Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Talking Out of Turn #34: JG Ballard (1987)

author JG Ballard.

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the Eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was radically starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions who were only concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone) which made it look as if they hadn't read the outline. Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be simply a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews a couple of years ago, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large. I'll let the readers judge their merit rather than marketing folks.

One chapter in the book dealt with biographical fiction and how during the Eighties many biographies that filled book shelves were confessional melodramas. But there were also a number of other artists I talked to who found more creative ways incorporating memoir by using it to further understand themselves rather than simply documenting their time. JG Ballard (Crash, The Unlimited Dream Factory), a British novelist, short-story writer and essayist was one such individual who sometimes wrote fiction to get inside aspects of his own life and experience. Born in the Shanghai International Settlement in 1930, Ballard wrote about the Japanese attack on the city in 1943 in his 1984 book, Empire of the Sun (which Steven Spielberg would turn into a film in 1987). During the Japanese occupation, Ballard lived in an internment camp with his family where he would also do his schooling. In the film, however, his family gets separated from him and the story recounts his survival without them.When Ballard came in to talk with me, he had just published The Day of Creation. In this book, a doctor with the World Health Organization in Central Africa discovers how a civil war deprives him of patients so he devotes himself instead to bringing water to the region which ultimately forms a dangerous obsession. Both books are about the effects of war on the individual and the trauma of loss, but finding truth in personal experience is where we started our conversation.

kc: It obviously took some time for you to write out your own memories of war and separation in Empire of the Sun and yet there are similar issues at work in your new novel. How long did it take for these memories to gestate into something you could write about?

jgb: A lot of people asked me why I waited almost forty years to write Empire of the Sun and I didn't really have a convincing explanation even for myself. But let's just say that it took a very long time to forget the things that happened and a long time to remember. I think writing the book opened a hatchway into a part of my mind that I think I'd closed for a very long time. You're right that perhaps bits of it have also come out in the new book as well.

kc: Inanimate objects come up in your stories quite prominently like the time in Empire of the Sun when young Jim is sleeping in a dentist's office with people's teeth all around him. Feelings tend to come from objects rather than people.

jgb: Part of the reason for that in Empire of the Sun is that Jim, a thirteen, or fourteen-year old boy, is alone a great deal of the time. He hasn't been captured by the Japanese and he's moving through these abandoned houses and apartment blocks and trying to construct some reality out of these mysterious objects that are all around him. When he moves into the camp, he does then begin to develop more personal relationships with others.

kc: Right. You establish very early the fact that in wars, especially when you're in the middle of one, it's hard to perceive a good and bad side to it. It all gets confused.

jbg: Well that was very true of how I experienced the Second World War. I had very ambiguous feelings towards the Japanese because in many ways the Japanese guarding our camp were our protectors. When the war ended, and the Japanese disappeared overnight, we were faced with a great deal of danger because the landscape was not under the control of the Americans who were hundreds of miles away across the China Sea. Nor were we under the control of the Chinese nationalists who were five hundred miles away. We had these roving bands of peasant gangs abandoned by the Japanese and looking for food. It was a dangerous time and it was the Japanese who provided us with our only security. That was the paradox. Empire of the Sun is about those confusions. I was trying to get to the truth about war which is never black or white. It's much more a whole series of greys and pluses that become minuses.

kc: Movies also play a big role in Empire of the Sun in scenes where you have Jim watching war films that make him eventually come to terms with what he has to face which, at the end, becomes the reality of the war experience versus the myths.

jgb: The whole thing was a strange mix-up of endless war newsreels that I remember seeing as a boy of nine or ten after 1939 when Britain was at war with Germany. There were huge fund-raising drives to buy a Spitfire and these newsreels presented a very upbeat view of how Britain was doing against the Germans. They were constantly being shown in the British clubs in Shanghai. Meanwhile, the Germans, in their clubs, they were showing their newsreels which were also very upbeat. After the Americans arrived, when the war ended, they would show their newsreels which they would screen on public buildings. The way the experience of war can be fictionalized is a large part of my book.

kc: The Day of Creation could invariably be compared to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, where Conrad was dealing with the primitive fear that colonialists have of entering the colonies in darkest Africa and losing their veneer of civilization. In the character of Mallory, the doctor, in The Day of Creation, it's not so much about his fear of going savage, but instead, it's about a man obsessively imposing his idea of civilization on this African nation.

jgb: That's so true. Things have moved on from Conrad's time. Africa is now being colonized by the TV companies, by the wildlife safari merchants who are trading on an image of Africa that they can sell to networks all over the world. My book is about the struggle between this doctor who has created this extraordinary river in the middle of a desert and transforms it into a new Garden of Eden. His problems with this TV documentary director, who follows him, is that he wants to present this river as just another wildlife safari. The filmmaker imposes all the convenient fictions with its homogenized sentimentalities. Nature is a bushy-tailed mammal to him, an idyllic place. The Day of Creation is an adventure story on one level where this doctor's obsessive quest is to find the source of this river which he sails up. But it's also about the way in which it's very difficult these days to establish the truth of anything because we are living in a relative universe where other people's fictions begin to overlap everything you do. If you tried to fly a manpowered airplane across the Atlantic, you could become a documentary character in somebody's film about you. This changes behaviour and the way you possibly see yourself.

kc: A lot of the fight for reality in this book also seems to be part of the fight for reality that you had growing up in China. It's as if you were trying to put your own experience up against what everybody else was telling you was true. You have a professor in The Day of Creation trying to tell Mallory about what his documentary on him is going to be like, but it runs completely counter to Mallory's experience of what he thinks is happening.

jgb: Mallory's problem is that he finds it increasingly difficult to understand what the truth is. This documentary director is like a Mephistopheles who tells him that sooner or later everything turns into television. He tells him that there are no truths anymore, just different kinds of lies.

kc: Are you afraid of that happening?

jgb: But it already is happening. I'm a great watcher of television back in England. I can see the way the media landscape can bombard us with an endless stream of fictional material. Other people's fantasies fill the air we breathe. We are living inside an enormous novel. It is very difficult today to discover what is the truth. If a hotel were to burn down in Toronto, the media people would be there immediately talking about moments of heroism and grilling the man who they think is responsible for it. They'd interview the hotel manager next, plus his wife and kids. The whole thing becomes a movie even while the fires are still burning.

kc: Dreams become so central in this new book. It's not just the dream of one man building a river and naming it after himself. We're also talking about dreams that are illusions and hallucinations. Your writing seems to suggest that you parse through dreams to sort out what is real and true from what isn't.

jgb: You've absolutely described it. It's very difficult even in our ordinary lives to make a clear distinction between our imaginative lives, which go on inside our heads, from the everyday world of our living rooms and kitchens. They've now started to merge together because we all have such powerful imaginations. So you've got to except the world of dreams, the world of the imagination, because it's what sustains us. But since we live out our own personal mythologies, we also have to enter that world and meet it on its own terms.      

 – Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

Tom Fulton was the host and producer of On the Arts for CJRT-FM in Toronto for 23 years, beginning in 1975.

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