You mentioned collaborations - would writing in collaboration with someone else
be entirely unthinkable to you?
BALLARD: I'd love to collaborate,
and I talked it over once or twice with Mike Moorcock. The Americans
collaborated very easily, partly because they all produced this very
standardized fiction. It's not all that easy to tell if you're given a
paragraph of Pohl that it's not by Sheckley or Matheson or Kuttner.
Particularly with all the pseudonyms they used, there are very few writers you
can identify stylistically. Here the opposite is true -collaborations would be
difficult because the writers have been free to evolve in their own separate
directions; they've not been, for the most part, constrained by a set of house
Talking about style: to what extent are you aware that you evolved your style
deliberately? I suppose it just happens with most writers but your style is
very distinctive, and most readers who know your work don't confuse it with
that of other writers. How conscious was this?
BALLARD: Totally unconscious. I've
never given it a thought. I've written certain stories and novels in a
particular style, the style that seemed natural to the subject, but I've never
consciously tried to evolve a literary style that is unique to myself One
writes the way one feels.
PRINGLE: One of the notable things about your style is a certain
repetitiousness of words and phrases, particularly in The Atrocity Exhibition
and to some extent in Crash. You repeat words, and this is something people
have criticized. It was Martin Amis, I think, in his review of Crash, who went
through and counted how many times you use the word 'metalized' and one or two
others, and came up with a figure of forty or fifty.
BALLARD: That's very true, but I
was using language, certain words and phrases, to a fixed and obvious end. The
medical and pseudo-medical jargon that I use a lot is all deliberate these are
particular notes that I can strike, which, I hope, signify something to the
reader. It's all part of a second language, if you like, that is carried along
by the surface of the narrative, a series of signposts with codes or whatever
you want to call them. They're jokes on myself in a way, I suppose.
PRINGLE: Apart from the
medical language that you mention, there's also use of emotional, rather poetic
language, 'flowers and wounds', which reminds me of the French surrealists. Did
they influence you?
BALLARD: Yes, they certainly did. Genet - not a surrealist - but Genet
certainly, Jarry. Their sort of language was a big influence, there's no
question about it. But not many English writers.
BALLARD: It's a funny thing, but
when The Drowned World was published people said it was heavily influenced by
Conrad. Oddly enough, though I was 31 or 32, I'd never read a word of Conrad. I
remember Victor Gollancz the publisher, taking me out to lunch after they'd
bought The Drowned World, and turning to me jokingly, and saying: 'Well, you
stole the whole thing from Conrad'. I thought 'oh, what's this?', and going
away and actually reading some Conrad - which I found rather heavy going,
though he's obviously a great writer, with a unique evocative style - I could
see a resemblance. But that's partly because if you're going to try and build
up the atmosphere of steaming jungles, there's only one way of doing it.
PRINGLE: I think it was
Graham Greene who compared The Crystal World with Heart of Darkness. Was there
any influence there?
BALLARD: I don't know whether I'd read Heart of Darkness at the time I wrote
The Crystal World. I honestly don't think I was influenced by Conrad. I don't
mind being influenced - after all, we're all influenced to some extent - but if
you're talking about conscious imitation: certainly not.
PRINGLE: Were you influenced by
Graham Greene - because he was influenced by Conrad?
BALLARD: Probably, yes. There's
something about Greene's handling of solitary characters, externalizing the
character's mind in terms of the situation in which he finds himself, the
particular landscape. He does this so brilliantly. He can have a solitary
figure standing by a jetty in the Far East, looking at some sanpans, and he
brings in a few things like the local police chief scratching his neck and so
on, and within a paragraph one has a marvellous evocation of the psychology of
the hero, and of what the hero and of what the book is about. Yes, I probably
was influenced by Greene, but I never consciously imitated him.
PRINGLE: Were you attracted to
Greene because of your Far East background?
BALLARD: What I liked about Greene,
and still do, is that although he's snared by the English literary 'thing',
he's very much a twentieth century man, and his fiction is generated by his
experience of the world outside England. He couldn't be further apart from
someone like Kingsley Amis or Anthony Powell, whose fiction is entirely
generated by the closed world not just of England but of a very small part of
England. In Greene's fiction one can breathe the smells, see the sights and
hear the sounds of the whole world. Not having spent my childhood and
adolescence in England, I received a very big shock when I got here in 1946 and
found it was a closed little island, containing a whole lot of lesser islands -
the world of English professional life. Professional middle-class life of those
days was incredibly narrow. I just couldn't breathe it in. That's one of the
reasons I started writing SF - one could get away from all this sort of thing.
I certainly admire Graham Greene a great deal.
PRINGLE: You studied medicine at
Cambridge. Many of the protagonists of your stories have in fact been doctors.
Is there a rationale for this?
BALLARD: Well, I suppose if I
hadn't become a writer I would have been a doctor. So in a sense the
protagonists of these stories are myself. I couldn't make them writers - the
obvious thing to do was to make them doctors. My training and mental
inclination, my approach to everything, is much closer to that of a doctor than
to that of a writer. I'm not a literary man. But I am interested in -
admittedly popular - science. I approach things as a scientist would, I think.
I've a scientific bent; it's obvious to me that these characters are what I
would have been if I hadn't been a writer.
PRINGLE: Your National Service period in
the RAF - did that influence you at all? Were you a bomber
I did a sort of basic training course but I left after a while. In fact, I
didn't do National Service. I was exempt. I thought I'd like to try flying, to
see what it was like. I thought I'd like to try service life, because it was at
least sort of forward-looking and that helped. This was in 1954. I was in a bit
of a dead-end. I hadn't started reading SF. I wanted to be a writer. I was
writing short stories, planning a novel like any novice, but I wasn't
organised. It struck me - I was very interested in aviation - that it might be
worth going into the service for a couple of years - one of those short service
commissions they had then. You could go in for a very short space of time, just
to see what it was like. But in fact it wasn't anything. It was completely
unlike anything I imagined. I didn't like service life at all. Also, I spent my
entire period in Canada, out in the back of beyond. I was writing while I was
there. The moment I got myself organised I wanted to get out of the RAF and get
back to London, and start churning the stuff out. So I resigned my commission
and came back to England. I had to get a job. Ted Carnell arranged for me to
get a job with the parent company, on a technical journal. I moved from there
to being assistant editor of a scientific journal. I stayed there until about
You were actually writing before you'd read any SF?
BALLARD: Oh yes. I wasn't writing
SF though. It never occurred to me. I started writing SF partly because it
seemed very exciting - and the sorts of things I wanted to do in SF had not
been done by anybody else - also because there were so many magazines. You
could write for so many. This was when I was a complete novice, hadn't
published a single story. I could see at a glance. There were ten American
magazines and about four English ones. So there was a market greater than the
literary field then. There were very few literary journals of any kind, and
they were very prestigious - you know, Horizon, etc; It was obvious you
couldn't make a career out of writing short stories for Horizon. It wasn't a
matter of making money, but of actually being able to write a good deal, to
write with freedom too, which you could do in SF magazines. You were free,
within the rough conventions of the field. You don't have that sort of freedom
in literary journals.
PRINGLE: The picture you draw of yourself as being interested in
science, editor of a science journal and so on, makes me wonder for the first
time why you wanted to be writer at all.
BALLARD: If one's got an
imagination, if the imagination's going overtime, you have to start writing it
down. If you've got a talent for that sort of thing, you write it down without
too much difficulty. As a child, I was good at essays, writing stories. Even at
school, I was writing short stories. It was something that just grew out of
childhood. I would have qualified as a doctor, without any doubt, but for the
fact that the imaginative pressure to write was so strong. I was beginning to
neglect medicine altogether. I was primarily interested in anatomy and
physiology. These were the subjects that I did for two years. Once I had
covered the basic course in those subjects, I found more advanced medicine so
technical that it didn't relate to the system of metaphors that, say anatomy is
so rich in, or physiology, or pathology. Once you've dissected the cadaver -
thorax, abdomen, head and neck, etc., - you go on to more exhaustive anatomy,
of say, the inner ear, and the metaphors aren't so generously forthcoming. So
I'd had enough of it in two years. I could see it then became a very technical
mattes and also became applied. I'd go into hospital and .actually be lancing
boils and looking at people with skin diseases. I didn't want that. I was more
interested in the general scientific underpinning of medicine. In some ways I
wish I had become a doctor. Such a mind-blowing course. If you've known anybody
that's gone through the medical degree course, they all say that you leave half
your mind behind. The feats of memory required are really absolutely gigantic.
PRINGLE: You won
a short story competition at Cambridge. Was the story published?
BALLARD: It was published in a
Cambridge student newspaper called Varsity, in '51, I suppose. That was my
first published story.
PRINGLE: Could you describe
wasn't SF. It was a story set in the Far East, set in Malaya during the British
military struggle with the communist terrorists - whenever that began - in the
late '40's, early '50's. It's difficult to describe.
PRINGLE: In an old New Worlds, I saw in
the blurb for your story 'Escapement' in 1956...
BALLARD: That was my first story, I
think for Carnell.
PRINGLE: Carnell said in his blurb that you had almost, at the time,
completed a novel called You and Me and the Continuum.
BALLARD: That is interesting. The
title must have been around in my mind. Before I started writing SF, before I
went into the Air Force, I was writing some 'experimental' fiction, based on
intensive reading of James Joyce and whoever else one was reading then. I was
trying to get away from the English 19th century novel. I was writing these
bits and pieces. I think I did have half an experimental novel lying around,
which I probably just threw away. I obviously retained the title, which I
liked. Do these old New Worlds and Science Fantasies still exist?
PRINGLE: There are avid
collectors of them.
GODDARD: They're worth a lot of money too.
BALLARD: Are they really? How much
are they worth? You mean more than their cover price? How amazing. Perhaps I
should have hung on to my stuff.
GODDARD: How much of an influence was Ted
Carnell on your development as a writer?
BALLARD: He was an influence in the
sense that, but for New Worlds, I would have been in a bit of a spot. He had
three magazines for which I was encouraged to produce a continuous stream of
short stories over a period of getting on for ten years. He gave me every
freedom, I don't think he ever rejected a story of mine. He gave me complete
freedom to write anything I wanted at a time when.., you will remember that I
began writing in '56-57', round about the time of the flight of Sputnik 1,
which seemed to confirm anything that the SF fans, writers and publishers in
America believed in: this was the millennium, it had arrived. It would have
seemed, superficially, the worst time for moving away from writing a
science-fictional art based on space, interplanetary travel, the far future and
what have you. It would have seemed the worst time to stop writing that kind of
thing and yet he encouraged me, said go ahead. One tends to forget how
resistant to change and experiment of any kind SF is. That's the paradox: it
ought to be dedicated to change and novelty and experiment. You found in the
'50's and '60's in the States an absolute resistance to any kind of novelty.
Ted Carnell was unique in giving me this freedom to write anything I wanted to,
and he dealt with the American editors and publishers. I don't know whether Ted
would have published the stories in The Atrocity Exhibition - possibly not,
though he did publish ' The Terminal Beach'. I remember some of the rejection
slips I got from American editors when that story came back. Ted established
the possibility of change. He recognized that SF by the mid '50s had used all
its material, it had built its world, the last brick, as it were, was slotted
into place - there was no way out, there was no possibility of change: he
recognized that. He used to caution other young writers who modelled their
fiction on the kind of stories that appeared in Galaxy in the early and
mid-50s, and he would caution them very much against the kind of SF that
required an intense familiarity with science fiction before you even began to
understand it. The kind of stories that Galaxy and Astounding, in their
different ways, were publishing made very little sense to an outsider because
they didn't know what the narrative and plot and subject-matter conventions
were, and without that knowledge you were lost. Ted, even before I arrived on
the scene, felt that the time had come for a change of direction. English SF
has always been much more open to change and novelty. It always depresses me
when I meet Americans who really believe that they invented SF round about
Gernsback's first magazine, 1926, and the ten years after. In fact, what they
did was to limit its range, conventionalize it, and fossilize it. English
writers, who've been writing the stuff for a hundred years or more, have always
had a much more open approach to the SF they've written, so English SF has
always been much less homogeneous than American SF.
GODDARD: Did Carnell ever suggest ways in
which your work could take new directions?
BALLARD: I think there were one or
two stories where he suggested I could enlarge a particular aspect, but he
never suggested any idea, or any particular directions I should take. Most of
the stuff I wrote then is pretty conventional, at least outside the narrow
little world of SF. Half of the stories aren't even SF within the popular
definition of the term.
PRINGLE: Did you write The Wind from Nowhere as a conscious attempt
to break into the paperback market?
BALLARD: Yes, I did. I wanted to
give up my job, you see, I had my first story published in December '56. By
1961 I'd been writing SF for five years and I'd written quite a lot of short
stories. I had this gap after I went to the SF convention in '57. Don't take
this personally or anything I think times have changed - but it put me off. I
didn't do any writing for about a year and a half, so there was a sort of gap.
Then I restarted, and I wrote more stories. After five years, I realized I was
getting old. I had three children. I was thirty or thereabouts, and I realized
I was getting nowhere. We'd come to Live here, out of necessity. We were driven
out of London -once you had small children you were anathema. I had this very
long railway journey up to Central London to my office every day. There I was
coming home with these small children running around, and I was absolutely
exhausted. My wife had had all these babies and she was tired. I knew the one
thing I had to do was make a complete break and become a full-time writer. I
knew I'd never write a novel - a serious novel - while I was not getting home
till 8 o'clock in the evening. I was just too tired. But I had this fortnight's
holiday coming up, and my wife as a joke said - we hadn't enough money to go
away - 'why don't you write a novel in a fortnight? So I thought: Good, That's
sensible talking'. I'd already got, through Carnell, certain contacts with the
American paperback people and I had a feeling that if I wrote a novel I could
sell it, even if I wasn't going to get very much money. In those days
£300 could keep you going for a long time. So I said: 'I'll write a novel
in ten days, six thousand words a day, during this holiday', and I thought:
'What shall I do?' So I had this idea about a whirlwind. I was tempted to
approach it seriously I mean, it could have been done on a completely serious
level - by serious I mean on the level of the other novels, The Drowned World
and so forth - and I nearly did do it that way. I don't know whether it would
have been any better, because the wind thing isn't that interesting. So I
thought I'd use all the clichés there are, the standard narrative
conventions, and I sat down at the typewriter and I wrote the book. Six
thousand words a day, which is quite a lot. I kept it up, and when I went back
to the office I had the manuscript of a novel, which Carnell sold. He was then
acting as my agent. I think I got £300 - then, though of course it's gone
on and on. But that was enough and immediately I sat down and started writing
The Drowned World. I wrote it in a short version first, and then expanded that
to a novel.
PRINGLE: What about The Crystal World? wasn't that published in three
Originally, I wrote it as a short story, The Illuminated Man. Then Mike
Moorcock, when he took over New Worlds as a small format magazine, asked me to
write a lead serial. He wanted a novel, in short. I didn't want to write a
novel at that point. My mind was already beginning to change, I was starting to
think about the Atrocity Exhibition type of approach - this was in 1963 or '64.
So I said to him: 'I'll expand this short story if you like', because I'd got a
lot more ideas. I felt that the short version was incomplete. It was too much
of a science fiction fantasy. I wanted to develop more of the serious
implications of the idea - which I did, I think, in that serial. When I'd done
that, it occurred to me - or it occurred to my agent - that I'd got a novel. So
I then expanded it even further, It was a peculiar way of writing a novel, but
it just happened that way.
PRINGLE: Was The Drought written before, or was it written between
versions of The Crystal World?
BALLARD: The Drought was my second
novel, written after The Drowned World. I didn't like it very much at the time.
There was something rather too arid - something of the aridity of the landscape
spilled over into the novel, and it didn't take off for me. I still don't care
for it very much, but it contains so many of the ideas - quantified image,
isolated object, and emotion detached from any human context - that I began to
develop in The Atrocity Exhibition and in Crash. They were all implicit in that
One of the most popular areas of your work is the series of Vermilion Sands
stories. A critical reading of these shows that they are all, to some extent,
variations on the same theme. Could you tell us something about why you wrote
BALLARD: I've never really analysed them myself. I suppose I was just
interested in inventing an imaginary Palm Springs, a kind of world I imagined
all suburbs of North America and Northern Europe might be like in about 200
years time. Everyone will be permanently on vacation, or doing about one day's
work a year. People will give in to any whim that occurs to them -like taking
up cloud-sculpture - leisure and work will mesh in. I think everybody will be
very relaxed, almost too relaxed. It will be a landscape of not so much
suburbia but exurbia, a kind of country-club belt, which will be largely the
product of advanced technologies of various kinds, for leisure and so forth. So
you will get things like computers meshed into one's ordinary everyday life in
a way that can be seen already. I'm just writing about one direction that the
future is taking us. I think the future will be like Vermilion Sands, if I have
to make a guess. It isn't going to be like Brave New World or 1984: it's going
to be like a country-club paradise.
PRINGLE: Is this a sort of literary
conceit, or what you really think the future's going to be like?
BALLARD: I'm not a literary man at
all. That's my guess at what the future will be like!
PRINGLE: It's not the impression of the
future people would get from your books as a whole, where you tend to write
about disaster and doom.
BALLARD: I think that's a false
reading of my stuff. I don't see my fiction as being disaster-oriented,
certainly not most of my SF - apart from The Wind from Nowhere which is just a
piece of hackwork. The others, which are reasonably serious, are not disaster
stories. People seem to imply that these are books with unhappy endings, but
the reverse is true: they're books with happy endings, stories of psychic
fulfilment. The geophysical changes which take place in The Drought, The
Drowned .World and The Crystal World are all positive and good changes -they
are what the books are about. The changes lead us to our real psychological
goals, so they are not disaster stories at all. I know that when The Drowned
World was accepted by my American publisher about twelve years ago he said
:'yes, it's great, but why don't we have a happy ending? Have the hero going
north instead of south into the jungle and sun.' He thought I'd made a slight
technical mistake by a slip of the pen, and had the hero going in the wrong
direction. I said: 'no, God, this is a happy story.' I don't understand the use
of the word 'disaster'. I don't regard Crash as a disaster story. In a sense,
all these are cataclysm stories. Really, I'm trying to show a new kind of logic
emerging, and this is to be embraced, or at least held in regard. So I don't
really see any distinction between any of my work - between Vermilion Sands on
the one hand, and the rest on the other.