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Ray Bradbury, R.I.P.

Photo by Alan Light

When I was about fifteen, a group of my friends and I went up to Ray Bradbury's office to interview him for a fanzine. This was the office in a big building at the corner of Wilshire and Beverly in Beverly Hills. Ray famously did not drive a car and he could often be seen walking to and from that office, frequently in tennis shorts, waving to people and chatting with them on the street. As I would later understand, he was well aware of the power of his celebrity and name, and had consciously decided to apply that power for the greater good. He knew the value of a word from Ray Bradbury and would dispense them generously and with a certain glee on those he encountered, be they longtime friend or passing stranger.

He made time to talk to a bunch of us teenagers that day and the interview went way longer than necessary. He kept saying things like, "Your youth…your enthusiasm…you remind me so much of myself at your age." When he found out that I had set my life's goal on the mantle of Professional Writer, he took a special interest in me, especially when I made clear that I could conceive of no alternate life and that I saw it as a life, not a job. Before we left, he quietly took me aside and invited me to come back without my friends. They were nice kids and all but they didn't have my commitment to writing so he had "a couple of things" he wanted to say to me and me alone.

Me and me alone went back a week later and he must have spent three hours slathering me with advice. Absolutely none of it was about story content. He didn't talk about plot or character motivation or structure. He talked about being a writer…about living like one, working like one, thinking like one. A lot of it was very pragmatic, about how to not fantasize the profession into something it was not. It was not, for example, a profession where visions pop into your genius brain and you just type them up, send them in and get hailed as brilliant. He had worked damn hard to become Ray Bradbury and every day, he worked damn harder to stay Ray Bradbury.

He did not make me want to become a writer. I was already there. What he did, I suppose, was make me think as follows: Ray Bradbury gave me all that time and encouragement. I can't waste that. In the years that followed, I did not find all of his advice applicable or even accurate but he sure helped me clarify my thinking on where I was going and what was happening to me along the way. Shortly after that day, I read most of the Bradbury works I'd not read before and re-read the biggies like The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes. I enjoyed them all the more because now it was my friend Ray telling them to me as a person, not as an anonymous omnipotent narrator. He was still omnipotent. He just wasn't anonymous any longer.

Thereafter, I somehow encountered Ray an average of once a year. I always seemed to run into him somewhere and a few times, it was at some event from which he needed a ride home. I'd drive him back to Cheviot Hills and he'd invite me in and we'd sit and talk for an hour or two. For the most part, he'd sit and talk for an hour or two and I'd sit and listen for an hour or two, which was fine with us both. Often, say when he got to talking about civic planning and of the utopian public transit system he envisioned for Los Angeles, I thought he was charmingly daffy. He spoke of how if the job had more power (it has very little), he would love to be mayor of L.A. and ram through all his ideas of how the place oughta work. Since he wasn't probably ever going to be mayor, it would take a little while longer for all those things to happen…but of course, they would, probably by the year 2000. There was certainly no doubt in his mind or that of anyone with a dram of sanity. I think of it every time I ride the monorail which replaced all those silly, useless freeways in Southern California.

At some point, my annual Ray Bradbury encounter began taking place at the Comic-Con in San Diego. Ray was one of the earliest supporters of the convention…and one of the reasons it became a non-profit organization. They wanted him there as a guest. He wanted to attend and deliver a talk but he either wanted a speaker's fee (which they couldn't/wouldn't pay) or to be able to make that speech as a charitable donation and to deduct accordingly from his taxes. So a non-profit organization it became.

He was there every year after that if his schedule allowed though I don't believe he ever spent the night. He'd have someone drive him down Saturday morning and he'd make an appearance on stage about 3 PM and head home around nightfall. Before and after his talk, he'd browse the dealer's room, buy a few things and make himself available to those who yearned to meet Ray Bradbury or get a book signed. He was very friendly and usually quite approachable, and I'm sure meeting him even for mere moments changed a lot of lives just as he changed mine.

Also at some point, he decided that rather than give a speech, he wanted to be interviewed. I did the honors for several years and at first, it was exciting and easy. I just had to recall (or later, research) anecdotes he'd told in the past and cue him to tell them again. When I did, I could sit there as he told one and watch three thousand — one year, more like five thousand — faces of utterly captivated, enraptured listeners. He was spellbinding and I could hear young people in the audience — there were more than I expected — thinking, "Jeez, I've gotta get some of this guy's books." Indeed they did.

That was if I triggered an old tale. If I asked him something new, the interview went nowhere. He had no new stories of any interest. He did have some political views he wanted to express but his daughter and others close to him asked me to, for God's sake, do what I could to steer him away from those topics.

They were…odd. And obviously the result of advanced age, medical problems and emotional responses to some personal tragedies. I suppose they would be called right-wing viewpoints, though every smart Conservative I know would race to distance themselves from Ray's views on, for example, how a woman should feel honored if a strange man came up and pinched her ass. There were others that were well into Glenn Beck territory…though Ray not only clearly believed what he said, he believed the mere fact that Ray Bradbury said it meant it had to be so. I took to telling friends, "If you wrote The Martian Chronicles, you may be a redneck." It was one of those jokes you say to try and wring a smile out of a situation you find troubling. I finally had to beg off the interviewing job. I admired the man so much and felt such gratitude for past kindnesses that I couldn't bear to be around him in that condition. It was for the same reason that I won't attend a funeral with an open coffin.

His influence on writing — not just science-fiction but all writing — is incalculable. I stand before you as a minuscule fraction of those who were inspired by the words on the paper…and a fortunate member of an even smaller group who got to spend time with their author. If you could erase the last decade or so from the record, as I suppose time will eventually do, he would be the perfect example of what a person should be when that person decides to write for a living. The work speaks for itself and always will but he was much more than a shelf-full of important books. He was, and sadly no one will ever be this again, Ray Bradbury.