Playboy Interview: Ray Bradbury
Even at the age of 75, there's something childlike about Ray Bradbury. He bounces with enthusiasm, he nearly always wears shorts and his homes are stocked with toys - from the statue of Bullwinkle that presides over the basement of his Los Angeles home to the nine-foot dinosaur that occupies its own bed at his desert hideaway.
Bradbury is fascinated with bigger toys, too. Like spaceships (real ones) and Martians (imaginary ones). With his white hair and grinning, ruddy face, he defies you to take him seriously. But then he starts talking and you realize you're in the presence of a vast mind whose interests span the galaxy. His writing has baffled people much the same way. His early work was ignored - after all, it was science fiction and was thus treated with the scorn often saved for comic books and romance novels.
"The Martian Chronicles," "Dandelion Wine," "Fahrenheit 451," "The Illustrated Man" and other Bradbury works came out at a time when science fiction was deemed a refuge for hacks and would-be writers who droned on in technical prose about gizmos and gadgets of their imaginations. Bradbury, however, was no drone. His prose soared like literature, and he populated his tales with appealing characters and inventive contraptions. Beyond that, he introduced challenging themes and asked the complex questions that had been the province of serious novelists. No one in science fiction had asked them before.
Today, in this age of "Star Trek" and "The X Files," it's hard to imagine life without Bradbury's influence. In addition to his books, he has published more than 500 short stories and hundreds of teleplays, plus stage plays, operas, essays, nonfiction and the screenplay for John Huston's version of "Moby Dick." He gives 50 lectures a year and is consulted by a variety of professions, from space science to municipal government. Having trouble getting the residents of your city to use mass transit? Bradbury can offer a quick fix. Are you the owner of a dying mall? Bradbury will tell you how to bring back the customers. Disney hired him to help design Epcot, and NASA flew him to Cape Canaveral to lecture astronauts.
Yet Bradbury seldom sees any of his work reviewed in 'The New York Times," "The New Yorker," "The Atlantic" or any other house organs of the intelligentsia. Science fiction purists scoff at his attempts at poetry and metaphoric fancy. Undaunted, he rises each morning and heads to the typewriter (computers, he complains, are too quiet) to write, a habit that began when he was a teen in Los Angeles.
In 1934, Bradbury's father, made jobless by the Depression, moved his family from Waukegan, Illinois to Los Angeles, where he found a steady job and an apartment right in the middle of Hollywood. It was a magical summer for the 14-year-old Bradbury, who roller-skated to movie premieres, studio gates and the Brown Derby to badger movie stars for autographs.
He was determined to break into show business and nagged George Burns so persistently that Burns finally used some of Bradbury's writing in the vignettes that close the "Burns and Allen" radio show. With no money for college, he spent three years after high school selling newspapers and every free moment reading at the library and browsing local bookstores. He also took a writing class and sold his first story (for $13.75). At 22, he found his writer's voice with the short story "The Lake," which gave him the confidence to write full-time. In another burst of confidence, he asked a young bookstore clerk out for coffee. Maggie is the only woman he has ever dated, and in 1947 he married her (they are still together and are the parents of four grown daughters). Over the next few years he eked out a living selling short stories to magazines until he his Martian pay dirt.
His first novel, "The Martian Chronicles," was published in 1950 (it has remained in print ever since) and was hailed - in an influential review by literary heavyweight Christopher Isherwood - for eliminating the traditional technical exposition found in most science fiction and for invoking the power of metaphor.
Despite Isherwood's praise, "The Martian Chronicles" pigeonholed Bradbury as a science fiction writer - but it also put him in the company of Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, first-rate talents trying to bring creativity and respectability to the genre.
With his next book, he established his reputation as a generally popular writer: 1951's "The Illustrated Man" is an eerie portrayal of a man literally turned inside out. In 1953 he published what many believe is his most compelling novel: "Fahrenheit 451." The title refers to the temperature at which books burst into flames, and the story is a neo-Orwellian tale of a totalitarian society in which books are forbidden. The book was timely warning against the anti-Communist hysteria that had gripped the country. (In the movie business the Hollywood Ten were sent to prison for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and in the Screen Writers Guild Bradbury was one of the lonely voices opposing the loyalty oath imposed on its members.)
Bradbury endured "the worst six months of my life" after agreeing to write the screenplay of "Moby Dick" for Huston. He recounts the ordeal in a memoir entitled "Green Shadows, White Whale," released in 1992.
After Bradbury made a dismal attempt at adapting "Fahrenheit 451" into a stage play for Charles Laughton, Francois Truffaut turned it into a movie that proved to be an artless hodgepodge and box-office dud. Bradbury did, however, create an original screen treatment for what is considered one of the most influential science fiction movies ever made, "It Came From Outer Space." "The October Country" is a chilling collection of short stories, while "Dandelion Wine" powerfully recalls Bradbury's boyhood awakenings.
With the science fiction boom in the aftermath of Sputnik, Bradbury's popularity soared; when NASA's Viking landed on Mars in 1976, he was hailed as a space-age prophet. These days he's busier than ever, with an output that now includes 29 books, among them this year's "Quicker Than the Eye," a collection of 20 new short stories (another 500 await his fine-tuning for publication), and two volumes of essays. In addition, he writes most of the half-hour episodes for the weekly "Ray Bradbury Theater" on the Science Fiction Channel.
Playboy sent writer Ken Kelley, who interviewed Arthur C. Clarke for this magazine, to talk with Bradbury at his Los Angeles residence. Kelley reports:
"When I arrived at his modest home of 40 years in an obscure Los Angeles neighborhood, Bradbury was standing on the front porch bellowing about one of his arch nemeses, the automobile - specifically, his wife's brand-new one, which had been stolen the night before, 'right in front of my own house!' Bradbury is one of the few Angelenos who has never driven a car. Maggie pointed out that they were insured, and when that failed to calm him she offered the first of many heaping bowls of popcorn. That did the trick, and he soon became the avuncular raconteur.
"Our weeklong noon-to-dusk sessions were an emotional seesaw between laid-back reminiscences and sudden bursts of passion whenever we touched on any one of Bradbury's pet peeves - Los Angeles, politics, censorship, educators, bureaucrats, cars. He is always blunt and often politically incorrect and he rarely backs down, no matter how unpopular his views. When he raised the logical solutions he espouses in countless essays and on the lecture circuit, I could tell why he's so popular: His enthusiasm is so spontaneous he reminds you of an insistent child - a big, overgrown kid not unlike the one who roller-skated up to Oliver Hardy and asked for his autograph. He beamed as he signed the dog-eared copy of 'Dandelion Wine' I've kept since I was ten years old."
P: Many people don't take science fiction seriously, and yet you maintain that it is the essential literature of our age. Why is it so important?
B: In science fiction, we dream. In order to colonize in space, to rebuild our cities, which are so far out of whack, to tackle any number of problems, we must imagine the future, including the new technologies that are required.
P: Yet most people don't consider science fiction to be part of mainstream literature.
B: It isn't part of the mainstream - science fiction is the mainstream. It has been since Sputnik. And it will be for the next 10,000 years.
P: So how did Sputnik change things?
B: People, especially kids, went crazy over science fiction after Sputnik lit the sky. Overnight, instead of an apple on the teacher's desk, there was a book by Asimov. For the first time in history, education came from the bottom up as kids taught their teachers.
P: Why do kids respond to science fiction more than adults?
B: Obviously, children's imaginations are piqued by the implications of science fiction. Also, as a child, did you want to have someone tying your shoes? Like hell you did. You tied your own as soon as you could. Science fiction acknowledges that we don't want to be lectured at, just shown enough so we can look it up ourselves.
P: Beyond kids, science fiction is the purview of men, for the most part. Why aren't women as interested?
B: There are two races of people - men and women - no matter what women's libbers would have you pretend. The male is motivated by toys and science because men are born with no purpose in the universe except to procreate. There is lots of time to kill beyond that. They've got to find work. Men have no inherent center to themselves beyond procreating. Women, however, are born with a center. They can create the universe, mother it, teach it, nurture it. Men read science fiction to build the future. Women don't need to read it. They are the future.
P: Some women don't like it when you make those distinctions. In fact, in People, you said that CD-ROMs are more for men than for women - and you were denounced as sexist on the letters-to-the-editors page shortly thereafter.
B: Oh well. Unscrew them.
P: What does "unscrew them" mean?
B: That they'll never get any sex again. [Laughs] Listen, men are nuts. Young men are crazy. We all love toys. I'm toy oriented. I write about toys. I've got a lot of toys. Hundreds of things. But computers are toys, and men like to mess around with smart dumb things. They feel creative.
P: But computers aren't just toys. They're tools for the future.
B: People are talking about the Internet as a creative tool for writers. I say, "B.S. Stay away from that. Stop talking to people around the world and get your work done." We are being flimflammed by Bill Gates and his partners. Look at Windows '95. That's a lot of flimflam, you know.
P: Why is it flimflam?
B: Because it doesn't give most people anything more that want they already have. On top of that, when they buy it they have to buy other things to go with it. So you're talking about hundreds of dollars from people who cant afford it. The Windows thing isn't bought by women. I bet if you look at the sales figures, it's 80 percent men. Crazy young men or crazy older men who love toys.
P: For a man who has built a career looking into the future, you seem skeptical of technology - CD-ROMs, the Internet, and multimedia -
B: It's all meaningless unless you teach reading and writing. It's not going to do a bit of good if you don't know how to read and write.
P: But reading is involved - on computers, people can interact with works of fiction, choosing to move the plot any way they want to.
B: Don't tell me how to write my novel. Don't tell me you've got a better ending for it. I have no time for that.
P: When you talk about the future, you tend to talk about space travel. Do you really think it's in our future?
B: It must be. First of all, it's a religious endeavor to be immortal. If the earth dies, we must be able to continue. Space travel will give us other planets to live on so we can continue to have children. It's that simple, that great and that exciting.
P: Will we really be forced to escape earth? Will we be able to in time?
B: We are already on our way. We should back on the moon right now. And we should be going off to Mars immediately.
P: Yet there doesn't seem to be a rush into space anymore. NASA's budget is being whittled away as we speak.
B: How come we're looking at our shoes instead of at the great nebula in Orion? Where did we mislay the moon and back off from Mars? The problem is, of course, our politicians, men who have no romance in their hearts or dreams in their heads. JFK, for a brief moment in his last year, challenged us to go to the moon. But even he wasn't motivated by astronomical love. He cried, "Watch my dust!" to the Russians, and we were off. But once we reached the moon, the romance started to fade. Without that, dreams don't last. That's no surprise - material rewards do last, so the history of exploration on earth is about harvesting rich lodes. If NASA's budgeters could be convinced that there are riches on Mars, we would explode overnight to stand on the rim of the Martian abyss. We need space for reasons we have not as yet discovered, and I don't mean Tupperware.
B: NASA feels it has to justify everything it does in practical terms.
P: How much is NASA to blame for the apathy about the space program?
B: The NASA bigwigs have been their own worst enemy. I've pleaded with them for 20 years to let me do a film for them. Most of the early films NASA made about the Mercury and Apollo projects were inept. I want to fuse poetry and fact in a way that, as my various presentations at world fairs did, leaves the audience in tears. But NASA never does transcendent, poetic or explosive things to sell itself - nobody cares about NASA in Congress except, notably enough, Bob Packwood.
P: Do you still see Packwood as a visionary even though he was forced to resign in disgrace?
B: He's still a visionary. I wish he were still in Congress. I sent him a telegram a year ago and told him to stand firm because those women are jerks. They wait 20 years. They are offended 20 years later. Don't hand me that. There are very few other senators like him, and it's a shame he's gone.
P: What's the biggest mistake NASA has made?
B: It should have done the space shuttle before the Apollo missions. The shuttle is a big mailbox, an expensive experimental lab. It's not nearly as exciting as it should be. It should have been launched first to circle the earth, which is all it's doing. After that, it should have been sent to the moon, and the program could have ended there. Then we could have built a colony on the moon and moved on to Mars. We need something larger than ourselves - that's a real religious activity. That's what space travel can be - relating ourselves to the universe.
P: When the space program started, did you expect all that to occur?
B: Yes. But it didn't. NASA is to blame - the entire government is to blame - and the end of the Cold War really pulled the plug, draining any passion that remained. The odd thing to me is the extraordinary number of young people the world over who care about these things, who go to see science fiction films - 2001, Close Encounters and Star Wars - who spend billions of dollars to watch the most popular films ever made. Yet the government pays absolutely no attention to this phenomenon. It's always the last to know.
P: Do you think we will at least return to the moon?
B: I hope we do it while I'm still alive, which means within the next ten to 15 years. But I think it is a forlorn hope. I hope we'll have a manned expedition to Mars, though the politicians put it way down on their list. But it would be so uplifting for the human spirit. It's hard to get the government to act the way it should.
P: How did you feel when Viking landed on Mars?
B: There was this festive feeling, like a surprise party, at the Caltech Planetarium the night the Viking ship landed. Carl Sagan and I and a lot of others stayed up all night. Suddenly, the first photographs of Mars started coming back on the giant screen. We were all exhilarated - dancing, laughing and singing. Around nine in the morning, Roy Neal from NBC News came by and held this microphone in front of my face. He said, "Mr. Bradbury, you've been writing about Mars and its civilizations and cities for all these years. Now that we're there and we see that there's no life, how does it feel?" I took a deep breath - I'm so proud I said this out loud to him - and replied: "You idiot! You fool! There is life on Mars - look at us! Look at us! We are the Martians!"
P: You must have felt much the same way when Galileo reached Jupiter last year.
B: These scientists are incredible. Every time I go to a place like the Jet Propulsion Lab and someone shows me a telescope, he says, "What do you mean?" I say, "You are wonderful. You invented this. You are genius."
P: What is your motivation for writing?
B: I had decided to be a magician well before I decided to be a writer. I was the little boy who would get up on-stage and do magic wearing a fake mustache, which would fall off during the performance. I'm still trying to perform those tricks. Now I do it with writing. Also, writers write because of a need to be loved. I suppose that's greedy, isn't it?
P: Do you admit that that's an unrepentant, egotistical view?
B: Unfortunately, I don't think I keep my ego in check very well. I try to remember that my voice is loud, which is an ego problem. But at least I don't suffer from self-deluding identity problem like, say, Carl Sagan does.
P: What is the problem with Sagan?
B: With each passing year he grows stiffer because he goes around thinking he's Carl Sagan. Just as Norman Mailer thinks he's Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal thinks he's Gore Vidal. I don't think I'm Ray Bradbury. That's a big distinction. It doesn't matter who you are. You mustn't go around saying who you are, or else you get captured by the mask of false identity. It's the work that identifies you.
P: Some critics say that you rely too much on fantasy and not enough on science to be a respected science fiction writer.
B: I don't care what the science fiction trade technicians say, either. They are furious that I get away with murder. I use a scientific idea as a platform to leap into the air and never come back. This keeps them angry at me. They still begrudge my putting an atmosphere on Mars in The Martian Chronicles more than 40 years ago.
P: A review by Christopher Isherwood launched The Martian Chronicles. Did you know him?
B: The entire scenario set in motion was a fluke. Summertime, 1950, I recognized Isherwood browsing in a Santa Monica bookstore. My book had just come out, so I grabbed a copy off the shelf, signed it and gave it to him. His face fell and my heart sank, but two days later he called and said, "Do you know what you've done?" I asked, "What?" And he simply told me to read his review in the Times. His rave turned my life around; the book immediately made the best-seller lists and has been in print ever since.
P: What was Huxley like?
B: He was very polite. Most Englishmen, most intellectual Englishmen, are very polite, and they treat you as if you're the genius, which is a sweet thing to do. Years after we met, I was a panelist along with Huxley discussing the future of American literature. However, I was disappointed when he refused to admit that science fiction is the only way for fiction to go.
P: He was already extolling the virtues of psychedelics by then. We presume he offered you some.
B: I gave him the right answer: No, thank. I don't want anyone lifting the trapdoor on my head - it may not go down again.
P: Who are the best new science fiction writers?
B: I'm so busy with a full agenda, I just don't have the time to hunt around for any. Do you realize that hundreds of novels come out every year now?
P: Are you ducking the question?
B: OK - I admit I don't want to read in my own field.
P: Why not?
B: Because it's incestuous, and you can't do that. You should read in your own field only when you're young. When I was 8, 10, 12, 16, 25, I read science fiction. But then I went on to Alexander Pope and John Donne and Moliere to mix it up.
P: What about some of the more famous science fiction names, such as Kurt Vonnegut?
B: I know him and we get on fine. We had a wonderful day together in New York a few years ago, and he had a nice sense of humor. But I haven't read anything since Player Piano, and that was 40 years ago. So I can't give you any comment.
P: How about Robert Heinlein?
B: I met him at Clifton's cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles. I had just graduated from high school, and Heinlein was 31 years old. He was well known, and he wrote humanistic science fiction, which influenced me to dare to be human instead of mechanical.
P: What about those writers who popularize science in nonfiction books, such as Stephen Hawkings and his Brief History of Time?
B: We have his book, but I'm not going to kid you and say I read it. My wife claims she has, but I don't believe her. I don't believe anyone has read it. I'm positive the guy is a genius and it's wonderful he has done what he's done.
P: You have also written nonfiction, such as Green Shadows, White Whale, about your attempt to adapt Moby Dick with director John Huston. Were you attempting to get even for a disastrous experience?
B: Writing that book was gloriously cathartic. What got me started was that Katherine Hepburn's bad book about the making of The African Queen excluded so much and was quite scant about Huston's character. Her skimpy failure made me furious and propelled me to begin my own book.
P: Was it that she was too easy on Huston?
B: Yes, and that upset me.
P: How did you get the job to adapt Moby Dick in the first place?
B: Huston invited my to his Beverly Hills Hotel suite, put a drink in my hand and flattered my with enough Irish charm that, before I knew it, I'd agreed to spend six months in Ireland writing the script. Acting ability runs in Huston's bloodline.
P: So he was on good behavior.
B: And I was fooled. I should have just admitted that he embodied the monster I realized he was and then quit. What kept me going despite the merciless cruelty he showed toward me and everyone else near him were three things: the love I felt for Herman Melville and his whale; my awe of John Huston's genius, as proved in The Maltese Falcon - he had directed the perfect movie; and my deep appreciation of how very few people in the world are lucky enough to get that kind of opportunity. Now I'm left with the bittersweet knowledge that, thanks to him, I learned so much that I otherwise wouldn't know. Nobody else in Hollywood would have given an unproven newcomer the chance to write a major script.
P: Did that experience influence your decision not to write the screenplay for the movie adaptation of your next hit novel, Fahrenheit 451?
B: No. In 1955, Charles Laughton got me thoroughly drunk before he told me how bad the stage play I'd adapted for him was and convinced my I should give it up. So years later I told Francois Truffaut, "You do it." I'd had it.
P: Were you happy with Truffaut's effort?
B: It was very good, but he was a coward about doing certain things. He didn't put in the Mechanical Hound, which should be included, because it's a metaphoric adventure thing. The tactical stuff is really miserable. The flying men should be cut out. They're not flying anywhere except down. And the casting was a mistake. Not all of it. Oskar Werner I like very much.
P: Who didn't you like?
B: Julie Christie playing the girl next door. She couldn't play it. She was supposed to be 16. So Truffaut did the trick. He had Julie Christie play the wife and the girl next door, which was confusing. Sometimes you weren't quite sure who was talking.
P: How do you feel about having a second opportunity to turn the novel into a movie now that Mel Gibson is interested?
B: I've wanted to redo Fahrenheit 451 ever since it came out in 1966, because Truffaut left out so much from the novel. I sat bolt upright when I was told that Warner Bros. wanted to make the new version with Mel Gibson.
P: Along with Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World, your book presents a bleak view of the future. Were you trying to write a cautionary story?
B: That's fatal. You must never do that. A lot of lousy novels come from people who want to do good. The do-gooder novel. The ecological novel. And if you tell me you're doing a novel or a film about how a woodsman spares a tree, I'm not going to go see it for a minute.
P: It's hard to imagine that the man who wrote Fahrenheit 451 was not trying to predict the future.
B: It's "prevent the future," that's the way I put it. Not predict it, prevent it. And with anger and attacking, yes. You have the fun of attacking the thing you think is stupid. But your motives are hidden from you at the time. It's like, "I'll be damned. I didn't know I was doing that."
P: Fahrenheit 451 seems to have predicted the unpredictable for years.
B: Yes. When O.J. Simpson prowled the freeway pursued by cop cars and helicopters, Russell Baker wrote in his New York Times column words to the effect: This is the last act of Fahrenheit 451! I watched the reruns and thought, My God, he's right. In the final pages of my novel, Montag is running ahead of the book burners and sees himself on TV screens in every home, through each window, as he flees. When he eludes the Mechanical Hound, the society he left behind gets frustrated and kills a proxy Montag on television to satisfy the panicked need.
P: In Fahrenheit 451, too?
B: Yes. [At one point, another character,] the fire chief, describes how the minorities, one by one, shut the mouths and minds of the public, suggesting a precedent: The Jews hated Fagin and Shylock - burn them both, or at least never mention them. The blacks didn't like Nigger Jim floating on Huck's raft with him - burn, or at least hide, him. Women's libbers hated Jane Austen as an awfully inconvenient woman in a dreadfully old-fashioned time - off with her head! Family-values groups detested Oscar Wilde - back in the closet, Oscar! Communists hated the bourgeoisie - shoot them! An on and on it goes. So whereas back then I wrote about the tyranny of the majority, today I'd combine that with the tyranny of the minorities. These days, you have to be careful of both. They both want to control you. The first group, by making you do the same thing over and over again. The second group is indicated by the letters I get from the Vassar girls who want me to put more women's lib in The Martian Chronicles, or from blacks who want more black people in Dandelion Wine.
P: Do you respond to them?
B: I say to both bunches, Whether you're a majority or minority, bug off! To hell with anybody who wants to tell me what to write. Their society breaks down into subsections of minorities who then, in effect, burn books by banning them. All this political correctness that's rampant on campuses is b.s. You can't fool around with the dangerous notion of telling a university what to teach and what not to. If you don't like the curriculum, go to another school. Faculty members who toe the same line are sanctimonious nincompoops! It's time to stop the trend. Whenever it appears, you should yell, "Idiot!" and back them down. In the same vein, we should immediately bar all quotas, which politicize the process through lowered admission standards that accept less-qualified students. The terrible result is the priceless chance lost by all.
P: So you disapprove of affirmative action?
B: The whole concept of higher education is negated unless the sole criterion used to determine if students qualify is the grades they score on standardized tests. Education is purely an issue of learning - we can no longer afford to have it polluted by damn politics. Leave pollution up to the politicians [laughs].
B: Thoroughly disgruntled.
P: Is the public well informed about these issues?
B: The news is all rapes and murders we didn't commit, funerals we don't attend, AIDS we don't want to catch. All crammed into a quarter of a minute! But at least we still have a hand with which to switch channels or turn off altogether. I tell my lecture audiences to never, ever watch local TV news.
P: What about magazines? You have been an avid magazine reader since you were a kid. How would you rate the current crop?
B: Magazines today are almost all stupid and moronic to start with. And it makes me furious that I can't find any articles to read anymore. I used to enjoy Forbes and Fortune, but now the pages are completely cluttered with ads. That's what caused me to explode three years ago when I spoke to a gathering of the country's leading editors and publishers.
P: Why did you explode?
B: Let's say the slow burn grew hotter the more I thought about what a chance I had. So I took along my props - copies of Forbes, Fortune, Good Housekeeping, McCall's, Vogue and People. I went up onstage and said, "Let's talk about the real problems with your magazines." I held up Good Housekeeping, flipped through the pages and said, "Find the articles - you can't." I held up McCall's and Vogue and said, "Look, the same thing." I held up Forbes and Fortune - "Look at this," I said. "You've got a half-page article here, you've got the start of an article on the left, then you look to the right and it's a full-page ad." I threw them off the podium. Then I held up an issue of People and said, "Do you really want to read a magazine like this? To hell with Time Inc.!" and threw it down. I paused and lowered the boom, saying, "The magazines of this country have to take over education - even more than the corporations - because you want readers in the future, don't you? Can you keep downgrading people's intelligence and insult them with the shit you're publishing? You should make sure the schools teach reading, or you're out on your ass in a couple of years. You won't have any readers - doesn't that scare you? It scares me. Change your product and invite me back to talk to you again." I stopped and waited, figuring that maybe they would do something if I managed to scare them enough.
P: Did they?
B: I got a standing ovation. Afterward, Christie Hefner came over and congratulated me - I didn't even know PLAYBOY would be there. PLAYBOY is in fact one of the best magazines in history, simply because it has done more than any other magazine. It has published the works of most of the important short story writers of our time, as well as some of the most important novelists and essayists - and just about every important American artist. The interviews have included just about everyone in the world with something important to say. Nowhere else can you find such a complete spectrum, from the semivulgar to the highfalutin [laughs]. I have defended PLAYBOY since the beginning. Its editors were brave enough to say, "The hell with what McCarthy thing" when they ran excerpts from Fahrenheit 451. I couldn't sell that to any other magazine because they were all running scared. And I must add another important point - one I'm sure that many other guys growing up in the sorry years before PLAYBOY existed will agree with - which is that there would have been a lot fewer problems if PLAYBOY had been around back then. I wish I'd had PLAYBOY when I was 14.
P: To sharpen your writing skills?
B: Come on! Those pictures are great. There was nothing when my generation was growing up. Like it or not, I rest my case, except to add that Hugh Hefner is one of the great sexual revolutionaries.
P: Why do you shy away from eroticism in your own writing?
B: There is no reason to write pornography when your own sex life is good. Why waste time writing about it?
P: It has always struck us as strange that most science fiction is relatively sexless.
B: There are certain kinds of people who write science fiction. I think a lot of us married late. A lot of us are mama's boys. I lived at home until I was 27. But most of the writers I know in any field, especially science fiction, grew up late. They're so interested in doing what they do and in their science, they don't think about other things.
P: What is the most challenging literary form you have worked in?
B: I'm trying to write operas. I'm still learning. I'm writing a musical based on Dandelion Wine, which I've been working on for 30 years with various composers. I'm doing a new thing now with Jimmy Webb. We've been messing around with these things for eight years. Juggling the pieces, trying to figure out where you shut your mouth and let the song take over.
P: What brought you to Hollywood in the first place?
B: The Depression brought me here from Waukegan, Illinois. The majority of people in the country were unemployed. My dad had been jobless in Waukegan for at least two years when in 1934 he announced to my mom, my brother and me that it was time to head West. I had just turned 14 when we got to California with only 40 dollars, which paid for our rent and bought our food until he finally found a job making wire at a cable company for $14 a week. That meant I could stay in Los Angeles, which was great. I was thrilled.
P: With what aspect of it?
B: I was madly in love with Hollywood. We lived about four blocks from the Uptown Theater, which was the flagship theater for MGM and Fox. I learned how to sneak in. There were previews almost every week. I'd roller-skate over there - I skated all over town, hell-bent on getting autographs from glamorous stars. It was glorious. I saw big MGM stars such as Norma Shearer, Laurel and Hardy, Ronald Coleman. Or I'd spend all day in front of Paramount or Columbia, then zoom over to the Brown Derby to watch the stars coming or going. I'd see Cary Grant, Marlene Dietrich, Fred Allen, Burns and Allen - whoever was on the Coast. Mae West made her appearance - bodyguard in tow - every Friday night.
P: The story is that you pestered George Burns to give you your first show-business job. Is that true?
B: Yes. George was kind. He would read the scripts I'd write every week. They were dreadful, and I was so blindly and madly in love with the film and radio business in Hollywood that I didn't realize what a pest I was. George no doubt thought he could get me off his back by using my words for one of the eight-line vignettes he had Gracie close their broadcasts with. I wanted to live that special life forever. When that summer was over, I stopped my inner time clock at the age of 14. Another reason I became a writer was to escape the hopelessness and despair of the real world and enter the world of hope I could create with my imagination.
P: Did your parents approve?
B: They were very permissive, thank God. And strangely enough, my parents never protested. They just figured I was crazy and that God would protect me. Of course back then you could go around town at night and never risk getting mugged or beaten up.
P: What do you think of modern Los Angeles - earthquakes, riots, O.J., fires and all?
B: The earthquake actually renewed optimism throughout L.A. - it fused us, just as all the other calamities did. You pick up the first brick, then the second and so on. I've never seen so many people helping so many other people. A small boy cam to my door to tell me my chimney was about to collapse - I didn't know. The next day a stranger from up the street dropped in to give us the names of some really good builders and repairmen. They turned out to be superb - jolly, bright and inventive library people, readers! They lived with us for more than a month. They became family - we missed them when they left. I've heard similar things from everyone around us and in the San Fernando Valley, where things were 20 times worse.
P: Were you surprised when, after the earthquake, the freeways were rebuilt within a few months?
B: And almost before anything else? No. Here a human without a car is a samurai without his sword. I would replace cars wherever possible with buses, monorails, rapid trains - whatever is takes to make pedestrians the center of our society again, and cities worthwhile enough for pedestrians to live in. I don't care what people do with their cars, as long as they give them up three quarters of the time - roughly the amount of time people spend every week superfluously driving places they don't want to go to visit people who don't want to see them.
P: That's easy for you to say; you have never driven a car.
B: Not a day in my life.
P: Why not?
B: When I was 16, I saw six people die horribly in an accident. I walked home holding on to walls and trees. It took me months to being to function again. So I don't drive. But whether I drive or not is irrelevant. The automobile is the most dangerous weapon in our society - cars kill more than wars do. More than 50,000 people will die this year because of them and nobody seems to notice.
P: Until recently, you were the futurist afraid to fly in airplanes, never mind spaceships. What was it that cured your phobia?
B: A car breaking down in so many small Southern towns and the chauffeur taking three miserable days just to get through Florida. After the second tire blew, I got the word. In a loud and clear voice from the heavens above I heard the message: Fly, dummy, fly! [Laughs] I was afraid for 40 years that I'd run around the plane yelling, "Stop! Let me off!" But I fly all the time now. I just sit back relaxed, occasionally peep out the window and peruse the magazines.
P: Was your faith in law enforcement shaken because of Stacey Koon and Mark Fuhrman?
B: We've become what I call a Kleenex society - I saw the public's reaction as the symbolic chance to blow its collective nose on the whole police force of the United States, holding all cops responsible for incidents in Los Angeles. Of course I knew there was a problem in the LAPD. On the other hand, three of my daughters have been raped and robbed by black men, so I have a prejudice, too, don't I? And if I ever were to find the bastards, I'd kill them. I've seen violence used by police, and I've seen it used against white people, too.
P: Did the Rodney King riots shock you?
B: I was more than shocked - I was terribly upset, and terribly angry at Mayor Bradley. The friend I've known for ten years was the man who went on television half an hour after the trial was over and used terrible language to say he was outraged. Boom! - next thing you know, the mobs burned the streets. Thus far I haven't had the guts to tell Tom Bradley, face-to-face, "You did it!"
P: Did you have any idea there was so much rage in Los Angeles' black community?
B: I don't think anybody knew
P: Did you feel any empathy for the rioters?
B: None. Why should I? I don't approve of any mob anywhere at any time. Had we not controlled it in L.A., all the big cities in this country would have gone up in flames.
P: If Los Angeles is an indicator for the nation, what is the future of other big cities?
B: Along with man's return to the moon, my biggest hope is that L.A. will show the way for all of our cities to rebuild, because they've gone to hell and the crime rate has soared. When we can repopulate them, the crime rate will plunge.
P: What will help?
B: We need enlightened corporations to do it; they're the only ones who can. All the great malls have been built by corporate enterprises. We have to rebuild cities with the same conceptual flair that the great malls have. We can turn any bad section of town into a vibrant new community.
P: How do you convince corporate leaders and bureaucrats that you have the right approach?
B: They listen because they know my track record. The center of downtown San Diego was nonexistent until a concept of mine, the Horton Plaza, was built right in the middle of bleakest skid row. Civilization returned to San Diego upon its completion. It became the center of a thriving community. And the Glendale Galleria, based on my concept, changed downtown Glendale when it was built nearly 25 years ago. So if I live another ten years - please, God! - I'll be around to witness a lot of this in Los Angeles and inspire the same thing in big cities throughout the country.
P: You have said that you want to influence children. Is that you most important audience?
B: I feel like I own all the kids in the world because, since I've never grown up myself, all my books are automatically for children.
P: How does it feel to have an impact on children?
B: It's mutual delight and love made manifest. For one thing, kids love me because I write stories that tell them about their capacity for evil. I'm one of the few writers who lets you cleanse yourself that way.
P: Would you say you're nostalgic for childhood?
B: Yeah. Once you let yourself begin to be grown-up, you face a world full of problems you can't solve. The politicians and specialists - adults, all - have a hard enough time trying to figure out where to look. It doesn't have to be that way. The greatest solutions in society are reached by corporate thinking, ruled by a motive to either make a profit or go out of business. There's great incentive to strive for excellence. On the other hand, bloated bureaucracies like city governments don't have to make a profit - they just raise people's taxes when they need more money. If you want to get anything done, it should be through a corporation. Disney is a prime example.
P: Didn't the Eighties - the decade of Wall Street junk-bond scandals and bankrupt banks - establish that corporate chiefs can be little more than thieves?
B: I'm talking about top-flight people like those at IBM, Apple, AT&T. If corporations don't take over the educational system soon, we'll end up with all black-and-brown cities surrounded by white-flight small towns, which are under construction even as we speak. You can't blame whites for getting the hell out. City governments have neglected the biggest factor in our criminal environment - education. Kindergarten. First grade. If we don't change those immediately, we'll raise another generation of empty-headed dummies. If you let boys grow up as that, when they reach the age of ten they're bored, drop out, take dope, rob stores, rape - all that good stuff. Our jails overflow with illiterates who have been ignored by our city leaders. Jails should be run as schools, where kids are taught the basics, instead of spending a billion dollars a day just to keep them locked up. The government should stop sending schools money until they prove they are teaching reading and writing. We should fire half the teachers right now. This is an emergency - we're raising a criminal culture in all races and every walk of life by not teaching kids how to read and write. That scares me more than anything, yet I don't hear anyone else talking about the primary grades - where our future lies. The corporations I mention are getting involved more and more in magnet school relationships with local schools. The reasoning is hardly utopian - it's actually a selfish endeavor since they must educate the kids who grow up to be a part of their companies.
P: A future when our children are taught to be useful employees of big companies? It sounds like a robotic race in some science fiction story.
B: You mean the way Japan-bashers portray that society? Listen, you can't turn really bright people into robots. You can turn dumb people into robots, but that's true in every society and system. I don't know what to do with dumb people, but we must try to educate them along with the sharp kids. You teach a kid to read and write by the second grade, and the rest will take care of itself. To solve the drug problem, we have to start at the root - first grade. If a boy has all the toys in his head that reading can give him, and you hook him into science fiction, then you've got the future secured.
P: How does it feel to get older?
B: On my seventieth birthday, when I reflected that so many of my friends were dead or dying, it hit me that it was high time I got more work done. Ever since that time, I have done the active, smart thing by increasing my productivity. I'm not on the rocks or shoals yet, but the last few years have been a devastation of illnesses and deaths of many good friends. [Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry was a loss that deeply grieved me.
P: How well did you know him?
B: Gene was an intimate friend. We'd been friends for many years when he asked me to write for Star Trek more than 25 years ago. But I've never had the ability to adapt other people's ideas into any sensible form.
P: What did you think of Roddenberry's final flourish, when NASA honored his will's request and released his ashes into space on one of its missions? Sound tempting?
B: That was interesting. At one time, I had planned to have my ashes put into a Campbell's tomato soup can and then have it planted on Mars. [Laughs] But in recent years, I have come to realize that I have a lot of fans and lovers out there. So I plan to design a big, long, flat gravestone that will be inscribed with the names of my books and lots of dandelions, as a tribute to Dandelion Wine, because so many people love it. At the bottom of the slab there will be a sign saying PLACE DANDELIONS HERE - I hope people will, so a living yellow meadow can bloom in the spring and summertime.
P: Do you believe in God?
B: I believe in Darwin and God together. It's all one. It's all mysterious. Look at the universe. It's been here forever. It's totally impossible. But, then, the size of the universe is impossible. It goes on forever, there's no end. That's impossible. We're impossible. And the fact that the sun gave birth to the planets, and the planets cooled, and the rain fell and we came out of the oceans as animals. How come dead matter decided to come alive? It just did. There is no explanation. There's no theory.
P: You almost sound like a fundamentalist preacher. You say you believe in Darwinism, but you sometimes sound like a creationist.
B: Or a combination of both. Because nobody knows. Science and religion have to go hand in hand with the mystery, because there's a certain point beyond which you say, "There are no answers." Why does the sun burn? We don't know. It just does - that's the answer. Why were the planets created? We don't know. It happened. How come there's life on the earth? We don't know. It just happened. You accept that as a scientist and as a religious preacher. The scientist can teach us to survive by learning more about how the body works, what disease is, how to cure ourselves and how to work on longevity. The preacher then says, "Don't forget to pay attention to the fact that you're alive." Just the mere fact, the glory of getting up every morning and looking at the sunrise or a good rainfall or whatever, and saying, "That's wonderful." That's just wonderful. The Darwin theory can't be proved; it's a theory. We think it is true.
P: Do you think it's true?
B: Nobody knows. I can't give you an opinion about it. It's only a theory, you see.
P: Do you go to church?
B: No. I don't believe in the anthropomorphic God.
P: Do you think our souls live on or do we cease to exist when we die?
B: Well. I have four daughters and eight grandchildren. My soul lives on in them. That's immortality. That's the only immortality I care about.
Reprinted with permission from Playboy 1996