Ray Bradbury - Following his passion to Mars

Legendary author speaks his mind at LSU

By Robin Miller

Baton Rouge-They might just lock Ray Bradbury in a closet if he keeps talking.

Then again, they probably don't know this story, the one about the little boy who lived on Venus, where the weather was easily forecast.

Rain today, rain tomorrow, rain forever.

Well, maybe not forever, because the sun was to shine one day soon, making its appearance once every seven years. When it did, this little Earthborn boy would rejoice.

He knew the sun and spoke constantly of it. He was enlightened, and his friends knew it.

They hated him for it, too. So when the day of the sun came, they locked him in a closet and they went outside to play for the first time in their lives.

It's a cold story, really. One that makes anyone who bothers to read it think.

It's All Summer in a Day and can be found in Bradbury's collection of short stories A Medicine for Melancholy first published in 1959.

Yet it's a sure bet most of these people haven't read it. To them, he's just a famous old man sitting in a wheelchair before their cameras, tape recorders and notebooks.

He's written books, true. And, yes, he's written screenplays. He told them so only minutes before onstage in Louisiana State University's Union Theater.

Bradbury's appearance is part of the LSU Union Perspective Series, his lecture titled "The Great Years Ahead."

The place was packed. People-fans-of all ages applauded Bradbury's statements, laughed at his anecdotes. He'll be 80 in August, and he still marvels at the wonders of life.

It's really difficult to think of him as an octogenarian, even with him sitting in that wheelchair, face wrinkled, hair white, glasses seemingly a quarter-inch thick.

It's difficult because here sits a man who last fall suffered a stroke, a man who is already talking of how the next time he visits LSU he hopes to be walking and standing on his own.

Meantime, he's taking off for London for his next project. Get that. His next project.

And he looks forward to those in the future, including the plays he has yet to write and even the musicals and operas.

Yes, the crowd applauded him, but there were those sitting in the audience who didn't know him, not to mention didn't care.

Such as the group of students sitting near the back, their voices growing louder as their conversation escalated. Or the college girl standing at the stage afterward, spouting such intelligence as, "Oh, I'm amazed so many people showed up. I thought only about 30 would be here."

And, "He was only supposed to speak for 25 minutes."

And, "He was actually interesting."

Duh.

We're talking Ray Bradbury here, author of such classics as Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles and Dandelion Wine. And if those titles don't grab you, maybe this will.

The images at Spaceship Earth in DisneyWorld's EPCOT Center in Orlando? Well, they are all Bradbury's ideas. Still, the book titles should be enough to identify Bradbury.

There's no excuse for not knowing them.

But the girl standing at the stage entrance apparently didn't. It's a sure bet that some of the media backstage weren't familiar with them, either.

That's where this story began, Bradbury sitting in his wheelchair, cameras and microphones shoved into his face. But he takes it well, and in a cutting yet polite way, spreads his message.

"You're being used," he tells a television news reporter.

The reporter had asked something about a comment Bradbury made before the crowd.

"Don't watch television news," he had said. "If you were to watch it every night, you'd think the world was coming to an end."

The comment prompted loud applause, even some whistles.

Maybe the television reporter didn't like what Bradbury had said, but his expression doesn't show it. He's young, looks to be not far out of college.

And someone along the way has apparently taught him that image is everything, for he stands there, faces set in dire concentration, slight smile to show that he's listening-and interested.

But he doesn't seem to hear anything Bradbury's saying, for if he did, he'd know the author isn't being complimentary.

"You're being used," he tells the reporter. "Television news is being used."

Forty years ago, news people reported the news. They sought stories and wrote good, honest pieces.

It's not only silent behind this curtain but painfully still as Bradbury delivers this miniature lecture. Then comes the next blow.

"Now all they care about is making money," he continues. "They don't care about the stories. If there's a plane crash, they'll milk it for a week. You're being used."

Blank stares, set expressions.

"So," another reporter begins, this one a woman. "What advice would you give a television reporter just starting in the business?"

Bradbury neither smiles nor scowls. His reaction is simple.

"Get out," he says.

There's squirming and lots of it.

"So," the woman reporter continues, "what advice would you give a young writer?"

What a question. Did this woman sit through the same lecture as everyone else? If so, did she even listen to anything Bradbury said?

Too Much Sunshine

Apparently not, and the way this meeting is going, it seems Bradbury might be the one locked in the closet. He's letting in a little too much sunshine.

Now don't take this wrong. This gathering of media isn't hostile, and neither are Bradbury's comments.

But if anyone is listening-really listening-these comments sting. They're supposed to.

They're supposed to provoke thought, maybe make media types re-think the way they do things. Maybe even prompt them to do something besides sit in the office and count work hours-to make them go outside once in awhile, seek out the neat people and places that are around them even if it means working a few minutes overtime for no pay.

In other words, Bradbury encourages them to chase experiences instead of money, to harbor passion.

That's what his entire lecture was about, the one he was supposed to condense to 25 minutes. Those who have heard Bradbury speak know he would never be able to lock everything he wants to say into 25 minutes.

That would be incarceration. Bradbury's talks are based on freedom, telling of his experiences, prompting his listeners to embark on their own experiences. Freedom is what it's all about, freedom to create and the courage to do it.

So Bradbury's lecture lasts an hour, and if the audience were to have its way, it would have lasted much longer.

Well, except for those student audience members in the back busying themselves with who's dating whom, and "I can't believe she wore that today."

And maybe the woman reporter who asks him to advise young writers.

That's all Bradbury practically did for that hour. He advised not only the young but people of all ages to pursue their passions.

Translation: there are things you've absolutely loved in life, things that have stemmed from childhood.

They may be old cowboy and Indian movies. They may be Nancy Drew books. They may even be old Buck Rogers comic strips.

Look back

Whatever the case, look back at those times, find out why you loved those things so much. Learn how they're intertwined in your life.

Did you cultivate them or stifle them at someone else's suggestion?

Those are the passions of which Bradbury speaks. For him it was the Buck Rogers cartoons.

He collected them as a boy, cut them out of the newspaper every day. Then his friends started making fun of him.

"Why do you do that?" they asked. "That's so stupid."

Listening to them, the idea did seem somewhat stupid. What was the point in collecting comic strips, anyway?

So Bradbury tore up the comic strips. Then he cried.

"I started thinking,'Who's funeral is it?'" he says. "Then I said, Fool, it was your future you killed."

"If you have a passion, do it. If people doubt you, they are not your friends."

Meantime, Bradbury started collecting his Buck Rogers strips again and didn't give a darn what anyone said. And where exactly did that get him?

Think about it. Bradbury is considered a master of science fiction and dark tales of the supernatural. Buck Rogers represents every part of that.

If he hadn't continued collecting, readers might not have had the privilege of getting lost in such stories as those in The Golden Apples of the Sun and I Sing the Body Electric.

Other passions

He had other passions as well. An inflatable dinosaur in his office represents his love for the creatures.

He saw "The Lost World"-not the Michael Crichton/Stephen Spielberg version-when he was a boy and was simply amazed.

Then there was his next-door neighbor, who at age 19, created dinosaurs in his parents' garage and chased his father around the yard.

"He'd make the dinosaurs eat his father," Bradbury says. "I tried to get my father to go over there, but he'd never go."

Anyway the boy and Bradbury were the same age. Not only that, they became best friends. They remain so today.

Five years ago, almost 60 years into their friendship, Bradbury stood onstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles and presented this same friend, Ray Harryhausen, a lifetime achievement Oscar.

"You've seen his special effects in the old films," Bradbury says.

He mentions a few, the "Sinbad" films among them.

"And we worked on a film together," he says.

Its title was "The Creature from 20,000 Fathoms," based on one of Bradbury's works.

"Oh, it wasn't very good at all," Bradbury says to a round of laughter.

The point is, though, they made it and they made it together, sharing their love-their passion, for dinosaurs.

Yes, kids made fun of Bradbury's fascination with dinosaurs, but look where it's gotten him. He didn't love these creatures for money.

Heaven forbid that he would pay that much attention to anything that was extinct, but he did. Which is what he's encouraging anyone listening-really listening-to do.

Don't listen to other people. Their opinions don't count. Follow your heart, your dream. Do what you love.

"And how do you go about doing what you love?" the woman reporter asks.

Well, for one thing, money can't be the motivator.

"You have to take a chance," Bradbury says.

Bradbury took a chance one time. He and wife Marguerite were living in Los Angeles and she was expecting their first child. They had only $10 in the bank.

People had warned her not to marry Bradbury, saying , "he's going nowhere." But she believed in him.

They met in a library, by the way, the place Bradbury loves most.

"Get lost in a library," he tells his listeners. "Go there and let it absorb you."

The shrinking number of readers concerns Bradbury. The number of people who can't read is of even greater concern.

Bradbury has no formal education after high school. He's earned no college degrees, but that might be a good thing.

For he followed his heart and spent time in the library, learning everything he could about the things he loved-learning about new things.

And there he was, selling newspapers in Los Angeles and spending time in the library. His child was on the way, and a friend encouraged him to go to New York.

If he were going to make it in the writing world, he'd have to go where the writing business was.

So he made the cross-country trip and started meeting with publishers. Rejections were plentiful.

"They wanted a novel, and I told them I wasn't a novelist," he says. "I was a short story writer-I was a sprinter."

Finally, one publisher asked if Bradbury might combine some of his stories into a book with a single theme. Bradbury suddenly remembered a book by Sherwood Anderson, who, by the way, spent a lot of time in New Orleans.

Anderson's book was a compilation of short stories that were interconnected.

"I hadn't thought of doing that," Bradbury says.

There he sat with these stories, these stories of Martians.

The publisher said they could be made into a book and told Bradbury to write an outline for another that night.

Bradbury was staying at the YMCA. He sat in his room and wrote an outline about a man with tattoos.

"When the man went to sleep at night, the tattoos would come alive and tell stories," he says.

So came The Illustrated Man.

Bradbury was on his way.

He offers other anecdotes in his lecture, telling of how the job of writing the screenplay for John Huston's film version of "Moby Dick" came about. Huston remembered Bradbury's story, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

Bradbury was young and virtually unknown at the time, but Huston hired him because of that story.

"He said it had a Melvillian quality," Bradbury says. "See? I had fallen in love with dinosaurs."

The dinosaurs won out in the end, over all the childhood criticism, over everything.

Forming metaphors

"You have to form metaphors," Bradbury says.

Can't let this story slip by without telling the best part. When Huston first met with Bradbury, he asked the young writer's exact thoughts of Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

"I said, 'Well Mr. Huston, I've never been able to get through the damned thing," Bradbury says.

He was honest, just as he's being honest here.

He's 80 years old, he says, and he doesn't like it. There still so much left to do, so many things to discover, so many passions to cultivate.

He'll keep cultivating them as long as he can.

He waves his hands while speaking, trying to convey the importance of this concept. But the set expressions of this media group don't get it.

They just don't.

He's right about the money part. That seems to be the sole motivator these days.

He's right about the criticism part, too. So many people have put aside things they've dearly loved for fear of being ridiculed.

What might have happened if they, too, had cultivated their passions? Or if they were to revisit their passions and cultivate them now?

It's not too late. Bradbury makes that clear.

There might be more writers in the world and painters and photographers. There might be more musicians and architects and playwrights.

Speaking of plays, Bradbury has written quite a few. They make no money, he says, but they receive good reviews.

"And that's all that counts to me," he says.

He's also written two operas and several musicals. Here sits a man known for his science fiction pieces, and he writes music.

His past friendships have included Gene Kelly, who directed the movie version of Fahrenheit 451. Actor-director Mel Gibson now owns the movie rights.

"There have been 10 screenplays written of Fahrenheit 451," Bradbury says. "I've written five, and the other five have been written by a super a- who can't do anything."

Blunt but funny. Again, Bradbury's being truthful.

He won't let anyone lock him in a closet, either. He's going to expose everyone to all of the sunshine that he can and maybe-just maybe-someone will listen. And get it.

Time is called. The media types must leave.

Bradbury extends polite good-byes, and as everyone walks away a thought occurs.

Bradbury told a story earlier. He was to be interviewed on the "David Frost Show" the night Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. The show was interrupted for the announcement, and Bradbury cried.

Then Frost reappeared on camera and said he wanted to introduce an American genius. Bradbury thought he was surely to be the next person on camera, this being the night of the future.

Anything's Possible

For when man stepped on the moon, everything became possible in Bradbury's eyes. Man had defied gravity, he could now travel anywhere-even to Mars.

But Frost wasn't introducing Bradbury; he introduced Englebert Humperdink instead.

"He sang his stupid song," Bradbury had said.

And the next on the agenda was Sammy Davis Jr.

"Mr. Davis was a great guy, but this wasn't the night for this," Bradbury said. "Man had walked on the moon, we needed to talk about it, to understand it."

Bradbury walked out of the studio and rode across town where Mike Wallace and Walter Cronkite were airing a worldwide telecast.

He went on the air and he talked.

And cried.

And contemplated.

The Headline

The headline in the next day's London Times read, "Man walks on the moon at 6, Bradbury walks at midnight."

Cronkite provided Bradbury with a tape of the show last year. It was the author's first time to see it.

"There I was 30 years younger," he said. "Boy did I love me that night."

He's gone from the stage now, probably on his way to London. Or who knows? Maybe even Mars.

But not to a locked closet. Never that.

Yes, the boy in his story was enlightened, and those around him resented it. Bradbury's enlightened, too, and anyone who doesn't like it be damned.

Someone out there is listening.

Maybe that someone will be the very person whose passion will lead the way to Mars.

Reprinted with permission from The Town Talk, Alexandria, LA
February, 2000
www.thetowntalk.com