"The Writer" (June 1973)

J.G. Ballard Interviewed


J.G. Ballard is one of the most controversial and noted of present-day science fiction writers. His far-from-conventional fiction has been out-raging and delighting readers since the appearance of his first short story in 1956, and lately he has gained notoriety outside the field with the publication of his ‘fragmented’ stories, which were collected in ‘The Atrocity Exhibition.’ He is, in fact, one of the few sf writers well-known both inside and outside the field.

He is also one of the writers who have been revitalising sf, which was in danger of being overtaken by robots and time machines; and this desire to bring something new to the genre was there from the start of his career. “I wasn't interested in interplanetary travel, time machines, and so on,” he told me when I interviewed him recently at his home in Shepperton on behalf of The Writer. “I felt that science fiction hadn't really tapped its own possibilities. This was what I set out to do.” His concern is with the exploration of the human mind, of the region Mr. Ballard calls ‘inner space.’ “When I began writing I used it specifically within the context of science fiction, as a counter-stroke to the phrase outer space, which roughly speaking summed up the whole of sf. I wanted inner space, psychological space.”

Mr. Ballard was born of English parents in Shanghai, China, in 1930, and lived there until he was 15. During the war he was interned in a Japanese prison camp. Returning to England in 1946, he held a number of jobs before becoming a full-time writer in 1962. How did he come to be a writer?

“This goes back to when I was a child. In fact the first book I ever produced was when I was about 12 years old, on how to play contract bridge. But my real start, oddly enough, came at school. The whole form was given, for some reason, 10 pages of lines to copy out. The masters didn't give a damn what we wrote out -- all they wanted to see was all this paper covered. I was copying lines out of a thriller, and I found that it was easier if I didn't bother to transcribe, but just made up the story myself. That was the first time I realized it was exciting to invent things… That set me off. I was writing all through school.

“Then when I went to Cambridge there was an annual short story com-petition in Varsity -- I entered it, and won it. By that time I was about 20, and pretty well convinced I wanted to be a writer.”

By the time he came out of the Air Force, at the age of 24, he'd written a number of short stories, and was “vaguely writing a novel”, but “there was something missing from most of the fiction being published then. It didn't seem to me interesting enough or about the real world. I felt that the sort of fiction people were writing in those days just wasn't about the world I was living in. I saw the middle fifties as being more and more dominated by science and technology; and the only fiction that was about life then was science fiction. It's a paradox. People thought of sf as something fantastic and remote from ordinary experience. But I felt that was a wrong impression; in fact here was a marvellous area, a tremendously exciting area, that ought to be explored.”

Mr. Ballard's first published short story, ‘Prima Belladonna’, appeared in the magazine ‘Science Fantasy’ in 1956. The situation for sf writers at the time was one every freelance must dream about. Payments were small -- a flat rate of £2 per 1,000 words -- but “the point about writing for sf magazines was, the demand was unlimited. You were under pressure from the editor, if you had any talent at all, to go on writing. You could have a short story in every issue of a magazine, for a whole year.”

He went on writing short stories until 1961, when he produced his first novel, ‘The Wind From Nowhere’. Unlike the rest of his work, it was lightweight and forgettable. At the time he and his wife were extremely short of money, and the one thing he wanted to do was give up his job as an editor of a scientific magazine, to write a decent novel, “to think about where I was going as a writer. I had two weeks' holiday -- I think my wife suggested it: why don't you, just for the hell of it, write a novel in two weeks? So I sat down and wrote ‘The Wind From Nowhere’, in literally I think 10 working days. I set myself a target of something like 6000 words a day, which I kept up for 10 days.” The book was no more than a pot-boiler, but the proceeds from its publication enabled him to give up his job to concentrate on writing.

Soon after his first serious novel, ‘The Drowned World’ (1963), was published, followed by ‘The Drought’ (1965) and ‘The Crystal World’ (1966), which three books are now generally known as the ‘catastrophic trilogy’. Each evokes, with brilliant descriptive language and a wealth of exotic imagery, a world hit by some major catastrophe.

Then came ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ (1970), which was received unkindly in Britain, though foreign translations brought enthusiastic response in Europe. The book contains stories which are split up into paragraphs of roughly the same length, each with a heading. The stories are fragmented because Mr. Ballard feels that the events he writes about -- the explosion of the mass media, politics conducted as advertising, the assassination of President Kennedy -- were creating a world that was “almost like a gigantic novel; we were living more and more inside a strange, enormous work of fiction. Useless to try to impose the conventions of the 19th century realistic novel on this incredible five-dimensional fiction moving round us. And I tried to develop -- and I think successfully -- a technique of mine where I was able to cross all these events at right angles if you like.

How does he work? “Whether I'm writing a novel or a short story, I always write a synopsis. In the case of a short story it'll be about a page long; in the case of a novel about 25 pages. And I try to give it the shape and flavour of the final short story or novel. If I'm satisfied with that, I'll then go ahead and write it. If I'm not satisfied with it, if it doesn't work for me as a story, as the sort of story you would tell somebody sitting next to you in an aircraft, there's something wrong with it. So that's the first stage, and then I write the short story or the novel.”

Does he have a daily word target? “Yes, I do, in fact; on my latest novel for instance, I set myself a target of a thousand words a day on the first draft.”

The great bulk of his stories have been very easy to write. "About 10 of my stories have been written straight on to the machine. That was the final draft. I was in the right mood, my mind was working the right way.”

He's never actually been blocked on a story. “I've never suffered from writer's block in the sense that I've started something and found it very difficult to carry on. What I find is that, when I've finished a novel or short story -- particularly with a novel, which one's had in one's head for six months or a year -- one can't free oneself. There's a carry-over of weeks, perhaps months. It's like the end of a love-affair.”

So writing is exhausting for him? “It's exhausting in that one can't free oneself from the mental climate that a particular book has placed over one's head. I finished my last novel about three weeks ago. I was in a great state of exhilaration in the week after finishing this book, and I wanted immediately to start another novel. I've got an idea for a novel I very much want to write, quite different from the previous books. But I couldn't start it because I was under the spell of this novel I've just finished.”

Mr. Ballard described himself as very much a nine-to-five writer. A typical working day goes as follows: “After I finish reading the newspaper, after breakfast, I travel to work -- a distance of about two feet! -- from my arm-chair to my desk. I sit down at about nine-thirty, and work till twelve-thirty without a break. Then I go out and shop, to have a walk; come back, make a quick lunch, generally back at my typewriter by about one-thirty. Then I work till about five, again without a break. Sometimes I work later, if I'm writing a section that is flowing well and easily I could go on to seven o'clock. Generally I end about five and then have a very stiff drink!”

None of Mr. Ballard's books have been overwhelming best sellers, but they have sold reasonably well around the world. Most of his 90 short stories have been translated and anthologised endlessly, so while any one particular short story has never made him a great deal of money, cumulatively he's made a lot. In fact, many of his stories have been anthologised up to 30 times, earning him a total of £1000 or more -- each.

Though he has a horror of sf fans (“I avoid them like the plague”), he has great admiration for many sf writers, such as Robert Sheckley, Frederik Pohl and Arthur C. Clarke. Most modern fiction he finds unreadable, but he admires William Burroughs, “the most important writer of the present day”, and the Frenchman, Jean Genet.

When I spoke to him Mr. Ballard had recently completed another novel, about which he would say nothing as it won't be published for a year; but an earlier novel, entitled ‘Crash’, is to be published in June by Jonathan Cape. “It's about the motor car and its whole role in our lives,” he said. A collection of stories, ‘Vermilion Sands’, will appear in November.

Finally, had he any advice to offer to budding writers? “Firstly, not to regard yourself as being anyone special, as having any right to even a modest financial success, because you're a writer. Also, I'd warn anyone beginning his career, that the days when a writer could have a career, and think of writing fiction as a main life-time's activity, are probably over. I think it's going to be more and more difficult for the novelist and short story writer to make a living of any kind over the next 20 years. All the signs are that fiction sales are sliding downwards continuously. Be very wary about committing yourself entirely to being a writer. I think the writer's role is very much in decline, at least for the time being.”

Not a very hopeful message, but probably a realistic one. As for those who are able to write science fiction Mr. Ballard can hold out some hope: “Science fiction is one of the healthiest fields in fiction - sales of sf books all over the world are going up, one's writing is endlessly reprinted. I would say that sf is one of the few areas where you could actually be successful, if you have the flair.”