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   An Oregon Magazine Exclusive Interview

Ray Bradbury: 
The October Man by Larry Leonard
       Most of the planet thinks Ray Bradbury writes science fiction.  This citizen of the planet thinks Ray Bradbury writes only poetry.  Ray Bradbury says he writes myths and fairy tales.
     He loves the fall, movies and old-fashioned libraries.
     In a book titled Something Wicked This Way Comes  (his first hardcover), he wrote about his favorite library.  It is not like modern libraries, which with their brilliant overhead lighting and aisles of colorful books, are about as mysterious as a supermarket.  No, Bradbury's library is like a shaded pantry on the side of the house away from the sun.  And, the people moving along the dark aisles looking for literature whisper with their feet.  They are October readers whose footsteps sound like falling rain.

     Bradbury is the perfect man to be a myth.
     He is his work.  Or, his work is him, if you prefer.  He and his work are a sea monster that sounds like a foghorn -- a navigation aid that directs readers toward, instead of away from, the shoals.  He and his work are a deep, icy pool, hiding a malevolent beast made of dark --  specifically, that kind of dark which must be collected from places never once visited by light.  No recent, Johnny-come-lately dark for the Bradbury beast.  Only primordial, virgin shades for the October man and his tales.
     During a September, 2001 interview, I said to him, "The Martians in your Martian Chronicles were October people."
    "“Yes," he replied instantly.  "They were."
     "You were not born in October, as I was, yet have a lifelong connection with the month.  Why?"
     "It represents life and death, I suppose.  And, celebrating Halloween was such a big part of my childhood."
     Life and death.  Beginnings and endings.  He's seen a lot of that sort of thing.
     Bradbury was born in Waukegan, Illinois, a town of 30,000 souls shadowed by the ancient elms and sycamores of mid-western America in the early 1920's.  The skies were every day as quiet as modern American skies were quite recently following the terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center in New York.  When Bradbury was born, the airplane was barely a decade old.  It still had cloth wings.  The pilots still wore goggles. (Photo: Bessie "Queen Bess" Coleman - the first black female pilot.)
          That decade when Bradbury was growing up is called the Roaring Twenties.  It is a misnomer.  There were no jet aircraft and very few commercial propeller airliners in those skies.  There were perhaps a hundred actual factories in the midwest at the time, Henry Ford's being one of them.  Towns were often connected by rails, instead of paved roads, and were noisy once a week when the train came through. 
     It was a mythical time for America.

  He watched the rise of the radio and jazz, the appearance and demise of the barnstormers, two world wars and the Great Depression.  He saw the age of steam rails turn into the age of petroleum roads, then turn into the age of the nuclear bomb and finally become the era of robot space ships cruising the distant reaches of the solar system.  Whole companies of Civil War veterans marched in the Waukegan 4th of July parade when he was a kid.  The baby he bounces on his knee today will retire to a community on the moon or Mars in 2102.   He has lived from the iron horse to the ion rocket.  From the use of kerosene as a cough syrup to brain imaging so advanced the damned machine can tell the doctor what the hell you're looking at.
     And, so, you ask, what was his favorite part of all that?
     "The movies," he replies.

      "I think it is a miracle," I said, " that the moon is exactly the right size to provide a complete eclipse of the sun, and so prove that Einstein's gravity lens is a fact.  What miracle do you recognize?"
     "The whole thing of existence." Bradbury said in his soft, faintly adenoidal voice..  "The existence of the Earth.  The existence of the universe.  The whole thing is impossible.  And I am sorry to end this interview, but my driver is waiting to take me to Palm Springs.  Can you call me tomorrow?"

                                              II

     "Good morning.  Do you think most modern science fiction is junk?"
     "I'm not qualified to comment on that," said Bradbury.  "I don't have time to read most of it.  I'm too busy writing my own stories."
     "Well, how about Lucas and Star Wars?"
     "It's the Wizard of Oz in outer space," he said.  "There's a lot of L. Frank Baum in there.  A lot of Ed Rice Burroughs.  It's good, primitive fun.  It's the serials we loved when we were kids.  He took Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, which were dreadful serials which I saw on the screen when I was twelve or thirteen -- and were very primitive and very funny, even then.  And they've taken these and given them a good wash, and polished them, but it's still the same stuff.  You come out feeling good.  You’ve had a nice adventure."
      "And, he makes money!"
      "Forget about the money.  That's not the reason.  It's the fun."

     He had 14 years in Waukegan.  Fourteen Octobers.  His mother took him from the crib to see the movies several times a week. He says she was "a fiend" about the cinema.  As he grew older, he caught the film fever and went with friends or by himself -- as many as five or six times a week.
      But, there was something else he came to love, there, too.  The Carnegie library.
      He says that Carnegie, one of the super-rich men of the early 20th Century, was the most important American who ever lived because he funded the construction of  one-thousand, five hundred libraries across the nation.  He gave the public free knowledge, right in their own home town.

      Waukegan's library is the one described at the top of this article.  (The illustration below is from the Waukegan Carnegie Library website.) It is a solid structure, an important building.  A sanctum sanctorum of books.  It respects knowledge like a church respects faith.  It captured the future author's attention, suggesting to him that there were things of value inside. 
     He decided to give it a try.
     Because it was not flooded with light, but rather had areas of mystery here and there, Bradbury was instantly caught up by the place  There were long, high shelves of leather and cloth-bound books which you could take to a  wooden table by a tall dusty window that let in the slanting golden rays of the October afternoon sun. While the trees outside that window shed their leaves, a lad could open one of those books and be instantly transported from Illinois to Homer's wine dark sea, and for a time lash himself to the mast to keep the sirens from calling him to his doom, as well.
     Bradbury is presently working with some people to see if he can recreate that architecture somewhere.  "You need some shadows here and there to make reading an adventure."
      Just to make a personal observation, I agree completely with him on this one.  God may also attend services in a shopping center tabernacle, but one feels His presence to the soul when worshipping in a cathedral.  Architecture can be a spiritual amplifier.  And, it guides the visitor as to the importance of the events that take place within.  Modern libraries are places to get a book, not places which sanctify the written word.  It is no wonder that the young no longer hold the classics in awe.  You need to pass through stone columns into a place of quiet dignity to understand the importance of knowing. .

       "Some people compare Fahrenheit 451 to Orwell's 1984."
      "There's no comparison," says Bradbury.  "I went through a period forty years ago when CBS' Playhouse 90 plagiarized Fahrenheit 451.  I sued them.  Took it all the way to the Supreme Court, and won.  But, along the way, in order to prove my case I had to show that there was no relationship between my book and Orwell's 1984 or Huxley's Brave New World.   The opposition said that they hadn’t stolen from me, but that I had stolen from Orwell and Huxley.  I graphed them out and proved (my case.)  Huxley didn’t influence me and I had never even read Orwell's book."
      As an aside, Bradbury spent an evening with Aldous Huxley in England, and considered him, along with Bertrand Russell (who he also knew) to be one of the smartest men he ever met.

      "Can beauty be constructed from things that aren’t beautiful?"
      "Beauty," he responded, " is often something that comes from inside.  I knew Edmond Hamilton, the science fiction writer.  When I first met him, I thought, 'What a homely man he is.'  He looked like a vulture.  But, after an hour with him, I said 'What a beautiful man.'"
     A vulture.  A monster.  I thought of Stephen King and Dracula.
     "Why do so many writers of horror and fantasy set their tales of terror in small towns?"
     "We write about small towns because that is where we were born.  (When you are young) it is only natural that part of the town will scare you.  I went to see the Phantom of the Opera in 1925 with my brother, and I came home through the ravine late at night, and my brother jumped out and scared me.  So, that memory has stuck with me all these years.  When I went back to my home town, a few years ago, they dedicated that ravine in my honor.  So it's the Ray Bradbury Dandelion Trail, now."
      "You know, you’re describing a scene from To Kill A Mockingbird, don't you?" I asked.   Jeb and Scout walking home through the dark autumn woods after a fall festival at the school.  A farmer angry at their attorney father tried to kill the children, but was killed himself by a mysterious, reclusive neighbor, the retarded Boo Radley -- played in the film by Robert Duvall.  One of his earliest roles, and a beautiful job of acting.
     Bradbury has never seen the film, which I find striking, since he has loved the medium from before he could speak a word.  And, when, at the age of 14, he moved to Southern California, the stage was set for that affection to become not only professional, but of star-quality.
     He began writing before he was a teenager.  His first story was published when he was 20, in something he called "Rob Wagner's Script, which was a Beverly Hills magazine."  He got three free copies instead of money.  The first paid sale came a year later, on his birthday, to a publication called "Super Science."  The year was 1941. He received fifteen bucks for that one.  But, getting back to the Hollywood connection, in 1953 he wrote a book called The Golden Apples of the Sun.  The first story was about a sea beast that sounded like a foghorn.  He sent the book to the legendary director and actor, John Huston, who read that first story and smelled "the ghost of Herman Melville" in it.
     Huston hired Bradbury to co-write the script of Moby Dick with him and when the film came out, they both won OSCARs.
     I asked Bradbury what Huston taught him about writing a movie.
     "Nothing," he replied.  "After all those years of watching films, it had just seeped in through my pores."
     Which brings up the process of writing, itself.
     Bradbury keeps no schedule.  He writes when the passion strikes him.  He creates no advance characters, themes or plots.  He starts the story and stops when it comes to the end.  There is a key to understanding how he does this, I think.  The answer came when I asked him what, after all these years, he misses from the old days.  I thought it would be old ladies in aprons, coming out from screened back porches with a slice of rhubarb pie.  Maybe quiet skies, as well.
     He said that the only thing he missed was " … my most beloved friends."  At his age, in his Eighties, he loses a good friend damn near every week. 
      "When I teach writing," he explains, "I tell them to make a list of things you hate, and write about them.  Then, make a list of things you love, and write about them.  These are very primitive emotions, and should be the center of your writing."
 .   The underlying truth of Bradbury’s work -- what stimulates him to write from an unplanned nowhere to a very satisfying somewhere -- must reside in the humanity of imagination.  In human fears and desires.  In striving and winning or losing.  In faith or lack of faith.  In superstition,  greed, sorrow, revenge, hate, prejudice, tenderness, loyalty and all the rest. 
    "I was educated in the movies," says Bradbury, "but at the same time my grandparent’s house next door was full of books.  And my uncle, on the opposite side of the block had all the Tarzan books and the John Carter, Warlord of Mars books.  So I had a library around me."

    "Walt Morey," I said, "was the author of a number of books for kids.  The most famous of these was Gentle Ben.  He was a good friend.  The first book he ever read was called Chip of the Flying U.  It was about Charles M. Russell, the legendary western painter.  Do you recall the first book you ever read?"
   (Photo  of Walt Morey by Dennis Stoveall)
    "Yes.  A book of fairy tales which I still have.  It contained things like Beauty and the Beast --  all the traditional fairy tales.  I got it for Christmas from my aunt when I was five years old, and the pictures in it are glorious.  They affected me.  I became a writer of fairy tales.  Except for Fahrenheit 451, I’m not a science fiction writer.  I’m a writer of fantasy, of fairy tales, of metaphors -- and that's, I think, all because of this one book that influenced me and I read over and over, again."
     His chauffeur was waiting for another trip to Palm Springs.  I called him again the next day to finish the interview.

                                           III

     "How in the world do you maintain any sense of normalcy when you're a world-class literary superstar?"
     "You don’t think of those things," Bradbury stated flatly.  "You mustn't, ever.  Get your work done.  Tend to it.  Don't think of that stuff.  It's unimportant.  If something nice happens to you, that's great.  If people don't pay attention, that's alright, too. Be quiet and get your work done."
     The way he said it made me chuckle, then I asked the last question I had.
     "Let's say that you could travel back in time.  The kid standing in front of that library in Waukegan -- what would he think of the man he saw before him?  Would he judge you as being worthy of his future?"
.   "You damn rights!” he said forcefully.  "Yeah, because I belong on the shelves with my heroes.  I loved Edgar Allen Poe.  I loved Washington Irving.   I loved Jules Verne.  I thought H.G. Wells was fantastic.  I read all the works of L. Frank Baum, every summer when I was ten, eleven and twelve.  Am I worthy of them?  You damn rights, 'cause I love them and they would have loved me."


OMED: Bradbury's books are in every school and every library in America.  He is, to his own surprise, being taught all over the world.  Hollywood seems to have rediscovered him, lately.  The Illustrated Man is being remade, as is the Martian Chronicles.  Mel Gibson is producing Fahrenheit 451.  Pierce Brosnan will appear in a version of The Sound of Thunder, which will soon begin filming in Yucatan.  Frost and Fire will be filmed in Iceland next March or April.  "Outside of that," says Bradbury, "not a damn thing is happening."

Update June 6, 2012:  An email from John Learned, a leading experimental neutrino physicist:

       Ah, a sad day with the passing of a master

       john