J.G. Ballard discusses The Day Of Creation
This article/interview is from the March 11, 1988, issue of Publisher's Weekly.
The protagonist of his new work is the boy in 'Empire of the Sun' grown up, says the British author
By Michelle Field
How Jim Ballard strikes you depends on which world you know him in. For 30 years he has had a following in the world of supra-natural (rather than "science") fiction. This the vintage J.G. (James Graham Ballard, whose 11th novel, The Day of Creation, just out from Farrar Straus & Giroux (Fiction Forecast: Feb. 19) comes hard on the heels of the Spielberg film of his previous novel, Empire of the Sun.
However, the world in which PW’s path crossed his is the kind of London suburbia that has its approximation in those American small towns being swallowed up by urban sprawl. It is a one-stoplight village (one supermarket, two liquor stores, two banks), 15 minutes by freeway west of London's Heathrow Airport. Here Ballard came intending to stay six months and has lived for three decades. The house is very narrow, the garden untended, the sofa full of porridge-y lumps, and since his children left to make their own lives, Ballard has lived alone.
In part, his son and two daughters explain his choice of sleepy Shepperton as a base. Ballard's wife died of pneumonia 25 years ago, when the children were four, five and seven, and he raised them himself. "Obviously all parents are protective towards their children, and you bring them up in the safest way you can. I didn't want to bring my children up in Beirut or the Congo -- or, from what I hear, even Manhattan." Or a place like Shanghai, where he spent his own remarkable childhood until the age of 11 when the war roughly interrupted.
Invaluable as those years were for him as a writer (and it is a childhood that Spielberg's film accurately depicts), "one can take only so much violent dislocation in one's life," Ballard says. "There has to be a time for digestion and reflection, and then work itself. It happens that this backwater is a good place to write in. I am interested in the 'landscape' of consumer goods, and I feel that suburbia, which is generally regarded as a place where not that much happens, is in fact more crucial in terms of social change than people realize. Changing lifestyles, changes in social consciousness -- they are much more apparent in a place like this than you might think."
The smart, sartorial Ballard who appears for a flash in Spielberg's film dressed as John Bull, wearing a vest of British Flag and a black top hat, is not a Ballard his neighbours would recognize. He is strictly a 57-year-old, Scotch-drinking, sweater-and pants man, unfussy and unprepossessing.
The boy in The Empire of the Sun, Ballard says with a smile, grows up to be Dr. Mallory, the main character in his new novel, The Day of Creation -- not a science fiction writer in Shepperton. Mallory is a WHO doctor in "the dead heart of the African continent" who accidentally unearths a subterranean river that springs forth in the desert. He gives the river his own name and tries to sail to its source, pursued by two warring guerrilla units and a TV documentary filmmaker. In a way, Ballard says, it is the story of Empire of the Sun turned inside-out: "The circumstances in Empire of the Sun completely enclose the boy and shape him; in The Day of Creation it is Mallory himself who creates the landscapes in the book, and he imposes himself on the landscapes, not the other way around."
The rich descriptions of plants and watercourses in the new novel may stem in part from young Jim's childhood on the margins of the Yangtze and Whangpoo rivers in Shanghai, as well as the older Ballard's trip on the Nile and his impressions of the rain forest that encroaches on Rio de Janeiro. But he has never visited the part of central Africa where he has set this novel and felt that to do so was unnecessary. "The landscape convinced me as I wrote it, and hopefully it will convince the reader." He believes in both the resources of the imagination and its limits. He would never attempt to write about Antarctica, say -- "a landscape which I've never been comfortable with."
The candid depiction of nature is a subject on which Ballard has passionate views. He despises the way TV wildlife documentaries trivialize nature and "present it as a sort of large, bushy-tailed mammal that will lie down on your hearth rug and put its paws in the air. Nature isn't like that at all: nature is extremely cruel, not bushy-tailed." The most exasperating character in The Day of Creation, Sanger, is just such an invidious filmmaker and myopic as well. The real Sangers of this world make programs in which, "nothing is included which would distress the audience, nothing to unsettle them or test their imaginations in any way. The point is to reassure them about nature. The worst example, of course, is David Attenborough."
And the opposite type of fiction, of course, is a Ballard novel, the kind of book that, when reviewers grope for adjectives, is often called "frighteningly honest."
"I don't flinch from the unpleasant consequences of the subject matter in hand," Ballard says. "I follow whatever pathway my subject matter chooses to take me." For a time in the '70s he unflinchingly produced novels so black, so depressing, that he lost much of his readership. Now when he says, "I lost it, my audience," he sounds as though he is saying he had lost his car keys. The truth is that the audience has returned, maybe a hundredfold since the amazingly popular Empire of the Sun.
The boyhood of Jim Ballard is familiar to anyone who has read that novel. He was the son of a chemist employed by a British textile manufacturer in China, and, like "Jim" in the novel, the first book Ballard wrote was a guide to playing contract bridge. "But all through my adolescence, I was writing short stories, and when I was a medical student at Cambridge I was writing steadily. There was an annual competition at Cambridge for the best short story, and I won." In fact, Ballard's love of writing brought his education as a doctor to an end. When he came to the arduous stage of clinical work he discovered that "young doctors simply have no time to exercise their imaginations. So I decided I would become a writer." What kind of writer he would be was undecided; he took various odd jobs for a basic income while buying himself time to think.
"Then I joined the Royal Air Force. I've always been obsessed with flight, you know -- it comes out in Empire of the Sun." In the 1950s, Canada provided pilot training as part of its contribution to NATO, so Ballard went to Canada for six months. While there -- in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, in a bus depot -- Ballard came across science fiction magazines. “I discovered that the stories were much less lurid and sensational than the jackets. Change was in the air then, in the '50s, and I wanted to write about change. I suppose I'd undergone so much change myself as a child I was very responsive to it. I never wrote about alien planets and rocket ships and that sort of stuff. All my science fiction is set in the here and now, in what I call 'inner space.' "
When he came out of the air force in 1957 Ballard went to work for a science journal, and once the first novel was ready for publication in 1963 he dropped his chores and became a full-time writer. "And I have been ever since. I've always been confident and always realistic. I never felt myself to be a 'science fiction writer,''' he says, but then admits that he is not much akin to any other literary group either. His closest intellectual relationship, he supposes, is with the surrealist painters of the 1920s. "'Inspiration' isn't really the right word; it's more 'corroboration.' Their route to the exploration of the imagination was the route I wanted to take. I am not a surrealist, but there is a similar sort of imagination at work."
Ballard's small sitting room in Shepperton has an enormous painting by the Belgian surrealist Delvaux sitting on the floor, covering the space where you might have seen the hearth. Another Delvaux painting as large is upstairs, and both remain unhung because the weight would bring down the bungalow walls. It was almost Ballard's only gift to himself when the large royalty checks from Empire of the Sun arrived: the originals of these two Delvaux paintings had been destroyed in the Blitz, and Ballard commissioned an American artist to recreate them from the black-and white photographs that survived. Now there is nowhere to gaze in Ballard's living room except straight down Delvaux's steep architectural perspective and into the eyes of his bare-bosomed sirens.
And yet Ballard insists that his life is no different than any other man's in Shepperton, apart from the odd California film premiere or Booker Prize dinner. "A wholly normal life" are his words. He doesn't fly planes any more and has no hobbies. When the children departed to live in London and Birmingham, they left a gigantic vacuum that he says he tries to fill with his work. His novels are all, he explains, about expeditions into some kind of unknown terrain, and in a way those flights of imagination take him out of the house.
"I follow my obsessions wherever they take me. I try to remain completely faithful to them. I expect that tests the reader in some way because it is testing me as a writer. It is as if an engine is pulling this old ferryboat up whatever river runs inside my head."
Though Ballard writes time and again about young men in the grip of ambitions and obsessions, he himself seems not to be 'driven' in any way. He is famous in London for not accepting invitations to mix with the other literati and for avoiding the limelight. 'What are these limelights? No, I don't take part in English literary life in any way. I keep away from publishers' parties and the social chit-chat. I'm not against chit-chat, but I prefer to do it within my own circle of friends. In my experience, too many writers whom one meets at these events have a rather small-scale view of the world -- English provincialism at its worst." And, he admits, fundamentally he is shy.
He finished writing The Day of Creation in March, 1987, and, suffering the distractions of fame and the Spielberg film, he was unable to get back to fiction writing until a few weeks ago. He is now at work on a novella. Someday, he says, "after a decent interval," he would like to write another book like Empire of the Sun, set in Shanghai during World War II. "There is an awful lot of material. But it does take a while for these things to brew up." In the meantime, he is sure that the enormous Empire of the Sun readership will move on with him to other genres. "I wouldn't expect anybody to go from Empire of the Sun to something like Crash, say, or to a very imaginative science fiction novel of mine like The Crystal World, without having to stand back for a minute and say, 'Okay, I'm reading a rather different sort of book.' But I think they can go from Empire of the Sun to The Day of Creation without a pause because they are both realistic books -- even adventure stories."
He writes about a world overwhelmed by calamities. Yet like Candide, he refuses to regard himself as a pessimist, and he goes about cultivating his own garden -- that is, 'cultivating his garden' metaphorically speaking. Next to his desk in the sitting room is a window facing the barest backyard imaginable. We look at Ballard's own bit of Sudan desert and laugh when he says, "I'm waiting for a river to flow."