Photo: Tim McKenna
Globe & Mail Newspaper
Saturday, October 17, 1987

‘The Science Fiction label sticks like glue’

But J.G. Ballard says his novels fall into the ‘imaginative’ zone

By H. J. Kirchhoff

J G. BALLARD has had a long and distinguished career as a novelist and short-story writer. But tonight he treads new ground at the Harbourfront International Festival of Authors, where he will give his first ever public reading.

"I hope it's not a disaster," says the rumpled and donnish British writer who will read from his new novel, The Day of Creation, at the Premiere Dance Theatre. "I've got a feeling that Janice (Janice Bearg, Lester & Orpen Dennys publicist) and Louise (Dennys) will get a shock, but I'll do my best job."

His 25-year oeuvre comprises 19 books, including nine books of short stories and such novels as The Drowned World, Crash, High-Rise, The Unlimited Dream Company, Hello, America and Empire of the Sun, which was short-listed for the 1984 Booker Prize in Britain and which won the Guardian Fiction Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

Despite the undeniably mainstream character of his two most recent novels, the 56-year-old Ballard is often characterized as a science-fiction writer -- understandably, given that many of his works have been placed in the future.

"Most people see me as a genre writer, like Dick Francis," he says, referring to the popular British mystery writer who will appear at the festival on Oct. 24. "Labels stick, don't they? Publishers and agents seem to need labels, and the 'science-fiction' label sticks like glue."

Will he ever return to the science fiction format? "It's hard to say. I doubt it, actually. I really haven't written a lot of it over the last 20 years. Most of what I wrote in the seventies was not science fiction by any stretch of the imagination.

"I work in a sort of marginal area, between the mainstream on the one hand and science fiction on the other.

"I tend to use the term 'imaginative fiction.’ It's an area more and more writers tend to occupy," he says, citing William Golding, Anthony Burgess, Kingsley Amis, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood and Paul Theroux. "It's a zone that has produced a lot of interesting writing."

The extent of his popularity in North America seems to surprise him. "Through the seventies, although my stuff was published in North America, in Canada and the States, I can't say it had a big readership here," Ballard says. "But it may be that I'm being unnecessarily pessimistic."

He acknowledges that the critical and commercial success of Empire of the Sun, the story of a young boy's internment in a Japanese prison camp in Shanghai during the Second World War, has had a "big influence" on his career.

"The Day of Creation," he says "has obviously been affected by the great success of Empire of the Sun, as one would expect."

That success certainly encouraged the Harbourfront festival's artistic director, Greg Gatenby, to pursue him -- especially since Louise Dennys, The Day of Creation's Canadian publisher, is on the festival's new board of directors.

"In England I don't go to any literary festivals," Ballard says. "None, of course, has anything like the scale or style of Harbourfront's. In England they are rather closed coteries, by all accounts. They tend to be attended by self-important minor poets -- just the sort of people I make it a point to avoid.

"Harbourfront is a different kettle of fish, much more open. If you look at the guest list you can see that it is a very catholic selection of VIPs."

Ballard last visited Canada in 1954, as a Royal Air Force officer. "Canada's contribution to NATO in the mid-fifties was pilot training," he says. "Men from all the NATO countries came over here."

He landed in Quebec, stopped briefly in Montreal and spent several weeks in the Toronto area before moving on to six months in Moose Jaw, Sask., for nine months of flight training.

"When Janice (Bearg) drove me in from the airport, I have to admit that I didn't recognize anything except the Royal York Hotel. Toronto is a sort of Brasilia -- it seems to have sprung up all over on huge scale."

Ballard's writing -- highly descriptive, satirical, ironic and witty in tone -- has been described as Swiftian, which he says is "the highest form of flattery.

"I wish it were true," he adds.  It's a name I'm proud to be associated with."

He has begun thinking about his next novel, but has done no work on it yet. "I only finished Day of Creation at the beginning of March," he points out.

He says it takes him up to two years to write a novel. Mostly, he just plugs away at it. "I would love to say that I work totally on inspiration, but I find that 9 to 5 is the only way to get anything done."

He did not travel to Africa to research The Day of Creation, which deals with a doctor's obsession with a river in sub-Saharan Africa. Its focus is on "interior landscapes," he says, and it takes place· "in an imaginary country, which is to some extent based on Egypt."

There are no immediate plans for a movie version of The Day of Creation, although Ballard says, "My film agent is getting a lot of response from directors and producers."

The Steven Spielberg version of Empire of the Sun will be released in December, with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard and a cameo appearance by Ballard himself. "There is a costume party near the beginning, and I play one of the guests. I have no lines. I was merely required to stand around with a glass of whisky and since I had a lot of experience at that activity I thought I could handle it."

Empire of the Sun is not his only film experience. A couple of his short stories have been adapted for British television. "And I suppose I shouldn't admit this scurrilous episode from my past, but in 1967 I submitted the original treatment for “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth." (The film's director, Val Guest, eventually wrote the screenplay.)

“It was a very unusual screenplay," Ballard says. "There was no dialogue, just grunts.”