Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ray Bradbury

I met Ray Bradbury once, in 1987, when I was 21 years old. He was giving a talk at my local library as a fund-raiser. This was the Cucamonga library, which is only about 2,000 square feet, so having an author of this magnitude was a HUGE deal. The place was packed.

Ray was 66 at the time, but looked older. Tired. Sweating a little. He spoke from behind a lectern and consulted his notes a lot. I liked that. It is a great gift to be able to speak to a crowd extemporaneously, but to me the fact that he brought an outline to a nowheresville speaking gig showed that he was taking the event seriously and wanted to put forth an organized presentation. Classy.

He spoke warmly, smiled and laughed a lot – mostly at himself. In a library of this size there was no need for a microphone. He hung onto the podium with both hands, only occasionally raising his right hand to gesture.

He talked of his childhood in 1920’s Illinois and how he always felt different from other children. He was a serious child. Observant. Holy God in Heaven was Ray Bradbury observant. Speaking that night he would sometimes tell a story as an aside, setting the place, the characters, the atmosphere and then filling in the details with a rich vocabulary and deft turn of phrases that would simultaneously transmit data to the listener while it also drew us further into the emotional center of the tale.

Then he would stop the story, realize that he was off-topic, chuckle at his own ego, and return to his notes, while those of us in the audience awoke, as if from a trance. The guy was GOOD. And he was trying not to show off.

He spoke of the craft of writing, how he would quickly sketch out an outline and then put it away for days, weeks, or years. When the story was ‘ready’ it would call to him and he would ‘take it out for a walk’, feeling all of the lush interior detail that makes his stories so fantastic to this day. And he would type everything that came into his mind about that scene, that character, that piece of the plot. Then he would ruthlessly edit the piece, over and over, subtracting, but also adding occasionally.

When it was “finished” he would then take it to bed and meticulously re-write the entire piece longhand, changing almost every word along the way. He was very clear about that delineation: Plot was daytime, sit up straight, typewritten. Voice was nighttime, propped up in bed, longhand. When he was happy with it (along with his wife Marguerite, who made the judgment calls when he was stuck with two different ways to phrase something), then he typed it up again and mailed it to his Editor. “Painstaking” doesn’t begin to describe the care with which he created his stories.

Ray also spent a lot of time talking about his other adventures outside of writing, working behind the scenes with museums and National Monuments, providing narration, words or just ideas to whoever asked. I remember him saying “You need the entire history of the United States done as a 6 minute voice-over? Umm……sure. Why not. When do you need it by?” His whole attitude, indeed his whole life seemed to be dedicated to “Why Not?”

He mentioned Politics just once, saying he wanted to create the “Roadrunner” Party. Roadrunners, he told us, travel down the very Center of roadways. When they see something interesting to the Right, they veer right. Something worthwhile to the Left, they go left. Seemed like a really good idea to me.

He barely mentioned his classic works at all. Once the stamp was on the envelope he was done with it and already moving onto the next thing. For someone so nostalgic and sentimental about the past he was almost relentlessly forward thinking.

Ray spoke to us for about 90 minutes or two hours. We were so entranced I’m sure nobody had any idea of the time elapsed. After the talk he sat down heavily into a chair behind a table and signed anything we brought up to him. At the time I was a library devotee and so the only book of his that I actually OWNED was a crappy old paperback of “The Martian Chronicles” with a torn cover and a big “75¢” sticker plastered on the front. 

I shyly handed it to him, apologizing for its condition. He examined it for a moment, turning it over and back. Then he chuckled and looked up at me. “It’s okay,” he said with a twinkle in his eye, “I like this one.” He opened the torn cover and signed his name low on the flyleaf so it would be covered by what was left of the cover. No message, and he didn’t ask my name. Just the signature. I moved on, and he warmly greeted the next person in line.

The next week I went back to the library to drop off and pick-up some books. The place was still buzzing with its brush with Greatness. I asked my Librarian about how that night came about. She told me that one of the volunteers was friends with someone who worked with his publisher. The most tenuous of connections, to be sure. But the library needed the funds, so they wrote to him, and he simply replied with the dates that he was available. She smiled and said quietly (as Librarians are wont to do): “Just like that. No questions. No asking for proof or paperwork or credentials or anything. Just ‘we need help’ and he comes back with ‘here’s when I can make it’. Unbelievable.”

I told her he seemed very nice, but older than I expected. She looked slyly at me. “Did you notice his hands gripping the podium and how he kind of collapsed into the chair after the speech?” I nodded that I had. “He had a 102 degree temperature that night. We told him that he shouldn’t come and speak to us, but he was stubborn. ‘Libraries are important!’ he kept repeating, ‘I’ll be there’. But oh, the dear man could barely stand. By the time his driver came for him he had an icepack on his forehead and his voice was gone.” She shook her head. “Unbelievable.”

Ironically I haven’t read much Ray since that time. At 21 I was starting to find my own voice as a writer and I quickly found that Bradbury was one of three writers that tended to ‘poison’ my own voice. I can read almost anybody and maintain my own style, but some writers are so individual, so idiosyncratic that their mannerisms bleed all over mine and make my writing sound like a really bad impression of their writing.

So when I read Kurt Vonnegut I lost the ability to use adjectives. Everything is nouns and verbs. Subject and predicate. When I read Tom Robbins I lose the ability to plot. Everything just becomes description, endless asides and digressions about the most mundane of details suddenly transmogrified into wildly baroque symphonies of sound that were glorious fun to write but which always sound like shit upon second reading. And when I read Bradbury everything I write becomes Tone. Just atmosphere and shading and foreboding and setting that never actually gets to the part where things “happen”.

As it happens though last month I picked up a hardcover anthology of Bradbury and another used paperback of The Martian Chronicles. (My signed copy I had to sell years ago to make the rent.) It was like reconnecting with old friends. And I have found that if I just read ONE short story inbetween the other books I read, then I can keep my own writing sensibilities.

So it is with great sadness that I learn that Ray Bradbury died today. He will always be one of my Literary Heroes, even if I can’t write like him.

Then again - no one could write like Ray Bradbury.

Angus McMahan


  1. Love the story, but just one copyedit - ummm, KURT Vonnegut? I like the injection of Kirk, as I has all sorts of fond memories of the name, but in this case, it is not the right choice. (lori)

  2. So well done, Angus. You have connected me with Mr. Bradbury in a profound and likable way. Thank you!

  3. LLP: Good catch! I was obviously thinking that Mr. Vonnegut was the Captain of the Enterprise. (corrected now.)
    Miss Chris: He was a profound and likable man!

  4. I love the difference between Bradbury's ruthless editing and a story I once heard about Vonnegut...that he never erased a word he wrote.

  5. Thank you for sharing your memory with us. I met Mr. Bradbury once myself, and it was just as you said (minus the fever, poor man!). Ray was so loved by the Gods that Venus Herself came to take him home (he passed during the Transit of Venus crossing the sun).
    Only Mark Twain has held such an honor before (born and died with Haley's Comet).