Bradbury Hears Voices in the Night

Times Staff Writer

Listen to Ray Bradbury tell about a recurring daily experience: “Early in the morning, in a half-awake, half-asleep state before I get out of bed, it often seems like my birthday or the Fourth of July. I’ll hear characters talking. They live in a toy box in my imagination. They’re usually part of a novel I’m writing, or part of a short story, a play, a poem. They tell me what has happened, and what’s going to happen next. Then I rush to the typewriter and pound away as fast as I can.”

Speaking in low-pitched urgent tones, projecting a manner of awe, wonder and boyish enthusiasm, he continues: “Sometimes like a fool I’ll stay in bed too long, and by the time I get up, the voices are gone, the images have vanished. It’s important to rush to the typewriter and get those words on paper quickly.”

Millions of Readers

Pink-cheeked and husky, peering at the world through thick glasses, Bradbury is a fantasist and storyteller whose imagination runs comet-like across the skies. Out of his early morning journeys has come an impressive body of work: more than 400 published short stories, plus novels, plays and scripts for motion pictures and television. He has thrilled and chilled millions of readers with “The Martian Chronicles,” “Fahrenheit 451,” “The Illustrated Man” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”


Bradbury switches focus frequently from one work project to another, and an indication of the variety of his interests can be seen in his current agenda:

--Later this month he is scheduled to address the Space Congress, an annual meeting of astronauts and scientists, at Cape Canaveral.

--While in Florida he plans to visit Disney World’s Epcot; Bradbury was employed as a consultant on the overall plan for Epcot’s Spaceship Earth building.

--He is putting the finishing touches on a novel, his first in 22 years. A murder-mystery entitled “Death Is a Lonely Business,” it is scheduled for publication later this year.

--He is writing an opera, “Leviathan 99,” based on the novel “Moby Dick.”

--He is also writing a screenplay to be produced in Japan.

Bradbury, 64, is widely recognized as a futurist, but he keeps in close touch with projects out of the past. He throws nothing away. His notes--sentences, paragraphs, pages--are kept in file folders, and the files are massive. “If on 10 different mornings I hear 10 different voices, there might eventually come out of it five short stories, four poems and a one-act play.

“I never worry about finishing a piece in one morning. I know it isn’t perfect then--at the moment of writing it, I’m not even sure how good it is. So I put it away and a few days later I’ll look at it again. Sometimes I wait 10 or 20 years to revise or expand a project.

“I’m very much at ease working this way, and it means I never have a dry spell. By working on a multiplicity of things over a period of time, I never run out of ideas. If one project begins to bore me, I just turn to another. There is always something fresh and exciting to turn to.”

First Encounter

Bradbury had his first close encounter with science fiction at the age of 8 when he picked up a pulp magazine, Amazing Stories, and in terrified fascination read one entitled “The World of Giant Ants.” He also began collecting and pasting in scrapbooks the comic strip adventures of Tarzan, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Prince Valiant. (Sentimental and retentive by nature, he keeps those comic strip collections to this day.)

He soon grew enchanted with the science fiction of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, the eerie fantasies of Edgar Allan Poe. After graduating from Los Angeles High School, Bradbury hawked newspapers on a street corner four hours a day and divided his remaining time between writing stories and reading books.

“I spent almost every night at the main library or branch libraries around town,” he said. “My favorite pastime was wandering around in those libraries, just taking books off the shelves and falling in love with them, and sitting around the library and writing stories on those little bits of blank paper they have for reference notes. I was fairly poor, and all those nice little reference notes were there, so I’d write half a short story on those, and then take a stack of them home and type it all up.

“There was something about the library that revved me up constantly. I loved being there. I couldn’t afford to buy books. For three years, starting at age 19, I made about $10 a week by selling newspapers. I had few clothes, no car and lived at home with my folks. I didn’t see it as a terrible hardship because I knew where I wanted to go--I wanted to write. I kept writing, and at 21 I sold my first story. Gradually I began to sell more stories, though for years it all went to pulp magazines. Practically all the material in my later books, like ‘The Martian Chronicles’ and ‘The Illustrated Man,’ was first sold to the pulps for from $20 to $80 a story.

“When I was 27 I was still living at home with my folks, to save money, so I could write.” That year, however, his life changed when he strolled into Fowler Bros. Bookstore at Pershing Square. He immediately became the object of suspicion; someone wicked had been coming to the store to steal books.

Miraculous Mistake

“Marvelous judge of character that I am,” recalled his wife, Marguerite, then a sales clerk, “I thought it was Ray. He carried a briefcase and a trench coat on a nice clear day, so I was immediately suspicious. I expected him to slam his briefcase down on a pile of books and make off with a few. Instead, he told me he was a writer and invited me to have a cup of coffee with him.”

They were married the following year and, Bradbury said, “We moved into a $30-a-month apartment in Venice. That was OK: Marguerite made about $40 a week at her job, and I made about $40 a week writing stories at 1 1/2 cents per word for Astounding Stories, Weird Tales and other pulp magazines. Ours was one of the first liberated marriages. I did my writing at home, cleaned the house and usually prepared dinner for both of us.

“Lots of times we ate hot dogs and went to a penny arcade nights to have fun. We went to movies--tickets were 25 or 50 cents. And we were in love. Marguerite started having babies, which scared the hell out of me, because our income was cut in half. But luckily my pay went up: I began selling more stories, a few to slick magazines but mostly to pulps. By 1953, when I was 33, I averaged $130 a week.”

A turning point occurred that year when film director John Huston hired Bradbury to write the screenplay of “Moby Dick.” Huston’s imprimatur, Bradbury said, “amounted to a signal to other producers and directors that I could write scripts for motion pictures and television, and it meant a sudden increase in income.” Bradbury wrote a dozen scripts for “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” and over the years he has occasionally written screenplays in addition to a steady outpour of books, short stories and poems.

Never a Hardship

Despite the long struggle to earn more than modest sums, Bradbury insisted in a recent interview that he never regarded the experience as painful or even as hardship. “Whenever I’m asked for career advice, I say: ‘Find something you love madly, and do it. Whether it’s being a writer, actor, painter, computerologist, as long you love it, do it, do it. There’s nothing to stop you except fear, and in the doing, the fear vanishes.

“There are two senses of inferiority. One is false and one is real. The false one is a feeling we’re going to fail at something. It’s false and foolish and a waste of time because we haven’t even tried it.

“The real inferiority, the one that has to be cured, deals with knowledge. Do you know your grammar? If not, go learn. Do you know anything about the structures of stories and plays? If not, go learn. I never went to college, but for many years I went to libraries every night.

“I’ve read every important play in the history of the world. It wasn’t a job, it was a delight. I’ve read a certain amount of philosophy, psychology, art history. I’ve studied Shakespeare, the Bible, astronomy, city planning, architecture, rapid transit, poetry, the history of film. I’ve read all the important books on writing. I became a library person a long time ago, and in doing so I overcame that feeling of inferiority, that fear of not being capable.

“Sometimes people ask: ‘How did you know when you were young that you were going to make it?’ My answer is: ‘I was so busy doing what made me happy--writing--I simply didn’t waste my time worrying about when I’d make it.’

“Nor did I ever waste time comparing the quality of my writing with the quality of others’ work. Because if you do that--especially when you’re 16 and you’re no good and you see how really lousy your work is--you’d have to stop.

‘Nothing Else Matters’

“But you’re so in love with writing, nothing else matters. And in doing it, you find energy. I suppose there are some people who are so untalented, they’ll never grow, but I’ve rarely met anyone like that. For most of us, the more we do something, the better we get at it. That certainly applies to writers.

“And the more we do, the faster the ideas come. That’s important, because ideas are like cats. If you approach a cat and try to pet it, it runs away. Cats are very independent. So are ideas. A writer has to learn to turn and walk away from ideas. Then, like a team of cats, they’ll follow and peek after you. They’ll demand your attention.

Ideas--the voices of characters in a toy box--demand his attention regularly at two separate periods during the day, said Bradbury. First there is the morning session, “when the mind is not asleep and not awake but somewhere in between.”

When Bradbury is ready to travel from home in Cheviot Hills to his office in Beverly Hills, 15 minutes away, he calls a taxi--because he stubbornly refuses to drive a car--”But I never wait for anything. I sit down and write 1,000 words or as much as I can write, before the cab arrives. And I carry the pages back and forth between home and office. So I always hit the floor running.”

When he arrives at his office “I unplug the phone so I won’t be distracted. Then I go right to the typewriter and continue the writing I’d been doing at home.”

He writes until early afternoon and then--after a break to return phone calls and deal with mail, but usually without stopping for lunch--”I take a nap. It isn’t a real sleep but a wonderful state of half in, half out, an emotional and evanescent time when, as distinct from thinking, I can feel my way through a story. And the ideas begin again.”

When he is ready to return home, he calls a taxi and once again “I write as much as I can, using the minutes until the cab arrives.”

Never Idle

Appalled at the notion of allowing time to pass idly, Bradbury said: “You cannot hold off death, you cannot stop the dismays and despairs of the world, but along the way you can make every day count, you can put your feelings on paper. You just have to keep remembering that if you miss even one day, the world begins to encroach on you.”

Dividing his creative energy and attention among many projects, working concurrently on short stories, poems, plays, books and screenplays, Bradbury is paradoxically a self-disciplinarian who whenever possible avoids imposing deadlines upon himself.

“I’ve been working on the murder mystery (to be published later this year) for 20 years, but most of the writing was done in the last five months, and then I rewrote all of it in eight weeks. It was one of the few times when I put myself on a regime of staying mainly with one project and writing 10 or 15 pages a day.

“But I’ve only written four novels in 40 years. The last one was ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes,’ which took three or four years to write before it was published in 1963.

“Novels drive me nuts--I don’t like to be dedicated to a project all that time. I like to work by feelings, to let something go ping in my subconscious and say, ‘Ah, today’s the day’ to deal with this or that project, or to take out of my files something I haven’t looked at in 10 years and let my emotions and imagination play with it.

“For example, way back in 1952, when Ernest Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ was published, a mutual friend told me about visiting ‘Papa’ in Cuba. My friend said that every night Papa went to a favorite bar where a parrot talked to him. I put a note into a file folder, ‘The Parrot That Knew Papa.’ About 15 years later--long after Hemingway died--I opened that file folder and the note grabbed my imagination. If that bird is still alive, it’s worth money. What if someone kidnaped the bird and held it for ransom? And then sold the parrot’s life story to the movies and television? I sat down at the typewriter and in about two hours wrote a short story, which sold promptly to Playboy.

“My subconscious has surprised me with lots of projects. When John Huston brought my family and me to Ireland in 1953, where I wrote the screenplay of ‘Moby Dick,’ we stayed there for almost a year. Friends wrote from Los Angeles to ask if, when we returned, I’d be writing all about Ireland. And I replied, ‘Hell, no. I haven’t seen anything, I haven’t done anything, I just don’t have time.’ Because all I did in Ireland was write, or walk in the rain, or ride a taxi back and forth to Huston’s house.

Voices Aroused Again

“But some time after we got back to Los Angeles, I woke up one morning and heard those voices of characters who live in a toy box. Even though nothing had seemed to register on me in Ireland, those voices began telling me what I had seen, heard, smelled, tasted. And since then I’ve written 20 stories about Ireland, and 20 poems, plus a three-act play and three one-act plays. And a large 420-page book, ‘Green,’ containing all my Irish stories, is going to be published in about two years.”

Marguerite and Ray Bradbury have four daughters--Susan, 35, Ramona, 32, Bettina, 29; Alexandra, 26--and three granddaughters. The daughters demanded plenty of attention when they were growing up, and Bradbury, a doting father, gave freely. “I was spoiled rotten, having four daughters,” he said. “I tried not to spoil them with excessive attention, but I did speak up whenever I saw danger. Once I got a little nervous about a corner of Pico Boulevard, where Ramona usually waited for a bus. Some very creepy types were always cruising by. I said, ‘I hate to be an old fuddy-duddy, but would you mind waiting for the bus on some other corner?’ And Ramona said: ‘Daddy, why should I mind that you’re telling me you love me?’ ”

There have been collisions within the family, however, as a result of Bradbury’s retentive habits. “Ray has saved everything since his first birthday,” said Marguerite, who teaches technical French at USC. “I try to throw out newspapers and magazines and whatever can be thrown out. Ray is a pack rat. He refuses to let anything go.

“When we bought our house 25 years ago, it had a large basement, and that was the irresistible ingredient, because we needed a place where Ray could store everything he refuses to throw away.” Bradbury does the bulk of his writing at the office in Beverly Hills, and the office has become a second storage place, a colorful chaos of files, souvenirs, mementoes, shards, fragments, odds and ends he will not discard.

“I’m awfully sentimental,” he said. “When our daughters were growing up, they’d sometimes fill the trash cans outside the house with junk from their rooms. I’d always go through the junk before it was carted away, because I knew there were things of value in it. It might have been only a notebook, or something they’d painted, or a paper they’d done for school. They might not have cared about it for themselves, but everything the girls have done is a treasure to me. I always save everything because, you see, I think about the future.”