SEPTEMBER 26, 2017
The following interview is excerpted from Sam Weller’s Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews, out this month in a hardcover deluxe edition from Los Angeles–based Hat & Beard Press.
LOS ANGELES: The Santa Ana winds blew dry and hot. Ray Bradbury sat in the front seat of a town car, headed south on the 405 Freeway. As the automobile approached an overpass, Bradbury looked out the windshield at the roadway above. Painted along the side was a mural of graffiti art: a swirling black tag of graceful letters, illegible at 60 miles per hour, all surrounded by a splash of vibrant spray-painted color.
“That’s wonderful!” Bradbury remarked, just catching a glimpse of the illegal artwork before the car passed beneath it. “I wonder how those artists hang from the overpasses to do that?”
A few days later, Bradbury sat down to write the short story, “Ole, Orozco! Siqueiros, Si!,” a tale about a Los Angeles graffiti artist who dies while hanging from an overpass. The story would go on to be published in the collection The Cat’s Pajamas.
This is how Bradbury worked. Art and literature of all kinds influenced him: from graffiti to comic strips, fine art, film scores, architecture, and more. No surprise, then, that he has strong opinions on the subject of art and books.
SAM WELLER: You are passionate about so many different forms of art, from film to fiction, painting to poetry. Is there one art form that you find most moving?
RAY BRADBURY: No. All the art forms are great. You can’t pick one form. Anything that gives you rebirth and makes you want to get out of bed in the morning. Then you’ve got a great art form.
You are a film fanatic and tremendous bibliophile. What do you see as the differences between these two mediums of storytelling?
David Brown was a producer at 20th Century Fox and he married Helen Gurley Brown, the Cosmopolitan editor. He did a film a few years ago based on Angela’s Ashes, the Irish autobiography. Beautiful film, beautiful book. But you can read a book that’s negative in its aspects — a complete description of Dublin, and the weather and poverty, and not have it kill you because you can pause and close the book. It’s different because when you read it, you’re creating it in your own theater inside your head. But a film is total realism. You can’t change it, it’s right there, there’s nothing you can do about it. You can change a book in your mind. Every book is like Japanese flowers that go into your head and they sink down through the water inside your head, and then open out. The difference between books and film is books are unreality. They open up inside the head. They become yours. They’re more personal. Films are immediate and insistent. They’re like a bully. They bully you with their brilliance and you can’t turn away from them. Later you may, in remembrance, change them, but you can’t have the immediate thing that the book does where it fantasizes in the head. After all, it’s only print, it doesn’t mean anything. You have to learn at a certain age how to read those symbols and turn them into paper flowers that open in the mind. A film makes you think you know everything — you don’t. You can’t escape film. So the long way around to my point, David Brown made this film on Ireland which is beautiful, it’s all about the poverty, and the rain, and the deaths, and when you’re done with the film you want to kill yourself. I’ll never look at it again. I wrote to him and said, “It’s a beautiful film. I’m glad you made it, but I never want to see it again.”
In recent years, you have been quite busy with your own theatrical production company, Pandemonium Theatre Company. You have arguably given more time to the theater in the last decade than any other medium. Why do you love the art form of theater so much?
I love movies, I love poetry, I love novels, but I love theater especially because you get to know the family — all of the actors, from the very beginning, whereas in filmmaking, it’s all fragmentary. You show up at the set, wait for an hour for them to light it, then they do a three-minute sequence, and then they break and set up another segment, another set of lights, and you spend all day waiting! So you don’t get to know people. Another reason I love theater so much is that, secretly, I always wanted to be an actor. From the moment when I was three years old and saw The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I loved acting. When I was six, I saw The Phantom of the Opera and that only reinforced my desire to be an actor. In 1939, I joined a theater group run by the actress Laraine Day, and it was there that I realized that I can’t remember lines. I’m a good lecturer, but I can’t act.
I’d like to talk about some of your literary contemporaries, if you will. What are your opinions on the work of Kurt Vonnegut?
His writing eludes me somehow.
Do you know him?
We had a wonderful time together in the late 1980s. Yousuf Karsh, the famous photographer, took some pictures of me, the same day he photographed Vonnegut. So we had pictures taken together. My first meetings with him, years before that, were not very good. We’re such different people. He was very serious. He lived a serious life. Terrible life, growing up during the bombings of Germany. I don’t know how he survived that. Thousands of people dying all around you. But then the second time with Karsh, we had a lot of fun. He was more relaxed and Karsh and his wife have terrific, good senses of humor, so we have great pictures taken laughing together.
What are your opinions on the New Journalism of the 1960s?
Some of it is very good. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion is wonderful. And I love From Bauhaus to Our House by Tom Wolfe. Truman Capote’s early work I like very much, his short stories, of course. “A Christmas Memory” is beautiful.
What about In Cold Blood?
I didn’t care for that. He got involved with those criminals while writing that book. I don’t believe in reality. He was kidding himself about a new style. I don’t believe he invented a new style. Capote was a clerk at Mademoiselle magazine in 1945 before he became well known and he was helping the fiction editor, Rita Smith, look over the slush pile of short stories that came in the mail to the magazine. I sent a short story to them that Weird Tales had rejected because it wasn’t their cup of tea. They wanted a traditional ghost story. I had run my course at Weird Tales. I’d sold one story to Mademoiselle at that point and I sent my vampire story, “The Homecoming.” This story was in the slush pile Truman Capote was helping read through. He turned to Rita Smith and he said, “Hey, look at this story here. You ought to buy this.” And he gave her a copy of “The Homecoming.” They held it for many months not knowing what to do with it — it was so unusual for the magazine. They finally sent me a telegram that said, “We were thinking of ways to change your story to fit the magazine and then we decided to change the magazine to fit the story.” So they bought it and it appeared in a special Halloween issue of Mademoiselle, beautiful. They got Charles Addams to illustrate the story and they invited me back to New York to meet all the editors. And so, on Labor Day weekend, 1946, I went on a train to New York and the Mademoiselle people put on a big party for me — Mr. Davis, the head editor as well as Rita Smith, who was Carson McCullers’s sister. I went to this party and Charles Addams was there, Carson McCullers and her husband — it was incredible. I was accepted into New York intellectual society at the age of 26. I had lunch with Charles Addams and I told him how much I loved his illustrations and we planned on doing a book together about his family and my family. We both had the same idea at the same time, but his family was spookier than mine. Mine was much more human. So we corresponded about that. We submitted ideas to various publishers together and nothing ever happened. Along the way, later that year, I bought the painting he did for “The Homecoming” in Mademoiselle from him for, God knows, around $300, which I didn’t have, so I paid for it on time, maybe $30 a month, I don’t remember. But thank God I bought it and kept it all these years.
And Truman Capote was responsible for the sale of that story? Did you ever meet him?
I saw Capote. I had the chance to thank him. At the Bel Air Hotel one day, about 25 years ago, while visiting with my agent, I looked across the pool and there was Truman Capote sitting there. So I went over and introduced myself and said, “Mr. Capote, I owe you a lot of thanks.” He said, “For what?” “Well,” I said, “you were in Rita Smith’s office 30 years ago and you got her to buy my short story,” and he remembered. So I was able to shake hands with him and thank him.
While we are on the topic of the founders of the New Journalism movement, what are your opinions of Norman Mailer?
He didn’t like life. He was a typical male. The secret of males is this: we are jealous of women. They have all the power. The essence of a woman is the power she has to attract just by being. A lot of men beat the hell out of their women because the women are too powerful. And they hate that. So Norman Mailer never liked life, he didn’t like women, they were too powerful. He beat up on his wives, he stabbed one. So I didn’t like Norman Mailer because his books were full of this need for masculine power. I don’t believe in masculine power. I’m not masculine. I’m a sissy. I’m a revised sissy because when I met and married Maggie she helped me grow up. She helped me stop being a sissy and in the process I became a good writer. But it’s not masculine junk.
Did you ever meet Mailer?
My good friend Sid Stebel and I met him at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel the night they had a publication party for his book about Marilyn Monroe. That was around 1973. John Huston was there because he liked Mailer. And Mailer came in the room and I ran over and said, “Mr. Mailer, my name is Ray Bradbury, and my friend and I have read your book,” and he sailed on. That was it. He escaped me. He didn’t want to know who I was. So I never had the chance to talk to him. So what the hell.
Did you know Gore Vidal?
A very nice man. When I was in New York in the early 1950s I met him and we walked all across the city and talked about writing and books.
Changing subjects, what do you think of the Harry Potter books? They were banned by some school boards across the country.
I bought all of them for my grandchildren. They’re wonderful. That series is like Something Wicked This Way Comes. Listen, if they are offending some people, it’ll all blow over. I tell the teachers and the librarians when they contact me, “Look, when the people come into the library to remove a book from the shelf, when they’re gone, put it back on the shelf.” If they come back a week later, say, “Oh! What’s that book doing on the shelf? Gee, how did it get there?” If they take the book again, when they are gone, put it back. They’re going to lose eventually. We’ve never had censorship in this country. No book burnings, nothing major.
You really believe we’ve never had censorship in the United States?
Like I said, nothing major. It seems to go in cycles. If it gets bad, it eventually blows over because people get upset.
You were an avid reader of comic strips when you were a child. Are you still a fan of the more contemporary strips?
Oh, yeah. I love Mutts, that’s my favorite. The Wizard of Id, and, B.C., and of course when the Peanuts were still being reprinted. Calvin and Hobbes is great.
Were you a fan of superhero comics as a child?
Not really. They didn’t appear until I was 19. Well, they’re boring, anyway. They’re too strong, you see. Tarzan is vulnerable. Occasionally he almost gets killed, and it takes him months to recover.
How about the character of Batman, then? He had no powers. He’s vulnerable.
That was too late. I was 19 or 20. They’re all too fantastic, you see. They did impossible things like flying through the air. I like Tarzan because he did something I knew about; he could climb trees or swing on vines.
But the Mars stories of Burroughs are impossible and they had a huge influence on you.
Mars is different. John Carter is all fantasy. I accepted that. But it wasn’t impossible fantasy — it was based in swordsmanship.
Did you and your wife share the same literary tastes?
Different. She liked Henry James more than I do. I prefer short things, short novels. And she liked to read a lot of history. She knew everything there was to know about French history, French writers, Camus and Proust. She was very fluent in the French language. When we traveled through France, they thought she was French. She read all the time. And she loved mysteries. She read everything by Agatha Christie.
Architecture has always been very near and dear to your heart. Over the years, you have worked as a design consultant in a number of high-profile projects, including scripting the interior concepts for “Spaceship Earth” at Disney’s EPCOT Center. How did you first get involved with architecture and design?
It started with the United States Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair. Two men showed up at my door in 1962 and they were from the United States government representing the World’s Fair, which was building in Flushing Meadows in New York. I asked them what they were doing at my door and they said, “We’ve come to offer you a $50 million building,” and I said, “Come in! Come in!” They had read my essay “The Ardent Blasphemers” from the Bantam edition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, about Captain Nemo and Captain Ahab, the madness of both men and the inherent blasphemy of the American spirit. They read this essay of mine and they said, “We think you are the very man to create the top floor of the United States Pavilion.”
When did you discover that you had a passion for architecture?
I began falling in love with architecture when I was eight years old. I saw the covers of the science fiction magazines with the fabulous paintings of the cities of the future. And then when I was 13 years old I went to the Chicago World’s Fair and walked among the cities of the future, with all of the wonderful colors and shapes and sizes. When it came time to go home that night at the fair, I didn’t want to leave. My mother and father had to drag me out of the fair. They were taking me away from the buildings of the future. So I went home and I started to build those buildings in the backyard — very dreadful, cardboard cut-outs, but I began to make outlines for cities of the future when I was 14. And I began to write, because I discovered a remarkable and terrible thing about the Chicago World’s Fair. After two years, they were going to tear most of it down and I thought, how stupid, not to leave the future up and build toward it. So, since they were going to tear down the future, I began to write about it when I was 13 and 14.
You have done design work on shopping centers in Southern California. How did that come about?
Over a period of time, living in Los Angeles, I became disillusioned with what I saw going on in Hollywood. Hollywood for many years was like Hiroshima at high noon. Downtown LA has gone to hell for quite a while. So in 1970, I wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times about what we should do with downtown LA and I made a sketch of the perfect plaza and what we should put into that plaza. A couple of years later, Jon Jerde, who was a budding architect, came to me and we had lunch. During lunch he said to me, “Have you seen the Glendale Galleria?” I said, “Yes, I have.” “What do you think of it?” And I said, “I think it is quite wonderful.” He said, “That’s yours. That’s the article you wrote in the Los Angeles Times, and I followed your directions and I built the Glendale Galleria.” I said, “Am I allowed to say that?” And he said, “Yes, of course, why?” And I told him, “Because I want to claim that you are my bastard son!” So I joined Jon Jerde’s firm in an amateur capacity for the next year or so. We were like kids playing in a sandbox. We threw ideas up in the air like confetti and ran under them. During this time, we made plans for Horton Plaza down in San Diego, and it was the most fun I’ve ever had in my entire life.
Do you have a favorite building or structure?
The Chrysler Building in New York. It’s as beautiful as a Russian Easter Egg. And to think, some people made fun of it when it was first built. It didn’t look like all the boxes in New York City. I first saw it in 1939 and I loved it. Later, my agent, Don Congdon, had an office right next to it and he had a view right from his office window of the Chrysler Building just two blocks away. It was right there, through the window, and it was magnificent.
So many. I love the Marin Civic Center in Marin County, California. That building is a treasure. It’s surrounded by nothing and with it’s wonderful blue roof it’s as if a piece of porcelain sky had been ripped out of the heavens and fired in an oven and made even more blue and fantastic. So when you see this jewel lying there, this gigantic piece of blue sky laying there on the ground covering that beautiful architecture, it’s simply impossible. I also love Rockefeller Center. The way it closes in on the crowds that go there, and then you have the restaurant mall in the center, and then you have Apollo, that great golden statue, hovering over all of it — it’s a terrific combination of modern architecture planning and mythology. Outdoor plazas are so much more fun than enclosed areas. You can breathe better, the air gets to you, and, as I said somewhere in Dandelion Wine, eating a sandwich, sitting on the grass, smelling the air — the sandwich tastes better.
What contemporary architects do you admire?
Santiago Calatrava is a genius. His work is beautiful.
Switching mediums, I know you are a fan of film scores. Who, in your mind, are the great film composers?
Bernard Herrmann, of course. And Erich Wolfgang Korngold. He did the score for Robin Hood, and The Sea Hawk, and two or three other films. They did a symphonic night of his music a few years ago in Los Angeles and I went down to hear it. His music was incredible. I wish I could have met him so I could have hugged him.
Who are your favorite painters?
The whole Wyeth family. N. C. Wyeth, the father, who illustrated children’s books, like Treasure Island. His son, Andrew Wyeth, became famous, as did N. C. Wyeth’s daughter, Henriette. All the Wyeths were inspiring to me because they inspired one another. They had a showing of Andrew Wyeth’s work at the Art Institute of Chicago once and I could hardly get in, the line was so long. It was beautiful. Goya is also marvelous. I used his work on the covers of two of my books, and nine of his illustrations were used inside a special edition of The October Country. His work is mysterious and evocative.
How about the Impressionists?
When you develop a photograph in a darkroom, you put it in one emulsion and then you put it in another emulsion and the picture emerges. That’s what the great Impressionists do. They are emulsions and they bring up life the more you look at them. Renoir was one of my favorites. His work is evocative. His son, Jean Renoir, wanted to do a film with me, The Picasso Summer. The studio people wouldn’t accept him. He was too old. They were afraid he would die making the film and they had no insurance then. Isn’t that terrible? He became a friend. I saw him at least four times, a wonderful man.
Do you have a favorite painting?
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, by Georges-Pierre Seurat. That is terrific. It demands that you sit and enjoy that Sunday with all those people. You become part of the mob. And you walk along the water and you look at each person and you say, “I wonder why that person came here?” And now I’m here. I’m part of the mob. That’s what that painting does to me.
What are your opinions of Abstract Expressionists? Jackson Pollock for example?
Jackson Pollock didn’t know how to paint. There’s nothing to see there.
How do you account for his popularity? His paintings are worth millions.
People are stupid.
What about Andy Warhol?
I was there at the opening of his show in Los Angeles on La Cienega Boulevard. I saw him there surrounded by stupid people and I knew that he was stupid too. He did terrible things. He put out a film called Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein. That’s not his film. He took someone else’s film and put his name on it. He’s a dishonest man. And if you do that sort of thing, I don’t like you.
What influence did photography have on you?
When I was a teenager I loved looking at Infinite Riches in a Little Room, the miniature magazine put out by Esquire. I couldn’t afford it, but I picked up copies here and there and occasionally I would buy it for a dime and I would tear out the pictures and I’d write stories around the pictures. I didn’t know what I was doing! I started writing prose poetry based on all those pictures from the magazine. My intuition told me to write and I was doing prose poetry, but I didn’t even know what the term meant. Sometimes there were pictures of semi-nude women, or photographs of seascapes or deserts or skies. Then I’d write prose poems from them. In 1952 when I met Aldous Huxley, he said to me, “You know what you are? You’re a poet.” I couldn’t believe it. I’d wanted to be a poet all those years. In high school I was terrible. I never once wrote anything that was any good. And at long last, because I started by doing the intuitive thing looking at photographs, and writing evocations, eventually I became a poet. It was all intuitive.
In 1952, Bernard Berenson, the renowned Renaissance art historian wrote you a fan letter. When you were done writing the screenplay for Moby Dick, you visited Berenson at his estate in Florence, Italy. You have said often that he became a second father to you. What did you learn from Bernard Berenson about art?
He let me teach him. That’s how he worked. I recognized things in art and he wanted me to tell him, rather than the other way around. He wanted me to discover things, rather than him just telling me what to discover. The first day we were in Florence and we had our first visit with him, we went out to roam around the city. I hired a horse-drawn carriage and I said to the driver, I want to see the Michelangelo Plaza, but the driver misunderstood and we wound up at a church. So we were at the wrong place, but we went in anyway, and there were murals on the walls. I’d never seen murals like that before. We went back and had lunch with Berenson and he asked about our morning. I told him about the church we had visited and told him about the murals. He asked me what I thought. I told him, “They look like the work of a man who was turning the Renaissance sideways. He was looking at things from a new perspective.” I thought that this painter was changing the Renaissance and I asked Berenson if this made any sense. He said, “You nailed it.” So my perception was absolutely correct. He loved the fact that I found that out by myself without being told. That was how Berenson worked.
At the end of Fahrenheit 451, people have gathered in the wilderness and they have memorized a book in order to save it from ruination. What book would you memorize?
I would memorize Bernard Shaw’s gigantic book of prefaces to his plays. There are as many pages of essays as there are pages to his plays. Those essays on how to be creative, and how he created those plays, makes for a wonderful book. It’s a huge thing, about 2,000-pages long. I have two copies. That book is my bible. The other book I might select is A Christmas Carol. That story is a hymn of life and death. It’s everything about birth and living and dying and surviving. And it makes me weep. It makes me cry, because Scrooge is so beautiful. My film adaptation with Alastair Sim is a great version. When he survives at the end and dances with joy, I dance with joy. I wrote to Sim. When I saw A Christmas Carol on Christmas Day, I said to Maggie, “I better write to this man. His Scrooge is the greatest Scrooge ever, and the film is so beautiful and I have to thank him.” So I wrote him a love letter that said, “Dear Mr. Sim, thank you for your Scrooge. You are the greatest. God bless you.” And I sent the letter to my agent in London and said, “I don’t know where this man lives, but if you can get in touch with him and give him this letter, I want him to know how much I love him.” So two months went by and I didn’t hear from him, and I figured he didn’t get my letter. I was so upset. Finally, a letter came in the mail from Alastair Sim. It read: “Dear Mr. Bradbury, your letter reached me in hospital and made me well.” Isn’t that beautiful? I can’t find that letter now. It’s somewhere in my house. But anyway, A Christmas Carol went on to influence me in so many ways. It is the reason I wrote The Halloween Tree. The Halloween Tree is A Christmas Carol all over again. My character Mr. Moundshroud is a semi-evil Mr. Scrooge.
Sam Weller (@) is the author of The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury, the first-ever biography of Ray Bradbury, which received the prestigious Society of Midland Authors award for best biography in 2005, and was short-listed for the Bram Stoker award in the best nonfiction category.