The science fiction author JG Ballard (most famous for his novel Crash) was adept at making the most of the settings of his novels. They even managed to offer psychological insights into his characters. I therefore think that the settings of his stories are useful to look at as a case study – they were certainly influential on my writing.
His novel High Rise concerned a luxury towerblock in which inhabitants live with the poorest on bottom floors and with the richer inhabitants living higher up the building.
Such was Ballard’s insightful use of layout in the novel that High Rise was even argued by some critics to have a Freudian element to its three main characters. Withnail and I director Bruce Robinson considered the story in terms of the building as an organism going insane, with ‘the super-ego in the penthouses, the middle floor as the ego and the id in the underground car park.’
Ballard had therefore personified the building in High Rise, making it a character of itself. We can see evidence of this in the story, when he describes the building as being-‘determined to inflict every conceivable hostility upon the [inhabitants].’
In my own work I have been very much influenced by Ballard’s approach. When writing my first novel, The Intimates, I was drawn to the symbolic way Ballard would use frequently empty swimming pools in his texts, imbuing the text with symbolic power. Take this quote, for instance-
Curiously, the house we moved to had a drained swimming pool in its garden. It must have been the first drained pool I had seen, and it struck me as strangely significant in a way I have never fully grasped. My parents decided not to fill the pool, and it lay in the garden like a mysterious empty presence. I would walk through the unmown grass and stare down at its canted floor.
J.G. Ballard, Miracles of Life (2008).
As a child brought up in Shanghai, Ballard encountered first-hand drained swimming pools in the gardens of English expatriates as a child, after the invasion of the Japanese in 1937. He once said ‘I would see a great many drained and half-drained pools, as British residents left Shanghai for Australia and Canada, for the ‘assumed safety’ of Hong Kong and Singapore. I was unaware of the obvious symbolism that British power was ebbing away.’
By using an empty swimming pool in a grand English home in the opening scene of my debut novel, I was aware that I was drawing on collective imagery of English power draining away, to give the novel a historical backdrop. The opening scene of my novel The Intimates describes a pool that had ‘long been drained of any water’. It contained two key characters; the struggling novelist Vincent and the injured ballerina Carina. The Ballardian influence is pretty evident!
I think that a strong setting in a novel always requires the writer to have a clear sense of the setting in their own mind. My approach has therefore always been that it does no harm to use real-life settings in your own work. Some writers I know even draw maps of their settings to keep them in mind as they write, to make them feel more credible in the story. The layout for the opening scene in The Intimates was drawn from a real-lilfe photograph. The sleeve of a single by the band Placebo, for their song Pure Morning.
The photographs for Placebo’s single (shot by fashion photographer Corrinne Day) contain a couple clutching one another in an empty swimming pool, its surroundings left to ruin as a result of algae, overgrown weeds and vegetation.
With my opening setting, without realising it, I therefore had a historical backdrop, an emotional state and a situation between two characters. All ready to use in the story.