What’s Love Got to Do with It? How a Conversation with Ray Bradbury Changed My Life
by David Boyne
" Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for."
Somewhere in my once-in-this-lifetime conversation with Ray Bradbury, he told me the same story I had read in his book, Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity.
It was the story of when he was a 9-year-old boy way back in October of 1929, and after weeks of tormenting from his peers he succumbed to their contempt and pressure. He did what they wanted: he tore up his collection of comic books. Destroying those comic books, Bradbury said, nearly destroyed him. For a month he wandered in a dark daze, sick at heart, and knowing, "I am as good as dead."
What the 9-year old boy then chose to do would set the pattern for what has proven to be a long, rich, rewarding and rollicking life. He quietly, firmly, implacably, rebelled. To Society, with its crushing criticisms and persecutions of those who choose not to conform, Ray Bradbury flipped the metaphorical finger. And he joyfully returned to collecting his beloved comic books.
In his 80s when I spoke with him, he told me that the boy who fell in love with comic books had gone on to fall in love with whatever and whomever he damn well pleased, and that he had never again even considered asking for anyone’s permission or approval.
My Conversation with Ray Bradbury
The first evening I telephoned to interview Ray Bradbury, his daughter, Alexandra, answered.
She told me, “Dad is out somewhere.”
And I wondered, when Ray Bradbury “is out somewhere,” where might that be?
After all, Alexandra's dad is a guy who has imagined human colonies on Mars. He has warned us of a frighteningly real future in which firemen burn books and mechanical hounds hunt down men by tracking their DNA. He has shown us a possible future in which our children are so abandoned to and absorbed in a four-walled television reality show that they think the scene they are watching of lions devouring their parents is not real. He has also given us hilarious waking dreams in which Laurel and Hardy come back to life to move a grand piano down a staircase in the wee hours of the morning with satisfyingly slapstick consequences.
“Should I email my questions to him?” I asked Alexandra.
“Dad doesn't do email,” she said. “That's why I'm here in Los Angeles. I come here once a month from my home in Arizona to do the computer things because Dad won't use computers.”
“You mean Ray Bradbury—one of the most influential science fiction writers of all time—doesn’t use computers?”
Alexandra laughed. “I like to tease him about it.”
“Is Ray Bradbury a Luddite?”
“I guess you could say that. I like to call him Mr. Sci-Fi.”
Alexandra, a woman in middle age, had used a perfect valley-girl accent to stretch out the sardonic nickname for her father, “Mis-terSci-Fiiii.”
“Or maybe,” I wondered, “Ray Bradbury is just so far ahead of us that he's gone right by computers. Maybe we've got to catch up to him?”
The second evening I called, Ray Bradbury answered. He said, “Just start asking your questions. We'll see where it all goes.”
Then he gave me a warning. “If you start to get whiplash, put down the phone!”
DB: To start, I've got to ask you, how is it that one of the most influential and respected of all science fiction writers doesn't use computers, or email, or the technology that—
RAY BRADBURY: Computers are nerve-wracking! They make mistakes. I don't make mistakes. I've been typing for 70 years. I have 7 typewriters. But computers are too nervous. If you're not careful, if you just breathe on them, the goddamn things make mistakes that I have to correct. I don’t want to spend my time correcting a machine.
DB: You've written how when you were a kid you wanted to be a magician, then a carnival performer, and then at an early age you settled on being a writer. What do you want to be now?
RAY BRADBURY: Oh, God Almighty! I just want to go on being me! I'm on very good terms with myself. I've had a wonderful life, a terrific life. I've done all the things that I've wanted to do. When I was just out of high school I couldn't do anything. I couldn't write a decent poem, I couldn't write a short story, I couldn't write a play, I couldn't write an essay, I couldn't write a screenplay. So one by one, over the years, by staying in love, I became a poet, I became a short story writer, I became a novelist, I became a screenwriter—but it was all love, you see? So I'm on very good terms with myself. I behaved. I didn't treat myself poorly. I didn't care about money. I didn't worry about alcohol, or drugs, or anything like that. I lived a straight life, a good life, and all I want to do now is continue doing what I've done.
DB: An essential element of your science fiction is often imagining the future and—
RAY BRADBURY: Well, no. Not really. I don't predict futures. That's not my business. I've been more interested in preventing the future. A book like Fahrenheit 451 doesn't predict the future; it tries to prevent it, by indirectly instructing us about human beings, and what they need.
DB: Tell me something about how you work. In your book, Zen in the art of writing, you talk about amassing a huge list of keywords or phrases drawn from your life, your experiences, and then turning those starter words into whatever story came out of you. Do you still work from that list?
RAY BRADBURY: Yes, indirectly. What you do is this: you make up a title and write it down and look at the title and say, “Why did I do that?” Because you've got some secret information inside your head. All of us have many levels of information that we don't think we have, because we haven’t tested them. So you have to teach yourself how to throw up! By putting down a list of word associations or titles, you induce the subconscious to reveal something you didn't know you had. That's the reason for writing short stories: to discover what you know. Because there's a lot that you don't know, unless you practice every day to teach yourself to be impulsive, to be passionate. Then all of a sudden you write a story and say, “Oh my God. I didn't know I had that in me!”
Poetry is the same way. It's very mysterious. I don't know where poetry comes from. It's very, very strange. All of a sudden you write a poem that’s complete, it's eight or 20 lines. It's all fresh, and all new, and sometimes it's brilliant but it's always a surprise. Poetry is very mysterious to me. You have to tickle your imagination, your subconscious, and hope that it gives you a gift.
DB: What are you working on?
RAY BRADBURY: A new book of short stories about dogs, to be published in late-December, called The Dog in the Red Bandana. I'm putting together another book of stories about my father, and I've written poetry about him, about his experiences on the golf course. He was a great golfer. And I'm finishing work on a book of essays called Bradbury Speaks: Too Soon for the Cave, Too Far for the Stars, which will be out in late summer. I'm revising an old screenplay. And I'm writing 13 radio shows that will be directed by Norman Corwin, who is one of the greatest director-producers in radio in the history of our country. I fell in love with his work when I was 19. And it's wonderful that I'm now 84 and he's 94—and I'm working with my hero!
DB: I don't think anyone would call you a slacker.
RAY BRADBURY: No, it's just too much fun. I wrote two articles this week and a short story. It just happened that way.
DB: What are you reading these days?
RAY BRADBURY: Just reading what I love. I've been going back and rereading some of the books of Joan Didion, the Californian writer. Her book of essays, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, is brilliant. You ought to read it.
I'm going back through the short stories of Somerset Maugham. He's been a big influence on my life. I'm rereading the plays of George Bernard Shaw. I'm rereading the novels of [Thomas Love] Peacock, because he was a fantastic novelist. I'm reading a lot of stuff that's been around for 100 years or more. I tell people that if they haven't read Thomas Love Peacock, they've missed one of the best writers of the last 200 years!
DB: What makes you angry?
RAY BRADBURY: It makes me angry when people stop thinking. When they become part of a true believing society. I hate political people. I don't like knee-jerk Democrats or knee-jerk Republicans. I hate people who think politically, which means they don't think at all. If you belong to a political party, you stop thinking. I don't believe in playing politics. Just live your life and see what happens. But you can't take your advice from Communists or Fascists or Democrats or Republicans or Catholics or Baptists or anyone who is a true believer. Go your own way.
DB: Where would you go if you could travel in time?
RAY BRADBURY: I'd like to go to ancient Egypt. I'm fascinated by the pharaohs and the history of the creation of the Valley of the Kings and of the pyramids. That whole period of art history. Egyptian art is fantastically beautiful.
But on the other hand, the Italian Renaissance is very attractive to me. To be in Florence, to be in Rome, during that period, it was terribly political, it was terribly dangerous, but it was terribly beautiful at the same time.
DB: How has being a parent influenced you, your life, and your work?
RAY BRADBURY: It's made me happy! That's the important thing. I have four daughters. And I recommend to people: if you're going to have children, have four daughters if you can. A lot of people don't realize how great children can be. When you're young you don't think about it. When I first got married I didn't think about having children. And all of a sudden, there they are! It has been a frolic. It has been terrific. I've been a very active parent, taking them to libraries, to movies. I educated them to Japanese movies, for chrissakes! Every Saturday we'd see films by Kurosawa and other great Japanese directors, which maybe is a very strange thing to do with four daughters, but it was fun! I taught them the old films, and the old children's books. We went to bookstores every week in our lives. Every Saturday we'd visit at least 3 bookstores in Westwood and we knew all the booksellers. It's been a grand adventure for me.
DB: How do you see yourself? Are you a writer? An artist? A random collection of stardust?
RAY BRADBURY: I'm a teacher. But I didn't know I was. I was down at the Los Angeles City Council two years ago and they gave me a scroll and they applauded me and I got to make a speech—but the most important thing happened on the way out. As I was leaving, a middle-aged man from the audience grabbed me by the elbow and said straight to my face, “Thank you for changing my life!” And I realized in that moment that I was a teacher.
I've been lecturing for 50 years. I love lecturing. I'm a hambone actor. I fell in love with acting on the stage when in high school and I've never gotten over it. But I'm a lousy actor in plays because I can't remember the damn words. But the great thing about lecturing is you just get up and explode! You have a ball and people, they go away happy, and you're happy.
I'm not a science fiction writer. I'm not a fantasy writer. I'm a teacher. I didn't know that. But what do I teach? Being alive and loving being alive. If you can pass that on to people, if you can inspire them to live a great life and to have wonderful fun, then you're a good guy. You're a really good guy.
DB: What is your most essential advice for writers and artists and other creative misfits?
RAY BRADBURY: Fall in love and stay in love! Do what you want to do. If you don't know who you are yet, you're too young, then go to the library and prowl around the stacks and find writers who influence you, and you read everything by them and you learn from them. Like Somerset Maugham; I fell in love with his stuff when I was in high school. I fell in love with the short stories of John Steinbeck, and he taught me a lot about writing short stories. Then I began to fall in love with playwrights, and poets. Someone like William Butler Yeats—if you read him every day of your life for ten years or so, you're going to learn something about poetry, aren't you?
All your loves are waiting to be discovered. So any young writer who comes to me for advice, I tell them, “For chrissakes! Find a love and follow it! And never deviate from it. Be in love all of your life and you'll have a great life.”