Ray Bradbury may have been the most mischaracterized American writer of the last century. The confusion began at the start of his career and continued to its end this week, seven decades later. And even the man you met – and I met Mr. Bradbury several times – was oddly elusive: whichever man, and artist, you thought you were encountering, he inevitably proved to be someone else.
You can read that confusion in the many memorials in the media and on the Web to Mr. Bradbury, who died Wednesday at 91 – and in the comments to those encomiums. Once a well-known liberal, it was noted that he recently voiced support for the Tea Party. Regularly approached for his comments on various NASA missions to Mars, he quickly made it obvious that he wasn’t really interested in real outer space, but in the dark, empty spaces of the imagination. And, celebrated as a science fiction writer, he was in fact, in his own mind, simply a fiction writer who used fantasy as his canvas to explore human nature.
Hence the many comments this week by SF fans that Bradbury was a lightweight compared to say, Heinlein; and by mainstream book readers that they had never really read the man because they didn’t like science fiction. And, most poignant of all, those devoted lovers of Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked this Way Comes, who saw Bradbury as the writer of exquisite books about adolescence and knew nothing about his great corpus of short stories.
I first encountered Ray Bradbury in the most unlikely way. My father had been a huge science fiction fan in the late 1940s and early 1950s – in part because he had been briefly assigned to an early version of Project Blue Book, the search for UFOs, at the start of his espionage career – but had eventually moved on to other subjects. But along the way, he had read all of the great SF writers of the era (including even L. Ron Hubbard) and collected their books. Thus, by the beginning of the Sixties, when I began to notice the books on shelves in the den, it was these forgotten books with their colorful covers that I pulled down first.
I have no doubt that it was the creepy cover of a haunted house, painted by Bradbury’s friend Charles Addams, that I pulled down first. The book was called “The October Country” and was a collection of some Bradbury horror and fantasy stories from a decade before. It was one of the first grown-up books I’d ever read (I was eight) and it creeped the hell out of me. And I loved it.
Like most kids of my generation, I suspect, I next encountered Bradbury in junior high school, when we read “There Will Come Soft Rains”, the coda from The Martian Chronicles that told of a house on Earth, still standing after a nuclear holocaust, it’s inhabitants (except for the dying family dog) vaporized, but still carrying out its programmed tasks. It was the scariest thing most of us had read to that point in our lives – in large part because it didn’t seem so far-fetched at a time when were still practicing duck-and-cover drills at school. Ray Bradbury had given us not another space monster like the ones we saw at matinees at the cinema, but something that could happen the day after tomorrow – in which we were the monsters. Has any writer ever captured the near-future so consistently and accurately?
After that, my summers were spent in an endless search for Bradbury books I hadn’t yet read, often found at the local drugstore during the last reprint run of his works. I was beginning to understand Ray Bradbury now and was ready to let him take me wherever he want to go. It was during those years that I read the works for which his most celebrated: The Illustrated Man, those exquisite books of childhood Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked, the dystopian classic Farenheit 451 (it was from those snippets of burning pages that I learned about many of the world’s classic works) and, of course, the extraordinary stories: “The Veldt”, “Kaleidoscope” , “The Pedestrian”, “All Summer in a Day”, and “The Sound of Thunder” (the celebrated story that fathered all of the time travel movies that followed). I even tripped over the one true “science fiction” story Bradbury ever wrote: “Frost and Fire.” With that last one, Bradbury seemed to respond to his SF critics by writing a classic of the genre – and then going back to his own singular oeuvre. I was first trying to be a writer in those days . . .and not surprisingly, most of my early attempts featured strained to attempts to give the plot a Bradbury-like twist at the end.
As already noted, Ray Bradbury has always been mischaracterized. When he was starting out, the great science fiction writers of the time like Heinlein and Brackett had largely dismissed him as “the kid”. And when he became more famous than them, they all-but dismissed him as a sell-out. But what Ray Bradbury really was, was a poet of fantasy in all of its forms, just as his contemporary, Loren Eiseley was in science, and Thomas Wolfe in literature. I found Ray Bradbury at his peak of popularity. . .but within a few years, as the Star Wars/Star Trek zeitgeist began to dominate SF, and as the whimsy of the Sixties turned into the hard reality of the Seventies, Ray Bradbury increasingly seemed obsolete in the world he, as much as anyone, had predicted. When his Collected Stories, with its stunning 100 stories, many of the acknowledged classics was published in 1980, the celebratory reviews almost seemed to be saying goodbye to a man who would continue writing for another 30 years.
It was at the time of the publication of the Collected Stories that I finally met Ray Bradbury. I was now a cub reporter for the San Jose Mercury-News, writing business and tech stories by day and, still dreaming of writing novels, taking on feature assignments during my free time. When I read the paper’s announcement of its own book fair taking place that weekend – and saw Bradbury’s name – I begged and got permission from the feature editor to do a story on the famous writer.
As I am now about the age he was then, I can better understand what Bradbury had to go through that day, stuck in a big hall at a little table, signing books for people who were usually too intimidated to say much more than ‘hello’ and thrust a volume in his face to sign, all while being peppered with endless questions from a tireless (and tiresome) kid reporter. As was noted in many of his obituaries, Bradbury had started out as a magician. He once said, “I always wanted to be a magician, and of course that’s what I turned out to be” -- and that day he gave me a lesson in the misdirection that is the heart of magic. He was alternately affable and distant, a blowhard and humble, phony and sincere. It was a dazzling performance that kept me perpetually off-balance – and I sometimes caught his eyes twinkling as he put me through the wringer. Twice he tried to get rid of me: pointing across the hall to Eugene McCarthy, he announced, “Now there is an American hero, go talk to him” [interesting, in light of his later politics]; and then at Louis L’Amour, resplendent in cowboy hat and bolo tie, sitting at the next table, “That’s the guy to talk to about writing. He’s sold more books than the rest of us combined.”
It was only when I pulled out that old copy of the October Country, held together now with a rubber band, that Bradbury made a loud laugh and began to talk to me without the artifice of the great writer. Through his books, he had already taught me about cherishing the first day of summer, of seeing the surreal, the heart-breaking and the horrible in everyday life, and most of all, to realize that every story, even the most fantastical, was ultimately about the human heart. Now, sitting beside him, he began to teach me about the craft of writing.
That day, the lesson was about the past. I asked him how many stories he thought he’d written in his career, including for those old sci-fi magazines. “Hundreds”, he said, “I keep them all in a trunk.” Do you ever revisit them? I asked. Perhaps rework them for publication?
“No. You should never look back. Your old stuff is never as good as you think it is. What counts is what you’re writing right now.”
I left that day dazed and disoriented, frustrated and thrilled, disappointed that the man I met hadn’t matched the writer I admired – and yet convinced more than ever I had to break out of daily newspapers and get into the world of magazines and books, where I could write what I wanted and tell the stories not just of the businesses and technologies, but the people who made up my world in Silicon Valley. The Magician had obviously pulled off his trick, without the mark ever knowing he’d been played.
A decade later, I met Ray Bradbury twice more. I was an author now, and hosting a nationally-syndicated interview show on PBS. This encounter was very different from the first. Now Bradbury was on my show and I held all of the cards. By coincidence, we now had the same literary agent (the late Don Congdon). A few weeks before, that same bit of news had almost driven Bill Styron out of the studio with paranoia; but with Ray Bradbury, it seemed to bring out his most affable side.
Like all TV interviews, it was brief and hurried, the Great Writer rushed in by publicity people, wired up . . .and then, 28 minutes later, whisked away. But we still had a little time to talk. He remembered my copy of The October Country– and, as he was in the phase of his career where he was publishing less fiction, and writing more about the future of cities and giving public lectures, we spent more time talking about Silicon Valley high tech than dark angels and the crystal cities of Mars. But as we shook hands goodbye, he did give me my latest lesson, “Get the agent who’s right for you.” Years later, when I did just that, I remembered his words.
A couple years later, I was invited up to the wine country, to the Silverado Country Club, to speak at the national sales meeting of a big semiconductor company. I was pleased to learn that Bradbury would be the evening speaker. And as I watched him speak – he was a large man with a leonine head, heavy glasses and long silver hair, and he had huge hands that he used brilliantly to emphasize his points – I turned to look at the audience. Hundreds of middle-aged men and a few women, all rapt and smiling -- not so much at what Bradbury said, which wasn’t particularly memorable or even linear -- but the enthusiasm with which he said it. They smiled at the wonder of being in the same room with such a man, whose life was so much more interesting than theirs, whose joy seemed greater than anyone they’d ever met, and most of all, at the man who had given them so much pleasure during a simpler time in their lives.
After the speech, I was invited to join Bradbury and the company’s PR director out on the veranda. No doubt the fact that the PR lady was very attractive and very persuasive had as much to do with Bradbury being there as anything else. But I reintroduced myself, we poured some wine and the three of us sat there in the dark, balmy evening for a couple hours in relaxed conversation.
Bradbury was now at that age when celebrity – the endless speeches, catered dinners, travel – was beginning to take its toll; but remained (especially with four daughters) too lucrative to refuse. A few years hence he would have the stroke that would confine him for the rest of his life to a wheelchair. It would be in that wheelchair that he would receive the many awards and honors that would fill his last few years. For now, though, he just had the weary look of a man who had been on the road too long, had just gotten paid, and was ready now to have a drink and decompress after the completion of that day’s work.
As the bottles emptied and the evening cooled, we became just voices in the dark – like those lost astronauts in “Kaleidoscope” as they fly off in different directions to their singular fates. We talked about space travel, politics, publishers and contracts (as all writers do), the benefits of technology and its costs (Bradbury came down on the latter). It was all lazy, half-drunken, and with that sneaking sense that what seemed profound now would sound silly and obvious in the morning.
I remember my eyes were starting to droop when Bradbury laboriously got out of his chair and climb to his feet. “I’ve got to go,” he said, unexpectedly giving me one last lesson in our craft, “I haven’t written yet.”
“You’re going to write? Now?” I asked incredulously.
“Every day,” he said, shaking my hand. “Always.” And he shuffled off into the night.
Later, as I turned off my room light I looked out across the manicured lawn. Only one room still had its light on. Ray Bradbury’s. The magician was conjuring his next trick.