HE HAD ENORMOUS HANDS, the hands you call mitts or paws — swollen and red, with lousy circulation. They seemed too big and swollen for a man who himself was on the short side.
He was portly; he didn’t look healthy. Especially not as he wolfed down a cheeseburger, his face red, while he sat to my right at the table. As he laughed and chortled, I watched those hands, their tight grip around a glass of red wine.
I didn’t think he had much time left.
Turns out, he had plenty.
We had brought him to speak at our university, and now, twenty minutes into the dinner conversation, I started to sweat.
Ray Bradbury was scaring me.
My first encounter with Bradbury wasn’t from reading one of his books. It was instead from watching his television show, The Ray Bradbury Theater, an anthology series that ran on HBO for two seasons in the mid-eighties. It was Ray’s own version of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits; I especially remember the title sequence:
A shadowy figure comes up a rickety apartment elevator, lets himself into a dark office, walks through a hallway filled with books and papers. He enters a room. Turning on a light, he reveals himself: Ray Bradbury, a white-haired 60-something in an undertaker’s dark blazer and shirt. He takes a seat behind a typewriter.
We then hear in voiceover, “People ask me: Where do you get your ideas? Right here!”
The office is filled with a thousand tchotchkes that, were we to believe this opening sequence, inspired Bradbury’s several novels and hundreds of stories: “I never know where the next one will take me,” he says.
A little hokey, sure. But to a ten year old who had already realized he wanted to be a writer? Powerful stuff. Along with the vanity credit sequence ending every Stephen J. Cannell show in the ‘80s — three seconds of Cannell eagerly typing, then pulling a page of The Greatest American Hero or The A-Team from his IBM Selectric with great flair — these were formative impressions of what writers did and what they looked like.
I didn’t read Bradbury, though, until high school. Fahrenheit 451 was on our summer reading list at Loyola High School near downtown LA. I wasn’t much of a science fiction or fantasy fan — sure, I loved Star Wars, but I preferred the funny of Roald Dahl and the relatable of Judy Blume to the fantastical of Narnia and Madeline L’Engle. But Farenheit 451’s tale of censorship and the importance of books appealed to me. Even though it had been published in 1953 — Bradbury wasn’t even 33 when he wrote it — it felt incredibly relevant to 1989, to the days of Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center calling for the censoring of rock lyrics, and Charlton Heston attacking Ice-T for a song called “Cop Killer.” More importantly, Fahrenheit felt relevant to my own life, bridling as I was under the conformity and boundaries of a conservative Catholic high school that didn’t always encourage free thinking.
After high school, I headed off to Brown University. I still wanted to be a writer — that hadn’t changed — but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to write, neither the medium nor the subject matter. Leaving a Jesuit boys’ school for Brown was nothing short of a...read more