The Kindness of Women: John Kenny & Pat Quigley talk to J.G. Ballard
Originally appeared in Albedo One #2 (1993)
J.G. Ballard paid a flying visit to Dublin a short while ago, to promote his novel The Kindness of Women. We met Ballard in the Shelbourne Hotel and, for an all too brief while, talked about his ideas on writing, SF and film making.
With The Kindness of Women I particularly liked the way you kept the strengths of your earlier work with the style and the sense of irony, while at the same time it’s a marvellously human story as well. Do you find using the first person is more intense than writing in the third person narrative?
J.G. Ballard: Yes, I think it is. I couldn’t have written Empire of the Sun in the first person, because I couldn’t have really gotten into the mind of a twelve-year old. It would have very much limited the horizons if I’d had to show all the events within a twelve year old’s comprehension. When I came to The Kindness of Women I was dealing with, for the most part, an adult sensibility, and an adult sensibility that I could remember clearly in the inside of my own head, so I think it was the natural tense to write in.
I take it, it’s still a novel even though it’s based on your life. Do you think people will read it as 100% autobiography?
JGB: I don’t mind if they do. I mean it is an autobiography. It’s semi-autobiography. It’s partly fictional. I’d say the backgrounds are generally true to the way they were in real life, as in the case of Empire of the Sun; but the foregrounds, particularly the characters, are inventions. It’s a matter of trying to reach some sort of psychological truth that you can’t get in a real life biography. Autobiographies tend to be written from the perspective of maturity with the benefit of hindsight, by people who are able to weigh their lives on some sort of moral scales, and chart the overall direction of their lives in retrospect. I didn’t want to do that, because I wasn’t sure what my life would weigh in any sense of scales and also, by writing a work of fiction you can dramatise the immediate present with the maximum emotional force and engage the sympathies of the reader. I mean, the reader is a witness of events as they unfold. He or she is not being told about events that happened years before as in an autobiography. I think the novel form has just worth.
Some of the episodes seem to offer clues as to the sources of the symbols in your stories. There’s one scene where you’re with your daughter and a low flying aircraft comes over Shepperton. It’s an obvious pointer to The Unlimited Dream Company.
JGB: I wasn’t thinking of that. You may be right, it hadn’t occurred to me. I mean, low flying aircraft are always flying over Shepperton, and still are.
I suppose the recurring icons or symbols in your work mainly come through your subconscious. They’re not consciously decided?
JGB: No, they’re not. People think that it’s all imagery; hotels, drained swimming pools, and the sort of architecture that underpins most of my fiction is all carefully blueprinted in advance, like the structure of an aircraft. But that isn’t the case. I’ve simply written about what interested and intrigued me, and inspires those things that seemed to resonate in mind.
Do you plot a book at the start or do you explore it as you go along?
JGB: I always work with a fairly detailed synopsis. I like to know the dramatic shape of the book. I like to have a good idea of the internal atmosphere, how the book will dramatically engage the reader, and it’s difficult to do this without writing a synopsis. But that is only the start because the actual resonances that you find the text gives off are almost impossible to predict. One can’t help but notice unexpected effects.
I know you don’t mind the label of science fiction on your work, but you don’t regard yourself as part of the science fiction community, do you?
JGB: Well, I’m not. I’m not standoffish: I don’t take part in mainstream literary conventions or festivals or do anything of that kind. So the fact that I appear to keep my distance from science fiction is a misapprehension. I’m rather a private person. I don’t feel particularly drawn to literary gatherings of any kind, science fiction or otherwise. I haven’t really written very much science fiction, I think, since the end of the sixties. Certainly Crash and High Rise are not science fiction. The Unlimited Dream Company is an imaginative fantasy. Hello America is a kind of science fiction, I suppose. Most of the stories from War Fever I think of as predictive fables written in response to newspaper headlines, but they’re not genre science fiction — not that I have anything against genre science fiction. I’ve written plenty of it myself in the past.
I think your term “imaginative fiction” properly describes all your writing. It’s a good term because it includes a lot of writing like magic realism and writers like that are very difficult to classify, like Italo Calvino and Kundera.
JGB: Exactly. People seem to think there’s either mainstream, which is by and large naturalistic, and that everything else is either genre fiction or various kinds of out and out fantasy. This isn’t the case. A large part of the modern movement in 20th century, and 19th century, literature lies in the area of what I call “imaginative fiction” and underpins the whole of our literature. One can think of Gulliver’s Travels; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; the Alice books; the scientific romances; and then of course, some of the greatest works of 20th century fiction like Brave New World and 1984, not to mention the novels of Kafka, Calvino, Borges and so on. If you took the entire canon of modern literature from, say, the 1880s – the start of the symbolist’s movement – and stripped away all the naturalistic fiction, you’d be left with a vast corpus of great works of literature that seem to underpin our consciousness of ourselves. I mean, you scarcely need naturalistic fiction at all. E.M. Forster could vanish into oblivion and not be missed.
I’ve noticed that the inner life of your characters seem to have become richer. Your original ideas on entropy are giving way to those of transformation. Do you consider this a natural progression?
JGB: You’ve got to remember that I’m substantially older than the writer who first began producing science fiction in the early Fifties, and considerably older than the man who wrote Crash. I think one changes and there’s a sense in which, first in Empire of the Sun and then in The Kindness of Women, I found a way of annexing natural elements in what is still an apocalyptic framework. I’ve reconciled the two, which I wasn’t able to do, wasn’t trying to do, before; and in my earlier fiction of the Sixties and Seventies I was working with a strictly surrealistic format. I completely remade the world I was describing from the first sentence. Now this book and Empire of the Sun represent a synthesis of naturalism and apocalyptic elements.
It’s much more effective when you take that course.
JGB: You have a larger scope, I think.
Do you think Cyberpunk attempts similar changes, in terms of transformation, to those pioneered by the New Wave of the Sixties?
JGB: Yes, I do. I’m very impressed by Gibson and Sterling and the others. What I think they’ve done is to bring science fiction back to its roots in the here and now; to its roots in the real, which was its great strength in the Fifties. A remarkable percentage of science fiction stories and novels in those days were concerned with the here and now, and gradually through the Seventies, for whatever reason, fantastical elements began to intrude into science fiction more and more. It became an escapist fiction altogether, losing all interest in scientific change, losing all interest in commenting on the present day. It lost interest in its predictive and cautionary roles and turned into nothing but entertainment. Futurists sagas and planetary histories with infusions from the occult and horror fiction and God knows – a real unholy concoction that lacked all moral authority, something that the science fiction pioneers of the Fifties certainly had. And I think the Cyberpunks have attempted to bring science fiction back to the present day.
You left your own writing life out of The Kindness of Women. Is that to be the subject of the next one?
JGB: No, not in a work of fiction. I don’t directly describe the novels. I didn’t want to bore readers with endless mini-dissertations on why I wrote what I was writing at the time. I do it indirectly. I provide the context in which particular novels work.
It would be fascinating, though, to hear the story of your involvement with New Worlds in the Sixties.
JGB: I wouldn’t put that into a work of fiction. That would be straight memoir.
One final question. I believe Crash is being made into a film.
JGB: One can never be certain. As far as I know Jeremy Thomas, the producer of The Last Emperor, is working at present on Cronenberg‘s The Naked Lunch, which should be premiered in December. I saw him recently. He says that as far as he is concerned, Cronenberg will start writing the script of Crash shortly with a view to filming in the spring of next year.
It’s bound to be fairly difficult to translate to the screen.
JGB: I think Cronenberg is probably a very good choice. Whoever films Crash will have to do it in a very stylised way. You couldn’t get a literal translation past the censors and, if it’s stylised, Cronenberg’s stylisation is probably as good as anybody’s. After all, you can’t make a hard porn movie and hope to get general release. Cronenberg has a sort of visceral, organic style of image making that suits the subject matter of Crash, particularly if he can fuse that visceral imagery with the hard technology of the automobile.