Spotlight On Ray BradburyBy Joseph Di Lella
Posted at April 21, 2003 - 11:17 AM GMT
Joseph Di Lella, writer of the Do You Have What It Takes To Write For Star Trek? series, has penned this follow-up article on science fiction great Ray Bradbury in the hopes that his story might inspire future science fiction and Star Trek writers.
The writing of this profile piece initially came to mind after attending Mr. Bradbury's workshop (sponsored by the Learning Annex) held at Point Loma Nazarene College in San Diego, California, on March 15, 2003. Information for this article, besides Mr. Bradbury's frank discussions with the audience, was derived from this writer's earlier professional contacts with Ray, and from informal talks with the author's longtime friends.
If this article piques your interest, log onto RayBradbury.com for more information about his books, life and to view short video clips on the man and the legend.
Every time I meet up with Ray Bradbury, it's like attempting to peel an onion. Though Ray is a brutally honest man, I often ask myself, what is the true nature of the multi-layered personality behind the pen? Facts alone do not tell the true story of one of the most beloved science fiction writers of the late twentieth century.
Ray is a man full of opinions, hopes and passions. Just like an Irish uncle, he also has a wee bit of blarney in him. That's the key to understanding the real Mr. Bradbury - seeing through the blustery veneer clear to the backbone of a simple man who wanted nothing more from life than to be remembered for his writing. "I just wanted to be next to L. Frank Baum in the library shelves...and now I am, for all times." To readers worldwide for the past 50 plus years, his works have inspired a generation of writers. But for his friends, the man has been a mentor, a teacher and a philosopher - much more than a mere face on a dusty book jacket in a public library.
Last summer at my neighbour's 95th birthday party, I met one of Ray's ex-classmates from Los Angeles High School. The classmate (we'll call him 'John'), still a prominent lawyer, remembers Ray as one of the few members of his gang who did not enroll at Stanford University. Mr. Bradbury claims he was too poor to attend. John asserts otherwise, instead believing that Ray could have attended college on a scholarship or a government loan. "Ray wanted to write, period, not attend useless classes," according to his old classmate.
Instead of stationing himself in Palo Alto, California, for a four year degree, Mr. Bradbury enlisted the help of a loving, but tough English teacher. Why? Ray was not considered a great writer as a high school senior. None of his short stories made it to the yearbook (two poems did, however). According to John, the kind, but strict taskmaster remanded Ray to stop by her classroom every day after school to work on his grammar skills. "She said that since he wasn't going to college, but still wanted to write professionally, he needed to show up every day for extra tutoring." This teacher, ultimately, helped Ray become the writer he is today, John believes.
In 1939 at the age of 19, Ray became editor of his own fanzine called Future Fantasia. Though he was a novice at the publishing game, he recruited a young Forrest J. Ackerman (later to become Ray's literary agent and publisher of the popular Famous Monster of Filmland magazine) as a benefactor. Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein became a principal writer; Hannes Bok the illustrator. The publication never garnered much of a following, but nevertheless, Ray made invaluable professional connections. In fact, Ray and Forry Ackerman are still pals today, living within shouting distance of each other in the Los Angeles foothills.
In 2001, during a weekend fan tour of his famous home/museum (the Ackermansion, 5,800 sq. feet of which formerly hosted over 300,000 pieces of science fiction movie and TV memorabilia), Forry told us the story of one of Ray's youthful schemes. "He knew I was a big Edgar Rice Burroughs fan. So one day he wandered over to my house and said, 'Forry I've got a movie date this weekend with a beautiful young lady, and wouldn't you know it, I'm out of cash'." Forry, himself a young man at the time, commiserated with his pal. "Would you be willing to loan me three dollars for, say, an autographed Tarzan book?" Ray asked.
Forry, ever the collector, took the book. And Ray? He got his glamorous date — but lost face later on. As an adult, twenty years later, Mr. Bradbury admitted to his friend that the signature in the book was his own — not from the famous author. "I suspected it, but I knew he was in desperate shape." At the time of the fan tour in 2001, Forry still had the book prominently displayed on the mantlepiece in his den. Tarzan rested there to remind Forry of what a joker his pal could be, and still is, today. "I'll gladly give it back to him if he returns my three dollars."
I asked Ray about this incident two years ago at a book signing. He laughed, and patted my hand gently. "Oh no that story can't be true...I must have asked for five dollars - three wouldn't have gotten me very far back in those days."
As a young newlywed, Mr. Bradbury still had trouble raising money as a struggling writer. According to Mr. Bradbury, his fiancée, Maggie, only had eight dollars in her bank account the day they wed. As the groom handed the priest an envelop filled with a crisp five dollar bill, the tall, slender man asked the groom, "You want to become a writer don't you?" Ray nodded politely. The priest handed back the envelop. "Here, you'll need this more than me." Though he eventually paid the kindly man, Ray never needed help from the clergy again.
During his early years of marriage, Ray sold newspapers from 1938-1942 while his wife worked at Abbey Rents (a furniture lending store). While raising four children on their meager salaries, Ray's wife learned she had to hide her wallet from her husband. Ray's pet hobby - buying books - nearly drove them to the poor house. "After a while, she knew not to trust me with the money. I'd go to the store and come back with an armful of books. Today she's still asking me to throw the [expletive] things away. I keep telling her, Honey, you never know when I may need one for my next project."
Though Mr. Bradbury's first book, Dark Carnival, was published in 1947, his breakthrough manuscript was sold to Doubleday Publishing House in 1949. In another writer's symposium, Ray told the story of taking a train across country to try and sell his collection of short stories. After the train fare, Ray was left with ten dollars in his pocket. Thus, the young Bradbury stayed at the YMCA, mostly eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches during his brief stay in the Big Apple.
Throughout the four-day train ride, Ray worried that he may not have what the publisher needed. "When I arrived in the editor's office, I slammed the whole stack of stories, which had taken four years to write, down on the poor man's desk." The sympathetic editor at Doubleday, a Mr. Walter Bradbury (no relation to Ray), looked at the young man as if he knew Ray was crazy. Still, Walter had faith in this impetuous kid. "Walter asked me to write an outline. He knew he could make these fantastic stories into a book."
Ray stayed up that night, composed a respectable outline, and brought the work back to the publishing giant the next morning. Mr. Bradbury paid Ray $750 for the collection of stories, later to be named The Martian Chronicles. Though it took three years to sell only 3,000 copies (of which Ray bought the last ninety himself), the book's advance paid for a year's rent on Ray's modest rental home in Venice, California.
Though Ray was a fairly successful author after selling his first three books (Dark Carnival, The Martian Chronicles, and The Illustrated Man), his next short-lived career as a screenwriter gave him joy as well. How did it all start? "I had just been to my favorite bookstore in Santa Monica with a good friend. I returned home and the wife said, 'John Huston called. He's in town and wants you to come to his hotel room tonight'."
On that day, Ray dashed over to the hotel, where Mr. Huston poured him a glass of whisky. Mr. Bradbury says he was "madly in love with the man" because of Huston's cinematic genius. "He asked me what are you doing for the next year? I answered, 'not a whole lot, Mr. Houston'. Then the renowned director asked Ray the big question: "Ray, how would like come to Ireland with me for a year to kill the big white whale?" Mr. Huston was referring to Herman Melville's classic, Moby Dick. Ray agreed. Within a few months, he moved his entire family to the Emerald Island.
After nine frustrating months, Ray finally rid himself of writer's block to finish the last 35 pages of the screenplay in an eight-hour stretch. "I went to the mirror one morning and saw Ahab staring back at me...I became the character." Today in his basement study, Ray sits in John's director's chair to write his latest works.
As of March 15th, Mr. Bradbury has privately celebrated the opening nights of three of his plays in Los Angeles, California. Though he can't possibly attend all of the openings, it pleases Ray to see his works come alive on stage. For Ray, a visually dramatic rendering of his work teaches a new generation to use their imagination.
In that same week, Ray-the-writer completed a short story about an American Indian who won back his territories in a high stakes gambling competition. The story ends with the President playing one hand with the Chief in hopes of winning back the country. "I just hope someone publishes the damn thing because it's really good."
In terms of upcoming cinematic triumphs, Ray hopes that The Martian Chronicles, will finally be made into a movie in the next few years. Screen actor Mel Gibson owns movie rights to his work, but Mr. Bradbury has his doubts upon a start date. "I've written several versions of the screenplay myself, but they don't like my interpretation of my work."
Ray's two other works, The Illustrated Man and Dark Carnival, have also been optioned by studios. "I've written five revisions of my Illustrated Man screenplay. You know what they (Hollywood Powers That Be) say? I'm not a screenwriter." With screen credits including Moby Dick and 64 episodes of the acclaimed Ray Bradbury Theatre behind him — Ray violently disagrees.
"Writing is like a marriage...a lie to try and prove out," according to Mr. Bradbury. Like the vows one takes in a committed relationship, Ray says: "Everything (in a writer's life) is a promise you live out to make the promise true." According to Mr. Bradbury, "First, you build a strong structure". To Ray, this means reading great literary works. He also implies that a writer must learn the task from rigorous teachers who do not spare the whip. Perhaps most importantly, Ray believes that "if you don't have a mad love of writing, get out of it and forget it."
As a writer, Ray's strictest rule is that writers use 'metaphorical structure' in their stories. Writing in metaphors is the only way to develop a sharp, clear story, according to Ray. "Look to all the great writers, and they have hundreds, maybe thousands of them scattered throughout their stories."
For writers early in their career, Ray recommends that they "read 1,000 essays, 1,000 poems, and 1,000 short stories — but make them great ones." Mr. Bradbury also believes that only after you're done this reading should you seriously attempt writing. "After a year of writing (only one time per week), you'll have a collection of fifty stories, essays or poems completed, right? Put the great American novel aside. It'll frustrate you."
Would Ray advise anyone to attend a famous film school, like USC (University of Southern California), for a degree in screenwriting? "I would never recommend anyone to go into screenwriting or TV writing. You'll never be remembered for any of that junk years from now."
What of people who critique your work? You know, the ones who point out you're not a decent scribe? "Then they're not your real friends. Tell them all to go to hell. Get new friends. Form a writers' group that will support you in the tough times."
Speaking of support groups, Rays talked about his 1960s writers' workshop (which included the famous science fiction writer Harlan Ellison). Although Harlan and Ray were inseparable in those days, another workshop participant drew the writer's favour. Though Ray liked the man dearly, he didn't care much for the genre. Regardless of this view, Ray spent many hours fleshing out a manuscript idea with Richard. The writer, Richard Bach, later published Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which went on to sell millions of copies worldwide.
At the March 15th question and answer session at the college symposium, an older writer asked Mr. Bradbury about computers and advanced software packages. Ray responded that writers must "write on anything, using any medium." Mr. Bradbury went on to tell an inspiring tale of a day he tramped around the local college campus in Westwood, and to his surprise, found the bowels of the UCLA library. To Ray, this was a writer's paradise. For only ten cents an hour, students (or would be writers) could rent a typewriter. In only nine days, and for a cost of $9.80, Ray completed his most critically acclaimed and socially conscious work, Fahrenheit 451.
Today, Ray still writes on an old typewriter in basement at home. "Whatever works for you, do it...but, I tell you this. Give a hundred writers a single topic. If I'm amongst them, sitting in that big room, they'll have written their stories quicker, but I'll have written the best god damn one," said Ray, laughing at his own over-confidence.
When asked about mankind's future on Mars, Ray had this to say: "It will come — it has to." Not convinced of Ray's conviction, the young man asked if Ray had heard about the recent news that background radiation on the planet may make it impossible for astronauts to explore the surface for long periods of time. Ray shook his head. "We never should have left the moon. The shuttle missions are fine, for mapping out the Earth, doing research, but where has it brought us? Humankind's future is exploration of the universe, and damn the small troubles," Ray expressed.
The next to last question was reserved for Ray's good friend, Sheldon Dorf (former inker of the famous Steve Canyon comic strip and founder of the wildly popular San Diego Comic Convention, held annually). "Do you like the Harry Potter books?" asked Shel. Ray, answered, "No, never read the books, but I've seen the movies...the boy doesn't do anything, does he? You don't learn anything about witchcraft, do you? What does he do behind his door in his uncle's home? We never see it? Where's the mystery, the wonder?"
Does Ray believe in the future of humanity? "I'm an Optimal Behaviorist," he said. "Do things that make you feel good every morning." In living that type of life, Ray said he believes people will create their own best existence. "Don't wait for someone else to make your world your better place. That day may never come."
These days, Ray Bradbury is still a gracious elder statesman to his fans — but a devil to his harshest critics. Although he's in his early 80s, he says he can still compose a story better than any man alive. From reading his latest works, he has a valid argument.
Sure, Ray doesn't have a college education. He didn't even have a regular full-time job he was proud of until he sold his first manuscript. Yet, that never prevented him from building a life, raising a family, nor creating over 500 published works over a lifetime. Through Mr. Bradbury's inspirational stories, books, plays and articles, he has helped develop a strong community of writers to follow in his footsteps.
These days, you can still see that mischievous look in his eyes, possibly looking to put one over on an old friend. For all of his eccentricities, whether they be inspired from the divine or from the depths of hell, he is still a most amazing writer, teacher and philosopher.
Joseph Di Lella is a freelance writer and panelist at the San Diego Comic Con. He can be reached via this page at AllExperts.com.