J.G. Ballard: The Personal Mythologist

Author’s note: Vale J.G. Ballard. This interview was originally published in REVelation magazine (Summer, 1994): 96-97. Archived links from Disinformation version (2000).

J.G. Ballard has a unique place in Twentieth Century literature. Imaginative fiction writer and cult figure, his life has often been as nightmarish as the stories he writes. Born on November 15th, 1930 in Shanghai, Ballard’s childhood changed from living in a house with nine servants to being interned by the Japanese following the bombing of Pearl Harbour.

His experiences of surviving acute food shortages and dysentry formed the basis for the 1984 novel that brought Ballard widespread recognition – Empire of the Sun, later filmed by Steven Spielberg.

“As far as I was concerned, Empire of the Sun was a breakthrough book, but there have been people who have been generous to my material from the beginning,” Ballard says, explaining the difference in his earlier styles.

“The real problem is that imaginative fiction unsettles a lot of people who prefer naturalistic novels that reflect everyday life. Imaginative fiction has never been too popular, but that’s changing.”

“When magic realism came from South America, people realised that it creates a wonderful, imaginative world, particularly as TV does the everyday stuff better than novels do. After Empire of the Sun, I was dealing with a whole new audience.”

In 1946 Ballard arrived in Birmingham, England and later studied English whilst reading avant-garde fiction, surrealist texts and Freud’s psychoanalytical movement. Four years later after enduring an advertising job to pay the rent, he travelled to Canada as part of the Royal Air Force, where his first science fiction story Passport to Eternity, was published. Writing stories for New Worlds & Science Fantasy magazines honed the style for his first novel The Drowned World (London: Penguin Books, 1962). The Drought (London: Jonathan Cape, 1965), The Crystal World (London: Jonathan Cape, 1966), and The Wind From Nowhere (1967) exemplified his early elements cycle.

“When I began writing science fiction, it was looked down upon by mainstream critics and academics, but I was always lucky because most of the books I published got good reviews. Labels do mislead people, many people who have gone on to enjoy my earlier material thought I was writing like [Robert] Heinlein, and since they didn’t like science fiction, didn’t explore those novels.”

As part of the English ‘New Wave’ science fiction school, he preferred to explore inner space and the fragmentation of society, rather than the space adventures or hard science of Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein. Working with colleagues Michael Moorcock and Brian Aldiss, he championed the work of William S. Burroughs during the Naked Lunch trials.

“Burroughs is the only writer who has been really able to make the cut-up style work,” commented Ballard. “He has tremendously weird obsessions.”

“I met Burroughs in the early 1960s and think he’s a brilliant writer, the most important who has appeared since the Second World War. Maybe it’s a good thing that there is only one William S. Burroughs or we’d be terrified out of our wits.”

“Other people have tried to use the cut-up method but it never seems to work, because his head is full of strange obsessions, and it’s these strange obsessions that come out when he does the cut-ups. Unless you’ve got obsessions as strong as the ones that Burroughs has, you’re not likely to make anything of cut-ups. As a writer you have to be faithful to your own subjective obsessions, if you try to be something else disaster occurs and you lose your unique vision.”

Burroughs returned the favourable praise by writing a foreward to Ballard’s most controversial work The Atrocity Exhibition, published in 1970, which perfected the ‘condensed novel’ style that combines Ray Bradbury’s vivid prose with the precision of a medical pathology textbook. The work’s obsessive sexual fetishism examined the mass communications explosion of the 1960s.

“The entire first edition was pulped when a senior person at Doubleday Publishers opened the book, saw my piece Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan and became very disturbed. This was in 1972 – a long time before Reagan became President.”

Ironically the piece was distributed anonymously on official Republican Party letterhead during Reagan’s 1980 Presidential nomination convention. In 1990 the San Francisco based RE/Search Publications republished the book in a new annotated version.

“Many of their books are wonderful – offbeat corners of American life. They are of genuine sociological worth. Atrocity was out of print, but their large format meant that there would be a lot of space. The first stories in The Atrocity Exhibition were written in the late 1960s, starting around 1966. Many things I referred to wouldn’t be recognised by newer readers, and as it’s not always an easy book to read I decided to fill up the white spaces with marginal footnotes, and it worked very well. Flamingo later reprinted it in England.”

Ballard spent most of the 1970s writing a trilogy of novels – Crash (London: Jonathan Cape, 1973), Concrete Island (London: Jonathan Cape, 1974) and High-Rise (London: Jonathan Cape, 1975), which continued the use of the catastrophic world genre to examine the unconsciousness, the individual’s freedom in a repressive society, psychosis and sexuality.

“When Crash was published in America it fell stillborn from the printers and hardly sold a copy. Thankfully in recent years these works have received more attention – it takes a while for the message to get through,” Ballard says optimistically.

Ballard’s novel Rushing to Paradise (1994) could only be described as somewhat mainstream compared to his earlier work, whilst still echoing familiar themes and obsessions that have marked his passage. Veteran eco-feminist campaigner Dr. Barbara Rafferty travels with 16 year old Neil Dempsey to the deserted Pacific atoll of Saint Esprit, formerly a French nuclear testing base, to save the albatross. Rafferty causes an international incident when Neil is wounded during a skirmish with French soldiers. The rest of the book examines fanaticism and the media ‘campaign packaging’ complicity as the group quickly become celebrities and the island evolves into a sanctuary.

“I’ve met several activists personally over the years and watched them closely on television. Many are national figures. There has been widespread media interest in the extremist fringe. Three weeks ago in the Isle of Wight there were bombings and animal rights activists were sent to prison for putting bombs under the cars of laboratory researchers. The book taps into real events such as the Rainbow Warrior bombing – I believe the crew set sail for Mururoa Atoll after the event and were confronted by French security forces. These movements attract people with their own hidden agendas.

“It’s about the new eco-fanatic of the past 20 years, and attempts to answer the question of how David Koresh persuaded his Branch Davidian followers to die with him or how Reverend Jim Jones persuaded 914 followers to commit suicide in Guyana.

“This fable of fanaticism shows their cases to be relatively new as compared to the suffragettes who wanted specific political rights. I suspect these fanatics appeal to people who are looking for an apocalyptic solution to problems, and are glad if it ends in mass destruction. They tap into the millennial religious impulse. However I do support organisations like Greenpeace and the saving of endangered species and plants.

“I have a son and two daughters – I’m interested in the freedoms that the feminist movements have won over the past 40 years. But there is an extremist fringe represented by people like Andrea Dworkin who are female separatists wanting to break the social contract between men and women and put nothing in its place.

“Back in the 50s and 60s we had just recovered from one of the most extreme fanatics that history had produced – Adolf Hitler – and one tended to get political fanatics who had come down well worn channels as they struggled for power, but there was no equivalent of the present day feminist fanatic or eco-terrorist.

“It’s very clear to me that many activists package their campaigns for the media, and the death of the Mark Bracewell character in Rushing to Paradise was part of an attempt to examine that. In the world today you can’t do anything without having a camera crew arrive in five minutes, and that changes the nature of the events being recorded.

“Often the presence of cameras and journalists, through no fault of their own, incites their fanatics to commit outrages that they might not commit otherwise, but that’s a fact of Twentieth Century life – leading to institutionalised disaster areas. I don’t read much fiction really, but I do watch a lot of TV.”

Ballard’s interest in sexual politics continues in his character study of Rafferty and Dempsey, and the book has subtle resonances with previous works like The Terminal Island and with icons such as the Eniwetok atomic test site in the Marshall Islands.

“I was always interested in the Pacific test islands as a result of my wartime experiences as a civilian internee, being keenly aware that my life was saved by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Unlike so many people I’m a supporter of nuclear defence. I’ve watched the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) movement, which although it’s well meaning, seems to me that the people in it are living in a dream world in the post-nuclear world.

“I don’t want to make any grand statements, but my writing is a kind of private, personal mythology, which has always been my approach. We all mythologise ourselves to try and make sense of our lives. That aspect is true of my characters generally, they’re driven by personal mythology.”