People in Books

Creating Something Memorable

LIKE MANY OTHER WORKS OF science fiction, Quicker Than the Eve (Avon), Ray Bradbury's new collection, contains a story about a man who invents a time travel machine. Unlike those other works, however, Bradbury's protagonist, Harrison Cooper, uses his hard-wired powers, not to disrupt another age, but to offer thanks and solace to three of Bradbury's greatest literary heroes -- Melville, Poe, and Wilde. Bradbury, the author of such books as Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Zen in the Art of Writing, is a prolific and versatile writer. His early writing schedule established him as a literary John Henry who has never worn out. Logging one thousand to two thousand words a day, every day, and finishing a story a week, each week Bradbury mailed his unsolicited story to the magazines and waited. In the subsequent years, Bradbury's readership and fame have grown as his work has, in many ways, legitimized the genre. We spoke with Bradbury recently:

ARE YOU STILL WRITING ONE THOUSAND TO TWO THOUSAND WORDS A DAY? "Well, of course, [the new book] is evidence. And I have 40 more new short stories that are going into a book for next year. I've got to pick among them, though, about 20 of them, and they'll be a third book about two years from now."

WHEN YOU TALK AND WRITE ABOUT YOUR IDEAS, YOU SEEM TO CHARGE THEM WITH ENERGY AND EMOTION. YOU TALK ABOUT THIS A BIT IN THE "MAKE HASTE TO LIVE" ESSAY, WHICH CAPS OFF THE NEW BOOK. YOU WRITE THAT YOU "LIE WITH A BOUNDLESS ENTHUSIASM FOR WRITING AND LIFE, WHICH SOME MISINTERPRET AS OPTIMISM." EXPLAIN THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN "ENTHUSIASM" AND "OPTIMISM." "There's an Egyptian myth I heard about years ago that when you die as an Egyptian and you go off to visit the gods the first question asked of you at the gates of heaven is 'Did you have enthusiasm?' And if you answer negatively you don't get in. My response to everything in life that I really loved has been enthusiasm. People envy that, you see. It reminds me of my brother. I remember at dinner one night many years ago my mother made a very good dinner, and I pushed back and said, 'That was beautiful.' My brother said, 'No, it was good.' There's the difference. People don't want to hear about your enthusiasm. It makes them feel guilty or uneasy. When they see me enthused, they think something's got to be wrong. It's not optimism on my part, it's just natural good will, good feelings. Those feelings come out of 'optimal behavior,' a term I use constantly. I ask of you and others optimal behavior, and if you behave every day, and get your work done, and do it with love, at the end of a day, a week, a month, a year, whatever, you have a feeling of optimism -- because you have done your work. If you don't do your work, you get depressed and you're pessimistic. There are the two opposites right there."

YOU CALLED THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES AN "ACCIDENTAL" NOVEL. YOU ALSO SAID THE SAME THING ABOUT DANDELION WINE. WHAT DID YOU MEAN BY "ACCIDENTAL"? "Well, they accumulated without my knowing it. The same way with Green Shadows, White Whale, my book on Ireland. It was written over a period of 35 years or so, as one-act plays, as poetry, as short stories. I put it together when Katie Hepburn's book on John Huston and the making of The African Queen came out about seven years ago. Her book was so flimsy and inept. I love Katie Hepburn and my feelings for her know no bounds. But when I read her book, I said, 'My God, no, that's not Huston.' That provoked me into gathering all my Irish material and looking at it. I had put off doing it because I hate gossip. I've been offered chances by Harper's Bazaar and Vogue and various other magazines to do articles on John Huston over a period of 30 years or so, and I turned them all down because we're living in a time of gossip. Being provoked into looking at my Irish material, I said, "Hell, someone's finally got to do an honest analysis of Melville, of the whale, of Huston, of Ireland.' So, I sat down and sewed all those things together and I had a novel. The Martian Chronicles was a result of my having dinner with Walter Bradbury, a Doubleday editor, no relative of mine, back in 1949. I was poor, my wife was pregnant, we had no money. I went to New York on a Greyhound bus trying to stir up some interest in my stories, because no one wanted them, they wanted novels. So, at dinner one night, Walter Bradbury said, 'What about all those Martian stories? Couldn't they be sewn together into a tapestry and turn it into something called The Martian Chronicles?' I said, 'I'll be damned.' See, I live like Federico Fellini. He was a good friend, and he said -- and it's one of my favorite sayings -- 'Don't tell me what I'm doing; I don't want to know.' Get your work done. Then, after it's done, you find out what you did. But you can't know ahead of time. So, therefore, the unconscious act turns into creativity. All of a sudden, you have a book, a novel. I try to warn young writers: For Christ's sake, stop being an intellect. Get your work done. Don't worry about what you're doing. Don't plan anything. Just do it. Throw it up. Throw it up, and then clean up. I was at a bookstore last night and a book clerk there said, 'I'm having trouble with a novel I'm writing. I do this, I do that.' I said, 'Stop that' -- no outlines, no plans. Get your characters to write the book for you. Ahab wrote Moby Dick, Melville didn't. Montag wrote Fahrenheit 451, 1 didn't. If you let your characters live, and get out of their way, then you have a chance of creating something individual."

--Interviewed by Mark Levy

Reprinted with permission from Bookselling this Week
February 1997