"Pure imagination, the most potent hallucinogen of all"
JG Ballard Talks With Sebastian Shakespeare
The Literary Review, 2001
Transcribed by Mike Holliday
Sebastian Shakespeare: Your "JG Ballard: The Complete Short Stories" (HarperCollins 1190pp £25) is published this month. Do you see yourself as primarily a short story writer or a novelist?
J.G. Ballard: I certainly began as a short-story writer -- the best way of learning one's craft as a writer and something denied to so many young novelists today, when the short story seems, sadly, to be heading for extinction. Too many novels written today would have been better as short stories, and I'm glad that I didn't have to write my first novel, "The Drowned World", until I was ready for it. My first short story was published in 1956, the last high summer of short-story publishing. Many newspapers printed a short story every day. Sadly, I think most people have lost the knack of reading them, perhaps under the baleful influence of TV serials and their baggy, unending narratives. The greatest short stories, by Borges, Edgar Allan Poe and Ray Bradbury, are nuggets of pure gold that never lose their lustre. Curiously, there are many perfect short stories but no perfect novels. Is the novel set to go the way of the short story? Perhaps this is the last high summer of the novel?
Shakespeare: Your first stories - "Escapement" and "Prima Belladonna" -- were published in "New Worlds" and "Science Fantasy" in the mid-1950s. What initially attracted you to the science-fiction genre?
Ballard: Science fiction in the 1950s had enormous vitality, a curiosity about the rapidly changing world -- nuclear war, the consumer society, jet travel, computers, medical research -- that wasn't reflected in the mainstream fiction of the day, with rare exceptions like Orwell and Aldous Huxley. For me, neither "Lucky Jim" nor the Hampstead novel was an accurate picture of the England I was living in. The great thing about science fiction was that nobody lived in Hampstead. Coming to England in 1946, I was shocked by how moribund it seemed, locked into the past and its class system. It desperately needed to change, and science fiction was tuned to respond to change. As Kingsley Amis recognised, to his credit, many science-fiction stories were sociological predictions. The reader could test them against his or her actual experience of the new motorways, airports, supermarkets, and hospitals. In science fiction, at its greatest, archaic myth and scientific apocalypse met and fused. I still think of it as the true literature of the twentieth century, and the world we live in now - the Internet, heart transplants, genetic manipulation, the politics of psychopathy -- makes sense if seen through a science-fiction lens. In fact, science fiction is so all-pervasive that most of us fail to realise we are living inside a science-fiction novel. Sadly, commercial Hollywood science fiction now predominates, and it may be that the genre's day is over, and that it was a uniquely twentieth-century form, along with the Detroit gas-guzzler, the tabloid monarchy and the Manhattan psychoanalyst.
Shakespeare: Your stories have as much in common with the visual arts as any literary tradition. Why were you so influenced by the Surrealists? Are you impressed by contemporary art?
Ballard: Surrealism celebrated the imagination and the dark side of the dream that underpins so much of who we are. The deepest myths and the strangest chimeras of the twentieth century, which culminated in world war and Nazi barbarism, were fully anticipated by the great Surrealist painters. Surrealism was a warning screamed at the top of its voice, but no one listened. Surrealism also had its positive side, reassembling the world in a way that made poetic sense. Psychoanalysis was its main critical engine, and I was drawn to Surrealism in my late teens because it seemed clear to me that postwar England, with all its repressions and taboos, needed to be laid out on the couch and analysed.
Contemporary art? I suppose my views as a whole are very close to those of the great Brian Sewell, a Roland in vain sounding his horn at our artistic Roncesvalles. The baggage trains have been looted. However, I can see that a few, very few, of the New Brit artists are making a genuine point when they assemble their dirty linen and everyday detritus, making a stand against the suffocating orthodoxies of the consumer culture. Gusset art.
Shakespeare: You have likened writing stories to performing an autopsy. Please elaborate.
Ballard: I think I was referring to the chapters that make up "The Atrocity Exhibition". They look at reality -- in particular, the Kennedy assassination, celebrity worship and the Marilyn Monroe suicide, the TV war in Vietnam and Reagan's stealthy approach to the US presidency -- and treat them as if they were the materials of an autopsy, apparently unrelated items that have hidden connections. The task of the stories is to bring these into the daylight, to "kill Kennedy again, but in a way that makes sense". That's probably true of most of my novels, especially "Crash" and "Empire of the Sun".
Shakespeare: why is it that in the land of the future (i.e. America) your futuristic stories don't sell as well as they do in the UK?
Ballard: My stories aren't really set in the future, but in a kind of reimagined or visionary present. American readers have always been unsettled by my fiction. Whose side is this guy on? Does he really believe this stuff? Americans are highly moralistic and any kind of moral ambiguity irritates them. As a result, they completely fail to understand themselves, which is one of their strengths.
Shakespeare: What inspired Vermilion Sands, the beach resort that features in many of your stories?
Ballard: Vermilion Sands is a kind of cross between Palm Springs and Juan-les-Pins, a vision of the leisure society that we were about to enter, though for some reason we stopped and turned away at the door. Music by Brian Eno, metal foil architecture by Frank Gehry, dreams by Sigmund Freud, decor by Paul Delvaux. Many parts of the Thames Valley are close in spirit to Vermilion Sands, without the inhabitants realising it.
Shakespeare: How did you dream up the ideas of sonic statues, psychotropic houses and singing flowers? Did you derive any of your conceits from hallucinogens?
Ballard: Pure imagination, the most potent hallucinogen of all.
Shakespeare: You say you never reread your stories. Are you delighted to learn they have stood the test of time?
Ballard: If they have, I'm delighted and relieved. All that work. But nothing lasts forever, which is part of its charm.
Shakespeare: You are often accused of being a humourless writer, notwithstanding your extravagant satires like "The Greatest TV Show on Earth". Do you think that is a fair observation?
Ballard: A tricky one to answer, since one can't make an appeal for laughter, or argue up a chuckle. There is a lot of humour, but of a very deadpan kind, perhaps too deadpan. There's a huge amount of humour in Magritte, perhaps of a similar kind. An enormous apple fills a room. It's threatening and mysterious, but also extremely funny in an unnerving way. That's the kind of humour I aspire to.
Shakespeare: Which of your short stories do you think are among your best? And why?
Ballard: "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan", which tried to show the underside of this strange figure and the weird mass-psychology that brought him to power. "The Index", the most difficult piece I have ever written. "The Drowned Giant", a modern fable that I hope is my best effort of all.
Shakespeare: You were raised in Shanghai and did not come to England until the age of sixteen. How did that affect your outlook on life and your literary sensibility?
[Ballard: I think it meant that I would always be an outsider, which I am to this day, even though I've been here for over fifty years. Customs, habits, the mindset of the natives can still seem odd in some residual way long after one has superficially become used to them. Most Londoners find themselves slightly disoriented when they visit Yorkshire or the Midlands. The voices are louder or flatter and hint at a different way of thinking, a different order of priorities. I still feel that about England as a whole. Nothing can be taken for granted, as if one found oneself on a cross-Channel ferry filled with Kosovan refugees. One's eye is constantly on the lookout for small signals that indicate what's really going on. This isn't necessarily threatening, and most humour is based on regional differences, and most comics come from the provinces - Arthur Askey, Ken Dodd, etc.
England has also been interesting because it doesn't cope very well with change. One consequence of the Second World War was that the English middle class lost its confidence, and tended to react badly to the threat of change. People actually wrote letters to the newspapers about the new motorways and supermarkets. I watched all this nervy agitation from outside the bars, and it provided endless food for thought. At the same time, I didn't take what happened here too seriously, so I was forced to look at the larger world beyond the English parish. A good thing.
Shakespeare: Drained swimming pools and abandoned hotels are recurring motifs in your fiction. To what extent are they displaced memories of your Shanghai childhood?
Ballard: I've never doubted that they were, since I saw so many in wartime Shanghai. Looking back, years later, they struck me as especially poignant, and filled with a peculiar kind of magic. I'm never happier than when around drained swimming pools, for reasons I don't understand. At the time, in 1941, they represented the many dangers posed by the Japanese waiting to seize the International Settlement in Shanghai, a sure sign that the game was up. I think that for me now the drained pool and abandoned hotel stand for psychological zero. In Marbella a few years ago I found an abandoned hotel with a drained swimming pool. Time seemed to stand still for ever, and I was tempted to move in.
Shakespeare: In 1964 you suffered a cruel bereavement -- the death of your wife. Looking back on your career, do you notice a change of direction in your writing?
Ballard: I think there was a change, since soon after I started to write "The Atrocity Exhibition", which led on to "Crash". I felt that a terrible crime had been committed by nature against this young woman and her children, and much of my subsequent fiction was a desperate attempt to make sense of it, by proving that black is white, that what we think of as evil may actually be good in some deviant way. So the Kennedy assassination was a fructifying event, fertilising us with the blood of this young prince, and the car crash was a sexualising and positive event. In the same nightmare logic the twelve-year-old Jim in "Empire of the Sun" could see war as a good thing. Strangely, all these propositions contain more than a germ of truth, distasteful though it is to think about them.
Shakespeare: In your story "The Overloaded Man", a character says "Since the death of Einstein in 1955 there hasn't been a single living genius. From Michelangelo, through Shakespeare, Newton, Beethoven, Goethe, Darwin, Freud and Einstein there's always been a living genius. Now for the first time in five hundred years we are on our own." Do you agree? Aren't there any female geniuses?
Ballard: I don't think there's a genius alive today, in the sense that Shakespeare, Darwin and Einstein were geniuses. All three completely transformed our view of ourselves and the world. Perhaps the sciences are now too specialised to allow for a universal genius, though a neuroscientist of genius could transform our understanding of the mind. A large part of the arts has been assimilated into the entertainment world, though there's nothing to stop another Leonardo appearing on the scene.
Women have always been suppressed, and never given the chance to flourish intellectually. When the first female Darwin or Freud appears it will have an astonishingly liberating force, and could change the world in an almost religious way. Perhaps this is the messiah we're unconsciously waiting for.
Shakespeare: You were the only person in the universe to predict Ronnie Reagan would become president. Your story, "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan", written in the Sixties, foretold that Reagan would run for the White House and that "the profound anality of the Presidential contender may be expected to dominate the US in the coming years". Many of your stories are equally prescient. Which of your prophecies are you most pleased with?
Ballard: I'm pleased with the Reagan prophecy, though having seen Reagan's TV commercials in the late Sixties, when he was running for the governorship of California, I recognised the very sinister psychology he employed, and felt confident he would one day arrive in the White House. Some people think I prophesied Diana's death, but in "Crash" I was looking at an existing phenomenon, the celebrity in the death-crash and its peculiar resonances. "High-Rise", which I set in what is now Canary Wharf, anticipated the present disenchantment with high-rise living.
Shakespeare: You fear that the world will be turned into a vast, bland Switzerland, punctuated by random acts of violence. How do you think we will have meaningful relationships in future?
Ballard: I think the main threat in the future is not to personal relationships, which will thrive despite easier divorce and the breakdown of the extended family, etc. I think the danger our children and grandchildren face lies in the decline and collapse of the public realm. Politics, the Church, the monarchy are all slowly sinking back into the swamp from which they rose in the first place. We stand on the shore, watching as they wave their rattles and shout their promises, while the ooze sucks at their feet. When the clamour at last subsides we will return to our suburbs, ready to obey the traffic lights and observe the civic codes that keep the streets safe for children and the elderly. But a small minority will soon be bored, and realise that in a totally sane society madness is the only freedom. So random acts of violence will break out in supermarkets and shopping malls where we pass our most contented hours. Surprisingly, we will deplore these meaningless crimes but feel energised by them.
Shakespeare: You once said "there should be more sex and violence on television, not less" to promote social emancipation. Do you think me still need more sex and violence on TV?
Ballard: Yes, but real sex and violence rather than the simulated variety we're fed now on film and TV. Both sex and violence are hugely sentimentalised, and a clear look at what really happens between a husband and wife, or when a bus crashes on a motorway, would do wonders for our sense of the world.
Shakespeare: Some might say the nightmare logic of more sex and violence leads to a) dumber television (pity the licence payer) and b) the murder of Jill Dando.
Ballard: I've no idea of the motives of Dando's killer, but I would guess that her celebrity was the biggest factor in her death. Without her celebrity she would simply have been the young woman living in a nearby street.
Shakespeare: Your story "The Subliminal Man", written nearly forty years ago, envisages a twenty-four-hour spending day and four TV sets for each household. Can you envisage a future without television?
Ballard: Yes. The Internet hints at it. It offers an unprogrammed picture of the world, closer to the book and newspaper-dominated era before radio and then TV came along. Television certainly doesn't have the influence or authority it had thirty years ago. Already there is a post-TV generation that spends its free time on other recreations and hobbies.
Shakespeare: Two of your early stories, "Manhole 69" and "Thirteen to Centaurus", feature Big Brother-type scenarios (the goldfish bowl as social experiment). What do you make of Channel 4's "Big Brother" in particular and reality TV in general?
Ballard: Fascinating. I know people who were so gripped by Big Brother that they watched every available second, even though the contestants were the sort of laddish young men and women they would avoid like the plague if they were living in the next holiday villa. It illustrates the desperate hunger people feel for reality, however tedious. We're all suffocated by the consumer society and its entertainment culture, where everything is an image or imitation of something else. We're so starved of the real (as we think of it) that we'll happily watch CCTV footage of motorways, rain-swept precincts and comer shops.
Shakespeare: You claim the middle class are the new proletariat. What is the future of consumer capitalism?
Ballard: The middle classes are as poorly paid, housed and entertained (allowing for a modest advance in living standards) as the working class of fifty years ago. Their disposable incomes are really very small, and there is virtually nothing of value for them to spend them on -- cheap holidays, poisonous food, vastly overpriced housing. Their educations no longer buy them security. Most of them, earning say £60,000 a year, would be unable to afford a house in London or educate their children privately. Anyone earning less than £300,000 a year scarcely counts, or so it seems. The new monied class, largely but by no means only based in the City, has already begun to distort life in London, as it has in New York. I assume this state of affairs will worsen, and the middle class may wake up one day and rebel. Consumer capitalism is now taken for granted, and in effect is a public utility.
Shakespeare: Can you see British society collapsing overnight?
Ballard: No. We're conditioned into docility. There are hints that a benign version of a Sadeian society is still emerging, of tormentors and willing victims.
Shakespeare: You say the Heathrow Hilton is the most exhilarating building in Britain. Have you ever spent the night there?
Ballard: No, that's a treat I have in store. But Michael Manser's superb building is there to be looked at, not slept in.
Shakespeare: Do you have nightmares?
Ballard: At my age I don't sleep that well, but my dreams are a lot more placid than they were twenty years ago. Unconsciously, I don't seem to fear death, but perhaps the sleeping mind isn't intelligent enough to grasp its approach.
Shakespeare: You once said "no travel writer I have known has ever written about the importance of parking". Do you rate any travel writers? Which writers in general do you think should be clamped?
Ballard: Parking may have been neglected, but in fact I admire a great many travel writers -- Greene and Waugh in their day, then Lawrence Durrell, for me the greatest of them all. Colin Thubron, Gavin Young (especially "In Search of Conrad"), Ian Thomson (for his book on Haiti, "Bonjour Blanc") and numerous others. Jetliners, the colour-coordinated nature trail and the Holiday Inn mean that travel has almost died out and been replaced by tourism. The travel book as personal ordeal has taken its place. Lucy Irvine's "Castaway" is a fine piece of nature writing.
Shakespeare: Who gives you hope for the future of English literature?
Ballard: Books still survive, and reading thrives, despite films, TV, the Internet and countless other distractions. Almost everything around us is produced by committees. Pavarotti sings solo, but he's embedded in a huge marketing operation that decides his appearances and repertoire. The same seems to be true of Damien Hirst. But writers work alone, and reading a book brings you as close to another human being as going to bed with them, where you may not know what they're really thinking.
As a reader of fiction I have the feeling that we're in a bit of a trough. The last classic novel in English was "Catch-22", in 1961. In the years after the Second World War, when I was thinking hard about becoming a writer, I could look up to Greene, Waugh, Orwell and Aldous Huxley, and to Hemingway and Faulkner in America, Camus and Genet in France. There's no one remotely comparable working today, but this could change. I suspect that the great writers of the future will be out-and-out mavericks, like Genet and Burroughs, genuinely people of the fringe. Our perception of serious fiction may have to change. I think that the serious novel in future will be serious in the sense that Hitchcock's films are serious, and not in the way that "Mrs Dalloway" or "Middlemarch" are serious. The psychological drama will migrate from inside the characters' heads to the settings that surround them. Hitchcock's films demonstrate this well. It's also truer to real life, where we usually have very little idea of what is going on inside people's heads, but are extremely sensitive to the atmosphere around them.
Shakespeare: Your novel "Crash" explores the sexuality of road accidents. You recently said the book was not a cautionary tale but a psychopathic hymn (in contrast to your earlier statement that it was a moral indictment of the marriage between sex and technology). Why did you change your tune?
Ballard: Writing "Crash" was emotionally and morally exhausting. I needed to feel that it was morally justified, a total act of provocation that conveyed a cautionary point, as in Swift's "A Modest Proposal" (always a useful escape hatch). Now I'm less sure. I think the book is a psychopathic hymn, but a psychopathic hymn with a point. It has something in common with Sade's novels, which in a weird way are also cautionary tales. I never felt sexually aroused while writing the book. If I had, I would have stopped and seen a psychiatrist.
Shakespeare: Do you think you are a moral writer?
Ballard: Too moral. I'm always pushing some moralistic line. There are almost no evil characters in my fiction, and the few there are tend to be evil for the public good (or so they assume).
Shakespeare: What turns you on?
Ballard: The seven deadly sins, like everyone else. But we need some new vices.
Shakespeare: Do you surf the Internet?
Ballard: No -- I don't own a PC -- but I have looked over other people's shoulders and always marvel at the richness of the Internet. I love the Rutland Water Osprey site.
Shakespeare: At the height of the furore over the film of "Crash" in 1997, you described Britain as a "sad, little island". Has Blair's Britain grown sadder in the past four years?
Ballard: The last years of the Major Government were indeed deeply sad. The spectacle of Cabinet ministers like Virginia Bottomley urging local councils to ban a film she had not seen, in a futile attempt to whitewash the Tories' reputation for sleaze, made me almost despair of our hypocrite politicians. But things seem sweeter and cleaner under Blair, and people seem more cheerful.
Shakespeare: Will you ever leave Shepperton (your home for the last three decades)?
Ballard: I'm leaving it a bit late, but relocation to the sun is still part of my long-term planning.
Shakespeare: Your novel "Empire of the Sun" was shortlisted for the 1984 Booker Prize but famously - and unjustly in man, people's eyes - lost out to Anita Brookner's "Hotel du Lac". What do you think of the Booker Prize?
Ballard: I think book prizes are a good thing. There's a danger that they may become a life-support system for the sort of novels that no one would otherwise want to read. But anything that draws attention to writers is a help.
Shakespeare: Do you still feel ignored by the literary establishment, just as Kandinski is ignored by the scientific establishment in "The Venus Hunters"?
Ballard: I'm not a literary writer, and have nothing to do with the literary world of festivals, conferences and the like. "Literary" has the same negative overtones for me as "academic". If someone said that "Empire of the Sun" was a literary novel I would take it as an insult. I have never felt ignored by the literary establishment, a curious beast that is sighted less and less frequently, and perhaps lives on in a dusty attic over the Arts Council. If there is an establishment that dominates the world of books it is made up of publishers and their senior editors, bookshop managers and the books editors of newspapers and magazines. Together they decide the reputations of authors.
Shakespeare: You have been championed by everyone from Kingsley Amis to Graham Greene and are regarded by many contemporary critics, academics and fellow authors as Britain's best living writer. Have you ever been offered an honour by a British government? Would you accept one if you were?
Ballard: Never. As a lifelong republican, amazed by the Ruritanian nonsense of the British monarchy, nothing depresses me more than those pages of CBEs and OBEs. It's sad to see writers, especially those who have traded for years on their left-wing credentials, accepting knighthoods and peerages. But for some, no pole is too greasy.
Shakespeare: Do you have any regrets?
Ballard: Enough to fill the complaints book at the Millennium Dome.
Shakespeare: Why "Complete" short stories? Surely you are not giving up writing them?
Ballard: Complete to date. I'd like to write short stories again, but it seems less and less likely. There's almost nowhere to publish them, especially the longer stories that I tend to write.
Shakespeare: If "Ballardian" were to enter the English language what do you hope it would stand for?
Ballard: I tremble to think. I wonder how their originals would react to Dickensian, Hemingwayesque and Kafkaesque, Joycean and Nabokovian...?