Interviews

Ray Bradbury, The Art of Fiction No. 203

Interviewed by Sam Weller

Ray Bradbury has a vacation house in Palm Springs, California, in the desert at the base of the Santa Rosa mountains. It’s a Rat Pack–era affair, with a chrome-and-turquoise kitchen and a small swimming pool in back. A few years ago, Bradbury let me look through some files stored in his garage as part of my research for a biography. Inside a tiny storage closet I found a compact filing cabinet covered in dust and fallen ceiling plaster, which contained, amid a flurry of tear sheets and yellowing book contracts, a folder marked paris review. In the folder was the manuscript of a remarkable unpublished interview that this magazine had conducted with the author in the late 1970s.

It’s unclear why the interview was abandoned, but according to an attached editorial memo, editor George Plimpton found the first draft “a bit informal in places, maybe overly enthusiastic.” Bradbury, who will turn ninety in August, cannot recall why he never finished the interview; he figures that when he was asked to revisit it, he had moved on to other projects. But with the rediscovery of the manuscript, he agreed to give it another go and bring it up to date. Since the original interviewer, William Plummer, a Paris Review contributing editor, died in 2001, we supplemented the original sessions with new conversations.

Bradbury was born in 1920 in Waukegan, Illinois, the son of a lineman for the local power company. As a child, he developed a passion for the books of L. Frank Baum and Edgar Allan Poe and immersed himself in popular culture, from cinema to comic strips to traveling circuses. Because Bradbury’s father was often out of work during the twenties and thirties, the family repeatedly moved between Illinois and Tucson, Arizona. His sense of uprootedness and dislocation was compounded by the death of his beloved grandfather when he was five, and his baby sister’s death from pneumonia two years later. The experience of great loss appears frequently in his work.

By the spring of 1934, lured by the prospects of sunshine and steady employment, the Bradbury family moved to California, where Bradbury has lived ever since. As a teenager, he roller-skated all over Hollywood, collecting autographs and taking photos with stars like Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich, and George Burns. After he graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1938, he joined the Los Angeles Science Fiction League, befriending writers Robert Heinlein and Leigh Brackett. In 1940, with the help of Heinlein, he made his first professional sale, to a West Coast literary magazine called Script. Bradbury’s poor eyesight kept him out of the Second World War, and it was during those years that he established himself in the pages of pulp-fiction magazines like Weird Tales and Astounding Science Fiction. The Martian Chronicles, his second book, was embraced by the science-fiction community as well as critics, a rare achievement for the genre. Christopher Isherwood hailed Bradbury as “truly original” and a “very great and unusual talent.” Three years later Bradbury published the novel for which he is best known, Fahrenheit 451.

In all, Bradbury has written more than fifty books, including The Illustrated Man, Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and his 2009 story collection, We’ll Always Have Paris. He has worked often in television and film, writing teleplays for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the screenplay for John Huston’s 1956 adaptation of Moby-Dick. In 1964, he established the Pandemonium Theatre Company, where he started producing his own plays—he is still actively involved with the theater today. He has also published several poetry collections, including When Elephants Last in the Dooryard Bloomed. He has even worked in architecture, contributing to the design of San Diego’s Westfield Horton Plaza and the interior of Spaceship Earth at Disney’s EPCOT Center. For his life’s achievements, he was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation in 2000 and, in 2004, the National Medal of Arts.

Despite recent setbacks—a stroke in 1999 and the death of Marguerite, his wife of fifty-six years, in 2003—Bradbury has remained extraordinarily active. He continues to write and he remains charming and filled with boyish jubilation. When dining out he regularly orders vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce for dessert. He has just completed a new collection of short stories, tentatively titled “Juggernaut.” He recently told me he still lives by his lifelong credo, “Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.”

 

INTERVIEWER

Why do you write science fiction? 

RAY BRADBURY

Science fiction is the fiction of ideas. Ideas excite me, and as soon as I get excited, the adrenaline gets going and the next thing I know I’m borrowing energy from the ideas themselves. Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.

Imagine if sixty years ago, at the start of my writing career, I had thought to write a story about a woman who swallowed a pill and destroyed the Catholic Church, causing the advent of women’s liberation. That story probably would have been laughed at, but it was within the realm of the possible and would have made great science fiction. If I’d lived in the late eighteen hundreds I might have written a story predicting that strange vehicles would soon move across the landscape of the United States and would kill two million people in a period of seventy years. Science fiction is not just the art of the possible, but of the obvious. Once the automobile appeared you could have predicted that it would destroy as many people as it did.

INTERVIEWER

Does science fiction satisfy something that mainstream writing does not? 

BRADBURY

Yes, it does, because the mainstream hasn’t been paying attention to all the changes in our culture during the last fifty years. The major ideas of our time—developments in medicine, the importance of space exploration to advance our species—have been neglected. The critics are generally wrong, or they’re fifteen, twenty years late. It’s a great shame. They miss out on a lot. Why the fiction of ideas should be so neglected is beyond me. I can’t explain it, except in terms of intellectual snobbery. 

INTERVIEWER

There was a time, though, wasn’t there, when you wanted recognition across the board from critics and intellectuals? 

BRADBURY

Of course. But not anymore. If I’d found out that Norman Mailer liked me, I’d have killed myself. I think he was too hung up. I’m glad Kurt Vonnegut didn’t like me either. He had problems, terrible problems. He couldn’t see the world the way I see it. I suppose I’m too much Pollyanna, he was too much Cassandra. Actually I prefer to see myself as the Janus, the two-faced god who is half Pollyanna and half Cassandra, warning of the future and perhaps living too much in the past—a combination of both. But I don’t think I’m too overoptimistic. 

INTERVIEWER

Vonnegut was written off as a science-fiction writer for a long time. Then it was decided that he wasn’t ever a science-fiction writer in the first place, and he was redeemed for the mainstream. So Vonnegut became “literature,” and you’re still on the verge. Do you think Vonnegut made it because he was a Cassandra? 

BRADBURY

Yes, that’s part of it. It’s the terrible creative negativism, admired by New York critics, that caused his celebrity. New Yorkers love to dupe themselves, as well as doom themselves. I haven’t had to live like that. I’m a California boy. I don’t tell anyone how to write and no one tells me. 

INTERVIEWER

Yet you did receive the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. How important was that for you?

BRADBURY

It was a fantastic evening. There was a real problem getting back to my hotel room, though. The hotel where they held the ceremony in New York was so huge, it filled me with despair. Since my stroke, I walk very slowly. I saw a sign that night that said, next restroom: two hundred and eighty miles. The registration desk was on the eighth floor. You have to wait ten minutes for an elevator just to go up and register! That night some of the women were taking me back to my room and I said, For God’s sake, where’s the men’s room? We couldn’t find one. One of the girls said, There’s a potted palm over there, why don’t you go use it? So I went over. Nobody saw me. At least I don’t think so. 

INTERVIEWER

Was that award a signal that science fiction had become respectable? 

BRADBURY

To some extent. It took a long time for people simply to allow us out in the open and stop making fun of us. When I was a young writer if you went to a party and told somebody you were a science-fiction writer you would be insulted. They would call you Flash Gordon all evening, or Buck Rogers. Of course sixty years ago hardly any books were being published in the field. Back in 1946, as I remember, there were only two science-fiction anthologies published. We couldn’t afford to buy them anyway, since we were all too poor. That’s how bereft we were, that’s how sparse the field was, that’s how unimportant it all was. And when the first books finally began to be published, lots of them in the early fifties, they weren’t reviewed by good literary magazines. We were all closet science-fiction writers. 

INTERVIEWER

Does science fiction offer the writer an easier way to explore a conceptual premise? 

BRADBURY

Take Fahrenheit 451. You’re dealing with book burning, a very serious subject. You’ve got to be careful you don’t start lecturing people. So you put your story a few years into the future and you invent a fireman who has been burning books instead of putting out fires—which is a grand idea in itself—and you start him on the adventure of discovering that maybe books shouldn’t be burned. He reads his first book. He falls in love. And then you send him out into the world to change his life. It’s a great suspense story, and locked into it is this great truth you want to tell, without pontificating.

I often use the metaphor of Perseus and the head of Medusa when I speak of science fiction. Instead of looking into the face of truth, you look over your shoulder into the bronze surface of a reflecting shield. Then you reach back with your sword and cut off the head of Medusa. Science fiction pretends to look into the future but it’s really looking at a reflection of what is already in front of us. So you have a ricochet vision, a ricochet that enables you to have fun with it, instead of being self-conscious and superintellectual. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you read your science-fiction contemporaries? 

BRADBURY

I’ve always believed that you should do very little reading in your own field once you’re into it. But at the start it’s good to know what everyone’s doing. When I was seventeen I read everything by Robert Heinlein and Arthur Clarke, and the early writings of Theodore Sturgeon and Van Vogt—all the people who appeared in Astounding Science Fiction—but my big science-fiction influences are H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. I’ve found that I’m a lot like Verne—a writer of moral fables, an instructor in the humanities. He believes the human being is in a strange situation in a very strange world, and he believes that we can triumph by behaving morally. His hero Nemo—who in a way is the flip side of Melville’s madman, Ahab—goes about the world taking weapons away from people to instruct them toward peace. 

INTERVIEWER

How about writers younger than you? 

BRADBURY

I prefer not to read the younger writers in the field. Quite often you can be depressed by discovering they’ve happened onto an idea you yourself are working on. What you want is simply to get on with your own work. 

INTERVIEWER

How early did you begin writing? 

BRADBURY

It started with Poe. I imitated him from the time I was twelve until I was about eighteen. I fell in love with the jewelry of Poe. He’s a gem encruster, isn’t he? Same with Edgar Rice Burroughs and John Carter. I was doing traditional horror stories, which I think everyone who goes into the field starts out with—you know, people getting locked in tombs. I drew Egyptian mazes.

Everything went into ferment that one year, 1932, when I was twelve. There was Poe, Carter, Burroughs, the comics. I listened to a lot of imaginative radio shows, especially one called Chandu the Magician. I’m sure it was quite junky, but not to me. Every night when the show went off the air I sat down and, from memory, wrote out the whole script. I couldn’t help myself. Chandu was against all the villains of the world and so was I. He responded to a psychic summons and so did I.

I loved to illustrate, too, and I was a cartoonist. I always wanted my own comic strip. So I was not only writing about Tarzan, I was drawing my own Sunday panels. I did the usual adventure stories, located them in South America or among the Aztecs or in Africa. There was always the beautiful maiden and the sacrifice. So I knew I was going into one of the arts: I was drawing, acting, and writing. 

INTERVIEWER

Where did you do your acting? 

BRADBURY

One day in Tucson, Arizona, when I was twelve, I told all my friends I was going to go down to the nearest radio station to become an actor. My friends snorted and said, Do you know anyone down there? I said no. They said, Do you have any pull with anyone? I said no. I’ll just hang around and they’ll discover how talented I am. So I went to the radio station, hung around for two weeks emptying ashtrays and running out for newspapers and just being underfoot. And two weeks later I wound up on radio every Saturday night reading the comics to the kiddies: Bringing Up Father, Tailspin Tommy, and Buck Rogers

INTERVIEWER

You seem to have been open to a variety of influences. 

BRADBURY

A conglomerate heap of trash, that’s what I am. But it burns with a high flame. I’ve had my “literary” loves, too. I like to think of myself on a train going across America at midnight, conversing with my favorite authors, and on that train would be people like George Bernard Shaw, who was interested in the fiction of ideas. He himself on occasion wrote things that could be dubbed science fiction. We’d sit up late into the night turning over ideas and saying, Well, if this is true about women in 1900, what is it going to be in the year 2050? 

INTERVIEWER

Who else would be on that train? 

BRADBURY

A lot of poets: Hopkins, Frost, Shakespeare. And writers like Steinbeck, Huxley, and Thomas Wolfe.

INTERVIEWER

How has Wolfe helped you? 

BRADBURY

He was a great romantic. When you’re nineteen, he opens the doors of the world for you. We use certain authors at certain times of our lives, and we may never go back to them again. Wolfe is perfect when you’re nineteen. If you fall in love with Shaw when you’re thirty it’s going to be a lifetime love. And I think that’s true of certain books by Thomas Mann as well. I read Death in Venice when I was twenty, and it’s gotten better every year since. Style is truth. Once you nail down what you want to say about yourself and your fears and your life, then that becomes your style and you go to those writers who can teach you how to use words to fit your truth. I learned from John Steinbeck how to write objectively and yet insert all of the insights without too much extra comment. I learned a hell of a lot from John Collier and Gerald Heard, and I fell madly in love with a number of women writers, especially Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter. I still go back and reread Edith Wharton and Jessamyn West—The Friendly Persuasion is one of my favorite books of short stories. 

INTERVIEWER

The Martian Chronicles, your first major success, was called a novel, but it’s really a book of short stories, many of which had appeared in pulp-fiction magazines during the forties. Why did you decide to collect them as a novel? 

BRADBURY

Around 1947, when I published my first novel, Dark Carnival, I met the secretary of Norman Corwin, a big name in radio—a director, writer, and producer. Through her I sent him a copy of Dark Carnival and wrote a letter saying, If you like this book as much as I like your work, I’d like to buy you drinks someday. A week later the phone rang and it was Norman. He said, You’re not buying me drinks, I’m buying you dinner. That was the start of a lifelong friendship. That first time he took me to dinner I told him about my Martian story “Ylla.” He said, Wow, that’s great, write more of those. So I did. In a way, that was what caused The Martian Chronicles to be born.

There was another reason. In 1949, my wife Maggie became pregnant with our first daughter, Susan. Up until then, Maggie had worked full-time and I stayed home writing my short stories. But now that she was going to have the baby, I needed to earn more money. I needed a book contract. Norman suggested I travel to New York City to meet editors and make an impression, so I took a Greyhound bus to New York and stayed at the YMCA, fifty cents a night. I took my stories around to a dozen publishers. Nobody wanted them. They said, We don’t publish stories. Nobody reads them. Don’t you have a novel? I said, No, I don’t. I’m a sprinter, not a marathon runner. I was ready to go home when, on my last night, I had dinner with an editor at Doubleday named Walter Bradbury—no relation. He said, Wouldn’t there be a book if you took all those Martian stories and tied them together? You could call it “The Martian Chronicles.” It was his title, not mine. I said, Oh, my God. I had read Winesburg, Ohio when I was twenty-four years old, in 1944. I was so taken with it that I thought, Someday I’d like to write a book like this, but I’d set it on Mars. I’d actually made a note about this in 1944, but I’d forgotten about it.

I stayed up all night at the YMCA and typed out an outline. I took it to him the next morning. He read it and said, I’ll give you a check for seven hundred and fifty bucks. I went back to Los Angeles and connected all the short stories and it became The Martian Chronicles. It’s called a novel, but you’re right, it’s really a book of short stories all tied together.

INTERVIEWER

One of the most popular stories in the book is “There Will Come Soft Rains,” about a mechanized house that continues to operate after the atomic bomb has been dropped. There are no people in that story. Where did you get the idea for that? 

BRADBURY

After Hiroshima was bombed I saw a photograph of the side of a house with the shadows of the people who had lived there burned into the wall from the intensity of the bomb. The people were gone, but their shadows remained. That affected me so much, I wrote the story. 

INTERVIEWER

Some of the passages in The Martian Chronicles, as well as some of your other books, are intensely lyrical. Where did that lyricism come from? 

BRADBURY

From reading so much poetry every day of my life. My favorite writers have been those who’ve said things well. I used to study Eudora Welty. She has the remarkable ability to give you atmosphere, character, and motion in a single line. In one line! You must study these things to be a good writer. Welty would have a woman simply come into a room and look around. In one sweep she gave you the feel of the room, the sense of the woman’s character, and the action itself. All in twenty words. And you say, How’d she do that? What adjective? What verb? What noun? How did she select them and put them together? I was an intense student. Sometimes I’d get an old copy of Wolfe and cut out paragraphs and paste them in my story, because I couldn’t do it, you see. I was so frustrated! And then I’d retype whole sections of other people’s novels just to see how it felt coming out. Learn their rhythm. 

INTERVIEWER

What about Proust, Joyce, Flaubert, Nabokov—writers who tend to think of literature in terms of style and form. Has that line of thought ever interested you? 

BRADBURY

No. If people put me to sleep, they put me to sleep. God, I’ve tried to read Proust so often, and I recognize the beauty of his style, but he puts me to sleep. The same for Joyce. Joyce doesn’t have many ideas. I’m completely idea oriented, and I appreciate certain kinds of French writing and English storytelling more. I just can’t imagine being in a world and not being fascinated with what ideas are doing to us. 

INTERVIEWER

You’re self-educated, aren’t you?

BRADBURY

Yes, I am. I’m completely library educated. I’ve never been to college. I went down to the library when I was in grade school in Waukegan, and in high school in Los Angeles, and spent long days every summer in the library. I used to steal magazines from a store on Genesee Street, in Waukegan, and read them and then steal them back on the racks again. That way I took the print off with my eyeballs and stayed honest. I didn’t want to be a permanent thief, and I was very careful to wash my hands before I read them. But with the library, it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read. And it’s far more fun than going to school, simply because you make up your own list and you don’t have to listen to anyone. When I would see some of the books my kids were forced to bring home and read by some of their teachers, and were graded on—well, what if you don’t like those books?

I am a librarian. I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library. Before I fell in love with libraries, I was just a six-year-old boy. The library fueled all of my curiosities, from dinosaurs to ancient Egypt. When I graduated from high school in 1938, I began going to the library three nights a week. I did this every week for almost ten years and finally, in 1947, around the time I got married, I figured I was done. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-seven. I discovered that the library is the real school. 

INTERVIEWER

You have said that you don’t believe in going to college to learn to write. Why is that? 

BRADBURY

You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught. The library, on the other hand, has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself. 

INTERVIEWER

But your books are taught widely in schools. 

BRADBURY

Do you know why teachers use me? Because I speak in tongues. I write metaphors. Every one of my stories is a metaphor you can remember. The great religions are all metaphor. We appreciate things like Daniel and the lion’s den, and the Tower of Babel. People remember these metaphors because they are so vivid you can’t get free of them and that’s what kids like in school. They read about rocket ships and encounters in space, tales of dinosaurs. All my life I’ve been running through the fields and picking up bright objects. I turn one over and say, Yeah, there’s a story. And that’s what kids like. Today, my stories are in a thousand anthologies. And I’m in good company. The other writers are quite often dead people who wrote in metaphors: Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne. All these people wrote for children. They may have pretended not to, but they did. 

INTERVIEWER

How important is it to you to follow your own instincts? 

BRADBURY

Oh, God. It’s everything. I was offered the chance to write War and Peace for the screen a few decades ago. The American version with King Vidor directing. I turned it down. Everyone said, How could you do that? That’s ridiculous, it’s a great book! I said, Well, it isn’t for me. I can’t read it. I can’t get through it, I tried. That doesn’t mean the book’s bad. I just am not prepared for it. It portrays a very special culture. The names throw me. My wife loved it. She read it once every three years for twenty years. They offered the usual amount for a screenplay like that, a hundred thousand dollars, but you cannot do things for money in this world. I don’t care how much they offer you, and I don’t care how poor you are. There’s only one excuse ever to take money under those circumstances: If someone in your family is horribly ill and the doctor bills are piled up so high that you’re all going to be destroyed. Then I’d say, Go on and take the job. Go do War and Peace and do a lousy job. And be sorry later. 

INTERVIEWER

Why did you do Moby-Dick

BRADBURY

I had fallen in love with John Huston’s work when I was in my twenties. I saw The Maltese Falcon fifteen times, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre scores of times. When I was twenty-nine I attended a film screening and John Huston was sitting right behind me. I wanted to turn, grab his hand, and say, I love you and I want to work with you. But I held off and waited until I had three books published, so I’d have proof of my love. I called my agent and said, Now I want to meet John Huston. We met on St. Valentine’s night, 1951, which is a great way to start a love affair. I said, Here are my books. If you like them, someday we must work together. A couple of years later, out of the blue, he called me up and said, Do you have some time to come to Europe and write Moby-Dick for the screen? I said, I don’t know, I’ve never been able to read the damn thing. So here I was confronted with a dilemma: Here’s a man that I love and whose work I admire. He’s offering me a job. Now, a lot of people would say, Grab it! Jesus, you like him, don’t ya? I said, Tell you what, I’ll go home tonight and I’ll read as much as I can, and I’ll come back for lunch tomorrow. By that time I will know how I feel about Melville. Because I’ve had copies of Moby-Dick around the house for years. So I went home and I read Moby-Dick. Strangely enough, a month earlier I’d been wandering around the house one night and picked up Moby-Dick and said to my wife, I wonder when I’m going to read this thing? So here I am sitting down to read it.

I dove into the middle of it instead of starting at the beginning. I came across a lot of beautiful poetry about the whiteness of the whale and the colors of nightmares and the great spirit’s spout. And I came upon a section toward the end where Ahab stands at the rail and says: “It is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky; and the air smells now, as if it blew from a far-away meadow; they have been making hay somewhere under the slopes of the Andes, Starbuck, and the mowers are sleeping among the new-mown hay.” I turned back to the start: “Call me Ishmael.” I was in love! You fall in love with poetry. You fall in love with Shakespeare. I’d been in love with Shakespeare since I was fourteen. I was able to do the job not because I was in love with Melville, but because I was in love with Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote Moby-Dick, using Melville as a Ouija board.

The day I went to see Huston I asked, Should I read up on the Freudians and Jungians and their interpretations of the white whale? He said, Hell no, I’m hiring Bradbury! Whatever is right or wrong about the screenplay will be yours, so we can at least say the skin around it is your skin.

So after I’d read the book multitudinous times, I wrote the beginning on the way to Europe on the boat, and that stayed. But everything else was so difficult. I had to borrow bits and pieces from late in the book and push them up front, because the novel is not constructed like a screenplay. It’s all over the place, a giant cannonade of impressions. And it’s a play too. Shakespearean asides, stage directions, everything.

I got out of the bed one morning in London, walked over to the mirror and said, I am Herman Melville. The ghost of Melville spoke to me and on that day I rewrote the last thirty pages of the screenplay. It all came out in one passionate explosion. I ran across London and took it to Huston. He said, My God, this is it.

INTERVIEWER

Yet the ending is your own, not Melville’s. 

BRADBURY

Yes, but it really works, because I came up with a revelation. To adapt for the screen you’ve got to decide what to throw overboard. I didn’t want Fedallah, the mysterious Parsi harpooner, because he’s a terrible bore and he’d turn the whole thing into comedy. He’s the extra mystical symbol that breaks the whale’s back. If you’re not careful in tragedy, one extra rape, one extra incest, one extra murder and it’s hoo-haw time all of a sudden. So I got rid of Fedallah, and that leaves us at the end with no one to go down with the whale. So, hell, it’s only natural that Moby Dick takes Ahab down with him and comes back up with all these harpoon lines, and Ahab gestures, so when the men follow him they are destroyed. Well, that’s not in the book. I’m sorry, but I’m proud of that. Awfully proud of that. 

INTERVIEWER

Do the novel and short story present different problems to you? 

BRADBURY

Yes, the problem of the novel is to stay truthful. The short story, if you really are intense and you have an exciting idea, writes itself in a few hours. I try to encourage my student friends and my writer friends to write a short story in one day so it has a skin around it, its own intensity, its own life, its own reason for being. There’s a reason why the idea occurred to you at that hour anyway, so go with that and investigate it, get it down. Two or three thousand words in a few hours is not that hard. Don’t let people interfere with you. Boot ’em out, turn off the phone, hide away, get it done. If you carry a short story over to the next day you may overnight intellectualize something about it and try to make it too fancy, try to please someone.

But a novel has all kinds of pitfalls because it takes longer and you are around people, and if you’re not careful you will talk about it. The novel is also hard to write in terms of keeping your love intense. It’s hard to stay erect for two hundred days. So, get the big truth first. If you get the big truth, the small truths will accumulate around it. Let them be magnetized to it, drawn to it, and then cling to it. 

INTERVIEWER

What are some specific problems you’ve had with any of your novels? 

BRADBURY

With Fahrenheit 451, Montag came up to me and said, I’m going crazy. I said, What’s the matter, Montag? I’ve been burning books, he said. I said, Well, don’t you want to anymore? He said, No, I love them. I said, Go do something about it. And he wrote the book for me in nine days. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you keep a tight work schedule? 

BRADBURY

My passions drive me to the typewriter every day of my life, and they have driven me there since I was twelve. So I never have to worry about schedules. Some new thing is always exploding in me, and it schedules me, I don’t schedule it. It says: Get to the typewriter right now and finish this. 

INTERVIEWER

Where do you do your writing? 

BRADBURY

I can work anywhere. I wrote in bedrooms and living rooms when I was growing up with my parents and my brother in a small house in Los Angeles. I worked on my typewriter in the living room, with the radio and my mother and dad and brother all talking at the same time. Later on, when I wanted to write Fahrenheit 451, I went up to UCLA and found a basement typing room where, if you inserted ten cents into the typewriter, you could buy thirty minutes of typing time. 

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever used a computer? 

BRADBURY

Up until my stroke, I used a typewriter. An IBM Selectric. Never a computer. A computer’s a typewriter. Why would I need another typewriter? I have one. 

INTERVIEWER

Most would argue that a computer makes revising a whole lot easier. Not to mention spell-check. 

BRADBURY

I’ve been writing for seventy years, if I don’t know how to spell now . . . 

INTERVIEWER

Do you keep a notebook? 

BRADBURY

No. As soon as I get an idea, I write a short story, or I start a novel, or I do a poem. So I have no need for a notebook. I do keep files of ideas and stories that didn’t quite work a year ago, five years ago, ten years ago. I come back to them later and I look through the titles. It’s like a father bird coming with a worm. You look down at all these hungry little beaks—all these stories waiting to be finished—and you say to them, Which of you needs to be fed? Which of you needs to be finished today? And the story that yells the loudest, the idea that stands up and opens its mouth, is the one that gets fed. And I pull it out of the file and finish it within a few hours. 

INTERVIEWER

In Zen in the Art of Writing, you wrote that early on in your career you made lists of nouns as a way to generate story ideas: the Jar, the Cistern, the Lake, the Skeleton. Do you still do this? 

BRADBURY

Not as much, because I just automatically generate ideas now. But in the old days I knew I had to dredge my subconscious, and the nouns did this. I learned this early on. Three things are in your head: First, everything you have experienced from the day of your birth until right now. Every single second, every single hour, every single day. Then, how you reacted to those events in the minute of their happening, whether they were disastrous or joyful. Those are two things you have in your mind to give you material. Then, separate from the living experiences are all the art experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve learned from other writers, artists, poets, film directors, and composers. So all of this is in your mind as a fabulous mulch and you have to bring it out. How do you do that? I did it by making lists of nouns and then asking, What does each noun mean? You can go and make up your own list right now and it would be different than mine. The night. The crickets. The train whistle. The basement. The attic. The tennis shoes. The fireworks. All these things are very personal. Then, when you get the list down, you begin to word-associate around it. You ask, Why did I put this word down? What does it mean to me? Why did I put this noun down and not some other word? Do this and you’re on your way to being a good writer. You can’t write for other people. You can’t write for the left or the right, this religion or that religion, or this belief or that belief. You have to write the way you see things. I tell people, Make a list of ten things you hate and tear them down in a short story or poem. Make a list of ten things you love and celebrate them. When I wrote Fahrenheit 451 I hated book burners and I loved libraries. So there you are. 

INTERVIEWER

After you’ve made your list of nouns, where do you go from there? 

BRADBURY

I begin to write little pensées about the nouns. It’s prose poetry. It’s evocative. It tries to be metaphorical. Saint-John Perse published several huge volumes of this type of poetry on beautiful paper with lovely type. His books of poetry had titles like Rains, Snows, Winds, Seamarks. I could never afford to buy his books because they must have cost twenty or thirty dollars—and this was about fifty years ago. But he influenced me because I read him in the bookstore and I started to write short, descriptive paragraphs, two hundred words each, and in them I began to examine my nouns. Then I’d bring some characters on to talk about that noun and that place, and all of a sudden I had a story going. I used to do the same thing with photographs that I’d rip out of glossy magazines. I’d take the photographs and I’d write little prose poems about them.

Certain pictures evoke in me things from my past. When I look at the paintings of Edward Hopper, it does this. He did those wonderful townscapes of empty cafes, empty theaters at midnight with maybe one person there. The sense of isolation and loneliness is fantastic. I’d look at those landscapes and I’d fill them with my imagination. I still have all those pensées. This was the beginning of bringing out what was me.  

INTERVIEWER

Can you cite an example of a pensée in your own work? 

BRADBURY

The description of the foghorn in the short story “The Fog Horn.” The paragraph describing the dinosaur in “A Sound of Thunder.” Those are good examples. 

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think you prefer short stories to novels? Is it an issue of patience? They call it attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder these days. 

BRADBURY

I think there’s some truth to that. Turn a liability into an asset. My attention is not there. So, I write what I can write: short stories. 

INTERVIEWER

If your first draft, as you often say, is primarily your subconscious speaking to the page, do you intellectualize in the rewriting stages? 

BRADBURY

Sure. I go through and cut. Most short stories are too long. When I wrote the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, the first draft was a hundred and fifty thousand words. So I went through and cut out fifty thousand. It’s important to get out of your own way. Clean the kindling away, the rubbish. Make it clear. 

INTERVIEWER

You are a fast writer. Are you a fast editor? 

BRADBURY

No. I type my first draft quickly, impulsively even. A few days later I retype the whole thing and my subconscious, as I retype, gives me new words. Maybe it’ll take retyping it many times until it is done. Sometimes it takes very little revision. 

INTERVIEWER

What time of day do you do most of your writing? 

BRADBURY

I write all the time. I get up every morning not knowing what I’m going to do. I usually have a perception around dawn when I wake up. I have what I call the theater of morning inside my head, all these voices talking to me. When they come up with a good metaphor, then I jump out of bed and trap them before they’re gone. That’s the whole secret: to do things that excite you. Also, I always have taken naps. That way, I have two mornings! 

INTERVIEWER

Do you write outlines?

BRADBURY

No, never. You can’t do that. It’s just like you can’t plot tomorrow or next year or ten years from now. When you plot books you take all the energy and vitality out. There’s no blood. You have to live it from day to day and let your characters do things.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever go back and reread your books and short stories?

BRADBURY

Every so often, late at night, I come downstairs, open one of my books, read a paragraph and say, My God. I sit there and cry because I feel that I’m not responsible for any of this. It’s from God. And I’m so grateful, so, so grateful. The best description of my career as a writer is “at play in the fields of the Lord.” It’s been wonderful fun and I’ll be damned where any of it came from. I’ve been fortunate. Very fortunate.

INTERVIEWER

I suppose it’s unnecessary to ask whether you enjoy writing.

BRADBURY

It’s obvious that I do. It’s the exquisite joy and madness of my life, and I don’t understand writers who have to work at it. I like to play. I’m interested in having fun with ideas, throwing them up in the air like confetti and then running under them. If I had to work at it I would give it up. I don’t like working.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned the stroke you suffered in 1999. What do you remember about that experience?

BRADBURY

I was out at my house in Palm Springs working on a short story. I was walking around the house and all of a sudden I felt unstable. I couldn’t walk very well or talk very well. I called my wife—she was back at our home in Los Angeles—and she sent my driver out to get me. When he arrived I said, I want to go home, and he said, No, no. I’m taking you right to the hospital. So he saved my life. He took me to the Eisenhower Medical Center near Palm Springs and they ran tests and they saw that I was in a lousy condition. My leg was paralyzed, my arm was paralyzed, I found it difficult to speak.

I knew it was severe because I couldn’t move. I’d lie in bed and say to my leg, OK, move—and it wouldn’t. It was like a dead dog. Roll over, dead dog, roll over. And does your hand move? No. So after a period of weeks, finally, slowly, slowly, I got a finger to move, I got a toe to move. I thought I’d never get through the first month, but I did. And finally my leg began to come alive. God has been good to me. I’ve been given great genes and the whole experience was good for me because I’ve taken off all this weight. My blood sugar is normal now—I don’t have to take medicines for that. My blood pressure is normal again after many years. I did all this to myself—I have no one else to blame. Lots of beer, lots of wine, overweight by seventy pounds, and it was time to take it off.

INTERVIEWER

You never recovered the motor skills to type again. How have you been able to write?

BRADBURY

Just a few days after my stroke I called my daughter Alexandra, who works for me as my assistant, and told her to come to the hospital. I told her to bring the manuscript I was working on, my mystery novel Let’s All Kill Constance. I dictated the story to her and she typed it up. And that’s the way I have written since. I call her on the phone, dictate my stories to her, and she types them up and faxes them to me. Then I edit with a pen. It’s not an ideal process, but what the hell.

INTERVIEWER

Has this change in the physical act of writing altered your prose?

BRADBURY

Not much. If you look at the new collection of stories that I’m working on right now, “Juggernaut,” the stories are pretty damned strong. I’d love to use my typewriter again. I miss it terribly, but it’s just not possible. So I get by.

INTERVIEWER

How important has your sense of optimism been to your career?

BRADBURY

I don’t believe in optimism. I believe in optimal behavior. That’s a different thing. If you behave every day of your life to the top of your genetics, what can you do? Test it. Find out. You don’t know—you haven’t done it yet. You must live life at the top of your voice! At the top of your lungs shout and listen to the echoes. I learned a lesson years ago. I had some wonderful Swedish meatballs at my mother’s table with my dad and my brother and when I finished I pushed back from the table and said, God! That was beautiful. And my brother said, No, it was good. See the difference?

Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad—you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think of e-books and Amazon’s Kindle?

BRADBURY

Those aren’t books. You can’t hold a computer in your hand like you can a book. A computer does not smell. There are two perfumes to a book. If a book is new, it smells great. If a book is old, it smells even better. It smells like ancient Egypt. A book has got to smell. You have to hold it in your hands and pray to it. You put it in your pocket and you walk with it. And it stays with you forever. But the computer doesn’t do that for you. I’m sorry.

INTERVIEWER

With the publication of Fahrenheit 451, you were hailed as a visionary. What would you warn us about today?

BRADBURY

Our education system has gone to hell. It’s my idea from now on to stop spending money educating children who are sixteen years old. We should put all that money down into kindergarten. Young children have to be taught how to read and write. If children went into the first grade knowing how to read and write, we’d be set for the future, wouldn’t we? We must not let them go into the fourth and fifth grades not knowing how to read. So we must put out books with educational pictures, or use comics to teach children how to read. When I was five years old, my aunt gave me a copy of a book of wonderful fairy tales called Once Upon a Time, and the first fairy tale in the book is “Beauty and the Beast.” That one story taught me how to read and write because I looked at the picture of that beautiful beast, but I so desperately wanted to read about him too. By the time I was six years old, I had learned how to read and write.

We should forget about teaching children mathematics. They’re not going to use it ever in their lives. Give them simple arithmetic—one plus one is two, and how to divide, and how to subtract. Those are simple things that can be taught quickly. But no mathematics because they are never going to use it, never in their lives, unless they are going to be scientists, and then they can simply learn it later. My brother, for example, didn’t do well in school, but when he was in his twenties, he needed a job with the Bureau of Power and Light. He got a book about mathematics and electricity and he read it and educated himself and got the job. If you are bright, you will learn how to educate yourself with mathematics if you need it. But the average child never will. So it must be reading and writing. Those are the important things. And by the time children are six, they are completely educated and then they can educate themselves. The library will be the place where they grow up.

INTERVIEWER

You were married for fifty-six years before your wife passed away in 2003. What was the secret to the longevity of your relationship?

BRADBURY

If you don’t have a sense of humor, you don’t have a marriage. In that film Love Story, there’s a line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard. Love means saying you’re sorry every day for some little thing or other. You make a mistake. I forgot the lightbulbs. I didn’t bring this from the store and I’m sorry. You know? So being able to accept responsibility, but above all having a sense of humor, so that anything that happens can have its amusing side.

INTERVIEWER

The week after your wife passed away, you got back to writing. How were you able to do that?

BRADBURY

Work is the only answer. I have three rules to live by. One, get your work done. If that doesn’t work, shut up and drink your gin. And when all else fails, run like hell!

INTERVIEWER

Which of your recent stories are you particularly proud of?

BRADBURY

One of my very favorite stories from any era of my career is “The Toynbee Convector.” It’s about a man who convinces the world that he has invented a time machine and that he has seen the future, and that if we don’t change things, the world will go to hell. Of course, it’s all a lie, but people believe him. In many ways, that man in that story is me, warning people about the future.

INTERVIEWER

When you look back over your career, is there one moment that stands out as having been particularly exhilarating?

BRADBURY

The first really great thrill was when I was twenty. I submitted a short story, “It’s Not the Heat, It’s the Hu—,” to Rob Wagner’s Script magazine. One day in August I got a letter from Wagner saying that it was a lovely story and that they would publish it immediately. I yelled and my mother came running down to the front yard and I showed her the letter. I was twenty years old, and we danced around the yard. They didn’t pay me anything, but they did send copies of the magazine so I could show it to all my friends and prove that I was a writer. That first sale is so important. The psychological effect of it lasts for a year! Maybe you’re not going to sell anything else for a year, but my God, you did it once.

INTERVIEWER

Do you write for an ideal reader or a particular audience?

BRADBURY

Every time you write for anyone, regardless of who they are, no matter how right the cause you may believe in, you lie. Steinbeck is one of the few writers out of the thirties who’s still read, because he didn’t write for causes at all. He wrote human stories that happened to represent causes indirectly. The Grapes of Wrath and his other books are not political treatises. Fahrenheit 451 is in a way a political treatise, but it isn’t, because all it is saying, emotionally, is: Everyone leave everyone else alone!

INTERVIEWER

Does literature, then, have any social obligation?

BRADBURY

Not a direct one. It has to be through reflection, through indirection. Nikos Kazantzakis says, “Live forever.” That’s his social obligation. The Saviors of God celebrates life in the world. Any great work does that for you. All of Dickens says live life at the top of your energy. Edgar Rice Burroughs never would have looked upon himself as a social mover and shaker with social obligations. But as it turns out—and I love to say it because it upsets everyone terribly—Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think that?

BRADBURY

By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go out and decide to become special. That’s what we have to do for everyone, give the gift of life with our books. Say to a girl or boy at age ten, Hey, life is fun! Grow tall! I’ve talked to more biochemists and more astronomers and technologists in various fields, who, when they were ten years old, fell in love with John Carter and Tarzan and decided to become something romantic. Burroughs put us on the moon. All the technologists read Burroughs. I was once at Caltech with a whole bunch of scientists and they all admitted it. Two leading astronomers—one from Cornell, the other from Caltech—came out and said, Yeah, that’s why we became astronomers. We wanted to see Mars more closely.

I find this in most fields. The need for romance is constant, and again, it’s pooh-poohed by intellectuals. As a result they’re going to stunt their kids. You can’t kill a dream. Social obligation has to come from living with some sense of style, high adventure, and romance. It’s like my friend Mr. Electrico.

INTERVIEWER

That’s the character who makes a brief appearance in Something Wicked This Way Comes, right? And you’ve often spoken of a real-life Mr. Electrico, though no scholar has ever been able to confirm his existence. The story has taken on a kind of mythic stature—the director of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies calls the search for Mr. Electrico the “Holy Grail” of Bradbury scholarship.

BRADBURY

Yes, but he was a real man. That was his real name. Circuses and carnivals were always passing through Illinois during my childhood and I was in love with their mystery. One autumn weekend in 1932, when I was twelve years old, the Dill Brothers Combined Shows came to town. One of the performers was Mr. Electrico. He sat in an electric chair. A stagehand pulled a switch and he was charged with fifty thousand volts of pure electricity. Lightning flashed in his eyes and his hair stood on end.

The next day, I had to go the funeral of one of my favorite uncles. Driving back from the graveyard with my family, I looked down the hill toward the shoreline of Lake Michigan and I saw the tents and the flags of the carnival and I said to my father, Stop the car. He said, What do you mean? And I said, I have to get out. My father was furious with me. He expected me to stay with the family to mourn, but I got out of the car anyway and I ran down the hill toward the carnival.

It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I was running away from death, wasn’t I? I was running toward life. And there was Mr. Electrico sitting on the platform out in front of the carnival and I didn’t know what to say. I was scared of making a fool of myself. I had a magic trick in my pocket, one of those little ball-and-vase tricks—a little container that had a ball in it that you make disappear and reappear—and I got that out and asked, Can you show me how to do this? It was the right thing to do. It made a contact. He knew he was talking to a young magician. He took it, showed me how to do it, gave it back to me, then he looked at my face and said, Would you like to meet those people in that tent over there? Those strange people? And I said, Yes sir, I would. So he led me over there and he hit the tent with his cane and said, Clean up your language! Clean up your language! He took me in, and the first person I met was the illustrated man. Isn’t that wonderful? The Illustrated Man! He called himself the tattooed man, but I changed his name later for my book. I also met the strong man, the fat lady, the trapeze people, the dwarf, and the skeleton. They all became characters.

Mr. Electrico was a beautiful man, see, because he knew that he had a little weird kid there who was twelve years old and wanted lots of things. We walked along the shore of Lake Michigan and he treated me like a grown-up. I talked my big philosophies and he talked his little ones. Then we went out and sat on the dunes near the lake and all of a sudden he leaned over and said, I’m glad you’re back in my life. I said, What do you mean? I don’t know you. He said, You were my best friend outside of Paris in 1918. You were wounded in the Ardennes and you died in my arms there. I’m glad you’re back in the world. You have a different face, a different name, but the soul shining out of your face is the same as my friend. Welcome back.

Now why did he say that? Explain that to me, why? Maybe he had a dead son, maybe he had no sons, maybe he was lonely, maybe he was an ironical jokester. Who knows? It could be that he saw the intensity with which I live. Every once in a while at a book signing I see young boys and girls who are so full of fire that it shines out of their face and you pay more attention to that. Maybe that’s what attracted him.

When I left the carnival that day I stood by the carousel and I watched the horses running around and around to the music of “Beautiful Ohio,” and I cried. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I knew something important had happened to me that day because of Mr. Electrico. I felt changed. He gave me importance, immortality, a mystical gift. My life was turned around completely. It makes me cold all over to think about it, but I went home and within days I started to write. I’ve never stopped.

Seventy-seven years ago, and I’ve remembered it perfectly. I went back and saw him that night. He sat in the chair with his sword, they pulled the switch, and his hair stood up. He reached out with his sword and touched everyone in the front row, boys and girls, men and women, with the electricity that sizzled from the sword. When he came to me, he touched me on the brow, and on the nose, and on the chin, and he said to me, in a whisper, “Live forever.” And I decided to.

 

*Part of this interview was excerpted from Listen to the Echoes, by Sam Weller.