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The J.G. Ballard Book: An Interview with Rick McGrathAuthor: Mike Holliday • Dec 2nd, 2013 •
Rick McGrath is a Ballard aficionado native to Canada (home of Cronenberg, the Baron of Blood, lest we forget), the publisher of the website jgballard.ca and a long-time contributor to ballardian.com. McGrath recently made a foray into the print world, self-publishing The JG Ballard Book, an anthology of archival Ballard interviews, articles about JGB and other Ballardiana, including unpublished Ballard letters. Mike Holliday interviewed McGrath about the lavishly illustrated book, the latest addition to the expanding bibliography of Ballard non-fiction titles.
The J.G. Ballard Book is available from Amazon.
MIKE HOLLIDAY Rick, this book is a really varied mixture of all things Ballardian: interviews, articles, archival material, artwork, even a pastiche of Ballard by the poet Paul Green. Where did you get the inspiration for The JG Ballard Book?
RICK McGRATH My inspiration came from longtime Ballard enthusiast, James Goddard, with whom I made first contact in the summer of 2012. He graciously gave me a copy of his 1970 Ballard bibliography, the first ever attempted. James introduced me to the concept of publishing print-on-demand books, and then told me he had over 50 pages of original Ballard, including handwritten answers to interview questions and, amazingly, Ballard’s own corrections and suggestions to that 1970 bibliography. Then it dawned on me — I have a stack of JG’s letters to Peter Brigg and myself about our various trips to Shanghai, plus Ballard’s handwritten answers to an unpublished 2005 interview by Sam Francis. Suddenly I had almost 70 pages of what I’m calling ‘first folio’ Ballard.
Regarding the book’s form, most obviously I’m leaning on the classic RE/Search 8/9: J.G. Ballard, published in 1984. While I didn’t even try to emulate Vale and Juno’s distinctive book design, I liked the large format, the blend of contents, the use of art and the inclusion of Ballard’s more esoteric uncollected pieces. We all genuflect to that amazing collection.
ABOVE: Ana Barrado’s Crossed Palms, Las Vegas (1992), reproduced in The J.G. Ballard Book.
HOLLIDAY The book is comprehensively illustrated with all manner of photos and artwork, which strikes me as apposite of a book about Ballard. He had a deep love and appreciation of art, once saying that all his writings were really the substitute work of a frustrated painter. He originally wanted The Atrocity Exhibition to be ‘a large-format book, printed by photo-offset, in which I could prepare the artwork – a lot of collages, material taken from medical documents and medical photographs, crashing cars and all that sort of iconography’. The art in The J.G. Ballard Book includes Ana Barrado’s photos, which work in a rather different way, I think, encouraging the imagination to find those strange intersections.
McGRATH Yes, the book’s oversized format was chosen to make it easier to include art, and I decided to run that art in full colour throughout. Not only does art break up grey seas of type, but, as Ballard says, offers a kind of secondary ‘exhibition’ of meaning.
Ana Barrado’s photos have always intrigued me, from her two cover pictures in RE/Search 8/9, to her gallery of photos on display at the 2008 Ballard Exhibition in Barcelona, to the 10 amazing shots she allowed me to publish in the JGB Book. Her images encourage the imagination, the proof of which is each photo’s amazing ability to somehow be appropriate within its immediate contextual surroundings. Ana has the most amazing eye for pathos overlaid with a kind of regret all wrapped in an old memory, but what I think makes them ultimately ‘Ballardian’ is the form. They’re all shot with infrared black and white film, which boosts the ethereal content.
ABOVE: Ballard’s handwritten answers to James Goddard’s interview questions in 1970, reproduced in The J.G. Ballard Book.
HOLLIDAY The eye-opener in the book is surely Mike Bonsall’s piece about Ballard’s relationship with the dissecting room, a topic Ballard expounded on in his interviews and autobiography. Mike shows the relationship between the anatomy textbook that Ballard would have used as a medical student and his references to the body and its parts in his fiction, all with the original textbook illustrations as a… well, let’s say, a working guide.
McGRATH Mike did a great job of scouring through his Ballard concordance to find just the right quote to go with whatever body bit is being illustrated in garish colour. The whole piece is also put in perspective as Mike himself took the same anatomy course from 1986 to 88, and admits his first visit to the dissecting room ‘felt unreal’. Ballard talks at length about this phase of his life in Miracles of Life:
‘My years in the dissection room were important because they taught me that though death was the end, the human imagination and the human spirit could triumph over our own dissolution. In many ways my entire fiction is the dissection of a deep pathology that I had witnessed in Shanghai and later in the post-war world… Or it may be that my two years in the dissecting room were an unconscious way of keeping Shanghai alive by other means.’
Mike reveals this connection in his clever associations of illustrations and quote from a wide variety of sources.
HOLLIDAY Is there anything you are disappointed not to have been able to include?
McGRATH Oddly enough, I actually didn’t really go looking for much in particular, either in content or by author. Word went out to the Ballardian community. It was almost a little surreal game, with results based on whims and availabilities. Out the invites went, and many responded. And even then there were surprises. One instance — Sam Francis — it was only after we had started in on his article that I asked if he still had JGB’s original letter & postcard. Yes, he said, he did, and then it dawned on him as well that we could reproduce the original stuff. It was arranged to have hi-res scans taken, and now we are publishing some of JG’s handwriting from 2005. On the other end of the time spectrum we have JG’s handwriting from 1970 in a Goddard piece. The book happened so fast, there really wasn’t anything I wanted to include but couldn’t.
HOLLIDAY Given your comments in the Introduction to this volume about how unexpectedly easy it was to fill the book with interesting material, will there be a second J.G. Ballard Book?
McGRATH Yes. I’m right now working on a second book, and I already have a number of authors with their hands up. My contributor list includes Iain Sinclair, Mark Dery, Chris Petit and Ballard’s daughter Fay, plus Feroze Alam, an amazing graphic artist. The plan is to try and obtain permission from the Ballard Estate to create an illustrated version of a JGB short story. I’ve opened negotiations, so we’ll see what happens. But I know this has never been attempted before.
HOLLIDAY The JG Ballard Book is self-published, even though it’s gone through all the usual stages of obtaining permissions and so on. How did that process go?
McGRATH I was shocked at how much money HarperCollins wanted to run quotes from Ballard’s books. I pointed out the esoteric nature of the tome and they cut their fees, but still… So I asked how many words I could use as ‘fair comment’ and the answer was 200. My writers duly cut and trimmed, and no more permissions required. Norton were the same in the US, but their copyright word limit was 400. Farrar, Straus Giroux said they had no word limit and would let me run the quotes free, but I had to sign a form saying I would acknowledge their permissions in the book. This took six weeks, and really, I could have done it concurrent with doing the original design. Advice to potential self-publishers: learn all the steps at the beginning and plot accordingly!
ABOVE: Ballard’s handwritten response to Sam Francis’ request for an interview in 2005, reproduced in The J.G. Ballard Book.
HOLLIDAY Is there anything you want to say about the other contributions?
McGRATH Jordi Costa’s piece was originally printed in the catalogue to the 2008 Barcelona exhibitions. I thought it was interesting because Jordi actually makes his living as a Madrid newspaper movie critic, and was in a wonderful position to interpret Ballard along movie lines — and we all know Ballard liked his movies. David Pringle’s interview is quite interesting because it’s quite early, 1984, and we hear Ballard’s early, more animated answers to questions which would later become almost cliches. David is, as always, well versed in his subject, and he leads JGB on a long and winding road before Ballard begins to protest the encyclopaedic memory before him. Perhaps the most amazing interview is the one you found, Mike, the unattributed ‘Repsychling’ interview from 1975 — very early, and one of the best descriptions ever by JG about his car crash and his wrecked cars exhibit of 1970 — plus a lot of futuristic talk about consumers, TVs and interpersonal relationships. The 1970s are an interesting time for Ballard. The Sam Francis interview is rather short. Ballard agrees to answer five questions, but this interview was unpublished and features Sam’s often perplexed responses to Ballard’s answers. You get to see JGB’s handwriting from 2005, though, so that’s sort of cool.
HOLLIDAY It’s a shame that you couldn’t get something from Iain Sinclair, but I was pleased that novelist Toby Litt contributed.
McGRATH Yes, Toby does give us name brand appeal, and I’ve tucked his funny little speculation at the very end of the book with some quite garish artwork of Fat Man. I may have missed Iain the first go-round, but he’s with us for the second book.
HOLLIDAY How are you listing the book?
McGRATH It started off on Amazon, and has since crept out into almost all the digital bookstores. Just yesterday I noted the hard and softcovers had hit either the zenith or nadir of consumerism — they’re now listed on Walmart’s website! I’ve taken some steps to broaden the reach by listing both books on eBay, as well, and I’ve made some contact with some of Toronto’s larger SF bookstores.
HOLLIDAY Any feedback so far?
McGRATH Yes, comments are slowly rolling in — it takes time to be reviewed. My favourite so far is from Fay Ballard, who was kind enough to tell me: ‘Wonderful, a huge achievement, packed full of fascinating material and so visual. I particularly like the way you’ve included heaps of original handwritten, hand edited, and typewritten material, books covers, art, photos etc. A feast.’ I was also very pleased to be mentioned in Val Vale’s RE/Search newsletter for November. In 2014 I’m anticipating reviews in Extrapolation and SF Studies.
HOLLIDAY What do you think makes this book interesting enough to purchase?
McGRATH Ha… it’s all about JGB? What will really set this book apart is the amount of original Ballard we’ve been able to find and print. I think it’s quite amazing to read Ballard’s original words, check out his revisions, perhaps get a glimpse of how his mind works. For that I have to thank Jim Goddard, an incredibly generous man, Peter Brigg and Sam Francis. Well, plus my stuff. Your article on the history of The Atrocity Exhibition is detailed and excellent, as is Rick Poynor’s piece on how uneven the art is on Ballard’s book covers. Brigg’s wide-ranging article on’ JGB and Time’ is probably the most academic piece in the book, and the good Professor gives a great reading of one of JG’s more interesting obsessions. And I’ve just noticed another bit of coincidence: the Goddard/Pringle interview Ballard edits for use in ‘Science Fiction Monthly’ is the exact same interview, in its original typed form, that’s in Simon and Dan’s Extreme Metaphors collection. Now you’ll know what JGB considered ‘too intellectual’ in the original!
THE J.G. BALLARD BOOK (Terminal Press, 2013).
> Toby Litt on Ballard’s political ideology.
> David Pringle‘s 1984 interview, ‘J.G. Ballard: Psychoanalyst of the Electronic Age,’ in which JG discusses his psychological interests.
> An unattributed interview from 1975, published in Repsychling magazine.
> Michael Bonsall‘s ‘J.G Ballard in the Dissecting Room’, which takes the Cunningham’s Anatomy textbook Ballard used at Cambridge, matching its anatomy art with Ballard’s words.
> Michael Holliday‘s ‘Desperate Measures: A History of the Atrocity Exhibition’.
> Rick Poynor‘s ‘What Does J.G. Ballard Look Like?’, a critical analysis of the covers of Ballard’s novels.
> Sam Francis‘ handwritten text of an unpublished 2005 Ballard interview.
> Peter Brigg‘s ‘JG Ballard: Time Out of Mind’, a study of Ballard’s use of time in The Crystal World, ‘News From the Sun’ and ‘The Voices of Time’.
> Jordi Costa‘s ‘Ballardoscope: Some Attempts at Approaching the Writer as a Visionary’, a look at the filmic parallels in Ballard’s work.
> Paul Green‘s ‘The Impossibility Exhibition’, a pure Ballard pastiche.
> Rick McGrath‘s on ‘J.G. Ballard’s Shanghai’, featuring original letters, maps and drawings by Ballard.
Newer: Extreme Metaphors: ‘A Launchpad for Other Explorations’ »