Sci-Fi, of Course, but Ray Bradbury's Literary Exploits Go Well Beyond Either Science or Fiction
updated 11/24/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 11/24/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST
Three centuries later one of Mary Bradbury's descendants has bewitched an entire nation. Ray Bradbury has been the No. 1 wizard of American science-fiction writing for 40 years. Now, at age 60, he has published his 18th book, The Stories of Ray Bradbury (Alfred A. Knopf), an 884-page compendium of his 100 best tales. The publication date, appropriately, was Halloween.
The stories, most of which have previously appeared in magazines or anthologies, show Bradbury's enormous breadth as a writer. Evocative anecdotes of Ireland (where he lived for six months in 1953) and reminiscences of his native Midwest are blended with sci-fi tales of life on earth and in outer space. The collection, says Bradbury, contains "half the damning truths I suspected at midnight and half of the saving truths I refound next noon. One writes to cleanse oneself of fear, love, desperation or whatever."
In the process, a little morality usually rubs off onto his characters. In the best of his stories, the heroes and heroines have an inner life apart from the robots, fire balloons, dark Ferris wheels and rocket depots that intrude upon their existence. "What I do is something called magic realism," says Bradbury. "I'm a poetic maker of metaphors and a trapper of ideas." The term science-fiction writer is something he merely tolerates. "It's a convenient label," he sighs.
The prolific Bradbury has dabbled in nearly every one of the arts. When he was in his 30s, he was asked by Aldous Huxley over tea: "Do you know you're a poet?" "I am?" Bradbury asked. Huxley then began reading aloud lyric passages from The Martian Chronicles to prove his point. Inspired, Bradbury began writing a poem a day. He has since published seven volumes of poetry, and his eighth, The Haunted Computer and the Android Pope, will appear next May.
In the world of theater, he has written 25 plays. His latest, The Cold Wind and the Warm, recently ran for five weeks at the Gem Theatre in Garden Grove, Calif. On television, Bradbury is also a valued commodity. He served as consultant to NBC's six-hour rendition of The Martian Chronicles last January. The network has now asked him to adapt his short story I Sing the Body Electric for a future hour-long drama.
Moviegoers, too, have discovered Bradburied treasure. His 1956 screen adaptation of Melville's Moby Dick, directed by John Huston, and movie versions of Bradbury's own works, notably The Illustrated Man and Fahrenheit 451, have been widely acclaimed. In other guises, Bradbury lectures at local colleges and dabbles in city planning (he wants to revitalize the small towns of America with public malls and entertainment centers). He served as a consultant to a new advanced technology center at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., scheduled to open in 1982. "It's easy to juggle projects," he smiles. "You borrow energy from one and give to another." The man behind all these eclectic ventures is mild-mannered and pedestrian. Literally. Although a resident of Los Angeles, Bradbury does not drive. "When I was 15, I saw a car slam into a telephone pole across the street from where I was standing. Four people were killed. You never really get over things like that," says Bradbury. Besides, he adds, he was 33 before he could afford to buy a car—"and after that I said to myself, 'Why bother?' It was too late." Instead, he walks, bikes and taxis around L.A.
To the consternation of his publisher, he also refuses to fly. "It's just fear," he admits. "I love planes and I love the idea of flying, but I don't want to do it." Still, he manages mini book tours and lecture dates by railroad, and gets in long stretches of writing on cross-country Amtrak.
Bradbury's youth was actually spent on the wrong side of those tracks. The younger of two boys born to Leonard Bradbury, a power lineman, and his wife, Esther, Ray spent his early years in Waukegan, Ill. Despite the family's Depression-era struggles (including several months on welfare), Ray remembers his youth as happy. When he was 3, his mother took him to see The Hunchback of Notre Dame. "I suffered permanent curvature of the spine," he says of his childhood. "From that hour on, I knew a kindred and wonderfully grotesque compatriot of the dark when I saw one."
As a teenager in Los Angeles, where the family moved in 1934 in search of a better life, Bradbury devoured the writings of H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs. He also began amassing Buck Rogers and Prince Valiant comics, which he still keeps, carefully filed, in his basement. Late at night, after his parents were asleep, Ray would write what he describes as "unconventional stories of ghosts and haunts and things in jars."
Meanwhile the real world pressed in. Poverty was as much a personal specter as the ghosts. At Bradbury's high school graduation, he wore the same suit his uncle had been killed in four years earlier, the victim of a robbery attempt on a Waukegan street. The bullet hole was still there because the family had no money to pay a tailor to mend it.
After graduation Ray sold newspapers in downtown L.A. to support himself as a writer. At age 20 he sold his first short story to a now defunct magazine called Script. From then on he churned out stories at the rate of one a week and sold them for $20 to $50 each to pulp magazines like Amazing Stories and Weird Tales.
One day when he was 25, he wandered into a local bookstore and struck up a conversation with a pretty young saleswoman named Marguerite McClure. "Maggie was interested in books, in literature. And she didn't care about having a rich husband," Ray recalls. They were married a year and a half later and began raising a family that eventually came to four: Susan, now 31, Ramona, 29, Bettina, 25 (a writer herself), and Alexandra, 22.
Today Ray and Marguerite live in a comfortable yellow stucco home in the Cheviot Hills section of Los Angeles with two of their daughters, a temporary situation until the girls find jobs. The Bradburys spend weekends at a resort in Palm Springs, where Ray swims for relaxation.
That, however, is the extent of his escape from work. Most of the time he sequesters himself in a Beverly Hills office filled with books, posters, magazines and toys. Bradbury has a second office at home, an airless basement room cluttered with a model train, a battery-operated Godzilla, a mechanical robot and myriad masks. He writes there primarily while waiting for the cab to take him to the official office. "Time runs out on us very soon," he explains. "If you don't hurry and get your work done, you die leaving nothing behind to show you were here."
The ideas tumble into his head like falling stars. Visions, dreams, current events, friends and books all inspire him. One day a friend who is an encyclopedia fancier called with a nugget about how the builders of an Egyptian railroad in the 19th century raided the pyramids and used mummies for fuel when they ran out of coal. "I jumped up and went to the typewriter and wrote a poem called The Nefertiti-Tut Express," recalls Bradbury. "You've got to write fast or your idea turns to sludge."
The poem, like all of his works, sprang full-blown from his imagination. "Don't think!" commands Bradbury. "Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It's self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can't try to do things. You simply must do things."
That means finishing the murder mystery in his typewriter, another volume of short stories and yet another of poetry. Through it all he remains cheerfully avuncular. "It's terrible to be a happy author," he sighs. "Everyone expects you to go around grim and long-faced." The secret of his serenity, he reveals in the introduction to his book, is avoiding confrontation. "I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas," Bradbury declares, adding, appropriately, "When such occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room."