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I Graduated from the Library: An Interview with Ray Bradbury

by Brendan Dowling on May 20, 2013

This interview originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2002 issue of Public Libraries. Brendan Dowling interviewed Ray Bradbury via telephone in May 2002. Novelist, essayist, playwright, and poet Ray Bradbury is the author of more than five hundred published works. His best-known novels— including Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Dandelion Wine—are all still widely read today. A lifelong fan of movies, Bradbury wrote the screenplays for John Huston’s adaptation of Moby Dick as well as It Came from Outer Space and The Beast from Twenty Thousand Fathoms. Bradbury continues his prodigious output, with four new books scheduled to be published this year alone.

Public Libraries: You’ve written in so many formats—novels, short stories, poems, and screenplays. How do you decide which format to tell the story in?

RB: I don’t decide. My secret self decides. I just go with my subconscious. If it wants to do a poem, I do a poem, and if it wants to do a play, I do a play. So I’m not in charge, I’m not in control.

PL: And how do you connect to your subconscious?

RB: It speaks for itself. I wake up in the morning and I lie in bed, and it’s the time I call “the theater of morning.” All these thoughts run around in my head, between my ears when I’m waking up. It’s not a dream state, but it’s not completely awake either. So all these metaphors run around and then I pick one and I get out of bed and I do it. I’m very lucky.

PL: In the past twenty years a lot of your books, such as Dandelion Wine, have been turned into musicals. How did that come about?

RB: There are three versions [of Dandelion Wine]. Three different composers. The first composer went off and did other things, so I had to have someone else write a second version, and then the third composer came along and did a third version. But the one that we’re doing most of the time now is the one we did a year ago in Burbank.

PL: What can you accomplish in a musical that you can’t in a novel?

RB: It’s just great fun, that’s all. I love the musical form. It’s a different way of doing things, it’s very beautiful. You’re able to sing things instead of saying them. So what the heck—why not do them?

PL: Right now, a lot of your books and stories are being made into movies. What do you hope the filmmakers achieve in their adaptations?

RB: I just hope they read the goddamned story. The best film they’ve ever made is The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit. That’s the best film, because they actually read my script and they did it. So it’s beautiful.

PL: So with past adaptations of your books, has that been your biggest complaint—that they haven’t been faithful to the story?

RB: Well, Fahrenheit 451 is a very nice film, but there are a lot of missing things. They eliminated the character of Clarisse McLellan the teenager; they eliminated Faber, the teacher of philosophy; they eliminated the mechanical dog. So those all have to be put back in, don’t they?

PL: Is that what you’re hoping will happen with the next version of Fahrenheit 451?

RB: I wouldn’t count on it because Mel Gibson’s owned the rights for six years and they have ten screenplays on it. Well, come on, you don’t need ten screenplays for Fahrenheit—it’s a screenplay all in itself.

PL: It seems like it would lend itself very easily to film.

RB: Oh God, yes, it’s automatic. It’s like what Sam Peckinpah said to me years ago. He wanted to do a movie about it and I said, “Sam how will you do it?” And he said, “Rip the pages out of the book and stuff them in the camera.” And that’s what you do with a lot of my stories; I’m a screenwriter.

PL: You worked on the screenplay of Moby Dick and have written a book about the experience [Green Shadows, White Whale]. What was that process like for you?

RB: Very difficult, because it’s a huge novel—eight or nine hundred pages—and it’s so rich with metaphors. You’ve got to go in and pick the right ones and organize the thing, because the novel’s not organized like a screenplay. And if you shot the novel, you’d have a twelve-hour movie. So I had to spend eight months reading and rereading the book until all these metaphors settled down in my head and I could put the important ones on screen.

PL: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that once you started writing, the process came very quickly.

RB: At the very end, but it took seven months of rereading and thinking and feeling until I woke up as Herman Melville for one day.

PL: Libraries and librarians play an important role in your stories. What were your formative experiences with libraries?

RB: Well, that’s my complete education. I didn’t go to college, but when I graduated from high school I went down to the local library and I spent ten years there, two or three days a week, and I got a better education than most people get from universities. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-eight years old.

PL: What’s your relationship with libraries today?

RB: I’ve lectured at more than ninety-five libraries in Southern California in the last five years to raise funds for them. They’re the center of our lives. There’s no use going to a university if you don’t live at the library.

PL: You’re also very outspoken about the need for children to learn to read and write in kindergarten so they’ll be ready for first grade. How were you first introduced to reading?

RB: Well, the first grade. And also before that, at home. My parents read the comics to me, and I fell in love with comic strips. I’ve collected them all of my life. I have a complete collection of all the “Buck Rogers” Sunday funnies and daily paper strips, I have all of “Prince Valiant” put away, all of “Tarzan,” which appeared in the Sunday funnies in 1932 right on up through high school. So I’ve learned a lot from reading comics as a child. And then as an older person I always wanted to have my own comic book. And now, in the last few years, there’s “The Ray Bradbury Comics” and “The Martian Chronicles Comics.” So I suddenly have my own illustrated books.

PL: Did reading comic strips influence your writing style or how you wrote a story?

RB: Oh no. It introduced me to metaphors. Comic strips are pure metaphor, so you learn how to tell a story with symbols, which is a very valuable thing to learn. And I learned that from motion pictures, too, and from poetry. Poetry is mainly metaphor. If it doesn’t have a metaphor, it doesn’t work.

PL: You grew up near Hollywood. What was that experience like for you?

RB: It was wonderful. I was very poor and had no money. I roller-skated around Hollywood. Every summer, all summer long, when I was fourteen through seventeen years old, I spent almost every day in front of Paramount Studios and Columbia Studios and various restaurants taking pictures and getting autographs because I was madly in love with movies. And I always hoped that someday I would go over the wall and become a screenwriter. And that’s what finally happened when I was in my thirties.

PL: Working on Moby Dick?

RB: No, I did It Came from Outer Space first, and then they did The Beast from Twenty Thousand Fathoms.

PL: So were those experiences dreams come true for you?

RB: Oh God, yes, wonderful. When it’s done right. When it’s done wrong, it’s terrible. The Illustrated Man is a horrible motion picture, but Something Wicked This Way Comes is a very lovely movie.

PL: Is it true that you sold George Burns jokes when you were standing outside the gates of Paramount?

RB: I didn’t sell them. He didn’t pay for them—I gave them to him. I got to know him, and he became a friend, and I wrote scripts for The Burns and Allen Show every Wednesday and gave them to George, and he read them and pretended to like them. They were terrible, but he encouraged me. He was a very sweet man. I saw him again about twenty years ago, and he remembered me. That was the great thing! I was at a banquet, and I saw George Burns over in a corner, and I announced to the public there how much I loved him and how I remembered how kind he was to me when I was a kid. When the program was over George Burns came running up to me and said, “Was that you? Was that you? I remember you,” and we embraced for the first time in forty years. He was a wonderful man.

PL: In reading about your career, it seems like a lot of famous people have been influential to you: Federico Fellini, Hugh Hefner, Charles Laughton . . .

RB: Laughton was my friend and my teacher. He used to stand on his hearth and do Shakespeare for me or scenes from George Bernard Shaw. He told me over and over again, “Ray, remember when you write for the theater, which you will do someday, that you’re a poet. Never forget that you’re a poet.” So when I began to write one-act plays later, I remembered what Charles Laughton said, and so a lot of my plays are full of subliminal poetry.

PL: And how did you meet him?

RB: He and his producer hired me to write a stage play of Fahrenheit 451 back in 1955. I adapted Fahrenheit for the stage, and Charles Laughton and Paul Gregory, his producer, took me out for drinks one night, put three double martinis in me, and told me how bad my play was. Which was very sweet—wasn’t that wonderful of them, to prepare me with martinis? I left the dinner, and I walked down the street with tears running down my cheeks because I so much wanted to write a play for Charles Laughton. Well, he came back a year later and got me to write a science fiction operetta for his wife, Elsa Lanchester. So I spent a lot of time up at their house in the summer of 1956. I got to know them very well. I wrote the operetta, and James Whale, the director of Frankenstein, designed the sets for us, and built the sets, and gave them to us. He was wonderful.

PL: What was that whole experience like for you?

RB: I was being spoiled by famous people. I knew James Whale, of course, in the time just before he drowned in his pool. I resented the film they put out about him [Gods and Monsters]. It was terrible. I don’t care anything about anyone’s private life. I care only about their creativity. And he did two or three of the greatest films that’ll be around forever.

PL: You must have seen his movies growing up?

RB: A dozen times. And he was a very fine gentleman. A great gentleman.

PL: You’ve been very involved in city planning. What direction do cities need to move in to be successful?

RB: Well, they’ve already done one example in Hollywood. During the last twenty years I kept lecturing and telling the chamber of commerce and other people in Hollywood, which is a disaster, “There’s no Hollywood and Vine right now. There’s nothing there.” But I told them, “Somewhere in Hollywood in the next few years you’ve got to build sets from famous motion pictures so that when tourists come there they have something to look at.” And I said, “The first set you should build is D. W. Griffith’s set for Intolerance, which was made around 1918.” Well, by God, they built that set at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland, and it opened six months ago. Go over and take a look. That’s the set of Intolerance by D.W. Griffiths, and I’m responsible for it, and as a result that section of Hollywood has been reinvigorated and people are going there for a change and eight months ago there was nobody in the neighborhood.

PL: Why did you select Intolerance?

RB: Because it’s a great set! Go over and look!

PL: How has the literary and publishing world changed since you started?

RB: It’s better. There are more opportunities for young writers to start their careers. When I began to publish fifty, sixty years ago, there were very few publishers of fantasy and science fiction. In 1935, 1940, 1945, there’d be maybe seven or eight fantastic novels and science fiction novels a year—ten at the most—so there was no market. There were magazines you could appear in: Fantastic Adventures, Captain Future, Astonishing Stories, Weird Tales. But you only got two cents a word, or sometimes a penny a word. All of my early work appeared in Weird Tales, and I got paid $15 a story. And those are all stories that were in Dark Carnival and October Country, so those stories are still around. But I got paid only a penny a word for them. But that’s all changed. Now today, there are four or five big publishers who publish science fiction and fantasy novels. So every year now, anywhere from 150 to 200 new science fiction and fantasy novels are being published by new writers, so the field is wide open and terrific for young writers, especially in motion pictures. All of the important films of the past fifteen years that have made a lot of money are science fiction films. Star Wars is a good example, Star Trek, the James Bond films—those are science fiction. The Tom Cruise films that he’s been making [the Mission: Impossible movies]. Those are all science fiction. And they make millions, don’t they?

PL: What have you liked about science fiction films? What are you looking for?

RB: Most of them are not very good. They’re full of special effects, but they have no brain. So my favorite film is Close Encounters of the Third Kind because it has a brain.

PL: Did you see A.I. last year?

RB: No, I wasn’t curious. It didn’t sound like my cup of tea.

PL: Do you imagine there’s an ideal reader for your work? What are the characteristics of a Ray Bradbury fan?

RB: I couldn’t tell you that, I couldn’t tell you that. Someone who knows how to love.

PL: What are you working on now?

RB: I just finished two new novels and a huge book of essays. And sometime this fall, a collected book of all my poetry—400 poems—will be out. So there’s a lot in publishing that’s coming up in the next year. At least four books.

PL: Would you say your writing output has stayed the same or has it changed?

RB: I’m eighty-two years old and going on fourteen!

PL: What advice would you give to writers starting out in their careers?

RB: Fall in love and stay in love. Do what you love, don’t do anything else. Don’t write for money. Write because you love to do something. If you write for money, you won’t write anything worth reading

PL: Were you ever in a situation when you were writing solely for money?

RB: Never, never, never. Even when I was poor, I didn’t do that. As a result, my stories are still around. The Martian Chronicles were all written for $40 apiece. But love paid off, didn’t it?