The Man Who Would Be Muse 
Speaking metaphorically with Ray Bradbury about the writing life
By Bobby Maddex

From Gadfly April 1998


The 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?"

Ray 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.

A 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.

Fahrenheit 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.

Metaphors. 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.

The 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.

Here 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...

RB: 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.

To 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?

Like 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 isn't.

"Mr. 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...

Yes. 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 work.

How much fascination does the genre of science fiction hold for you these days?

I 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.

Going 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?

I 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.

You're 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...

But 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.

Is there any recent product of American pop culture that possesses for you the same magic as these?

That's 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 wonderful.

Many 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 case?

I 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.

Your 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?

They're 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?

It 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.

(Laughs) 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 forever.

But 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?

It's 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.

Through the creative writing graduate program, the road to becoming a writer is now largely a trip through academia...

It 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.

As 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 possible?

I 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 book.

But does there come a time when you have to finally hang up your cleats, so to speak?

Never. 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.

A story a week. Is that sort of energy a gift or is it a learned art?

I 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.

You've witnessed a large number of literary movements. Have any of them attracted you?

No. 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.

What 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 skills?

(Big 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.