"The Obsessive and Roving Imagination"

JG Ballard discusses The Complete Short Stories with Richard Coles

First broadcast on Night Waves, BBC Radio 3, October 30, 2001

Transcribed by Mike Bonsall

Richard Coles: How exactly does a man variously described as a surrealist, a sci-fi genius, and a contemporary prophet, fit on the bookshelf? Whatever your view, make room on yours for his collected short stories, recently published in hardback. He began his literary career with the first in the volume, Prima Belladonna, published in 1956, and since then has written 16 novels including, memorably, The Drowned World, Empire of the Sun and Crash. In addition there's another 1,200 pages worth of short stories, returning again and again to those landscapes of brilliant sands, crystalline forests, abandoned settlements, and wrecked machinery; inhabited by grounded pilots, crash victims, disordered psychologists, and hallucinatory sirens. It's an instantly familiar world, so unsettling that it makes you look at suburban Shepperton, where Ballard has lived for many years, in a whole new way. We went there to meet him and I asked him first if he thinks of himself primarily as a short story writer, rather than a novelist.

JGB: I've always been both, all through my 40 year — more than 40 years, amazingly — writing career, I've written short stories and novels more or less throughout. I certainly began as a short story writer. I think I published my first short story in 1956, my first novel in '63, and I published something like a dozen short story collections — most of which are now contained in the collected stories. I write short stories for all sorts of reasons, one of which is, I've — tried out — ideas that I've later developed in novels, so short stories have been very important to me.

RC: Yes, I've noticed that, if you look at your bibliography, if you look at the short stories and see where they occur in relation to your novels, you often do get the sense that preoccupations, themes, even obsessions, seem to emerge in the short story before they transmit into the novels.

JGB: That's true, starting in, I think, 1966 I started writing a group of interrelated pieces — they're not really short stories — but chapters in an experimental novel, called The Atrocity Exhibition. I was constantly developing the ideas that later went into Crash.

James: Look at all this traffic... I'm not sure I can deal with it.

Helen: The day I left the hospital, I had the extraordinary feeling that all these cars were gathering for some special reason I didn't understand... You've bought yourself exactly the same car again; it's the same shape and colour... [sound of near collision]

Helen: We're close to the airport garage; it won't be busy this time of day

JGB: Even my latest novels the underlying, sort of, obsessions, and psychology, and so on, were being worked out at short length. So short stories have been very — I think there are a lot of novelists — someone like Kingsley Amis for example, wrote a few short stories, but they obviously were only a marginal activity for him. James Joyce wrote short stories, collected in Dubliners, and again you think of him as the great novelist, Ulysses, Finnegans Wake. For me, short stories have not been a kind of Sunday activity, or something done with the left hand, they've been central to the way my imagination works.

RC: Why do you think your imagination finds the short story such an accommodating form?

JGB: I think it's partly because in the short story you can get straight to the point. You don't have to develop character at great length. You don't have to tell stories that take place over a great length of time; it's very difficult in a short story to compress years of narrative activity into 5,000 words, or even 10,000 words. The form doesn't allow you to do that, unless you're writing something very very stylised, in the form of, sort of, newspaper reports or something of that kind. So you've got to concentrate on this small but tightly focused area of experience. It's rather like a spotlight on a stage; all attention is focused on perhaps a single figure, or maybe two figures. There's no way in which you can have a huge cast moving in and out of a spotlight, and I think there's something about the intensity of the short story, it's very obsessive in the way it tackles whatever the situation may be — a single theme usually, and comparatively few characters who don't need to be developed. You can take a single mood and focus on it, almost in the way the scientist focuses on something down through the lens of a microscope. I think that fits into my particular temperament, which is a mix of, sort of, the obsessive and roving imagination.

RC: I'm interested that you're using metaphors, from the world of images really, you talked about microscopes, talk about lenses, talk about focus. That seems to be something which is a very key theme, particularly in the stories that you were writing in the 1960s, often you're dealing with a world that has become lapidary. In one story, I think in The Illuminated Man, the world is quite literally becoming, if not lapidary, becoming crystalline. It's almost as if it's some kind of way in which memory is becoming almost a work of art, something separate from the mind and the imagination of whoever's telling the story, becoming something that exists on its own terms in the world, something becoming crystal.

JGB: Yes, incidentally, the short story, The Illuminated Man, prefigured my later novel, The Crystal World. I first tried out the idea there — moved the setting, from, I think it was, the original was in Florida, moved it to French West Africa — but it's basically the same idea developed more fully. One of the great themes of my fiction, has been time, I've always been obsessed with time. You could see my early novels, The Drowned World and The Drought and The Crystal World, as being obsessed with time past, in the case of The Drowned World. The Drought, a very arid, desert world is my, sort of, vision of time future. And I suppose The Crystal World, where time doesn't exist at all and everything has a sort of — diamond life — is time present. Time has been very important to me and I think the short story lends itself to — I won't say games, because they're not games — it lends itself to explorations of time, the sort of role that time plays in obsessions.

There's one story called The 60 Minute Zoom, in which an obsessive husband who's convinced his wife is unfaithful to him, is looking across from a secret hideaway at the hotel balcony where his wife, he thinks, is going to entertain her lover. He doesn't know who the lover is, he's convinced that it's a man who is a fellow guest in the hotel, and who's visible to him on one of the other balconies, so he begins work his zoom lens and closes in across the one hour the story takes.

Half a dozen floors are visible, a cluster of balconies at whose centre stands my wife. Wayward and erotic, faithless spouse but excellent travelling companion, she is gazing, uncannily, straight towards my camera. Helen is brushing her hair with a reflex hand, revealing the strong muscles of her neck and making the greatest play with her profile for the benefit of the audience watching her from the balconies above and below. For all this attention, she is dressed discreetly in my white towelling robe, no doubt a signal to someone in my absence. Moving my eyes from her, I notice that on the surrounding balconies stands the full complement of her admirers, that troupe of beach-partners, one of whom will play the supporting role in this film. Penelope with her Suitors, and I with my Nikon-bow.

JGB: The time it takes to zoom, finally, right into his wife's bedroom through the balcony rails, has a bearing on the nature of the obsession. Time is at the service of this reductive one hour that is collapsing in on itself – or, if you like, focussing on itself — on the final seconds where all will be revealed — is a measure of the kind of obsession that this man feels for his wife, eventually he's so close to her that all he can see is a sort of white field of her flesh. In a lot of the stories, characters suffer from psychological fugues were they suddenly go from one moment to what appears to be the next moment and then discover that there's been a gap of half an hour, during which perhaps nothing has happened, or perhaps some very important things have happened.

RC: It seems to me that a lot of the stories are quite ambivalent about it. On the one hand you get the sense that — I think it was Philip Larkin who said that the instinct to preserve lies at the bottom of all art. On the one hand you get the sense that, it about a battle fought against time to preserve memory, experience, or something, but other times, it's essential to surrender to time in order to inhabit the moment, to live.

JGB: Yes, of course you know, short stories are, they're little nuggets, they're little coins. One mustn't imagine that you're dealing with a blank cheque, on which you can write six zeroes. You're dealing with a very small piece of human experience, but the writer's job is to make the most of the small framework. I think it is fair to say that many of the stories in this collection actually deal with — in an almost journalistic way — with rather large issues. There's one story where the world's scientists pronounce that god actually exists, there's unmistakable evidence that a divine being, with some kind of moral perspective, pervades the universe and the story describes the effects on the world at large, and on the established churches of the world, and our notions of right and wrong...

Everywhere doctors reported a marked drop in the numbers of their patients. Neuroses and other mental ills disappeared overnight, as the discovery of the deity’s existence worked its instant therapy. All over the world police forces were disbanded. Members of the armed services were sent on indefinite leave pending demobilization, long-closed frontiers were unsealed. Everywhere people behaved as if some immense victory had been won against an invincible enemy. Here and there, between particularly aggressive rivals, such as the United States and Cuba, Egypt and Israel, long-standing pacts of friendship were signed. Military aircraft and naval fleets were sent to the scrapyards, stockpiles of weapons were destroyed. (However, a few sporting rifles were retained when the spirit of universal brotherhood produced its first casualty — a Swedish engineer in Bengal who attempted to embrace a tiger. Warnings were issued that an awareness of God’s existence had yet to extend to the lower members of the animal kingdom, where for the time being the struggle for life remained as pitiless as ever.)

RC: It's been very interesting for me, having known your stories, mostly from anthologies, reading them sandwiched between short stories by other writers, to read them in an uninterrupted line, because it seems to me that there's a remarkable consistency about many of the stories, particularly some of the stories that follow each other consecutively, the same themes reappear, but also, the characters become recognizable in a sense, often your narrator is a man whom you feel you've met before, because you've encountered somebody very like him, in a short story you might have read, you know, 300 pages before. Is that something you've noticed too, I don't know if you ever read all your short stories one after the other?

JGB: No, I'm one of those writers who never re-reads his own stuff, as Anthony Burgess said; mistakes just leap off the page at you. I hope there aren't too many mistakes. Actually I did proof-read this particular volume — which was an Homeric effort — 1,200 pages, what I did in fact — and it may strike you as very odd — I proof-read the book backwards, because when I started proofreading, I began with the first story, the first I think was 1956, and I started reading these early stories and I felt I was reading the work by, a sort of stranger, or someone I'd met once — perhaps on holiday, and got to know and then forgot about. It was a very weird experience because I couldn't quite grapple with the stories. So I said, this is impossible, I'll start at the end with stories written in very recent years, with which I'm familiar, where the personality of the writer is my present personality, more or less. So I started reading them backwards and there was this odd sense as I moved back — 10 years, 20 years into the past, 30 years, finally 40 years into the past — of a sort of descent through the surface of the sea, down into the, sort of, clearly lit waters near the surface, then down deeper and I begin to see, sort of, strange fish — mental fish — fragments of my own brain swimming around, sort of, odd obsessions and, you know, these repeated subject matters that you mention, and then finally — down into the, sort of, deeps of forty years ago where, you know, I felt like a visitor from another planet. It's quite a peculiar experience actually, covering this immense block of time, in one go. But I could see all sorts of obsessions — changing too, I mean, I think the later stories, the stories in the second half of the book, written in the last 20 years, are probably — they're less surrealist — I think I was quite heavily influenced by the surrealists in my first twenty years, the last twenty years have been less surrealist and more — probably more sort of good-natured — more humorous too.

RC: Yes, I had the feeling that the books and the stories of the last 20 years seem to be more socially engaged — without that meaning to sound too solemn or heavy-handed — there's a lightness of touch about them and an easiness about them. Whereas you have a much stronger sense I think of a very sharply defined individual perspective in the books of the 1950s and the 1960s, in particular. I'm interested you describe them as surrealist, it's a word that is often attached to your name, do you think it's a useful one?

JGB: I'm very proud to be thought of as a surrealist, because I've always admired them enormously, and I like to think that — particularly in the earlier stories which were published in science fiction magazines — in fact, are much closer to surrealism than they were to science fiction. Although if you look through the credits at the back of the book you'll see that most of the stories in the first half of the collection were published in science fiction magazines. As I say in the introduction, at the time the readers of those sf magazines used to write outraged letters to the editors saying; 'Why are you publishing this man Ballard? This is not science fiction!' Of course the mainstream, you know, reviewers at the time, back in the 60s, in particular, and the 70s, reviewing my collections, would say; 'Oh science fiction again, why doesn't Ballard stop writing science fiction? You know, turn to something more serious.' So you can't please anybody. But I'd like to think that they're more influenced by the surrealists – the use of, sort of — empty landscapes — the strange juxtapositions, some of my, sort of, signature images of drained swimming pools and abandoned hotels, deserted runways with the odd bit of strange debris like a sort of still-life arranged by a demolition squad. All that is very much the stock in trade of the surrealist painters.

I haven't read much literary surrealism — it's pretty indigestible stuff actually — although surrealism I think, strictly speaking, began as a literary movement, but the painters soon dominated because — they dominated surrealism by their sheer talent — de Chirico, Magritte, Ernst, Dali — they defined what surrealism was, and I responded enormously to them, because they unlocked the, sort of, doors into the dream, they were obsessed with notions of time, space, the meaning of existence, you know, what Dali called the three constants of life; the sexual instinct, the fear of death, and the mystery of space/time. I like to think that my writing looks at those questions, and certainly the short stories, directly confront the sort of themes that preoccupied the surrealists.

It's very difficult to do in writing what the surrealists can do so easily in visual format. I mean, you take a classic Magritte — a room filled with a gigantic apple twelve feet high. It's a beautiful, striking, surrealist image, it's also funny in a curious way, and rather threatening at the same time — this gigantic piece of fruit. Now if you try to describe that in a short story or in a novel, it would loose all its magic, it just doesn't work. So I think for that reason the short stories I've written that seemed to have echoes of the surrealists are in fact much closer to ordinary life. They're fairly naturalistic in their descriptions, the elements that I use, abandoned hotels and drained swimming pools; I think do, sort of, evoke the kind of feelings of oddness of strangeness, of dislocation, that we get when we do look at surrealist paintings.

RC: I was thinking about the literary connections, if I could make any literary connections, and interestingly the ones that came to mind most freely in this collection, funnily enough, are with the metaphysical poets, and that seemed to be something in terms of the way you write and your use of language was, a striking and unexpected thing for me. The way the world changes into minerals for example is something which really recalled for me George Herbert, and the other kind of elaborate and yet apparently artless, sort of, literary flourishes which reminded me of John Donne, I don't know if that was something that was in your mind at all.

JGB: Not self-consciously. I hope what you say is true, but I'm not really a literary person; I don't think I take much inspiration, consciously anyway, from writers and poets. I think it's a matter of preoccupation, to some extent I think these sort of dislocations of time and space, that you get in — all my fiction — but very obviously, I think, in my short stories, I think they probably reflect the dislocations of the second world war which I — when I was a child on the other side of the world in China, during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai.

Mary Graham: What are we going to do?

John Graham: We'll have to get out of here. Perhaps there'll be a boat... I'm sorry you two... Stay together, hang on to Jamie"
[sounds of chaos, marching, shooting]

JGB: I suddenly realised at the age of 10, 11, 12, that reality was just a stage-set which could be just cleared aside at a moment's notice, where nothing could be taken for granted. Where the most insignificant object lying around, could take on a very special significance, like the abandoned weapons and ammunition left in the fields around Shanghai which we used to explore, which literally blew up one or two boys in my school I went to, picking up abandoned hand grenades. And I think that sense of — I won't say suspicion of reality — but an awareness that reality was always more than it seems and that it's pregnant with utterly unsuspected possibilities, I think that's a very strong thread in my, in my short fiction in particular.

RC: Related to that, I think is, there's a sort of distrust of familiarity, that familiarity is something that you can get lulled into, or conned into even, and that time is implicated in that — sort of deception — I suppose, and that sometimes you're woken out of that, and you find the familiar world has become instantly strange.

JGB: I don't know how many stories there are in this collection, but over a hundred, some of them are quite long. I think they cover a very large range of settings, in fact, sort of, Amazon Jungle to the resort I call Vermillion Sands — which is a kind of cross between Palm Springs and Ipanema Beach – to, in one story, to Shanghai in the second world war. A few — very few — stories are set in the future, but most are set in the present day, and they try to make sense of the world, I think that's a strong thread running through the stories. Quite a few are set in psychiatric institutions or research institutes, where, sort of, psychological states of one kind or another are being explored. There's one early story called Manhole 69 where psychiatrists and neurosurgeons are experimenting with a new technique that will eliminate the need for sleep, so all our lives, in effect, will be a third longer and this has unexpected consequences.

The shift was imperceptible. At first a slight change of perspective, a fading and regrouping of outlines. Somewhere a focus slipped, a shadow swung slowly across a wall, its angles breaking and lengthening. The motion was fluid, a procession of infinitesimals, but gradually its total direction emerged. The gymnasium was shrinking. Inch by inch, the walls were moving inwards, encroaching across the periphery of the floor. As they shrank towards each other their features altered: the rows of skylights below the ceiling blurred and faded, the power cable running along the base of the wall merged into the skirting board, the square baffles of the air vents vanished into the grey distemper. Above, like the undersurface of an enormous lift the ceiling sank towards the floor...

JGB: Many of the stories are set in contrived situations, not unlike the, sort of, Big Brother TV programme, where a group of people come together as part of some sort of experiment and the unexpected then takes place. Though by the time the story's ended you realise it's not unexpected — it's what you would have expected had you known what was really involved. And then there are, quite a number of, sort of, political skits and satires — that's quite an important thread I think — Ronald Reagan figures in a couple of the stories and there are skits at the expense of television, so I think it's quite a wide range of subject matter.

RC: There've been periods when you've written what looks like an awful lot of short stories and other periods when you haven't written so many — any particular reason for that or is it just that they come and they go?

JGB: I haven't written many short stories in recent years — nothing like the number I wrote in say the 60s and 70s — and part of the reason is that the market for short stories has dried up. When I set out, people really enjoyed reading short stories, back in the late 40s and 50s and 60s too. Some newspapers published a short story every day. Most magazines, women's magazines or what have you — news magazines — published short stories. And there were, in fact, a number of short story magazines like Argosy and a collection of monthly detective short stories that were being published, so people liked and enjoyed short stories. Now I think people have lost the knack of reading short stories, they don't come across them very often. They feel — when they buy a volume of short stories, if it's slightly on the slim side — they're somehow being cheated/ They want a big fat read, represented by a novel — they've lost the knack and I think it's a great shame.

The result of course is that there are very, very few places today where you can publish short stories of any length and you certainly — I don't know of a single magazine which will publish short stories of, say, 10,000 words, and many of the stories in this collection aren't 10,000 words — they're well on the way to being novellas. I'm often invited to write short stories and the editors always say a maximum word length of, you know, 2,000 words, which means a tiny little squib of a story. Not the sort of thing I like doing, so sadly I've stopped writing them, which is a bit of a shame, because I think I had a certain flair for the short story. Things may change, you know, to some extent television is to blame, I think people get used to the, sort of, overinflated, endless, baggy narratives that you get with TV serials. Something that you can read in 10 or fifteen minutes doesn't, sort of, doesn't seem real, which is a shame.