book thought he saw the flash of the bomb at Nagasaki, now doesn't. The return from camp to Shanghai is different. Why?
Ballard: Of course the brief prologue in The Kindness of Women covers new ground. The first chapter is set in 1937; the second chapter is set in the camp, but in the relatively calm year of 1943. I simply had a new slant, a new perspective on these events. Bearing in mind that these are novels, one has the freedom, perhaps, to see events from a slightly different perspective and to recast them.
Bigsby: Your portrait of Jim in this novel -- a person who carries your name is that of a man who has various obsessions -- nuclear war, death and sexuality, for example. Are these obsessions that you share, or are they the obsessions of the fictional character?
Ballard: I think they are obsessions that I share, in part, but not in the dramatized way that they appear in these two novels. The thing about The Kindness of Women is that I have presented myself as a writer, but I never describe in the course of the book the actual books I write. None is referred to by name. But what I have tried to do is to present the backgrounds from which, over the years covered by the book and over the years covered by my own writing career, the particular novels I wrote emerged. The Drowned World, my first novel -- which I never refer to in The Kindness of Women -- is nonetheless set in the sort of marine landscape of Shepperton, the great reservoirs and gravel lakes and the river itself. I try to suggest something of the gathering psychology of the place and how it affected my imagination, and which would have led on to a book like The Drowned World. Likewise with the late 1960s and Crash: I describe the sort of frenzied background of London in those times and touch on topics that The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash cover.
Bigsby: The death of your wife forms a part of this book, an event it must have been very difficult to approach. You change it in that she died of pneumonia but here she dies in an accident. If you had managed to bring yourself to address that traumatic event why was it that you chose to change it? Were you looking away at the last second?
Ballard: Yes, I couldn't face it. In fact, the description is very, very close, up to the final moment. But I simply couldn’t face it. The narrative of our trip to Spain and the tragic accident there is close to my own - our own -- experience at the time, but it exists in a sort of alternative world because this is a work of fiction. I am not a journalist reporting on a set of unfolding events that I witness. I am trying to reach beyond the events themselves to some sort of larger scheme of things.
Bigsby: An autobiographical novel does lead you into some painful territory.
Ballard: Yes, it does, of course. It forces you to face up to all sorts of dubious strains in your character. I don’t shrink, in the novel, from admitting to my own complicity in a lot of the more questionable things that went on then, some acts of foolishness on my part, like taking LSD, which was a disastrous thing to do, and my rather ambiguous motives for staging my car crash exhibition. I have always had, I suppose, a talent to irritate and I admit that when I was younger I liked provoking people, particularly the English, who seemed so stodgy and desperately needed to be provoked.
Bigsby: But is that what writing has been for you, a means of dealing with experience?
Ballard: I think so. I think, if you are an imaginative writer, your writing becomes much more than the exercise of a social skill. For the imaginative writer, particularly one with a very strong imagination, writing is -- or the exercise of the imagination is -- the way that one’s central nervous system deals with the universe and absorbs and digests experience on every level. So, I think that if I never wrote another word I would still approach the world for the rest of my life as an imaginative writer does. After all, most of us tend to repress our imagination yet, as our dreams show, we have all got extremely vivid imaginations.
Bigsby: Why 'J.G. Ballard' and not ‘James Graham'?
Ballard: I think that is my scientific training because scientists -- whom I admire much more than writers anyway -- do tend to use their initials, until they become media figures. Even quite famous scientists are still known by their initials, certainly in the scientific literature. And I have always admired that dispassionate quality.
Bigsby: I was wondering if J.G. Ballard is rather like Jim, another version of yourself that you send out into the world.
Ballard: It is probably a complete fiction, my greatest creation.
This fascinating interview was found in Writers In Conversation With Christopher Bigsby, Vol 1, EAS Publishing, University of East Anglia, Norwich, 2000. pp 72-86.
Author and broadcaster Christopher Bigsby is professor of American Studies and director of the Arthur Miller Centre at the University of East Anglia (UK). He is considered one of the leading writers on American theatre and has published more than thirty books on aspects of English and American culture from African-American literature and popular culture, to theatre. His books include ‘The Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller’ (Cambridge University Press [CUP], 1997) and ‘Contemporary American Playwrights’ (CUP, 1999). He has co-edited ‘The Cambridge History of American Theatre’ (CUP, 1998-2000), which won several awards including the American Society for Theatre Research’s Barnard Hewitt Award. His latest novel is ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ (Methuen Publishing, 2003). His page at the UEA is here.