Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

J.G. Ballard, The Art of Fiction

leave a comment »

J.G. Ballard was one of the great science-fiction writers, and he also achieved excellence in other fiction. His 1984 novel Empire of the Sun is based on his childhood experiences in Shanghai during the Japanese takeover in WWII, and in 1987 that novel was made into a movie of the same name, directed by Steven Spielberg, with Christian Bale (playing the boy), John Malkovitch, and Miranda Richardson.

Thomas Frick interviewed J.G. Ballard for Paris Review in 1984. The interview will be available outside the paywall for only a short time, so read it soon if you’re interested (or clip it to Evernote or Pocket, both free). It begins:

The son of an English businessman, J. G. Ballard was born and raised in Shanghai. For the past twenty-odd years, he has lived more or less anonymously in Shepperton, a dingy, nondescript suburb of London lying under the approach to Heathrow Airport. Ballard’s writing is so often situated within the erotic, technical, postholocaust landscape, and so often concerned with the further reaches of postmodern consciousness, that it is inevitably rather droll to come upon the man himself. On first meeting, Ballard is standing somewhat shyly in the doorway of a modest two-story dwelling similar to all the others on the block; one would take him as a typical suburban lord of the manor. He is wearing a brown sweater over his shirt, protected against the faint chill of a summer afternoon.

Inside, two shiny silver palm trees, bending amiably over a reclining aluminum lawn chair, inject the only note of fantasy into an otherwise quite normal-looking household. Until a few years ago, Ballard, a widower, raised his three children here as a single parent.

We sit down in his study, which appears to have once been the living room. Ballard works at an old dining table against the wall, upon which sits his middle-aged typewriter, surrounded by fairly tidy stacks of letters, books, and papers. The bookshelves are overflowing, packed every which way with an odd collection, including a thick, illustrated anatomy text called Crash Injuries, the complete Warren Commission Report, the collected works of Shakespeare, and many books on surrealism, dadaism, futurism, and pop art.

An extremely articulate and wide-ranging conversationalist, Ballard expresses his ideas, speculations, and concerns with considerable force. A serious sense of humor is also evident, and one often has the feeling that he is continually amused, or at least bemused, by the sheer fact of existence.

At the time of this interview, Ballard had just finished the first draft of his latest novel, Empire of the Sun, which was published in October 1984 to great acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. “It’s my first good review in the States in fifteen years,” comments Ballard, referring to the generally indifferent reception his books have received here to date. This is a situation which has long been puzzling to Ballard, who consciously draws on specifically American iconography in much of his work. Yet, within just a few weeks of publication, Empire of the Sun has already become his most commercially successful work. This “nonfiction” novel—a great departure in subject matter for Ballard—details his own adolescent experiences, first in war-formed Shanghai as the son of a British merchant, then, after Pearl Harbor, as a fugitive-then-prisoner-of-war in the Lunghua Assembly Center. “I assume that it took me a long time to forget, and then a long time to remember,” Ballard recently told an interviewer who asked why he had only now attempted this reconstruction.

After an hour or so of talk, Teacher’s Scotch and sodas are served, and Ballard discourses briefly on the virtues of Shepperton water (several low-lying reservoirs are nearby). While the sun is setting in the shady green backyard, visible through French windows, a moment of suburban quiet prevails. “I don’t know why I ended up here, really . . .” Ballard comments. “Actually, the suburbs are far more sinister places than most city dwellers imagine. Their very blandness forces the imagination into new areas. I mean, one’s got to get up in the morning thinking of a deviant act, merely to make certain of one’s freedom. It needn’t be much; kicking the dog will do.”

INTERVIEWER: Are you ready to risk the fate of the centipede, who, when asked exactly how he crawled, shot himself?

J. G. BALLARD: I’ll do my best to examine my hands in the mirror.

INTERVIEWER: So, how do you write, exactly?

BALLARD: Actually, there’s no secret. One simply pulls the cork out of the bottle, waits three minutes, and two thousand or more years of Scottish craftsmanship does the rest.

INTERVIEWER: Let’s start with obsession. You seem to have an obsessive way of repeatedly playing out permutations of a certain set of emblems and concerns. Things like the winding down of time, car crashes, birds and flying, drained swimming pools, airports, abandoned buildings, Ronald Reagan . . .

BALLARD: I think you’re completely right. I would say that I quite consciously rely on my obsessions in all my work, that I deliberately set up an obsessional frame of mind. In a paradoxical way, this leaves one free of the subject of the obsession. It’s like picking up an ashtray and staring so hard at it that one becomes obsessed by its contours, angles, texture, et cetera, and forgets that it is an ashtray—a glass dish for stubbing out cigarettes.

INTERVIEWER: So you rely on the magnetism of an obsession as a way of proceeding?

BALLARD: Yes, so the unity of the enterprise is forever there. A whole universe can be bounded in a nutshell. Of course, why one chooses certain topics as the subject for one’s obsessions is a different matter. Why was I obsessed by car crashes? It’s such a peculiar idea.

INTERVIEWER: Yes, why were you?

BALLARD: Presumably all obsessions are extreme metaphors waiting to be born. That whole private mythology, in which I believe totally, is a collaboration between one’s conscious mind and those obsessions that, one by one, present themselves as stepping-stones.

INTERVIEWER: Your work does at times seem to possess a sort of prophetic quality. Are you aware of this as you write?

BALLARD: It’s true that I have very little idea what I shall be writing next, but at the same time I have a powerful premonition of everything that lies ahead of me, even ten years ahead. I don’t mean anything too portentous by this. I suppose people—certainly imaginative writers—who consciously exploit their own obsessions do so in part because those obsessions lie like stepping-stones in front of them, and their feet are drawn towards them. At any given time, I’m aware that my mind and imagination are setting towards a particular compass point, that the whole edifice is preparing itself to lean in one way, like a great ramshackle barn.

INTERVIEWER: Has this manipulation of your obsessions come to feel at all mechanical over the years?

BALLARD: I do exploit myself in a calculated way, but there again one has to remember the old joke about the laboratory rat who said, “I have this scientist trained—every time I press this lever he gives me a pellet of food.”

INTERVIEWER: Perhaps it’s a symbiotic relationship.

BALLARD: I take for granted that for the imaginative writer, the exercise of the imagination is part of the basic process of coping with reality, just as actors need to act all the time to make up for some deficiency in their sense of themselves. Years ago, sitting at the café outside the American Express building in Athens, I watched the British actor Michael Redgrave (father of Vanessa) cross the street in the lunchtime crowd, buy Time at a magazine kiosk, indulge in brief banter with the owner, sit down, order a drink, then get up and walk away—every moment of which, every gesture, was clearly acted, that is, stressed and exaggerated in a self-conscious way, although he obviously thought that no one was aware who he was, and he didn’t think that anyone was watching him. I take it that the same process works for the writer, except that the writer is assigning himself his own roles. I have a sense of certain gathering obsessions and roles, certain corners of the field where the next stage of the hunt will be carried on. I know that if I don’t write, say on holiday, I begin to feel unsettled and uneasy, as I gather people do who are not allowed to dream.

INTERVIEWER: I believe I once read—perhaps it was in connection with the Vermilion Sands collection—that you actually enjoyed the notion of cultural decadence. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 December 2020 at 11:06 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Writing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.