TERRY GROSS, host:
The writer J.G. Ballard died of cancer Sunday at the age of 78. In his New York Times obituary, Bruce Weber described Ballard as having an imagination attracted to catastrophic events and a melancholy view of the human soul as been corrupted by the modern world. Ballard was often described as a science fiction writer. He described science fiction as stories about the here and now, because we are living inside an enormous science fiction novel.
Ballard's 1973 novel "Crash," about a deviant subculture that has fetishized car crashes, was adapted into a film by David Cronenberg. Ballard's semi-autobiographical novel "Empire Of The Sun" was adapted into a film by Steven Spielberg. It was based on Ballard's experience coming of age in a prisoner of war camp during World War II. Ballard was born in Shanghai, where his father managed a British firm. In 1943, his family and other foreigners were detained by the Japanese. Japan had invaded China six years earlier. I spoke with Ballard in 1988.
GROSS: You had very extraordinary experiences as a child. You were living in Shanghai, and - with your parents - in a British community, and became a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp during World War II. I was surprised to find out that unlike your book and the movie based on your book, you were imprisoned with your parents. In your book you're separated and you're imprisoned alone.
Mr. J.G. BALLARD (Writer): Yes. I mean, I never made any secret of that. I mean, "Empire Of The Sun" is a novel.
Mr. BALLARD: It's semi-autobiographical. It's partly based on my own firsthand experiences, and part of it, being a novel, is invented. But there are - there are many points of contact. I mean I'm the same age as the boy Jim. I was born in Shanghai like him, I lived in that house, went to that school, had those parents. I was in Shanghai when the Japanese invaded China. I was there in Shanghai when, the morning after Pearl Harbor, they seized Shanghai. And I was interned in the same camp.
But - and it's a big difference - my parents were with me. Though I'd say that - I mean people have said to me, we know it's a novel, but why, you know, why did you leave your parents out? And I think the reason is that it was psychologically truer to my own experiences to present my alter-ego, as it were, the boy Jim in the book, as, you know, to present him alone, because I think I was alone. I think a sort of estrangement took place between myself and my parents during the camp years. And the book is truer to the psychology of my own life.
GROSS: Well, you know, you get the impression of a - of a child who is, you know, fairly repressed, you know, and coming up in a prosperous family, suddenly being - having to survive on his wits in this camp and becoming very, very resourceful, learning how to steal and trade to get extra food, to get books, to get other items that would be of interest or of value. Did you go through that yourself?
Mr. BALLARD: Yes, I did. I mean some of those - a lot of the boy's experiences in "Empire Of The Sun" are taken straight from my own life. I used to run errands for the American merchant seamen who were in the camp and who had a hoard of Reader's Digests, which were, you know - I'd do anything to get hold of those.
GROSS: What's an example of one of the things you did to get hold of them?
Mr. BALLARD: Well, I'd, you know, run general errands for them. I mean things like crawling through the wire and setting up these pheasant traps, collecting bits of wood for the little fires that people would light, and general dogsbodying around the place. I mean I wasn't constantly scavenging. I don't want to give that impression, but I mean this was a big camp, 2,000 people, the size of a small town, and it was really a huge slum. And as in all slums, it's the teenage boys who run wild. And you know, I ran wild.
GROSS: It must be really something to come of age, to undergo puberty while - while living in a prisoner of war camp.
Mr. BALLARD: Yes. I mean - I won't say that anything wonderful and mysterious happened to me, though, you know, one ran around with a pack of pretty wild girls at the same time. But, yes, it was. I mean it was - it was a huge nuclear family. I mean this was the bizarre thing. There were about 300 children and we all ran wild together. I mean it's a strange thing to say, but in many ways I had quite a good time there.
GROSS: That's certainly the impression you get from the book and the movie that - that - that there were a lot of things that you were, a lot of freedom that you had in your own way, because anything went...
Mr. BALLARD: Yes, well...
GROSS: ...even though you were prisoners.
Mr. BALLARD: Well, we were out of control of our parents. This is the - the big - the big thing. I mean in an ordinary family the parents have a certain amount of leverage on the - on their kids. They, you know, their pocket money, their treats, little bits of candy or presents. You know, the parents can say, well, what do you want for Christmas? And all, you know, this helps to maintain their authority over their children. Now, in our camp there were no treats. There was no candy. There were no Christmas presents. The food ration, such as it was, was, you know, delivered once a day.
And you know, the parents did nothing to - to provide for their children in that sense, though of course many parents starved themselves to feed their children. You know, I don't want to give the impression that the children were totally on their own. They weren't. But there weren't those levers to pull. So particularly the teenage boys like myself did - did - did run wild and got up to amazing pranks when I look back.
GROSS: I want to ask you one more thing about the younger part of your life. When you got out of the prisoner of war camp, in which you explained your parents basically had no control over you and you ran wild with the rest of the - the kids and the teenagers. When you went back to England and you started going to school in England, was it possible for any of the adults to discipline you after that? Did you have any, you know, respect for authority figures like parents and teachers afterwards?
Mr. BALLARD: Not much. No. No, to be honest. I - I came to England, you see, for the first time in 1946 at the age of nearly 16 and went to a British boarding school, which is rather like a camp, rather like a prison camp in many ways. Rather like the camp I'd been in, only, you know, to be honest, the food was even worse.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BALLARD: And I found it weird and very, very strange. I found England - to be fair, I found England very strange. I wasn't prepared for it. I mean I'd come from a very hot landscape of rice paddies and monsoons and summer floods. I arrived to this dark grey northern country; the light - I mean it seemed to be sort of - always seemed to be early evening, it always seemed to be raining. And everybody seemed - I mean England was exhausted by the war.
The country was, you know, physically half destroyed by the German bombing. I felt - I felt a stranger there and still do in many respects. It was a very dark, closed sort of, you know, repressed kind of world. And going to school there and then to university was - it was all very mysterious. Took a long - you know, the English class system was so complicated, I couldn't understand it. Still don't in many ways. So it was a difficult time, but I mean I wasn't unhappy, but it was like sort of, you know, a young American going to live in Japan, let's say, in the 1930s. You know, you're an outsider. There's no hope of understanding the complicated social relationships and all the little rituals and all the rest of it. It takes years to...
GROSS: But you stayed; it's not like you moved someplace else.
Mr. BALLARD: You see, in 1949 - my father stayed on in Shanghai, after the war. But in 1949 the Communists took over the whole of China, and in fact my father was caught by the Communists in Shanghai. And he was there for about a year until he was finally able to get out. And I knew by 1949 that I would never go back to China, that I had to make my home in England. Then I got married and had children, and I had always, I mean I always dreamed of going abroad, still do. But you know, inertia takes over. And I am English. I mean I can't pretend that I'm not.
GROSS: There is a book of yours that I really must ask you about. This is a novel that you wrote - I think it was 1973 - called "Crash." And the book kind of was about someone who was almost erotically obsessed with car crashes and with the wounds inflicted by car crashes. And this character has fantasies of blood and mucus and sperm mingling on the dashboard of a car after a crash. It's a very upsetting book. I would love to know what was on your mind when you wrote this.
Mr. BALLARD: Something pretty nasty, I think, if I look back. But it was a serious novel. I mean it wasn't just a sensational horror story. I mean I was very conscious in the '70s of the way in which the, you know, what I call the media landscape - particularly, you know, TV and mass advertising - was beginning to, you know, create the world that we inhabited. And it seemed to me that this TV landscape we all live in, or the media landscape we all live in, is hungry for sensation. And we saw then the way in which violence was beginning to be, beginning to take the sort of place that sex had occupied up until, say, the '60s.
Then attitudes towards sex liberalized and people needed a new thrill. And one began to see - I mean movies a got a lot more violent. Television itself began to show endless scenes of civil war newsreels from the Congo and Bangladesh, and then of course Vietnam - very, very graphic scenes of violence were shown but neutralized by the TV screen. I mean people saw incredible horrors on their living room screens while they were eating their suppers, but they weren't touched by the violence. And it seemed to me that I wanted to look at the way that sort of violence was beginning to enter into people's imaginations.
And "Crash" took an extreme example of this, because car crashes, of course, in movies and so on, play a key role. So I, you know, I tried to be honest about it and let my own imagination rip.
GROSS: Well, I think I read that after you wrote "Crash," that you were in a car crash yourself and in fact one in which your car rolled over a couple of times. Is that right?
Mr. BALLARD: Yeah, that was a sort of extreme case of nature imitating art.
GROSS: Well, did your book about this person who had eroticized car crashes affect the way you experienced your car crash at all? I'm not saying that you, you know, you got into it or any- but I mean, you must have thought about what it meant that you'd written this book. You had spent all this time seeing things through the eyes of the character and then you're in this terrible car crash yourself.
Mr. BALLARD: Yes, and I often thought if I died in the car crash people would have said, ah, yes, Ballard was finding, you know, sort of the ultimate sex death that he'd been writing and dreaming about. Actually by a miracle I wasn't hurt at all, though the car rolled over on a divided carriageway and obliterated a whole lot of street lamps and sign indicators. The roof was crushed down and I couldn't get out, actually. It was a miracle that it didn't burst into flames, because people were running around the car, rocking it and shouting: petrol, petrol, gasoline, gasoline.
But, you know, you know, some guardian angel kept watch over me that evening. But I mean, when one writes a novel one's, you know, one's working in - with metaphors, with materials of the imagination. "Crash" is a kind of extreme metaphor to deal with an extreme possibility.
GROSS: J.G. Ballard, recorded in 1988. He died of cancer Sunday at the age of 78.