Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Ray Bradbury. Not Much Else to Say...

It's been a while; I've been locked away working on the film and haven't had time to blog. But the recent death of Ray Bradbury couldn't go without comment. 

We've lost a literary giant, that goes without saying. A champion of science fiction and weird fantasy; a supporter of space exploration; a friendly, funny, and kind man. He earned the rank of Legend, and he wore it graciously.

Since there's not much I can say that hasn't already been said, I'd like to instead post an unpublished interview I did with him maybe six or seven years ago. It was a highlight of my career—even if it wasn't really my finest moment as a journalist. But heck, it's not every day I'm star struck by the people I get to speak to; this conversation smacked my upside the head like a nuclear brick stuffed inside a laser-beam sock. It's a fond memory, and I'm glad I get to finally share it.
By Doc Atomic

The truth: My dad, a man not given to literary flights of fancy, has read and enjoyed multiple books by Ray Bradbury. The author of such classics as The Martian ChroniclesFahrenheit 451Something Wicked This Way Comes, as well as too many short stories to mention, has transcended the science fiction and fantasy genres to become one of the Great American Authors.

In more than 60 years as a professional writer, Bradbury has found a literary voice that speaks with poetic symbolism and haunting melancholy. There’s a sense of nostalgic loss that runs through most of his stories, as if he’s mourning the passing of a simpler way of life—while simultaneously trying to will it back into existence.      

More of a weird fiction author than a practitioner of sf, Bradbury's a master of mood, letting tension linger patiently in the background while waiting for the right moment to reveal some terrible truth.

But Bradbury cut his teeth on science fiction. In 1934, his father moved the family from Waukegan, Illinois, to Los Angeles. Bradbury was 14; three years later, he became an integral part of L.A. fandom, where he grew close to such seminal figures in the sf community as Forrest J. Ackerman, Ray Harryhausen, and Henry Kuttner. His first sale, “Pendulum,” came in 1941 to Super Science Stories. It was then that he met Leigh Brackett; she helped him develop his writing style as the two became close friends.

In 1946, Bradbury wrote “The Million Year Picnic,” which he would later include in 1950’s The Martian Chronicles. The novel—really a collection of short stories—describes man’s many attempts at colonizing Mars... and the way our own fears and prejudices make the task impossible. Despite its subject and title, there is no hard science behind any of the stories, and they instead feel more like fables than sf. Nonetheless, the book remains a key entry point to the genre for generations of new fans.

The Martian Chronicles helped provoke Bradbury’s mainstream success, and it wasn’t long before he found himself writing for the high-paying slicks like Collier’s WeeklyEsquire, and The Saturday Evening Post. His stories often pegged themselves on science fictional or fantastic ideas, and his work in this market began to break down the walls that had previously confined both genres within a literary ghetto.

Bradbury’s first official novel, Fahrenheit 451, is set in a dystopian society that gleefully burns books. Focusing on a "fireman" who undergoes a radical change of heart, it addresses the suppression of civil liberties and questions the extent of power. Fahrenheit 451 remains a powerful and frighteningly relevant cautionary tale.

Many of the best of Bradbury’s more than 300 short stories were originally collected in Dark Carnival;The October CountryThe Illustrated ManGolden Apples of the Sun, and Medicine for Melancholy. Today, much of his output can be found in The Stories of Ray Bradbury.

Since the 1950s, Bradbury has had a close relationship with the artist Joseph Mugnaini, who created covers and illustrations for Fahrenheit 451The October Country, and many other classics. In fact, Bradbury credits one of the painter’s surreal pieces with inspiring the story Something Wicked This Way Comes. Bradbury himself is a highly regarded artist who frequently paints and draws. Examples of his work, and Mugnaini’s, appear throughout The Illustrated Ray Bradbury.

Bradbury’s stories have been adapted for stage and screen, and early films include It Came From Outer Space and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. The latter helped Bradbury realize a long-time dream of working with stop-motion effects wizard Ray Harryhausen. He also wrote the acclaimed script for Moby Dick, directed by John Houston—Bradbury eventually wrote about the experience in the book Green Shadows, White Whale.

Bradbury has won numerous awards and honors, and in 1989, he was named a science fiction Grand Master for his lifetime achievements within the field.

DOC ATOMIC: What draws you to science fiction and fantasy in the first place?
RAY BRADBURY: Well, you're free to do any damn thing you want to do. It's the freedom that I love.

When I was ten years old I fell in love with the Buck Rogers comic strips—I began to collect them. Then I discovered Tarzan and John Carter of Mars, and I read all the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. He was a huge influence on me. In fact, I wrote my first short story when I was 12—it was a sequel to Burroughs’ Gods of Mars.

He continued to be an influence, and when I was 30 years old, I wrote The Martian Chronicles.

What was so attractive about Burroughs’ writing? Why did he have such an impact on you?
He was romantic, he was fantastic. He was impossible. All the creatures on Mars—all the people—were impossible. They were not real at all, and I didn't want to write about real people. I wanted the romance of Mars. That’s what attracted me.

Was it difficult to begin a career as a professional writer?
I had complete trouble. Nobody wanted me. I didn't sell anything. I was 21 years old before I sold my first story to Super Science Stories and I worked with Henry Hasse, a story called "Pendulum.” We got $30 and we split it and so I got a check for $15. But along the way—complete refusal of editors and agents to have anything to do with me. It was very difficult.

What kept you going?
My love of writing and my love of libraries. My love of H.G. Wells. My love of Jules Verne. My love of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Love keeps you going in the world, always.

Did you have any goals in those early days?
My goal was to be the greatest writer that ever lived.

Is that all?
[laughs] You're damn right, boy. That kept me going.

You’ve always been a big part of science fiction fandom. What attracted you to that community? And how did it impact your writing?
During my high school years—1937, ’38, and ’39—I went and attended meetings at Clifton's cafeteria in downtown L.A. That’s where I met people like Forrest Ackerman and Ray Harryhausen. There were other established writers there who accepted me as a friend and became my teachers—Leigh Brackett, Edmond Hamilton. Robert Heinlein became my friend, and he sold my first short story. So he became not only a friend but my agent.

We stuck together because everyone thought we were crazy!

Science fiction is unique, I think, in that so many of the professional writers in the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties mingled directly with the fans and amateurs. In the early days, did you find that to be a nurturing environment?
Oh, it was wonderful. I got to know Leigh Brackett and starting in 1940, I went to the beach every Sunday for five years and I sat with her on the beach. I watched her play volleyball and then I read the wonderful short stories that she was writing. And she read my dreadful short stories that I was trying to sell but was having no luck with.

It wasn't until I was around 22 that I began to write stories that sold to Weird Tales and Thrilling Wonder Stories and Amazing Stories. I got half a cent a word for them. In the meantime, I sold newspapers on a street corner to make ten dollars a week so I could survive.

Did you entertain dreams of the type of success you’ve come to achieve? Did you ever have any inkling as to how far you’d go as a writer?

No. I thought it was a long time away, and it took a lot of years. But I had a lot of friends that I loved and they loved me and they helped me, so I survived.

Was there anyone in particular who stands out?
Leigh Brackett. She was about two years older than me. I think when I met her I was 19 and she was 21. She was my love, she was my sweetheart.

You’re closely associated with two visual artists: the stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen, and the painter Joseph Mugnaini. What drew you all together?
We all loved illustration. We all loved the metaphors that were given us by people like Joe Mugnaini.

I didn't meet him until I was 30 years old; I discovered his work in an art gallery. I went and I bought some of his paintings and we got to be friends, and then he illustrated my books as the years went by.

We became noticed by people as an author who has an artist who is his soul. So Joe Mugnaini is part of my life and represents my ideas.

What was it about his art that first attracted you?
He was fantastic.

Besides that.
He was a great illustrator. He was talented. That's what attracted me. He was excellent.

What about Ray Harryhausen? How did that friendship begin?
I met Ray Harryhausen at Forrest Ackerman's house; he was there trying to get some photographs from science fiction films, like The Lost World and King Kong. I discovered that Ray Harryhausen loved dinosaurs as much as I did, so I went to his house and, by God, there, in his garage, were all of his dinosaurs that he was creating and animating. In later years when I became engaged, the first person I introduced my fiancĂ© to was Ray Harryhausen.

We all had dreams of some day making a film, with my screenplay perhaps and Ray Harryhausen's dinosaurs. And it finally happened when we did The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

You’re an accomplished visual artist yourself. When you’re working with illustrators, how closely do you collaborate? How did you work with Mugnaini on covers for books like October Country or Fahrenheit 451, or any of the other books on which he worked?
He was wonderful to work for. I would do a sketch. I would do a metaphorical sketch and give it to him and say this is what I think I would like to see for the October Country or The Golden Apples of the Sun. Then he would go do sometimes 15 or 20 sketches and final art pieces.

We were two hands that clapped, so you've got a left hand and a right hand, and I don't know if I was the right hand and Joe was the left, but we held on to each other and we loved creating and we loved life together.

He was full of ideas, and he was a wonderful wild Italian artist. He lived life to the fullest, so I loved to be with Joe Mugnaini.

Your willingness to interact with fans is legendary within the field. Many writers, when they reach your level of success, remove themselves from the hustle and grind of book signings, meet-and-greets, and hand-shaking opportunities.
To hell with that. Life is wonderful because we share these excitements. I'm still in touch with so many young people.

Thirty years ago, when Greg Bear was a teenager in high school near Sand Diego, he wrote to me and I allowed him into my life. He wanted to be an artist, so he illustrated my stories and brought me his illustrations. So I encouraged him. Then a few years later, he decided to become a writer and I encouraged that. Now he's one of the biggest science fiction writers in the United States. So you have to keep your contacts with young people—because people bothered with me when I was a teenage jerk. They put up with my being stupid and wild and loud. So this continues. The fun of living is meeting young people who are like yourself at a certain point.

Your books are considered classics today. Critics and scholars like to point out that the most powerful pieces of writing are the ones that have universal appeal. Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, are just as relevant today as they were 500 years ago. I think that today, a book likeFahrenheit 451 is still particularly relevant—
Oh, God, yes it is. I'm very fortunate.

When you were writing it, though, were you even aware that a book like that, a story like that, could remain important 50 years down the line? As an author, are you thinking in those terms at all?
No, no. You can't think that way. You just have fun writing. You love what you do. I wrote The Martian Chronicles as a series of short stories. I got paid $30 apiece. The total money I got on The Martian Chronicleswas probably around $300. So I didn't know I was writing a classic.

Same way with Fahrenheit. It started as a series of short stories, and it turned into a novella of 20,000 words called The Fireman. Then it grew into a novella of 50,000 words. So I had no idea what I was doing, except that I was loving what I was doing. That's the secret of all writing is love.

I actually read a very interesting story of yours called "The Pedestrian."
That was one of the beginning stories of Fahrenheit.

Both “The Pedestrian” and Fahrenheit as a whole struck me as very personal. As a writer, the themes inherent to such stories must strike pretty close to the bone with you.
Well, Guy Montag is me. He's the pedestrian. He's me. And Favor is me and Clarisse McClellan is me. They're all parts of my soul.

Do you consciously attempt to put yourself into your stories?
No, no, no. It just happened that way.

The Martian Chronicles have the feel of modern-day fables—or perhaps fables of tomorrow. They read, in many ways, like morality tales. Was that something you were shooting for.
No, no. I don't know what I'm doing when I write.

I met Federico Fellini in Rome 30 years ago and we became fast friends. At one point I said to him, “I hear that when you're making a film you don't look at the dailies, you don't look at the rushes. Why is that?”

He said, “Because I don't want to know what I'm doing.” He said it's all got to be a mystery, provoke yourself every day to try to remember what you did the day before. So the same thing happened with me onFahrenheit and on Martian Chronicles and on Something Wicked This Way Comes. I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't care. I just did it because I had to do it. So that's the secret of all great writing, not to know what you're doing and do it.

So far the two secrets are “Love it” and “Don’t know what you're doing.”
And don't be an intellectual. Just have fun. Be passionate. Have great fun. Then you'll turn out lovely stories.

Science fiction and fantasy have always had a stigma attached to them. I’ve read it described as writing for the illiterates.
That's crap, that's pure crap.

As you developed as a writer, did you find yourself having to defend science fiction and fantasy?
Yes. But gradually what happened is the students taught the teachers. The students who loved me went into the classroom and handed the teacher one of my books, or a book by Heinlein, or a book by Leigh Brackett, and said, “Teacher, try this.”

And the teacher said, “Really, should I bother?”

And the student said, “Try it, you'll like it.”

So the students taught the teachers starting 30 years ago, and gradually the teachers came over on my side, because the students who were not illiterate, who were literate indeed, taught the teachers.

Your seeing that fan loyalty, and the way it impacts the genre and the field. The people who love these stories are willing to carry the charge forward.
That's right.

I read in The Illustrated Bradbury that you asked Doubleday to remove the term “science fiction” from the covers of your books.
That's right, because it's wrong. I'm not a science fiction writer, I'm a fantasy writer.

But there shouldn’t be categories at all. Just read me because you love the stories. That’s enough for me.

Will do, Mr. Bradbury.

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