Ray Bradbury On Writing and Writers

Ray Bradbury talks about his beginnings as a writer and his advice for writers of prose, poetry and screenplays. The freedom to read and think that led to books like Fahrenheit 451. He provides an in-depth look at his process for creating the screenplay for Moby Dick.

Martin Landau with arm around Ray Bradbury
Martin Landau with arm around Ray Bradbury photo by Bob Hershon
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The following radio interview with Ray Bradbury was recorded over 50 years ago when I was quite young and terribly naive, it was to promote the release of the movie Something Wicked This Way Comes. What Ray Bradbury spent much of the time talking about was how many in society tried to tell us what we should and shouldn’t read, think and what can and cannot be imagined. It was, I think, a counseling session as much as an interview, encouraging myself and others to follow their heart and go their own way. Revisiting this interview has helped me recover my stalled creative momentum and I hope it will serve that purpose for others who read this.

Full Ray Bradbury 30 minute interview

Ray gave me the best advice about writing. Write! Who cares what’s published or heard tell the stories you want to tell. In his book Zen In The Art of Writing he talks about writing as a panacea for those living in troubled times.  “While our art cannot, as we wish it could save us from wars, privation, envy, greed, old age or death, it can revitalize us amidst it all.”  

Besides falling in love with the printed page; he fell for those who shared their love of literature.  Top of this list was his wife who sold books; and at first eyed the young Ray Bradbury suspiciously because of his daily lengthy excursions into her store to commune with literature without ever making a purchase.

His path to science fiction began as a chance somewhat magical encounter with a carnival magician, Mr. Electrico, in 1932. At the end of Electrico’s performance, he tapped twelve-year-old Bradbury, with his energy-charged saber, and decreed, “Live Forever!”

Bob Hershon: When did you start writing? 

Ray Bradbury: When I was 12, I was writing sequels to the novels of Edgar Burroughs, “John Carter, Warlords of Mars”. I couldn’t think of anything more splendid to write. 

Bob Hershon: So you grew up on science fiction? 

Ray Bradbury: Absolutely. Starting when I was eight and I’ve never given up on fantasy, Edgar Allan Poe, motion pictures and dinosaurs. You name it. 

Bob Hershon: Working with children I found one of the ways science fiction starts is from imagination. I guess all good writers have that. One of your books, especially zeros in on, the magical world that children do create, without becoming extraterrestrial just living out their summer.

Ray Bradbury: Actually two books. Dandelion Wine is one and Something Wicked This Way Comes, is the same children moving over into the dark, yes? I did Dandelion Wine 25, 26 years ago. It was a gigantic word association test I gave myself, with old tennis shoes, rain barrels, and fireworks, greenhouses, dandelions. You name it. So the more you get into this, the more you discover that your subconscious has put away all this information. From other years and various forms of metaphors, and then you just keep going back there; it gets to be very rich material. You don’t realize how much you have in there.

So that was a heck of a wonderful exercise for me over a period of years. I turned it into a musical, which we put on in Los Angeles, a year ago and did it back in New York at the Lincoln Center 15 years ago. A delight, all the way down the line. And I saw it at least three nights a week; I would sit there and cry every time I saw it; because it’s me, my relatives, my mom, dad, brother and my grandparents. It’s very close to me. 

Bob Hershon: Yeah, it’s funny how some parents and schools discourage that sort of fantasizing among children, the daydreaming, when it might actually, be put to a constructive use. 

Ray Bradbury:  I’ve often wondered about that, where it got started. I don’t understand, not respecting imagination and fantasy, but I’ve seen it in a lot of librarians and a lot of teachers over the years. Not as much recently. I think when I was younger; it was looked down upon more. When I used to travel across the country from Illinois to Tucson or to California; I’d rush into the nearest library as soon as the car stopped each night in the local bungalow court. That’s what they were called. Not a motel; bungalow court a  dollar a night for four people.  I’d rush to the nearest library and see if John Carter, Tarzan or the Oz books were there, and they never were. They weren’t allowed on many library shelves.

And so that’s a variety of book burning. Isn’t it? Most of the libraries that I went to would say, “Oh no, that sort of make believe is bad for you. Very bad; it’ll turn your brain to mush.” 

And a lot of intellectuals still believe this. So a lot of modern so-called liberals want their kids to be keyed into nothing but facts. Facts are good for you. Well, that’s not true. It’s what you do with the facts. There are a lot of facts in us, but it’s the way we handle them. That makes us special. Everyone takes the same fact we all have to die someday and everyone dies differently.  There are all kinds of ways of aging and sickness and death. So the facts are the same. You give the same fact to one person and they will turn it into a silk purse. 

Bob Hershon: You’ve had a number of your books or stories turned into films or into the theater. When you speak of book burning what comes to mind is Fahrenheit 451. Were you satisfied with that production? What part did you have in getting that on the screen? 

Ray Bradbury: Oh, they wanted me to do the screenplay and I had just done a stage version; and I was exhausted with the topic.  I just couldn’t do it. And I told him, I said, you know, if I try to do this for you, I will do a bad job. So I trust you, go do it with your adaptor and we’ll see what happens. Well, it turned out very well. It’s one of my favorite films and it’s gotten better over the years. 

Bob Hershon: I love the scene with Julie Christie and Oskar Werner. She asks Oskar, who is a fireman wearing 451 (the temperature at which paper burns), “Is it true that a long time ago firemen used to put out fires and not burn books?” And he responds with, “Oh what a strange idea!”

Julie Christie and “Fireman” Oskar Werner

Ray Bradbury: So it’s a very touching, haunting, sad, strange movie about a man who falls in love with books instead of with Julie Christie.

Bob Hershon: Yeah, what a bad choice. 

Ray Bradbury: When in doubt, it’d be nice to have a combination. Wouldn’t it? 

Bob Hershon: Bookstores have always been one of my favorite places to meet women. 

Ray Bradbury: I’m so glad to hear that. Well, that’s the story of my life. All the women in my life, starting as a child, were librarians, book sellers, and English teachers.

My first love was an English teacher. When I was in the fourth or fifth grade my English teacher I had in LA high school, Jeanette Johnson, I stayed in touch with her until she died at the age of 92, about two years ago. My wife is a teacher and a lover of language. She tutored technical French at USC before that, she did various kinds of tutoring and teaching English years and years ago.

When I met her when she was a bookseller. So that’s the proper place to meet a woman and make her a wife. Hmm. My wife and I on the way up here today were talking and laughing about something and she turned to me and she said, “Aren’t you glad you have a bright wife?” I said, “Yes, I am glad because we have to talk, don’t we?”

Wouldn’t it be awful to be in love with someone you couldn’t talk to and you know, read books and go to movies and plays with and have all this wonderful chatter with when it’s over. And if you don’t have that, I just don’t think you have a love affair, our marriage. 

Bob Hershon: Yes. There’s only in the greatest lust, there’s only a couple hours a day … you’re gonna have 22 hours to pass with your paramour. 

Ray Bradbury: Indeed. Yeah. And with most people you’re gonna have 23 and a half hours, how do you make two hours? Hmm, I think I have a new how-to book to write now. 

Bob Hershon: Could you talk about the difference between writing a book and working on screenplays like Moby Dick?

Ray Bradbury: Well, if you adapt someone else’s work. Of course it takes forever.

I did Moby Dick almost 30 years ago and it took the better part of the year to get the book into my bloodstream. And that’s the first thing you do. You can’t just swim over a thing and adapt it. You’ve gotta become part, parcel, heart, soul, blood and  body. With Moby Dick I got out of bed one morning in London, looked in the mirror and said, “I am Herman Melville!”

And that came after about seven months of reading parts of the book 80 times. And he really was in my… bloodstream. Melville really instructed me. And that’s what adaptation is about. But when you adapt your own things, of course you have the benefit of having lived with them for a lifetime. And it’s much easier.

And again, you don’t go and reread your own thing. You just try to go and do the essence. So adapting for films or writing your own screenplay is closer to writing haiku than it is to writing a novel or a short story.

The short story and poetry are closer to motion pictures than the novels are. Novels are very hard to put on the screen. They’re too cumbersome; film should be very simple. The great thing about Moby Dick is as long as it is, it has the essence of a short story to it.

Ahab shows up on Melville’s door one day in a driving rain with a harpoon in his hand. And Melville says to him, “What’s your problem Ahab?” And Ahab says, “That damned whale!” Melville says, go get him! And Ahab goes to get him and Melville runs after writing. And it has that direct line and Ahab writes the whole novel for you if you just follow him in his madness.

But that is the essence of a short story. And almost all great novels have that short story to begin with and then get complicated as you meet more characters. But writing for the screen, it’s gotta be even simpler. You only have 90 minutes at the most, 120 minutes, in an average film to tell your story.

A knowledge of poetry is very helpful because then you can get the essence of a thing. You can pin things down  economically in one shot, which would take seven pages to do in a novel quite often, if you are schooled in poetry.

So I have all these images from all the films I’ve seen, put away and that’s a great glossary. That’s a great dictionary for the subconscious, when you are faced with a problem where the characters are talking endlessly for 10 pages, and you say, “Hey, what is the image that does this in 60 words and that is when your knowledge of poetry will help you to shoot haiku in a barrel?

I saw myself quoted somewhere recently. I’m so proud of that quote, “shooting haiku, a barrel.” The great film directors like David Lean show you how to do that. And without words. If you’re doing a comedy, it’s all words and can be wonderfully clever, but the essence of the films we love the most, a heck of a lot of ’em; is the clever use of image. In Lawrence of Arabia, some of our best scenes have no language at all; it’s all music and image.

Bob: One of the main arguments, you may get from young writers coming up is that if I don’t write commercially or if I don’t concentrate on becoming professionally published and work at something that there’s already demand for; I’ll never be able to work 

Ray Bradbury: Well, that’s just never been true.  It never has been. After all, I made it and a lot of other people have made it. And I starved for years, you have to make up your mind that it’s gonna take 20 years to get established in any profession you go into. I sold newspapers on a street corner for three years, between the ages of 19-22.

 People would come by and see me standing on the corner, making $8 a week, and they’d say, “Ray, what are you doing here?” I said, “becoming a writer.” That’s what you have to decide what you want. Not what the world wants. You can’t guess at that. There’s no way. And if you go into say television full time,  You’ll work for  shows but you’ll be a toady. You may very well get rich. But no one’s forcing you to do that and you don’t have to do that.

You can become a short story writer or a poet or anything you wanna be. You have to then decide that your income will be small. My wife worked for two or three years to help support me so I could get started. But that’s part of the game. I didn’t have a decent income until I was 33. So there are no excuses.

What you want to do is what you ask yourself. Do you wanna write a novel? Write it! You wanna write short stories? Write ’em! I write all my stories for free! No one pays me to do anything. See, this is what people don’t understand. I’ve written 1000 short stories for free. No one paid me to do any of them. After the stories were finished, I sent them out and took a chance on selling them and finally sold 400.

And the other 600. No. So, and I got $30 for some stories, $10. $45. All the stories in the Martian Chronicles sold for about $50 a piece that’s 32 years ago. So I didn’t get rich off that. Did I?  Yes, I did in my heart and in my blood. And from people who came to me and said, “Hey Ray, you’re okay.”

Bob: Otherwise you lose your heart and your fascination. The nicest thing that ever happened to me with music was when a little girl came up to me after one performance and said, “I like your music best, because it made me feel sleepy like in a dream.” 

Ray Bradbury: That’s it! Well, it’s what you see in people’s faces.

And when you walk into a room or for a lecture, when you look at people’s faces and there’s love there, boy, oh boy, that’s powerful stuff! And that’s what we all want. We think we want the money or fame. But that’s not it really. That’s a symbol of something.  We should all be rewarded for doing good work, but it comes slowly.

 I look back on all those primitive years of learning with great fascination and delight. It was a great time. I never even noticed I was poor. I was too busy. 

Bob Hershon: I think one of the things that is missing for many people is that feeling when you were a kid, that excitement with just living. I remember going out when I was a kid on Saturday mornings, I had my sweatshirt on, I knew for a whole day I could play and run around and do a million different things.  

Ray Bradbury: Every day should be Saturday morning in your sweatshirt. And it’s up to you to keep it that way. And again, not as a serious enterprise, but because you choose to get out of bed and play. I won’t do anything that I don’t love and that I can’t have fun with.  And that’s been true since I was 12. I learned everyone else in the world was wrong when I was nine. And you just stay away from those people. The people that smother you, make fun of you. To heck with them, get ’em outta your life, become your own man!

To hear entire 30 minute audio interview click Free 30 minute Apple Podcast here

About Bob Hershon 10 Articles
Multimedia lab specialist at a College. Photographer and journalist mainly for Jazz Magazines in the 90's. Wrote about soundtracks and did press releases for Verve Gitanes after that. Worked at the Menlo Park VA (1969-1970 same one Ken Kesey was at earlier. He's older. It was a cuckoo's nest. My first day they kept me in locked ward to show me who was boss. They fed vets mellaril (thioridazine) which turned them into Walking Dead with tremors (pseudoparkinsonism, extrapyramidal symptoms), There is a warning now that says must only be used if nothing else works. God then reached out his hand and moved me to Palo Alto VA (under the best scientist I've ever met, Leo Hollister)1971-1974. Part of the group were two other geniuses Hamp Gillespie and Jared Tinklenberg, M.D. I was just a research assistant on my way to screwing up a doctorate. Burt Center Residential Treatment Center for Autistic and traumatized children and young adults 71-74 under Mary Burt who pioneered treament of Autism. Family Service Agency of SF before recovering my sanity at Canada College Music School. John Kreiger and Phillip Ienni guided me to the light and polytonality and pandiatonicism. To stay sane I played guitar for 40 years. The picture was taken years ago. I have gone gray and old.

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