Writing Life. In it, Annie Dillard
tells of an American novelist who took six decades
to finish twelve books. Only one of these came unbidden—effortlessly—in
just three months. "He speaks of it, still, with
awe, almost whispering," Dillard writes. "Who
wants to offend the spirit that hands out such books?"
Bradbury. Not only has he snubbed the Muse,
he has thoroughly domesticated her to the point where
her infrequent visits have evolved into a scandalously
prolonged, if not permanent, stay.
story a week. Both long and short, they've
been coming to him in daily torrents for almost fifty
years now. A typical regimen includes a pre‑breakfast
list of ideas, a rough draft by noon, and a well‑polished
tale by week's end. Impossible, you say? A gross injustice?
Surely, the resultant stories are no more than charming
anecdotes or uninspired slices of real (yawn) life.
451 and The Martian Chronicles.
Proof to the contrary. Bradbury has published more
than thirty books in as many genres—everything
from plays to poems—but
he may never shake the two science fiction novels
which made him famous. Not that he would want to.
As the following interview will attest, the 78‑year‑old
author has never considered them limits on his range,
but as the strongest evidence for his singular gift.
Bradbury compiles them. That is to say, a lifetime
of quiet exuberance and keen observation has made
him a receptacle (nay, a warehouse) for descriptive
nouns whose auras outweigh their definitions. Like
the cleaning machine in his new collection Driving
Blind—another 21 stories facilely
drawn, as if with a dipping ladle, from his deluging
subconscious—he has relieved our streets of
their overlooked treasures.
writing life. It's impossible to estimate
how much it has changed under Bradbury's influence.
One thing's certain: by trading inspiration for living
and perspiration for enthusiasm, he has provided us
with more than his share of American classics. By
ignoring the Muse, he not only snared her—he
became one himself.
you are some fifty years from your adolescence and
it seems as though you still have your finger on the
pulse of your childhood. You've often stated that
you enjoy total recall to the hour of your birth...
I found out a year ago that I was a ten‑month
baby, which is very unusual. People often doubt me
when I say I can remember being born, but you can
explain it if you're a ten‑month baby, can't
you? You're born with your senses more fully realized.
It could also be genetic because over the years I've
discovered that I'm a collector of metaphors. I have
a natural ability to discover the metaphor in a subject,
keep it with me and use it to create another, original
metaphor—a story. Let's see, I saw The Hunchback
of Notre Dame when I was three, Phantom of
the Opera and the dinosaur film The
Lost World at five, and King Tut
coming out of the tomb in Egypt at age four. I've
collected the Buck Rogers comic strip since I was
nine, and I've seen just about every film until recently.
I've also read all the great poets of the world. When
you have that sort of background, it helps you write
stories that are metaphorical. The reason that my
books are popular with kids—I didn't set out
to write children's books—is because they have
metaphors you can remember, like those found in Shakespeare
or the Old and New Testaments.
what extent is it true that, because they spend much
of their adult years hunched over typewriters and
keyboards, writers must look to their youth to recall
the raw experience of living? Does this partially
explain your penchant for reminiscence?
you said, that's only partially true. In fact, it's
a rare occasion when I write about a real memory.
There may be two or three stories in this latest collection
from memories, but that's it. Everyone says that Dandelion
Wine is a good example of childhood remembrance,
but it just isn't. It's fragments and bits and pieces
of metaphors. I just get on a subject and run with
it. I was on a bus forty years ago and a young boy
jumped on, ran down the aisle and leapt into his seat.
I looked at him and said, "My God, the energy.
If I had that sort of energy, I could write a short
story every day, an epic every night." I looked
at his feet and he had on a bright new pair of tennis
shoes. "Oh yes, of course," I thought. I
went home that afternoon and wrote the short story
"A Sound of Summer Running" which is at
the center of Dandelion Wine. It's not
a true story, you see. It's a remembrance of the way
my feet felt. Starting with that, though, I wrote
an imaginary story about a boy who wants a pair of
tennis shoes. That's the case with most of the incidents
in that book. The metaphor is true, but the story
Pale" was the only story in Driving Blind
that had any relation at all to science fiction. And
your previous collection Quicker Than The Eye
only had two—both about time machines. Now I
know that you've never limited yourself to science
fiction, but you are known as a science fiction author...
That's a big mistake. The label was hung on me 48
years ago and I've been trying to get rid of it ever
since. The Martian Chronicles, for instance,
is not science fiction. It's fantasy. That's the reason
it's still around. If it were pure science fiction,
it would've been forgotten a long time ago. But I'm
willing to predict to you that after we colonize Mars,
The Martian Chronicles will be read there.
Never mind the fact that when we look out the window
we'll see a planet that doesn't resemble my story
at all. Because the book is structured like a Roman
myth, a Greek myth and an Egyptian myth, it will still
much fascination does the genre of science fiction
hold for you these days?
don't read in the field because I did all that when
I was nine years old. I used to read Jules Verne and
I was madly in love with H.G. Wells all through my
teens. You get to a certain age, however, when you
don't want to repeat yourself or inadvertently copy
other people in the field. Over three hundred novels
come out each year in science fiction. I don't want
to read those. I want to take advantage of my own
influences—Alexander Pope, Emily Dickinson,
Rudyard Kipling, Edith Wharton—and learn from
them. I want to bring fresh material into my area.
back to "Mr. Pale" for a minute. Both it
and another story in the collection "Virgin Resusitas"
deal rather playfully, if not ominously, with the
subject of religious belief. Both have a tone, which
seems to diverge, in some ways, from your optimistic
use of religion in previous stories. What is, if you
don't mind me asking, your basic theological stance?
don't have one. I don't want to belong to any political
party because you stop thinking. I don't want to belong
to any one religion because you stop thinking. You
should only take bits and pieces from all these things—those
that are valid for your use at the time. People are
always asking me, "Are you a Darwinian?"
I say, "Yes, I am." "Are you a Lamarckian?"
"Yes, I am." "Are you an evolutionist?"
"Yes, I am." They say, "Come on, how
could you be all three?" And my response is:
"Nothing is proven." Darwin has never been
proven. Lamarck has never been proven. The Old Testament
has never been proven. That being true, you accept
all of them—don't you? And you use them because
they are tools. All metaphors are there to help you
think about the impossible. We don't know a damn thing
about our position here on this strange planet. We
don't know anything about the evolution of mankind—how
life began, why we're here—except that it's
miraculous and wonderful. You take that as a given,
stop worrying about the past and plan your future.
unique in that your metaphors are drawn both from
classic literature and what you call "the grand
trash heap" of popular culture. It's a pop culture,
however—comic books, radio drama, magic—that
doesn't seem to exert quite the same influence on
American youth as it once did...
it does. You go into any comic book store and, my
God, there are a thousand different comic books in
there. Science fiction, as a reading form, is more
popular than it has ever been; it's in all the schools.
As I said earlier, there are 300 new novels a year.
You can't keep up. People are getting interested again
in old time radio. There are all kinds of recordings
of the stuff that I did fifty years ago. All the best
films that influence us are science fiction: the Star
Trek saga, the Star Wars trilogy. And on TV there
are a half dozen different science fiction series.
there any recent product of American pop culture that
possesses for you the same magic as these?
a hard one. The important thing is that, for the first
time in history, we have a complete record of all
the best films ever made. This is very exciting. Young
people can see every single important film of the
last seventy years—cheaply. I used to be on
the documentary committee for the Academy Awards and
saw ninety films every January that were never seen
by anyone else because they weren't on TV or in the
theaters. Now you can go to any video store and buy
the greatest documentaries on nature, architecture
or world history. This is one of the great developments
with no negatives. TV itself has a lot of negatives
because you've got the MTV people, the special junky
stations and the local TV news: all crud. But in the
video market, there are very few negatives. It's just
claim that it's because of technological developments
like TV, the Internet and the VCR that we are losing
our taste for literature. Do you think this is the
think you're starting at the wrong end of the dragon.
You've got to talk about teachers who aren't teaching
reading. It's got to start in kindergarten or the
first grade. It's not being done and, as a result,
you have kids growing up not being able to read. Not
being able to read is the greatest threat to literature.
Books become less important. You don't have to censor
or burn them because there's no need for them. People
can't read them anyway. But let's not do over our
whole educational system. Every time I lecture—I
just talked to 5,000 teachers of gifted students down
in Texas—I say gang up with me and look at the
first grade. I don't want to criticize the entire
structure; that would be a mistake. It's not the responsibility
of the eighth grade teacher to teach reading. It should
be taught in the first grade—completely. Until
we do that—and we will do that, we must do that—our
culture will go to hell.
relationship with film has been an intimate one on
many levels for many years. What do you think of current
movies and, most particularly, the latest onslaught
of alien pictures?
beautifully made. The first of the Alien
series scared the hell out of me. Films like Independence
Day are brainless. I talked to a lot of
virtual reality and special effects people several
years ago and told them that they were makers of fireworks.
I love fireworks as much as anyone. I love the Fourth
of July and going to the stadium to watch them. The
sky is full of beautiful and fiery architectures.
But when the wind blows, the sky goes empty. These
films are fireworks on a sky that turns empty as soon
as the lights go out. They are cinematic Chinese dinners.
An hour later, you're hungry again. There are no vitamins
or minerals. They should be combined with interesting
ideas. That's what Spielberg did with Close Encounters
of the Third Kind. It actually had a brain in
its head. It's one of the most important science fiction
films of our time. I've just done a new screenplay
of The Martian Chronicles. I hope I'll hear
something this week about plans to go ahead and really
do it right. It was done on TV eighteen years ago
and it wasn't bad, just boring. And I've done a new
screenplay of Fahrenheit 451 for Mel
Gibson. In both cases, what you have is fireworks
with a brain, don't you?
would be great to see a tight adaptation of The
Martian Chronicles. What will it
be like for you to see the future upon which you speculated.
The book does begin in January 1999.
I just changed all the dates for the new edition.
I wrote the book fifty years ago and thought then,
"Well, hell, certainly by the year 2000 we'll
be on Mars." And while we are with several landings,
we're not with people. So I had to move the book further
up in the 21st century. The great thing is that it's
still around. I can't believe it. This is also true
of The Illustrated Man. And Fahrenheit
451: My God, that was written almost fifty
years ago, too. I've lived to see much of it occur
within our society. Not book burning, but what TV
has done to us. I think it's my metaphor capacity.
If you tell stories that are so vivid they can't be
forgotten, then you're in a secure position. A long
time ago, I wrote a short story called "The Foghorn:
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" about a dinosaur
who hears a foghorn blowing and thinks it's another
dinosaur risen from a billion years of slumber. It
rushes toward an encounter with this other beast and
discovers that it's only a lighthouse. Once you hear
that idea you say, "My God, that's great."
It sticks in your head. That one story got me the
job of writing Moby Dick, the screenplay,
for John Huston. One single story changed my life
your breakthrough as a writer took place in pulp magazines
like Amazing Stories. How is
the climate different today for a writer trying to
make his mark?
easier. There are more outlets and publishers. When
I was in high school and starting out to be a writer,
there were no markets except the pulp magazines. You
were paid a penny a word for your short stories. Ninety
percent of the stories in The Martian Chronicles
were one cent a word. That has totally changed. If
you're any good, you can get a contract. When I graduated
from high school, there were, at the most, eight science
fiction novels published a year—not even one
a month. So we all waited for the next book to come
out. And it was in 1948 that Doubleday, Simon &
Schuster and Shasta began to publish science fiction
novels that you could buy in the open market. But
it was still a very small amount.
the creative writing graduate program, the road to
becoming a writer is now largely a trip through academia...
shouldn't be. You should stay away from all that.
You can't learn to write in college. You've got to
do it on your own. Find one or two friends who'll
criticize you. I was fortunate enough to have Robert
Heinlein as my friend and teacher. He sold my first
story for me when I was twenty. Henry Kuttner read
my work and tried to sell my stories, too. Leigh Brackett
was my constant friend and teacher. I saw her every
Sunday for five years at the beach. I would read her
brilliant short stories and she would read my lousy
ones. And I had Edmond Hamilton as a mentor. What
you do if you want to become a writer is find friends
that you trust, form a little group and read to one
another. I've been in such a group for more than fifty
years. We don't meet as often now, and most always
socially, but thirty years ago we were meeting every
two weeks. It doesn't matter how long you've been
published, you still need to hear the story yourself
to see if it bores you and other people at the same
instant. You should also write every day and try to
find a professional writer who's established but will
pay attention to you. I did this for a young aviator
forty years ago. I encouraged him and he finally wrote
Jonathan Livingston Seagull: Richard
Bach. You pass it on. Whatever you got from Heinlein
and others you then pass on to Richard Bach. It passes
from hand to hand and mind to mind.
I'm sure you know, the 75‑year‑old Kurt
Vonnegut has stated that Timequake
is his final novel because he has already explored
in fiction all that he himself could. Is such a thing
don't believe that. He's a very fertile writer and
I think he's just kidding himself. Rather, I think
we should all hope that he's just kidding himself
and that he'll wake up next year and write another
does there come a time when you have to finally hang
up your cleats, so to speak?
It's too exciting. I'm writing a new short story every
week, still, after all these years. I've got three
new books out: Driving Blind, With
Cat for Comforter and All Dogs Think
That Every Day Is Christmas. That's a great
title, isn't it? When you hear it you say, "I'll
be darned. That's true." And the book is just
delightful. It's got wonderful illustrations by a
lady back east. Quite a few people bought it for Christmas.
story a week. Is that sort of energy a gift or is
it a learned art?
think you can increase your energy. The more you do,
the more you want to do—the more you believe
in your capacity to do things. A heck of a lot of
the energy comes from doing it every day and week.
How much is inherited? I really don't know. In my
case, there's just a lot of energy there. But the
ideas themselves are what give you the vitality.
witnessed a large number of literary movements. Have
any of them attracted you?
I can't use other people's ideas. They've got to be
my own. I'm trying to find out who the hell I am.
I hate any literary or artistic movement. Really good
artists may look as if they're part of a movement,
but most of them strike out in their own direction.
Just compare the so‑called Impressionists to
one another. There's very little resemblance. You
have a few resemblances between Monet, Manet and Renoir,
but then you have someone like Gauguin who went off
to an island and did most of his painting there. You
can name another dozen artists who were absolutely
different variations on the Impressionist.
I love best about your stories are these metaphors
we've been talking about, these mantras of description
which have become your trademark. They reveal an obvious
love for life and demand a slow observance of the
world. What's the best way to nurture such observational
laugh) You just do it, that's all. I learned this
years ago. It was almost instinctive. I sat down at
the typewriter and banged out what the French call
Pensees. It's been done in France for
the last century or so. They have these books that
are not quite poetry and not quite prose, but are
paragraphs of thoughts, ideas and metaphors. The sublime
example of this is Terse who wrote many such books:
Clouds, one called The Sea,
all having to do with the weather and the climate,
with the ocean, with land. He explored these ideas
in his mind. So I began to do that instinctively.
I would sit down and write a paragraph about a character,
an atmosphere—an idea—and suddenly it
would turn into a short story. I drag out of my subconscious
those things which will cause someone else to slow
down, take it easy and read at leisure.