Ray Bradbury at 100: A Conversation Between Sam Weller and Dana Gioia

December 28, 2020   •   By Sam Weller, Dana Gioia

COMMEMORATING THE CENTENNIAL of the great Ray Bradbury, biographer Sam Weller sat down with former California poet laureate and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts Dana Gioia for a wide-ranging conversation on Bradbury’s imprint on arts and culture.


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SAM WELLER: The first time I met you was at the White House ceremony for Ray Bradbury in November 2004. You were such a champion for Ray’s legacy — his advocate for both the National Medal of Arts and Pulitzer Prize. As we look at his 100th birthday, I want to ask: Why is Bradbury important in literary terms?


DANA GIOIA: Ray Bradbury is one of the most important American writers of the mid-20th century. He transformed science fiction’s position in American literature during the 1950s. There were other fine sci-fi writers, but Ray was the one who first engaged the mainstream audience. He had a huge impact on both American literature and popular culture. He was also one of the most significant California writers of the last century. When one talks about Bradbury, one needs to choose a perspective. His career looks different from each angle.


It’s interesting. You see him as a California writer. He moved to California from Illinois in April 1934. He was 13 years old and he’s often associated with the Midwest, the prairie, and its ideals. How do you separate those two things? Is he a Californian or Midwestern writer? Is he both? Or does the question ultimately not matter?


Regional identity matters more in American literature than many critics assume. We have a very mobile society, so today many writers are almost placeless. But Bradbury is a perfect example of a writer for whom regional identity was very important.


How do you decide where a writer comes from? There are two possible theories — both valid. The first theory looks at where a writer was born and spent his or her childhood. But I favor a different view. I believe a writer belongs to the place where he or she hits puberty. That’s the point where the child goes from a received family identity to an independent adult existence.


Once Bradbury came to Southern California, he never left. He lived in Los Angeles for 77 years. All of his books, all of his stories, novels, and screenplays were written here. The great imaginative enterprise of his life — bringing science fiction into the American mainstream — happened in California.


Is there any way to measure Ray’s impact on popular culture?


Let me offer one perspective. If you compiled a list in 1950 of the biggest grossing movies ever made, it would have contained no science fiction films and only one fantasy film, The Wizard of Oz. In Hollywood, science fiction films were low-budget stuff for kids. The mainstream market was, broadly speaking, “realistic” — romances, comedies, historical epics, dramas, war films, and adventure stories.


If you look at a similar list today, all but three of the top films — Titanic and two Fast and Furious sequels — are science fiction or fantasy. That is 94 percent of the hits. That means in a 70-year period, American popular culture (and to a great degree world popular culture) went from “realism” to fantasy and science fiction. The kids’ stuff became everybody’s stuff. How did that happen? There were many significant factors, but there is no doubt that Ray Bradbury was the most influential writer involved.


It’s interesting you say this because you don’t seem to be afraid — some critics don’t want to connect popular culture or mass culture with literature or with high intellectual arts. You seem to say that Bradbury is one of those people who brought these two things to the crossroads.


In my academic training, I was inculcated in the tradition of the psychological and social realist novel, the so-called “Great Tradition.” This was an extraordinary literary lineage — Austen, Eliot, Dickens, Conrad, James, Cather, Hemingway, not to mention Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Dostoyevsky. The realist novel was one of the great achievements of Western literature. It provided a powerful means to articulate and understand personal and social relations of enormous complexity. Three cheers for realism! Maybe even four.


But there are different modes of storytelling. The most primitive is myth, where natural forces become personified in narratives. The next historical development was romance. In romantic narratives, we have the world not as it is but as we wish or fear it to be. This was the mode of medieval and Renaissance narratives. (Centuries later it also became the mode of science fiction, fantasy, horror, Gothic romance, and old-school mysteries.)


Realism is the mode that emerged last. Although the realist novel quickly became the dominant narrative form, its popularity only dates back about 400 years. The realist novel had a particular power that made it very attractive. The realist mode allowed one to see the world simultaneously from the inside and the outside. It compared — usually with a great deal of irony — the subjective experience of characters and the exterior world that surrounds them. Great novels mediate these two realities with tremendous finesse.


But realism is not the only way to tell a story, and the romantic mode never vanished. Even some of the realist masters, such as Dostoyevsky, Dickens, and Balzac, found themselves exploring the mode of romance to represent certain human possibilities. Romance remained very strong in American literature with some of our most original writers — Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. But it never became academically respectable. It smacked of popular or children’s literature. As a senior at Stanford, I had to ask permission to add Mary Shelley to my reading list! (Another student asked to read H. P. Lovecraft and got a stern lecture.)


How do you place Bradbury in this opposition of the realist and romantic traditions of storytelling?


Bradbury never went to college — that’s one reason why he was so original. He was not indoctrinated in the mainstream assumption of the superiority of the realist mode. He educated himself. He read the books that he wanted to — from masterpieces to junk. Then he began to write children’s literature, which is to say, pulp science fiction and fantasy. But he mixed in elements from the realist tradition.


Then something amazing happened. In a 10-year period, Bradbury wrote seven books that changed both American literature and popular culture. They were mostly collections of short stories. Only two were true novels. In these books, for the first time in American literature, an author brought the subtlety and psychological insight of literary fiction into science fiction without losing the genre’s imaginative zest. Bradbury also crafted a particular tone, a mix of bitterness and sweetness that the genre had never seen before. (There had been earlier novels, mostly British and Russian, in which serious writers employed the science fiction mode, but those works showed the difficulty of combining the different traditions of narration. The books always resolved in dystopian prophecy.) Bradbury, for whatever reasons, was able to manage this difficult balancing act — not once but repeatedly.


What books are you thinking about here? What do you consider Bradbury’s best period?


Sam, you’ll probably disagree with me — but I think Bradbury’s best work was mostly done in a 10-year period in the early part of his career. In one remarkable decade he wrote: The Martian Chronicles (1950), The Illustrated Man (1951), The Golden Apples of the Sun (1953), Fahrenheit 451 (1953), The October Country (1955), Dandelion Wine (1957), and A Medicine for the Melancholy (1959). The books came one right after the other, and he created a new mode of speculative fiction.


The culture immediately recognized his achievement. Suddenly, major mainstream journals published his fiction, and producers adapted his work for movies, radio, and TV. Millions of readers, who would not have read pulp fiction, came to his work. He also became the first science fiction author to attract a large female readership.


I don’t disagree with you in terms of that period of productivity. I might expand it by a couple of years because in ’47 he published Dark Carnival, his first collection of short stories, which is somewhat primitive, but Stephen King called it “Dubliners of American Gothic.” Of course, Ray revised it in 1955 into The October Country, so it’s a little murky there. But it’s interesting that you don’t put 1962’s Something Wicked This Way Comes into that pantheon of classic Bradbury. Why is that?


You may be right about Something Wicked This Way Comes. It is the transitional book. I chose the books with the best combination of invention and finesse. The books from the early 1960s are good, but one starts to see his imaginative powers gradually weaken. Sentimentality creeps in. You could extend his golden period a few more years to include Something Wicked This Way Comes, along with his collections R Is for Rocket (1962) and The Machineries of Joy (1964). But we can’t disguise the fact that his later works taper off.


I agree.


Sam, you and I knew Ray very well. He was one of the most generous, cordial, gracious artists I ever met. I wonder if Bradbury’s very goodness didn’t eventually temper the paranoia, ferocity, anger, and anxiety that animated his early fiction.


I agree that his character, avuncular kindness, generosity of spirit, and overall positive nature differed greatly from the snarl of early stories or the meanness, inherent in a take such as “All Summer in a Day.” So, I actually agree with you that his kindness might have started to take him away from the dark human commentary of his early work.


You wrote a great essay, “Literary L.A., with No Apology,” in which you talk about your origin story with Fritz Lang and encountering him at Royce Hall. What is your Bradbury origin story? You said you picked up The Machineries of Joy.


Yes, that was the first hardbound book I ever bought. But I’d already been reading Bradbury for years. I was probably about 10 when I first read his work. I encountered a Bradbury story in some anthology. I searched the wire paperback racks at the local drugstore until I found The Golden Apples of the Sun. I loved it, so I began reading all of his books, mostly borrowed from the Hawthorne library.


My friends read him, too. Little boys read novels back then. Bradbury became one of our foundational writers. Even at 11 or 12, we could sense he was different. He wasn’t like Isaac Asimov or A. E. van Vogt — the simple, plot-driven sci-fi we were used to. Bradbury had refined it into something subtler and more humane. We didn’t know it yet, but we were reading literature.



How would you describe the nature of Bradbury’s literary achievement?


Let me explain my claims for Bradbury. When I talk about his literary quality, I do not mean that The Illustrated Man is equal to Anna Karenina. What I’m saying is that Bradbury created a new kind of fiction, which required enormous mastery and originality. His novels and short stories opened up huge possibilities for later authors and narrative artists in all genres. This is no small thing. And his books are still widely read. Any author who writes one great novel has beaten overwhelming odds. Most writers never write anything that is read 50 years later, even the winners of literary prizes. Look at a list of Pulitzer Prize winners from 50 years ago. How many of those books have survived?


That is why Bradbury’s later decline doesn’t matter. For 10 years, he was Joe DiMaggio. Every time he went to bat, there was a good chance he would hit the ball, sometimes out of the park. It’s significant that Ray’s great hitting streak came in the 1950s, a period of national optimism. Despite the anxiety, darkness, and anger in his work, Bradbury always wrote in a spirit of hope and reconciliation. He never believed humanity was beyond redemption. Perhaps as America shifted into the late 1960s and beyond, he lost touch with the culture.


That’s all very true. Do you have a favorite book yourself? Ray bristled at that question. He said you can’t pick a favorite child, and that all of his books were his “children.” For his readers, we all have books we attach to, either sentimentally or nostalgically, creatively, or intellectually. Do you have a favorite work by Bradbury?


Not a single work but a favorite form — the short story. That is where his talents burned most brightly.


Agreed.


It’s impossible to pick a single collection. I would select two or three stories from each of the early books. The best stories stick in your imagination. They also ripple through the culture like “A Sound of Thunder,” which popularized the notion of the Butterfly Effect. Other favorites are “The Pedestrian,” “The Veldt,” and “There Will Come Soft Rains.”


These stories express human desires and anxieties in ways that expose our naked psyches. I wonder if anyone has noticed that Bradbury was part of a midcentury American version of magical realism that paralleled the Latin American movement. His stories share a visionary style in which fantasy and realism intermingle similar to works such as John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” Bernard Malamud’s “Angel Levine,” or Truman Capote’s “Miriam.” Bradbury created a cluster of myths and images for the late 20th century — situations, characters, and images that moved beyond the written word to become films, TV, comic books, theater, operas, and visual art.


Can you elaborate on Bradbury’s role as a modern mythmaker?


Look at The Martian Chronicles. At the height of American optimism, Bradbury wrote a bittersweet novel about the failures of science, technology, and progress. Humanity makes it to Mars, but the triumph is illusory. Mars becomes a landscape of ghost towns. The novel was an extraordinarily fertile moment in American imagination. He suggested the notion of unlimited positive progress was an illusion. His wasn’t the dystopian vision of Orwell or Zamyatin but something gentler and more elegiac. H. G. Wells could write about the end of civilization from a global perspective. Bradbury made the vision personal and lyric.


That’s fascinating. You cite The Martian Chronicles. If I were to pick a work that exemplifies him at his best, it might well be that book because, of course, it’s a story cycle focusing on different point of view characters in each story. I think it shows Bradbury’s incredible range. It’s also possibly his finest prose. It’s elegant, but not purple. Something Wicked This Way Comes, even Dandelion Wine, can venture into a little bit of flowery language, but he hit his stride with The Martian Chronicles, as well as with his social commentary and his humanist commentary.


Yes, Bradbury began to shift into a more minor mode in Dandelion Wine.


I agree.


Martian Chronicles was his most ambitious work. As you know, Ray patterned it on The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck’s tragic vision of Depression-era America became Ray’s Martian tragedy of human defeat. Mars became a cosmic Dust Bowl. The dispossessed farmers became doomed astronauts and interplanetary immigrants.


You know this history. He bought his copy of The Grapes of Wrath coming back by Greyhound bus from the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. The World’s First Science Fiction Convention transpired at the same time, and so he was returning to Los Angeles, stopped off, briefly, at his boyhood hometown of Waukegan, which he rechristened “Greentown” in many of his works, most notably Dandelion Wine, and he bought his first copy of The Grapes of Wrath after seeing it in a cigar store window, of all things. Back on the Greyhound, he traveled through America reading it in 1939. It’s incredible.


You can’t make stuff up like that.


When was the first time you met Ray Bradbury in person?


I never met him until he came to Washington to receive the National Medal of Arts. No science fiction writer had ever won the National Medal. I felt it was important to honor areas of American creativity previously ignored. (We eventually awarded medals to an animator, literary translator, set designer, comic book artist, graphic designer, electrical guitar pioneer, and cartoonist — while never neglecting the traditional fine arts.) Ray was the first of these new honorees. The first time I spoke to him was the phone call informing him about the medal. He was effusively delighted. His doctors told him not to come. Ray came anyway, in his wheelchair, with three of his daughters and yourself. He loved every moment. He was like a kid at Disneyland.


This began a friendship that lasted until the end of his life. I continued to visit Ray when he was on his deathbed. He couldn’t read any longer, so I would read to him. We had a long and affectionate relationship.


Do you have a favorite moment or favorite memory of Ray?


My favorite memory of Ray came from a science fiction convention at the University of California at Riverside. Not the convention itself but trying to get to it. Ray was the keynote speaker. He asked if I would introduce him. The speech was scheduled in a huge building at the center of campus. But there was no direct way to get Ray’s wheelchair into the building. Every entrance had high steps designed for 18-year-old college students. Our faculty hosts eventually took us around back to the service entrance by the garbage dumpsters. I pushed Ray through a series of underground corridors until we got to a huge elevator, which had been designed to bring trolleys up from the food service kitchen.


We went up a floor or two, and a group of guys from the food service came in with their packed trolleys. They were all young Mexicans speaking Spanish. They noticed this old man in a wheelchair. The professors all froze up. They felt uncomfortable. But these were the sort of guys I grew up with. I turned to them and asked in my lousy Spanish if they knew who this man was. They shook their heads. Then I told them he was “el escritor famoso, Ray Bradbury.” My hosts looked at me as if I were crazy. But then the guys shouted, “Ray Bradbury!” Every one of them knew who he was. Then they crowded around to get his autograph.


Wow. Great story.


The moment strikes me as the best measure of Bradbury’s fame. Can you imagine the same reaction, indeed any reaction, to Saul Bellow or John Updike? These immigrant workers, whom American intellectuals consider beyond the compass of literature — you know all the social, cultural, and racial barriers that exist — were part of Ray’s audience.


And Ray was delighted to meet them. He chuckled and signed napkins and order slips. He had a global audience. He spoke to people novelists don’t usually reach. That is something that we should honor. Bradbury had an imagination that invited people in. I’m one of them. I know I’m not the only writer of my generation who feels Bradbury made a fundamental contribution to my intellectual and literary formation.


This topic has been very important in your work for decades. At the NEA you focused on expanding reading and organized The Big Read. Bradbury participated by video in Big Read programs all over the country. I was fortunate to deliver keynote presentations at many of these events. Ray was one of these rare gateway authors for young, reluctant readers, ushering them over to more challenging works of literature. In your estimation, now that Ray is no longer with us, you’ve written about the impoverishment of American intellectual culture, how are we going to engage reluctant readers as we move forward, and avoid a post-literate society? Or are we already there?


Our academic culture has lost its ability to inspire new readers. The decline in reading has been enormous, even among college students. At its height the Big Read was almost everywhere in the United States — every state, almost every major city plus hundreds of small towns. There were 25,000 organizations working in partnership with us. For the first time in over two decades American literary reading started growing. We made nearly 30 books available in the program, but the most popular novel was Fahrenheit 451. It was the title teachers and librarians most often selected. To Kill a Mockingbird was a close second. They were the gateway books, and they appealed to every age group.


You can’t force young people into literature. They need to be led by pleasure and wonder. Creating a new generation of readers is important. When a society loses the capacity to read fiction, it loses one of the most powerful ways by which we grow and refine our inner lives, our understanding of ourselves, and our understanding of other people.


That is a powerful statement, and it echoes the themes addressed in Fahrenheit 451. 


One final question for you. When you look over your own vast body of work, essays and poetry, and the incredible anthologies you’ve edited with these remarkable introductions that I use all the time as a creative writing professor in my classes at Columbia College Chicago, which one did Ray influence the most? Or if there is not one piece he inspired, how did Ray influence your own writing?


My experience with Ray — and other science fiction writers — changed the way I looked at literature, not only as a writer but also as a critic and editor. He helped me understand intuitively (before I could explain it intellectually) that there was no set hierarchy of literary modes. The novel was not superior to the romance as a mode of storytelling. They were just different. What mattered was excellence. One of the main changes in literary taste during my lifetime has been the erasure of the line between realism and fantasy. Likewise there is no longer a hard line between “serious” and “popular” culture.


As an editor of anthologies, I understood that the best way to get 18-year-olds to read was by offering them a variety of good work in different styles. Let them discover and explore their own taste. If you don’t have a science fiction story, horror story, or adventure story in that mix, you might as well forget about engaging young readers, especially the boys. This diversity does not represent an abandonment of standards. There are masterpieces in all those genres.


The way we teach literature has failed to engage the imagination of the new generation of readers. Unless we acknowledge and build on their experience in popular culture, nothing will improve.


This blurring of boundaries between popular culture and high culture is exactly what Bradbury did with The Martian Chronicles, and that’s why Christopher Isherwood, who was the first critic to review it as a work of literature, pointed that out exactly — this convergence of popular storytelling with high intellectual literary technique at play. You’ve been really gracious with your time.


Let me ask you a question. What was it like to write the first real biography of Ray while he was still alive?


It was quite the complex situation. I had him gently mentoring me on how to write a life story. Of course, he had never written a biography himself, but this was one of the most important writers of the 20th century. And I don’t think that’s hyperbole. He instructed me throughout the process to have fun and to not overthink the process but to, through osmosis, study his life and his philosophies and his accomplishments, and let them seep into my thinking and let that come out creatively, not necessarily intellectually. He always thought early drafts should be subconscious, so I really had this great writing mentor — who was also my subject — instructing me how to write a biography of him! To his immense credit, he never wanted to see a draft of the book. Not until I was done. He said, “I’ve given you this opportunity. I’ve knighted you with this and I don’t want you to feel like you’re writing it for me, so I don’t want to look at the manuscript. I don’t want to peer over your shoulder.” I gave it to him when I was finished, and it had already been turned in to the publisher. He read it on his 84th birthday and said, “You have written a beautiful book!” 


The kindness and creative wisdom of this man was towering and, as you said, he never went to college and had very little formal writing training. The only training he had was at Los Angeles High School in the late ’30s. I don’t think I’ll ever meet another artist with this level of philosophical and creative insight. I went on to do four books and a graphic novel surrounding Ray and his life. Two of those books won the Bram Stoker Award. My new book, Dark Black, a collection of 20 Gothic short stories, was partially inspired by Bradbury’s The October Country, even though it is very much a book that reflects my voice, my ideas, and my ethos. But Bradbury’s influence on me is immeasurable.


It is impressive that Ray kept his goodness and generosity, that innocence, while working in and around Hollywood most of his adult life. The cynicism and bitterness of Hollywood never infected him, though he was often treated badly. That’s a testament to the quality of his character.


Let me add one more thing. When we ponder Bradbury’s particular innovations as a writer, it is important to recognize that he lived and wrote in Los Angeles, which had emerged as the global center of popular culture. That culture shaped him, and he reshaped it. The movies and television also helped disseminate his work to a degree that few writers ever enjoyed in their own lifetime. If Ray had stayed in Waukegan, he still would have been a writer, but neither his books nor their reception would have been the same. Part of Bradbury’s importance was how much he changed storytelling on a global scale. Later, when Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood, and Don DeLillo wrote science fiction, we weren’t surprised. Bradbury had paved the way. That probably could only have happened in postwar Los Angeles.


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Sam Weller (@Sam__Weller) is the two-time Bram Stoker Award-winning biographer of Ray Bradbury. He worked with Bradbury for 12 years. Weller’s latest, Dark Black, is a collection of 20 Gothic short stories. He teaches in the English Department at Columbia College Chicago.


Dana Gioia is an award-winning poet. Former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Gioia is a native Californian of Italian and Mexican descent. In 2015 Gioia was appointed the State Poet Laureate of California by Governor Jerry Brown.