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Collecting Science Fiction
An Interview with Ray Bradbury

by Timothy Doyle

#71, 26 June 2006

Raymond Douglas Bradbury was born in Waukegan, Illinois in 1920 and spent the first twelve years of his life there. Bradbury immortalized his small-town American childhood in several stories and novels (notably Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes) set in the fictional Green Town, interweaving the rapturously nostalgic with the fabulously strange. In 1934, the family moved to Los Angeles (another land of the fabulously strange!), and Bradbury spent his teen years haunting the Hollywood theatres and movie studios.

His first paid publication came in 1941, and in 1947 his first book was published, the short story collection Dark Carnival (Arkham House: Sauk City WI, 1947; the print run was limited to a little over 3000 copies). Also in 1947, Bradbury married Marguerite McClure, and began a marriage that was to last 53 years.

The next few years saw several more books published: The Martian Chronicles and The Golden Apples of the Sun both in 1950, The Illustrated Man in 1951, and Fahrenheit 451 in 1953.

Given Bradbury's love of Hollywood and the cinema, it was perhaps inevitable that he became a screenwriter. Chief among his credits is the screenplay for John Huston's 1956 production of Moby Dick, starring Gregory Peck.

Recent years have seen the publication of From the Dust Returned (1999), Let's All Kill Constance (2002), One More for the Road (2002), The Cat's Pajamas (2004), The Homecoming (2006) and Farewell Summer (2006). At the time of this writing, Bradbury has published 13 novels, 56 collections (including poetry), 10 non-fiction books, and close to 600 short stories. "At the time of this writing" is an important qualification because, at 85, Bradbury still writes every day, and more books are on the horizon. For example, Match to Flame: The Fictional Paths of Fahrenheit 451 (Donn Albright, Editor) is scheduled for publication this Fall. This collection brings together the various short stories and novellas, some previously unpublished, that Bradbury later re-worked into the novel Fahrenheit 451.

As reported in Wikipedia, Ray Bradbury has received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 2004, he received the (US) National Medal of Arts. He has been similarly honored with the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement, the Stoker Award for lifetime achievement, and the First Fandom Award, along with being granted SFWA Grand Master status and inducted into the SF Hall of Fame. Also, he received an Emmy Award for his work on The Halloween Tree, an asteroid is named in his honor - (9766) Bradbury - and a moon crater bears the name "Dandelion Crater" (after his novel, Dandelion Wine).

Ray Bradbury is nothing less than a national treasure and is deservedly "celebrating a lifetime of wonder and imagination" (tagline from the website,

BookThink: In Death Is A Lonely Business, your writer/sleuth alter ego gives advice to another writer: "Tomorrow morning you get out of bed, walk to the machine, no phone calls, no newspaper reading, don't even go to the bathroom, sit down, type, and Elmo Crumley is immortal." Is immortality the goal or just a byproduct?

Bradbury: It's a byproduct. You can't predict these things. If people like you, that's fine. If they don't like you, then to hell with them. I've never thought about those things; you just get your work done. I've had a great life, I've been writing since I was twelve years old - every single day of my life because I love writing. I love books and I love libraries. I've had a perfect life, and the fact that some people love my books is the dividend.

BookThink: Perhaps the most quoted pieces of advice you give to aspiring writers is don't try to imitate writers you admire.

Bradbury: You can imitate when you are young. I did that when I was twelve years old. It's natural. I imitated Conan Doyle, and I loved Jeeves and the Wizard of Oz ... I loved a lot of writers like that. But by the time you are twenty years old, you give up imitating and you become yourself.

BookThink: Is that because from the age of twelve to twenty, you are in fact learning who you are?

Bradbury: Well, you're falling in love with so many people. I loved HG Wells because he was paranoid, and when you are sixteen years old, boys are all paranoid. They discover that the world means them, and death means them, and they get aggravated at the ways of the world. So they read The Invisible Man and The Man Who Could Work Miracles [SF EDITOR'S NOTE: a book and later a film by H.G. Wells in which the Gods decide to give a mortal man nearly unlimited powers - a conceptual forerunner to the Jim Carey film, Bruce Almighty]. HG Wells speaks to their paranoia, so it's quite natural that I fell in love with Wells in high school.

BookThink: Do you still write every day ...

Bradbury: Yes, every day.

BookThink: ... and how do you avoid imitating Ray Bradbury?

No, I don't think about that. Whatever is new in my life ... if I want to write a poem, I write a poem. If I want to write an essay, I write an essay. If I come up with a short story idea, then it's a short story. I don't compare myself with me. I look at the very instant of living - I don't look behind and I don't look forward. I live inside the instant.

BookThink: As a young writer learning the craft, what authors most influenced you?

Bradbury: Oh, Edgar Rice Burroughs. When I was twelve years old, I read all of the Martian books, and I wanted to go to Mars. I went out on the lawn on a summer evening and said "Mars, take me home."

BookThink: Didn't we all.

Bradbury: In a way, Edgar Rice Burroughs took me to Mars, and I never came back.

BookThink: In previous interviews, you've cited the influence of John Collier.

Bradbury: Very much so, though I didn't discover him until I was about twenty-two years old.

BookThink: You and Collier were in Hollywood at about the same time, were you not?

Bradbury: I came to Hollywood when I was thirteen years old [1933]. My father came to Los Angeles looking for work. So I was lucky I arrived here just one year after I started writing, and I was around Hollywood people. I was around the studios, and I was in love with motion pictures. I lived near a theatre where I could bump into Laurel and Hardy in person, or Norma Shearer or any of the big stars from MGM. So, I was in love not only with libraries, but also with motion pictures. I was lucky to be living in Hollywood then.

[SF EDITOR'S NOTE: John Collier, International Fantasy Award winner. Bradbury wrote an introduction for the restored edition of Collier's Fancies and Goodnights. Collier was a master of the short story and is sometimes compared to Saki for odd ending twists that make a story stick in your mind. Like Bradbury, Collier's works were multi-genre, with contributions in fantasy, mystery and horror - often all three at the same time. Also like Bradbury, Collier wrote Hollywood screenplays, including contributing to The African Queen in 1951, along with James Agee and John Huston. Bradbury worked with Huston on the latter's 1956 production of , starring Gregory Peck as Ahab. Collier was 20 years Bradbury's senior.]

BookThink: 1950's Hollywood has been the setting of some of your stories [SF EDITOR'S NOTE: See, for example, "Death Is A Lonely Business"], and your imagined Mars was perhaps the best-realized character of The Martian Chronicles. How important is a sense of place in your writing?

Bradbury: No, I don't worry about that ... it takes care of itself. If you're writing about Mars, you write about the locale. You set the scene - the atmosphere, the weather - and if you do a good job then people believe it. Or if I'm writing about Waukegan, which is Greentown. It's the setting of my latest novel, Farewell Summer [SF EDITOR'S NOTE: scheduled for publication in October, 2006] - and it's all about the Ravine that cut across the town. When I was a kid, we were in and out of the Ravine because it was magical and mysterious, and evocative. So, the Ravine is set as the scene again and again, in Dandelion Wine and in Something Wicked This Way Comes, and in my new novel.

BookThink: That's interesting because Stephen King uses exactly the same metaphor in many of his stories set in Derry, Maine. He talks about an area called the Barrens, which cuts through the town - an element of wildness in the middle of civilization. It's specifically a place where children go, to get away from their parents, to get away from the rules ...

Bradbury: Yes, exactly.

BookThink: This past Memorial Day weekend, I sold books in the Dealers Room at the Balticon SF convention here in Baltimore. I was pleased to see that copies of many of your older titles such as Dandelion Wine and The October Country sold quite well. Would you agree with the perception that many publishers have let their backlists of classic titles slide?

Bradbury: Well, it depends on the author. If you have authors you believe in, you keep them in print. I was lucky that I had Walter Bradbury at Doubleday, and he pretty much kept me there. My new publishers, Avon and William Morrow, have Jennifer Brehl, who is a wonderful editor. She has all my books in print right now, at least twenty of them. That's incredible, I'm very lucky. It depends on the individual editor to have enough brains to realize there's a market for certain writers. Right now I'm old enough, I've been around enough years, that my editors say "Well, let's keep the old man around a little bit longer."

BookThink: And of course many of your books have been on the approved reading lists for school curriculums across the country - for decades now.

Bradbury: Well, I've been very lucky, yes.

BookThink: There is a joke that circulates in the bookselling community, something to the effect of charging a premium for the "rare, unsigned Bradbury."

Bradbury: Absolutely, if you can find a book of mine not signed, buy it no matter what the price is. Those are very rare.

BookThink: What was your motivation for signing so many of your books over the years?

Bradbury: Well, people asked me - that's my motivation. Someone comes up to me with one of my books, and says "Sign it." It's just that simple.

BookThink: Do you have a favorite story or memory from any of the book signings or SF conventions you've attended?

Bradbury: Nooo ... I lecture at libraries all the time, I've lectured at every single library in Southern California - over 100. What is gratifying is that people who show up, hundreds of them - they range in age from ten years old to eighty. So you see, I not only belong to children, which is great, but to older people too. I feel very fortunate to look out at the audience and to see a lot of very young kids out there. Last week a seven year old wrote to me and told me he loved me.

BookThink: The Harry Potter books have gotten a lot of praise for re-introducing reading to children, but I think your books deserve just as much credit.

Bradbury: Well, I hope so.

BookThink: In the mid-1970's, Steve Allen produced a remarkable television series called "Meeting of Minds" ...

Bradbury: A very good show.

BookThink: ... in which historical figures were brought together and interviewed by Allen in a typical chat show format. Given that format, if you could pick some people from history for an evening of conversation, who would they be?

Bradbury: I've done a long poem which is in one of my last books - I believe it's One More for the Road - where I go on a train ride with Aldous Huxley, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe, and George Bernard Shaw. That would be a perfect train ride, to just stay up all night and talk with these wonderful people.

BookThink: There was a time when a fan could reasonably expect to read everything published in the genre for a given year - in the pulps and the slicks, and in books and anthologies. In recent years the sheer volume of new SF and Fantasy makes that impossible.

Bradbury: You can't keep up with it. Every single year there are two or three hundred books published [in the genre]. It's a wonderful situation for a new author to get published, if he's any good. There are lots of publishers out there, and lots of books being published every year.

BookThink: But has the genre become a victim of its own success?

Bradbury: You can't use that term, no. When I had my first book signing forty-five years ago, only eight people showed up. When I went to a book signing last year, there were two hundred people. I wasn't a victim of success. It was very nice.

BookThink: In previous interviews, you've described yourself as a very visual person. Do you have a favorite illustration for one of your books or one you didn't like?

Bradbury: Any one of my books is visual. I knew Sam Peckinpah, the film director, twenty years ago, and he wanted to do Something Wicked This Way Comes. And I said "Sam, how will you do it?" He said "Rip the pages out of the book and stuff them in the camera." All of my books and stories are visual. You can pick up any one, read any paragraph, and you can shoot it.

I've designed a lot of the dust jackets myself. The Cat's Pajamas that came out last year [2005] has a cover that I illustrated myself. I designed many of the other covers, gave the design to the art department at the publisher, and they used my concept.

BookThink: You've talked before about an illustration done for one of your stories by Charles Addam, and how decades went by before you could use it as a cover for one of your books.

Bradbury: Oh, yes. I knew Charles Addams fifty years ago, and he illustrated a story of mine called "Homecoming" for Mademoiselle [Mademoiselle, October, 1946]. I bought the painting from him for $200, which I didn't have. I had to pay for it over a period of months because my income was small. But thank God I put that painting away for forty years, and when I published From the Dust Returned five years ago [2001] I used Charles Addams' painting on the cover. It was wonderful.

BookThink: And so appropriate to the text.

Bradbury: Just terrific.

BookThink: Later this year [2006] Gauntlet Press will release Match to Flame: The Fictional Paths to Fahrenheit 451. The book traces the evolution of your classic dystopian novel from several short stories and novellas, many of which were originally published in SF magazines such as Galaxy, beginning in 1944. Similarly, The Martian Chronicles is an amalgamation of previously published short stories with some bridging material added. It's true that in the 1940s and 1950s the market for SF and fantasy fiction demanded short stories, but with close to 600 stories it seems that this is your preferred format. What is it about the short story form that appeals to you?

Bradbury: That's me, I'm built that way. I'm a sprinter. I've never been a novelist, I've published very few real novels. Dandelion Wine started as an article called "Dandelion Wine" in Gourmet magazine [June, 1953], which was all about how to make dandelion wine. Something Wicked ... began as a short story in Weird Tales ["The Black Ferris", Weird Tales, May, 1948], and it became a screenplay I wrote for Gene Kelly. He couldn't find the money to make the film, so I sat down and turned the screenplay into the novel called Something Wicked This Way Comes. All of my novels have started small, and became large.

BookThink: Is that because you start with a single image, and the story builds around that image?

Bradbury: You might say that I get out of bed in the middle of the night ... I get an idea, a metaphor. And the next day I write the metaphor. Sometimes it's a poem that turns into a play, which turns into a screenplay, which turns into a novel. So you see, I fit all these different fields because I'm really a writer of metaphors.

BookThink: A well-turned metaphor of a dozen words can communicate an idea better than a page of straight prose.

Bradbury: That's right, that's right.

BookThink: Symbolism, imagery and metaphor are the language of poetry - and your writing has often been described as "poetic". Would you say that is a fair characterization?

Bradbury: Oh, yes. I once wrote a short story called "The Foghorn" [Saturday Evening Post, June 23, 1951], and there's a prose poem, a paragraph, in the middle of the story about the invention of the foghorn, and the sound of the foghorn - the loneliness, the sound of death, the melancholy and separation. John Huston read that story and read that metaphorical paragraph and gave me the job of writing Moby Dick. So you see, my poetry paid off.

BookThink: One last question: What does dandelion wine taste like, and when was the last time you drank any?

Bradbury: It's not all that good! I've got eight or nine bottles sent to me by various people and one bottle that was made off dandelions from my front yard in Waukegan. That's kind of wonderful, that someone went there and gathered dandelions out in front of my house and my grandparents' house and made dandelion wine of it and sent it to me. I still have that.

BookThink: Thank you very much for taking the time from your schedule to answer some questions.

Bradbury: They've been damn good questions. {SF EDITOR: He probably says that to all the interviewers!]

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Thanks go out to Mike Hayward for pre-interview research and suggestions.]

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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