Ray Bradbury: 'It's Lack That Gives Us Inspiration'
This interview was originally broadcast in 1988.
Ray Bradbury didn't like negative people. The science-fiction writer and author of Fahrenheit 451 told Terry Gross in 1988 that he found out about negative people in fourth grade, shortly after his classmates started making fun of him for collecting Buck Rogers comic strips.
"In that particular year, I tore up my comic strips and a month later, I burst into tears and said to myself, 'Why am I weeping?' Who died?' " he said. "And the answer was me. I had allowed these fools to kill me and to kill the future."
From that time on, Bradbury said he would never listen to negative people again. "And I went back and collected the Buck Rogers comic strips and started to write about it," he said. "And I became a writer."
Bradbury didn't just become a writer — he became one of the most recognizable and lauded science-fiction writers of all time. On Tuesday, Bradbury died at in Los Angeles at the age of 91.
More than 8 million of Bradbury's books are currently in print. His writing career — which spanned seven decades — included the short-story collections The Golden Apples of the Sun, The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man and the novels Something Wicked This Way Comes and Fahrenheit 451.
Despite being one of the most prolific writers in his genre, Bradbury never learned to drive a car — a fact which continually tickled some of his fellow science-fiction writers. Bradbury said that not driving never really bothered him.
"It's lack that gives us inspiration," he said. "It's not fullness. Not ever having driven, I can write better about automobiles than the people who drive them. I have a distance here. ... Space travel is another good example. I'm never going to go to Mars but I've helped inspire, thank goodness, the people who built the rockets and sent our photographic equipment off to Mars. So it's always a lack that causes you to write that type of story."
On the future
Bradbury: "I'd like to come back every 50 years and see how we can use certain technological advantages to our advantage, say in education. I think we're doing a dreadful job of educating. We're spending $200 billion a year — a heck of a lot of money — and we're getting very small results. Because we're neglecting the first grade and the second grade. That's where the whole thing lies and we have to revamp all of our ideas about the first and second grade."
Gross: "Wait, you don't want to come back and find out if we've landed on Mars or not? You want to come back and see how the grade schools are doing?"
Bradbury: "It's not going to do any good to land on Mars if we're stupid. And I want to save the future generation, I want to teach them to read when they're 5 and 6 and 7 years old. If we don't do that, we lose them forever. There's no use having remedial reading when you can do the whole thing in the first grade. It doesn't cost a darn thing. First grade is very cheap. It's the later grades where you have to spend a lot of money if you don't do it right."
On being afraid of the dark as a child
"When I was 6, we had the bathroom upstairs and in the middle of the night when I had to go up there, I had to run halfway up the stairs and turn on the light before I could go the rest of the way. Well, when I was doing this, I'd always say to myself, 'Don't look at the top of the stairs because it will be waiting for you.' And I never learned now to look because as soon as I looked up, there it was and it was horrible and I would scream and fall back down the stairs and my mother and my father would get up and sigh and say, 'Here we go again.' "
"All of us, no matter how we look born into this world, feel something like the Hunchback. It doesn't matter if you have a beautiful face or not. I've talked to a lot of beautiful people in later years and found out that they went through the same things in high school that I did. I went around with my face down most of the time because I was suffering from the usual outbreaks on the face that most kids at that age have. But then in later years, I met some beautiful women and beautiful men and they all confessed to the same feeling, regardless of how they looked. I think Quasimodo appeals to all of us."
On terror and writing
"Any experience that touches you, in any particular way, is good. It can be a horrible experience. I saw a car crash when I was 15 here in Los Angeles and five people died as a result of it. I arrived at the scene within 20 seconds of hearing the collision. It was the worst mistake I ever made in my life. I didn't know what I was running into. People had been horribly mangled and decapitated. So for months after, I was shaken. It's probably the reason I never learned to drive. I was terrified of automobiles for a long time after that but I turned it into a short story called "The Crowd" six or seven years later. ... So out of this horror — this really terrible event — you take something that has taught you a certain kind of fear and you pass on to others and say, 'This is what the car can do.' "
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury died Tuesday in Los Angeles, at the age of 91. His books include "Fahrenheit 451," "Something Wicked This Way Comes," "The Martian Chronicles" and "The Illustrated Man." He's also remembered for many of his 600 short stories.
Bradbury's often credited with making science fiction a respected literary genre. He said he liked to deal with human problems, like what it would be like to be an average woman on the night before she goes off to Mars, to join her husband. He kept writing up to a thousand words a day, even in his later years. But he never used a computer, preferring an electric typewriter.
Terry spoke to Ray Bradbury in 1988, after the publication of "The Toynbee Convector," a collection of short stories. The first story gave a new twist to one of the oldest ideas in science fiction: the time machine. Bradbury explained what motivated him to write that story.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
RAY BRADBURY: The problem with the world is doomsayers. We're surrounded by negative people; I can't stand them. I found out about them when I was 9 years old. Everyone made fun of me, in the fourth and fifth grade, because I collected the Buck Rogers comic strips. That was 1929. The future was never going to arrive. And I've been surrounded by people who never believed in the future. And it was true then; it's true today.
So I - in that particular year, I tore up my comic strips. And a month later, I burst into tears and said to myself: Why am I weeping? Who died? And the answer was: me. I'd allowed these fools to kill me, and to kill the future. So from that time on, I decided I'd never listened to another damn fool again in my life. And I went back and collected the Buck Rogers comic strips, and ensured my future - and began to write about it, became a writer.
So I've learned that by doing things, things get done. I'm not an optimist. I'm an optimal behaviorist. So that particular story in my new book, "The Toynbee Convector," is based on my conviction that we ensure that future by doing it.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
I want to ask you about another short story. The story is called "The Thing at the Top of the Stairs."
GROSS: And it's about an adult who is very afraid of the dark, as he was as a child. And he's afraid of walking up a staircase - an unlit staircase. There's a bulb that he has to turn on at the top of the staircase. And he's afraid that waiting at the top of the staircase is a monstrous thing. Were you afraid of the dark when you were young?
BRADBURY: Yeah, that's a true story. When I was 4 or 5, 6 years old, we had the bathroom upstairs. And in the middle of the night, when I had to go up there, I had to run halfway up the stairs, turn on the light before I could go the rest of the way. Well, when I was doing this, I'd always say to myself, now, don't look at the top of the stairs because "it" will be waiting for you. And I never learned not to look. And I would scream and fall back down the stairs, and my mother or father would get up and sigh and say, oh, my God. Here we go again. And they'd turn the light on for me and let me go upstairs.
GROSS: What shape did that "it" have, in your mind?
BRADBURY: I suppose it had a different shape every single night, maybe as the result of my seeing certain horror films that I dearly loved. You know, we all love horror films. And I saw "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" when I was 3; "The Phantom of the Opera" when I was 6. I think "The Phantom" stayed with me the longest. And it was probably the Phantom up there - the moment when Patsy Ruth Miller tears off the mask of Lon Chaney, and his face is revealed in all its gruesome detail.
GROSS: I'm glad you mentioned "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," too, because that's a movie I used to watch over and over and over again, when I was growing up. The first time I saw it, it just terrified me.
BRADBURY: Yeah, there...
GROSS: But I had to keep watching it again and again. I loved it so much. Did that movie scare you?
BRADBURY: I don't know if it scared me. It touched me.
BRADBURY: Even when you're 3 years old...
BRADBURY: ...the Lon Chaney version was very sympathetic and sad, and very moving. And then the Charles Laughton version was the same way. I think all of us, no matter how we look born into this world, feel something like the Hunchback.
BRADBURY: It doesn't matter if you have a beautiful face or not. I've talked to a lot of beautiful people in later years, and found out that they went through the same thing in high school that I did. I went around with my face down most of the time, because I was suffering from the usual outbreaks on the face that most kids of that age have. But then in later years, I met some beautiful women and beautiful men, and they all confessed to the same feeling, regardless of how they looked. I think the Quasimodo appeals to all of us.
GROSS: I want to get back to the fear that you felt when you were in the dark, climbing up the stairs as a child.
GROSS: Is that kind of terror a good experience for us - for a writer, especially someone who spends part of their time writing science fiction?
BRADBURY: Or fantasy, or any other thing.
BRADBURY: Any experience that touches you, in any particular way, is good. It can be a horrible experience. I saw a car crash when I was 15, here in Los Angeles, and five people died as a result of it. I arrived at the scene of the accident within 20 seconds of hearing the collision. It was the worst mistake I ever made in my life. I didn't know what I was running into. People had been horribly mangled and decapitated.
So for months after, I was shaken by them. It's probably the reason I never learned to drive. I was terrified at automobiles for a long time after that. But I turned it into a short story, called "The Crowd," six or seven years later, and that was part of my "Ray Bradbury Television Theatre" two years ago. It was one of the things we produced.
GROSS: You know, some writers have made a lot out of the fact that you don't drive; you know, the irony one of America's premier science fiction writers, envisioners of the future, doesn't drive a car. Has that ever seemed ironic to you, or do you just accept that there's reasons you don't want to drive?
BRADBURY: No. It's no different than love poetry, is it? We don't write love poetry in the middle of an affair, do we? We write love poetry when we're away from our loved one, or we anticipate a loved one. It's lack that gives us inspiration. It's not fullness. Occasionally, fullness can do that. But not ever having driven, I can write better about automobiles than people who drive them. I have a distance here.
Perhaps I have a secret yearning to own a Maserati someday and go to hell. I don't know. But space travel is another good example. I'm never going to go to Mars, but I've helped inspire - thank goodness - those people who have built the rockets, and sent our photographic equipment off to Mars. So it's always a lack, though, that causes you to write that kind of story.
GROSS: Have you had any direct correspondence with astronauts who've traveled through space?
BRADBURY: Oh, I've met most of them, thank goodness. LIFE Magazine sent me down to Houston back in early 1967, and I met 60 of them. The Apollo missions were just beginning. It's a wonderful part of my life. I feel very fortunate that I not only started out with Buck Rodgers in 1929, but wound up down at Houston, Cape Canaveral, in my own lifetime. I thought I would be a very old man by the time we landed on the moon. Well, I was only 49.
GROSS: Now, you actually wrote the screenplay for a book that had nothing to do with your books - "Moby Dick."
BRADBURY: That's right.
GROSS: And you really, I have to say, seemed like a very unlikely choice to adapt "Moby Dick" for the screen. And I was wondering how you got to write the screenplay.
BRADBURY: Well, by staying true to my own sense of the poetic. Again, here's where - the influence of Shakespeare on my life; the influence of the Bible, which I was raised on. And by staying true to my love of poetry, and my love of metaphor - which you learn from the Old Testament, the New Testament; and you learn from Shakespeare - to speak in tongues, huh, that are so vivid that people remember the metaphor.
And also, by staying in love with dinosaurs. I fell in love with dinosaurs when I was 5. And I was walking along the shore with my wife one night, down in Venice, California - this is 1949 - and we found the ruins of the old Venice Pier - all the bones and the skeleton, the tracks and the ties, of the rollercoaster, lying there in the sea.
And I turned to my wife, and I said: I wonder what that dinosaur is doing lying here on the shore? She was very careful not to answer and three nights later, I heard something in the middle of the night. I sat up in bed, looked at all the fog out beyond the window; and way out in the Santa Monica Bay, I heard the braying, the calling, the oconing(ph), of the foghorn over and over and over again.
And I said yes, that's it! The dinosaur heard the foghorn blowing, thought it was another dinosaur calling from a billion years of slumber, and swam for an encounter; discovered it was only a damned lighthouse and a damned foghorn, tore the whole thing down, and died of a broken heart on the beach. The next day, I got out of bed and wrote "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms," sent it to the Saturday Evening Post. It was published.
John Huston read that one story, and that changed my life forever, because he thought he smelled the ghost of Melville in that story.
GROSS: Oh, oh, oh.
BRADBURY: What he smelled in it was the ghost of Shakespeare and the ghost of the Bible, huh? And so he called me on the phone and offered me the job. And a year later, when I was working on the screenplay, one night I said John, how did I get this job? You know, everyone thought you were crazy. He said, well, I read that story about the dinosaur.
And I said, well, I was very honest with you. I told you when I met you, I never read Melville. But once I got into Melville, I discovered he had been inspired by the same people who inspired me. So we were twins. He had been called upon by Shakespeare to cough up the white whale.
DAVIES: Ray Bradbury, speaking with Terry Gross in 1988. Bradbury died Tuesday. He was 91.
Coming up, David Edelstein on the new film "Dark Horse." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.