In the programme Frost on Interviews that was recently rebroadcasted by BBC Four, the distinguished journalist, David Frost, attempted to understand what makes a compelling interview.
Frost’s programme concentrated primarily on the actions of the interviewer. Various questions were asked, most notably: should one take a relaxed or heavy-handed approach with their guest?
I tell this anecdote because I was half way through reading Extreme Metaphors: Selected Interviews with J.G. Ballard 1967-2008,when I stumbled upon this insightful programme. But the process Frost was speaking about was light-years away from the text I was reading.
For J.G. Ballard — arguably one of the most important prose fiction writers to contribute to British culture in the post war period — an interview wasn’t just an opportunity to flog his latest novel; talk about his characters, or name check his literary heroes.
Any time Ballard indulged a journalist — usually at his home in Shepperton — for an intimate chat, the occasion became almost like an experiment: one where the writer tests his hypothesis with his interlocutor.
We see a remarkable example of this in a conversation from 1974, when journalist, Carol Orr, asks Ballard for a prediction about the future of western culture. He responds by speaking about a society where human beings desire to be on their own, escaping reality, whilst watching television in the suburbs.
Orr, horrified at such an immoral and apocalyptic outcome, says she wants to be neither in a traffic jam, or ‘alone on a dune, either.’
To which Ballard replies: ‘Being alone on a dune is probably a better description of how you actually lead your life than you realize.’
The interview ends shortly afterwards, but it’s exemplary of Ballard taking the format, and twisting it to his advantage, in the same way a writer does with an essay: meandering around different ideas, following the intellect at all times, but never attempting to arrive with a definitive polemic, or thesis, at the final destination.