Ray Bradbury, The Art of Fiction No.203 (Part 1)

** Interview pulled from the Paris Review**

 

INTERVIEWER

Why do you write science fiction?

RAY BRADBURY

Science fiction is the fiction of ideas. Ideas excite me, and as soon as I get excited, the adrenaline gets going and the next thing I know I’m borrowing energy from the ideas themselves. Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.

Imagine if sixty years ago, at the start of my writing career, I had thought to write a story about a woman who swallowed a pill and destroyed the Catholic Church, causing the advent of women’s liberation. That story probably would have been laughed at, but it was within the realm of the possible and would have made great science fiction. If I’d lived in the late eighteen hundreds I might have written a story predicting that strange vehicles would soon move across the landscape of the United States and would kill two million people in a period of seventy years. Science fiction is not just the art of the possible, but of the obvious. Once the automobile appeared you could have predicted that it would destroy as many people as it did.

INTERVIEWER

Does science fiction satisfy something that mainstream writing does not?

BRADBURY

Yes, it does, because the mainstream hasn’t been paying attention to all the changes in our culture during the last fifty years. The major ideas of our time—developments in medicine, the importance of space exploration to advance our species—have been neglected. The critics are generally wrong, or they’re fifteen, twenty years late. It’s a great shame. They miss out on a lot. Why the fiction of ideas should be so neglected is beyond me. I can’t explain it, except in terms of intellectual snobbery.

INTERVIEWER

There was a time, though, wasn’t there, when you wanted recognition across the board from critics and intellectuals?

BRADBURY

Of course. But not anymore. If I’d found out that Norman Mailer liked me, I’d have killed myself. I think he was too hung up. I’m glad Kurt Vonnegut didn’t like me either. He had problems, terrible problems. He couldn’t see the world the way I see it. I suppose I’m too much Pollyanna, he was too much Cassandra. Actually I prefer to see myself as the Janus, the two-faced god who is half Pollyanna and half Cassandra, warning of the future and perhaps living too much in the past—a combination of both. But I don’t think I’m too overoptimistic.

INTERVIEWER

Vonnegut was written off as a science-fiction writer for a long time. Then it was decided that he wasn’t ever a science-fiction writer in the first place, and he was redeemed for the mainstream. So Vonnegut became “literature,” and you’re still on the verge. Do you think Vonnegut made it because he was a Cassandra?

BRADBURY

Yes, that’s part of it. It’s the terrible creative negativism, admired by New York critics, that caused his celebrity. New Yorkers love to dupe themselves, as well as doom themselves. I haven’t had to live like that. I’m a California boy. I don’t tell anyone how to write and no one tells me.

INTERVIEWER

Yet you did receive the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. How important was that for you?

BRADBURY

It was a fantastic evening. There was a real problem getting back to my hotel room, though. The hotel where they held the ceremony in New York was so huge, it filled me with despair. Since my stroke, I walk very slowly. I saw a sign that night that said, next restroom: two hundred and eighty miles. The registration desk was on the eighth floor. You have to wait ten minutes for an elevator just to go up and register! That night some of the women were taking me back to my room and I said, For God’s sake, where’s the men’s room? We couldn’t find one. One of the girls said, There’s a potted palm over there, why don’t you go use it? So I went over. Nobody saw me. At least I don’t think so.

INTERVIEWER

Was that award a signal that science fiction had become respectable?

BRADBURY

To some extent. It took a long time for people simply to allow us out in the open and stop making fun of us. When I was a young writer if you went to a party and told somebody you were a science-fiction writer you would be insulted. They would call you Flash Gordon all evening, or Buck Rogers. Of course sixty years ago hardly any books were being published in the field. Back in 1946, as I remember, there were only two science-fiction anthologies published. We couldn’t afford to buy them anyway, since we were all too poor. That’s how bereft we were, that’s how sparse the field was, that’s how unimportant it all was. And when the first books finally began to be published, lots of them in the early fifties, they weren’t reviewed by good literary magazines. We were all closet science-fiction writers.

INTERVIEWER

Does science fiction offer the writer an easier way to explore a conceptual premise?

BRADBURY

Take Fahrenheit 451. You’re dealing with book burning, a very serious subject. You’ve got to be careful you don’t start lecturing people. So you put your story a few years into the future and you invent a fireman who has been burning books instead of putting out fires—which is a grand idea in itself—and you start him on the adventure of discovering that maybe books shouldn’t be burned. He reads his first book. He falls in love. And then you send him out into the world to change his life. It’s a great suspense story, and locked into it is this great truth you want to tell, without pontificating.

I often use the metaphor of Perseus and the head of Medusa when I speak of science fiction. Instead of looking into the face of truth, you look over your shoulder into the bronze surface of a reflecting shield. Then you reach back with your sword and cut off the head of Medusa. Science fiction pretends to look into the future but it’s really looking at a reflection of what is already in front of us. So you have a ricochet vision, a ricochet that enables you to have fun with it, instead of being self-conscious and superintellectual.

INTERVIEWER

Do you read your science-fiction contemporaries?

BRADBURY

I’ve always believed that you should do very little reading in your own field once you’re into it. But at the start it’s good to know what everyone’s doing. When I was seventeen I read everything by Robert Heinlein and Arthur Clarke, and the early writings of Theodore Sturgeon and Van Vogt—all the people who appeared in Astounding Science Fiction—but my big science-fiction influences are H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. I’ve found that I’m a lot like Verne—a writer of moral fables, an instructor in the humanities. He believes the human being is in a strange situation in a very strange world, and he believes that we can triumph by behaving morally. His hero Nemo—who in a way is the flip side of Melville’s madman, Ahab—goes about the world taking weapons away from people to instruct them toward peace.

INTERVIEWER

How about writers younger than you?

BRADBURY

I prefer not to read the younger writers in the field. Quite often you can be depressed by discovering they’ve happened onto an idea you yourself are working on. What you want is simply to get on with your own work.

INTERVIEWER

How early did you begin writing?

BRADBURY

It started with Poe. I imitated him from the time I was twelve until I was about eighteen. I fell in love with the jewelry of Poe. He’s a gem encruster, isn’t he? Same with Edgar Rice Burroughs and John Carter. I was doing traditional horror stories, which I think everyone who goes into the field starts out with—you know, people getting locked in tombs. I drew Egyptian mazes.

Everything went into ferment that one year, 1932, when I was twelve. There was Poe, Carter, Burroughs, the comics. I listened to a lot of imaginative radio shows, especially one called Chandu the Magician. I’m sure it was quite junky, but not to me. Every night when the show went off the air I sat down and, from memory, wrote out the whole script. I couldn’t help myself. Chandu was against all the villains of the world and so was I. He responded to a psychic summons and so did I.

I loved to illustrate, too, and I was a cartoonist. I always wanted my own comic strip. So I was not only writing about Tarzan, I was drawing my own Sunday panels. I did the usual adventure stories, located them in South America or among the Aztecs or in Africa. There was always the beautiful maiden and the sacrifice. So I knew I was going into one of the arts: I was drawing, acting, and writing.

INTERVIEWER

Where did you do your acting?

BRADBURY

One day in Tucson, Arizona, when I was twelve, I told all my friends I was going to go down to the nearest radio station to become an actor. My friends snorted and said, Do you know anyone down there? I said no. They said, Do you have any pull with anyone? I said no. I’ll just hang around and they’ll discover how talented I am. So I went to the radio station, hung around for two weeks emptying ashtrays and running out for newspapers and just being underfoot. And two weeks later I wound up on radio every Saturday night reading the comics to the kiddies: Bringing Up Father, Tailspin Tommy, and Buck Rogers.

INTERVIEWER

You seem to have been open to a variety of influences.

BRADBURY

A conglomerate heap of trash, that’s what I am. But it burns with a high flame. I’ve had my “literary” loves, too. I like to think of myself on a train going across America at midnight, conversing with my favorite authors, and on that train would be people like George Bernard Shaw, who was interested in the fiction of ideas. He himself on occasion wrote things that could be dubbed science fiction. We’d sit up late into the night turning over ideas and saying, Well, if this is true about women in 1900, what is it going to be in the year 2050?

INTERVIEWER

Who else would be on that train?

BRADBURY

A lot of poets: Hopkins, Frost, Shakespeare. And writers like Steinbeck, Huxley, and Thomas Wolfe.

INTERVIEWER

How has Wolfe helped you?

BRADBURY

He was a great romantic. When you’re nineteen, he opens the doors of the world for you. We use certain authors at certain times of our lives, and we may never go back to them again. Wolfe is perfect when you’re nineteen. If you fall in love with Shaw when you’re thirty it’s going to be a lifetime love. And I think that’s true of certain books by Thomas Mann as well. I read Death in Venice when I was twenty, and it’s gotten better every year since. Style is truth. Once you nail down what you want to say about yourself and your fears and your life, then that becomes your style and you go to those writers who can teach you how to use words to fit your truth. I learned from John Steinbeck how to write objectively and yet insert all of the insights without too much extra comment. I learned a hell of a lot from John Collier and Gerald Heard, and I fell madly in love with a number of women writers, especially Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter. I still go back and reread Edith Wharton and Jessamyn West—The Friendly Persuasion is one of my favorite books of short stories.

INTERVIEWER

The Martian Chronicles, your first major success, was called a novel, but it’s really a book of short stories, many of which had appeared in pulp-fiction magazines during the forties. Why did you decide to collect them as a novel?

BRADBURY

Around 1947, when I published my first novel, Dark Carnival, I met the secretary of Norman Corwin, a big name in radio—a director, writer, and producer. Through her I sent him a copy of Dark Carnival and wrote a letter saying, If you like this book as much as I like your work, I’d like to buy you drinks someday. A week later the phone rang and it was Norman. He said, You’re not buying me drinks, I’m buying you dinner. That was the start of a lifelong friendship. That first time he took me to dinner I told him about my Martian story “Ylla.” He said, Wow, that’s great, write more of those. So I did. In a way, that was what caused The Martian Chronicles to be born.

There was another reason. In 1949, my wife Maggie became pregnant with our first daughter, Susan. Up until then, Maggie had worked full-time and I stayed home writing my short stories. But now that she was going to have the baby, I needed to earn more money. I needed a book contract. Norman suggested I travel to New York City to meet editors and make an impression, so I took a Greyhound bus to New York and stayed at the YMCA, fifty cents a night. I took my stories around to a dozen publishers. Nobody wanted them. They said, We don’t publish stories. Nobody reads them. Don’t you have a novel? I said, No, I don’t. I’m a sprinter, not a marathon runner. I was ready to go home when, on my last night, I had dinner with an editor at Doubleday named Walter Bradbury—no relation. He said, Wouldn’t there be a book if you took all those Martian stories and tied them together? You could call it “The Martian Chronicles.” It was his title, not mine. I said, Oh, my God. I had read Winesburg, Ohio when I was twenty-four years old, in 1944. I was so taken with it that I thought, Someday I’d like to write a book like this, but I’d set it on Mars. I’d actually made a note about this in 1944, but I’d forgotten about it.

I stayed up all night at the YMCA and typed out an outline. I took it to him the next morning. He read it and said, I’ll give you a check for seven hundred and fifty bucks. I went back to Los Angeles and connected all the short stories and it became The Martian Chronicles. It’s called a novel, but you’re right, it’s really a book of short stories all tied together.

INTERVIEWER

One of the most popular stories in the book is “There Will Come Soft Rains,” about a mechanized house that continues to operate after the atomic bomb has been dropped. There are no people in that story. Where did you get the idea for that?

BRADBURY

After Hiroshima was bombed I saw a photograph of the side of a house with the shadows of the people who had lived there burned into the wall from the intensity of the bomb. The people were gone, but their shadows remained. That affected me so much, I wrote the story.

INTERVIEWER

Some of the passages in The Martian Chronicles, as well as some of your other books, are intensely lyrical. Where did that lyricism come from?

BRADBURY

From reading so much poetry every day of my life. My favorite writers have been those who’ve said things well. I used to study Eudora Welty. She has the remarkable ability to give you atmosphere, character, and motion in a single line. In one line! You must study these things to be a good writer. Welty would have a woman simply come into a room and look around. In one sweep she gave you the feel of the room, the sense of the woman’s character, and the action itself. All in twenty words. And you say, How’d she do that? What adjective? What verb? What noun? How did she select them and put them together? I was an intense student. Sometimes I’d get an old copy of Wolfe and cut out paragraphs and paste them in my story, because I couldn’t do it, you see. I was so frustrated! And then I’d retype whole sections of other people’s novels just to see how it felt coming out. Learn their rhythm.

INTERVIEWER

What about Proust, Joyce, Flaubert, Nabokov—writers who tend to think of literature in terms of style and form. Has that line of thought ever interested you?

BRADBURY

No. If people put me to sleep, they put me to sleep. God, I’ve tried to read Proust so often, and I recognize the beauty of his style, but he puts me to sleep. The same for Joyce. Joyce doesn’t have many ideas. I’m completely idea oriented, and I appreciate certain kinds of French writing and English storytelling more. I just can’t imagine being in a world and not being fascinated with what ideas are doing to us.

INTERVIEWER

You’re self-educated, aren’t you?

BRADBURY

Yes, I am. I’m completely library educated. I’ve never been to college. I went down to the library when I was in grade school in Waukegan, and in high school in Los Angeles, and spent long days every summer in the library. I used to steal magazines from a store on Genesee Street, in Waukegan, and read them and then steal them back on the racks again. That way I took the print off with my eyeballs and stayed honest. I didn’t want to be a permanent thief, and I was very careful to wash my hands before I read them. But with the library, it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read. And it’s far more fun than going to school, simply because you make up your own list and you don’t have to listen to anyone. When I would see some of the books my kids were forced to bring home and read by some of their teachers, and were graded on—well, what if you don’t like those books?

I am a librarian. I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library. Before I fell in love with libraries, I was just a six-year-old boy. The library fueled all of my curiosities, from dinosaurs to ancient Egypt. When I graduated from high school in 1938, I began going to the library three nights a week. I did this every week for almost ten years and finally, in 1947, around the time I got married, I figured I was done. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-seven. I discovered that the library is the real school.

INTERVIEWER

You have said that you don’t believe in going to college to learn to write. Why is that?

BRADBURY

You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught. The library, on the other hand, has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself.

INTERVIEWER

But your books are taught widely in schools.

BRADBURY

Do you know why teachers use me? Because I speak in tongues. I write metaphors. Every one of my stories is a metaphor you can remember. The great religions are all metaphor. We appreciate things like Daniel and the lion’s den, and the Tower of Babel. People remember these metaphors because they are so vivid you can’t get free of them and that’s what kids like in school. They read about rocket ships and encounters in space, tales of dinosaurs. All my life I’ve been running through the fields and picking up bright objects. I turn one over and say, Yeah, there’s a story. And that’s what kids like. Today, my stories are in a thousand anthologies. And I’m in good company. The other writers are quite often dead people who wrote in metaphors: Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne. All these people wrote for children. They may have pretended not to, but they did.

INTERVIEWER

How important is it to you to follow your own instincts?

BRADBURY

Oh, God. It’s everything. I was offered the chance to write War and Peace for the screen a few decades ago. The American version with King Vidor directing. I turned it down. Everyone said, How could you do that? That’s ridiculous, it’s a great book! I said, Well, it isn’t for me. I can’t read it. I can’t get through it, I tried. That doesn’t mean the book’s bad. I just am not prepared for it. It portrays a very special culture. The names throw me. My wife loved it. She read it once every three years for twenty years. They offered the usual amount for a screenplay like that, a hundred thousand dollars, but you cannot do things for money in this world. I don’t care how much they offer you, and I don’t care how poor you are. There’s only one excuse ever to take money under those circumstances: If someone in your family is horribly ill and the doctor bills are piled up so high that you’re all going to be destroyed. Then I’d say, Go on and take the job. Go do War and Peace and do a lousy job. And be sorry later.

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