The Ray Bradbury Chronicles

At 76, Reknowned Writer
Has Good Stories to Tell

By J. Stephen Bolhafner
Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Sunday, December 1, 1996

RAY BRADBURY could have been an athlete, one imagines, if he hadn't become a dreamer instead. His broad shoulders make him resemble an aging quarterback more than a poet, and they are matched by a firm handshake and a confident posture. He's a healthy and lively 76, not a bit frail or stooped.

But his thick white hair tends to fly away like thoughts sprouting from his head, and those dazzling eyes and that mellifluous voice speak of a life spent in a gentler manner, a life filled with books, reading and writing and loving the sounds of words. Bradbury claims to have written a dozen books of verse, but in truth nearly everything he has written is sheer poetry.

When this was put to him on a recent visit here to promote his new collection of short stories, "Quicker Than the Eye" (Avon, $22), he agreed, but claimed not to have realized it at the time many of those early stories were written.

When he began selling stories to Weird Tales in his early 20s, he said, "I didn't know I was writing things that would stay around forever, I was just having a good time. But I began to notice that my stuff was different from other stories in the same magazine. Here I was coming up to my favorite writers and then I was passing them. And I didn't set out to do that. I didn't want to do that, 'cause I loved them. And it was a strange situation at the end of 10 or 15 years to look back and say, `My God, I'm alone.' "

From another writer, such words would smack of arrogance. From Bradbury, they are simply a lack of false modesty.

"When I got to know Aldous Huxley, back when I was 30 years old," Bradbury remembered, "I had tea with him one afternoon, and he leaned forward, and he said, (Bradbury puts on a British accent and a thin, quavering old man's voice) `Do you know what you are?' And I said `No, Mr. Huxley, what am I?' He said, `You are a poet. You are a poet.' He'd read `The Martian Chronicles.'

"So . . . I didn't know that. It just happened that way. But I had a bent. I fell in love with Shakespeare when I was in high school. And then all the great poets. And I belonged to the poetry club in high school, and, uh, didn't let my friends know because, you know, you can't let your pals know you're in a poetry club. I mean, that's pretty suspicious."

But pals or no, Bradbury became a poet, though he writes mostly in prose, and became famous as one of the world's best-loved science-fiction writers.

There's one problem with that. He insists he's not a science-fiction writer. "The label's always been wrong." He admits to writing only one science-fiction novel in his long career: "Fahrenheit 451."

" `Martian Chronicles' is not science fiction," Bradbury said. "It's fantasy. It's Greek mythology. It's Roman. It's Egyptian. There are only two science-fiction stories in there, the rest is mythological. `Illustrated Man,' the same way, it's mostly fantasies. `Something Wicked This Way Comes' is fantasy. `Dandelion Wine' is magic realism about my childhood."

That childhood was spent in Waukeegan, Ill., which was the basis for the "Green Town" in many of Bradbury's stories. Although he moved away to California when he started high school, and lives in California to this day , Green Town has always been close to his heart.

So it's no surprise that when he decided to do his first-ever book tour, he chose to open it in Waukeegan. In a week, he hit Chicago, Ann Arbor and Toledo before coming to St. Louis. After spending a day here, he went to Atlanta. Quite a trip for a man who used to have a reputation for refusing to fly in an airplane.

"I've been flying for about 14 years," Bradbury said, putting to rest the old rumor. It all started with the opening of Epcot Center at Walt Disney World in Florida.

"I worked on the main building, Spaceship Earth, and I went down on a train. After I got to New Orleans, I discovered they'd canceled the train between Chicago and Miami, so I rented a limousine in order to get down there, with an old driver. I guess I was around 63 at the time and he was around 70-something-or-other, and the first thing we did was blow a tire in the middle of the freeway. Well, if you've ever changed a tire in the middle of the freeway, that's great fun, huh?

"I worked on the main building, Spaceship Earth, and I went down on a train. After I got to New Orleans, I discovered they'd canceled the train between Chicago and Miami, so I rented a limousine in order to get down there, with an old driver. I guess I was around 63 at the time and he was around 70-something-or-other, and the first thing we did was blow a tire in the middle of the freeway. Well, if you've ever changed a tire in the middle of the freeway, that's great fun, huh?

"And God kept saying, `Fly, dummy, fly.'

"And then we got further down past Tallahassee and the engine on the car conked out completely. So we drifted into a Holiday Inn and I spent the night there watching the last game of the World Series and took in a couple of six packs.

"The next day the limo was dead forever, so I called the town taxi, and the town sheriff called up. The town taxi and the town sheriff were one and the same. So I had a great excursion down to Orlando with this man whose accent was so thick you could hardly understand what he was talkin' about."

With the word "accent," Bradbury began slipping into a deep Southern drawl, and by the time he finished the sentence, I could, indeed, barely understand what he was talkin' about.

"And it was a great trip, but along the way, God kept saying, 'OK, start flying.'

"So I got down to the opening of Epcot and had a wonderful three-day celebration there with all my friends. And when it was over, I said to the Disney people, `Well, it's time for me to try it. Get me a ticket on Delta, put three double martinis into me and pour me in the seat.' So they took me over to Delta, and put the martinis into me, and one of the vice presidents of Delta was there - it was a big day, you know, Bradbury flying!

"And I . . . I made it home. I sat right in the middle - it was one of those planes with three sets of seats - I sat right in the middle and never looked out. We crossed the Mississippi, and someone said, `Ray, we're crossing the Mississippi, you want to look out?' and I said, `I don't . . . I don't think so.' And then, `Ray, we're over the Grand Canyon, you ought to look out,' and I said, `Mmm, next time, next time.' And I got home, and Life Magazine, or Time, took pictures of me with white knuckles and all that.

"And then during the next year or so I flew on occasion, and I got more and more calm. And then about six or seven years ago, I realized that . . . that I wasn't afraid. I said, `Wait a minute, you're supposed to be afraid.' And then I realized what had been true all along was I was never afraid of flying. I was afraid of me. I was afraid I'd run up and down the aisles and scream and say `Stop the jet, I wanna get off!' And when that didn't happen, the fear went away completely.

"So now I've been flying all over the world. I've been to Paris six or seven times on the Concorde, and I've written an article for American Airlines Magazine. They put me on the cover, dressed up like Lindbergh, with the goggles and everything."

Nearly everything reminds Bradbury of a story, and it's no surprise to discover that he's a wonderful storyteller. He's been doing it, after all, most of his life. At the book signing, he told one of the fans who came through the line that he started writing at age 12. Since he's 76 now, that's 64 years of telling stories. In addition to his 500 short stories and handful of novels, he says he has written "12 books of poetry, 30 plays, two books of essays, 100 television dramas, two musicals and an opera."

The opera, for which he wrote the book, is an adaptation of "Fahrenheit 451," which Bradbury calls "Fahrenheit Four Five One." As with most things Bradburian, there's a story that goes along with this:

"I was in a drugstore 30 years ago, just after the film came out," Bradbury said, referring to the 1966 film directed by Francois Truffaut. Bradbury happened to see Mark Lester, "the little boy who appears in `Fahrenheit 451,' he says, `Oh, Mama, look, there's a fire engine, there's going to be a fire!' He played in `Oliver!' the next year. And I saw him in the drugstore and went up and introduced myself. I said, `I'm Ray Bradbury, I recognized you from my film "Fahrenheit Four Fifty-One" and he said, `Oh, you mean "Fahrenheit Four Five One." ' "

With the last phrase, Bradbury again imitated the speaker, with still another British accent and a high-pitched little boy's voice.

"He's telling me how to pronounce my own book! So that stuck with me all these years." He's said it Lester's way ever since. "I guess it's easier to understand," he said with a chuckle.

He chuckles a lot. His eyes seem to be always dancing on the edge of laughter, even when he's serious. He has grown into a kindly grandfather, a beardless Santa Claus who nonetheless can still send a shiver down the bones if he chooses, or tug a tear from the eyes. Stories in his new book do both.

The main impression I was left with was his kindness. At the signing, he showed up early and started signing books 15 minutes ahead of schedule. While many of his fans were too tongue-tied to do more than thank him, he chatted with several, and when one woman mentioned that her husband was becoming discouraged with his own writing career, he took time out to give her advice for him:

"He shouldn't write novels. Because it takes a year to write a novel, and if it doesn't work, you despair, you see? I don't write novels - well, rarely. If you write 52 short stories in a year, I defy you to write 52 bad ones. So you keep your spirits up. Tell him to write more short stories, and get his spirits up, and leave the novels alone. I didn't do a novel until I was 30, and I didn't do another one until I was in my 50s. 500 short stories. All brilliant."

We all laughed, but, again, it was simply a lack of false modesty.