"JG Ballard" by Christopher Tookey, in Books & Bookmen, September 1984.
Interviewed by Christopher Tookey
J G Ballard is a friendly, jolly man in his middle 50s: well rounded, both mentally and physically. Widowed in 1964, he is the father of three grown-up children. Home is a semi-detached in suburban Shepperton, where he looks out at the world through the sort of large, ocean-liner windows more usually encountered on an English seafront. The only visible reference to exoticism is a kitsch, seven-foot, silver palm tree which threatens to take over half of Ballard's study.
Although he is best known as a writer of science fiction novels and short stories, the nearest Ballard gets to interplanetary flight is a bright red Ford Capri in the driveway. In any case, his is not that kind of SF. Usually, he deals in dystopic visions of an earthly future. Empire of the Sun is a new departure for Ballard: a dystopic vision of an earthly past.
[CT] Why did you write "Empire Of The Sun"?
[JGB] I've always wanted to write about my background in Shanghai. It was a huge city of enormous commercial importance, and the crossroads of just about every political force in the far east: not only the Communist Chinese and the National-ists, but also the expanding Japanese, the Americans, and the European colo-nial powers. It's a city which most people now have no idea of, because it simply vanished. I was born there and lived there until I was sixteen, went through the war there, and was in a Japanese internment camp near there.
[CT] For most authors, it would have been the first thing they wrote about.
[JGB] Why I've not written about it before is a mystery to me, but there we are. It just took a very long time to get over all those things. I think I realized about three years ago that if I didn't write about these events soon, I might never do so. Mortality might intervene. The memory might begin to fade... though all the events of that period are engraved on my retina so strongly, I didn't have any difficulty remembering.
[CT] Was it painful to write?
[JGB] It was. If anything, my book soft-pedals the violence and horror.
[CT] How historically accurate is it?
[JGB] I've tried not to take any liberties with historical events; but the central story is a fiction, and the characters are all invented, or at any rate amalgams. There are strong autobiographical elements, but it isn't an autobiography.
[CT] So why use your own name for the central character?
[JGB] I suppose I wanted to be as close to the truth as possible -- not the literal truth, but the emotional truth. Unlike Jim, I was never separated from my parents; but a close friend of mine did spend the war in the situation that I describe Jim in. He shared a small room with a couple and their small son, and he wasn't well cared for at all. But principally, Jim's character draws on my own first-hand experiences.
[CT] How hard was it to think yourself back into the viewpoint of a schoolboy?
[JGB] When I started writing, I took it for granted that I'd have an adult hero: perhaps a young British doctor. But I couldn't get anywhere with it. Then suddenly I realised that I had to write it from my own standpoint. Coming from China to Britain immediately afterwards, I was completely cut off from my past, with no chance of adult hindsight. The newsreels inside my head are home movies taken by a thirteen-to-fifteen year old.
[CT] So you didn't feel limited by your narrator.
[JGB] Not really. Once one has grown up, one tends to discount childhood sensitivity and the value of a child's reflections on life and death. In fact, however, at the time one does have rather powerful feelings. For example, I describe in the book this beggar who used to lie at the bottom of our particular drive in Amherst Avenue; and I remember looking at the imprint of our car's tyre on his foot. I was aware as a small boy, of ten or eleven, I knew that it wasn't right that an old man should have died slowly, rattling an empty Craven A tin.
[CT] People really did die at the bottom of the drive.
[JGB] Oh God, bodies were commonplace. You couldn't go down any main street in Shanghai without seeing at least one body. They were dying of cholera, typhoid, smallpox. Trucks went round all day, collecting bodies. Vast famines swept China, on a scale which people just don't understand here; and these people would flock towards the big cities, hoping to find work... and of course, many didn't. It had an enormous effect on me and my writing.
[CT] Yes. I kept noticing passages in the novel, which seemed to me to act as a key to images in your Science Fiction.
[JGB] I agree, a lot of the images I use -- drained swimming-pools, abandoned hotels, empty apartment blocks, that sort of stuff -- date from that period. I think The Drowned World, my first novel, where I have a tropical London partly submerged by water, was inspired by the view from our camp eight miles from Shanghai, across the flooded paddy fields, a green world of reflections, of canals and creeks, and then the apartment houses rising on the horizon. I can see them in my eyes now. This was an area inundated by the Yangtse, saturated with water.
[CT] And, presumably, with bodies.
[JGB] Bodies everywhere, of course. From 1937 onwards, they were fighting there. My descriptions of the burial mounds are all true, because the water table started about two feet below ground-level -- you couldn't bury anything below the surface of the ground, so the Chinese peasants buried their dead in burial mounds. Rain would fall and wash away the earth, and you'd see these chests of drawers emerging, generations of Chinese -- going back fifty years or more -- lying there in these coffins all over the landscape.
[CT] It's a very Science Fiction, surrealistic image.
[JGB] Yes. I'm sure my interest in surrealism arose from it.
[CT] This is a lyrical book, and you cite many instances of generosity and selflessness, especially by grown-ups towards children, and by the Japanese. But the overwhelming impression is of bleakness. You constantly stress that survival is a matter of lying, looting and selfishness. Your hero keeps detached from those around him a lot of the time; and you imply that this is a wise thing for him to do.
[JGB] Of course it is. Jim begins the book as a very protected, pampered English schoolboy, and he works his way through the following years, simply struggling to keep alive, towards a larger understanding of life and death, and the way human beings behave in extreme situations.
[CT] It's interesting -- and surprising -- to me that this is such a unique novel. After all, the vast majority of the world's population has always lived, and continues to live, this sort of precarious existence.
[JGB] It's all the more surprising, when you consider that the war in Western Europe generated a gigantic literature. Everyone from Anne Frank to Hitler's valet's chauffeur has written about it. But almost nothing has come out about the Far East, especially from the civilian point of view. And there were tens of thousands of us who went through the experience of internment by the Japanese.
[CT] I felt I almost wanted another chapter -- or even another book -- to show Jim coming back to England, because the culture shock on coming to your home country which you'd never really known...
[JGB] Was extreme, and I still haven't got over it!
[CT] Did it drive you away from writing mainstream fiction?
[JGB] I think it did. When I decided to write, back in the 1950s, that was the heyday of the English social novel. There were one or two exceptions, such as Graham Greene whom I admired enormously and still do, who wrote about the wider world; but there was a parochialism about English life and letters.... Anthony Powell, even the novels -- much as I admired them -- of someone like Evelyn Waugh seemed about a very small world. There was this paradox that Britain had been through a World War, and its armed forces had fought in virtually every corner of the planet; and yet it still seemed deeply parochial, riddled with a class system that was absolutely strangling it, and still is. I remember thinking that the concerns of most English writers had no bearing on the life I'd known, and on what I saw as important in the world.
[CT] But why write Science Fiction?
[JGB] I was eager to see change; and the main agent for change was Science and Technology. To a large extent, the blueprint for the world we inhabit now -- consumer durables, package holidays, television -- was being laid down in the fifties. Change did seem very American, and SF was virtually an American monopoly, so naturally it appealed to a British writer interested in change and science. In some ways, Empire of the Sun would have been the obvious thing to write; but I wasn't ready to do it, you see.
[CT] And perhaps it might have been more didactic, if you'd written it then?
[JGB] It would have been a scream of rage.