Videography by George Edelman, Austin Lovell and James Reid. Editing by George Edelman.
Part 1: The Bookstore
Part 2: The Book Review
Part 3: The News
Part 4: Love
Steve Wasserman: Ray Bradbury.
Ray Bradbury: Yeah.
Wasserman: Thank you for sitting down to talk with us this morning, on a day which sees—in Los Angeles at least, and probably throughout the rest of the country—a growing number of bookstores ending, shuttering, declining, a growing number of book review sections starting to close. Barely a handful of American newspapers any longer bother to review books, much less have a separate section.
Bradbury: That’s right, yeah.
Wasserman: And I understand that the Los Angeles Times, after 33 years, will be ending their publication of a separate section devoted to the review of books. I speak as someone who for nearly 10 years had edited that section. I wanted to sit down with you because you’ve been so outspoken and eloquent the whole of your life, and most recently at the sight of Acres of Books in Long Beach, the threatened closure of that remarkable secondhand store. And I remember very well in 1997, just as I was assuming the editorship of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, at that very moment you were given a lifetime achievement award by the L.A. Times, and you took the occasion very memorably to denounce the L.A. Times for its meager coverage of books, and you admonished the Times to live up to its own ambitions. And I admired your ability to both bite the hand that feeds as well as to speak truth to power, even though I have to confess it hurt a little bit. So tell me—you grew up in Los Angeles very largely, or least you moved here when you were how old ... ?
Bradbury: Thirteen years old.
Wasserman: Thirteen years old. And at the time when you moved here, you were living in what is downtown Los Angeles.
Bradbury: Almost downtown, yeah.
Wasserman: Almost downtown. And at that time, were there bookstores that flourished in Los Angeles, which for you became places of magical transport?
Bradbury: Sixth Street was fantastic. There were eight bookstores on Sixth Street ... along, from Hill Street all the way up to Figueroa. You could go in all kinds of bookstores. And that’s where I met my future wife. I went and found her brother’s bookstore and the young clerk waited on me, and she discovered I had written a story she read. And I took her to dinner a couple of weeks later and I held her hand and engaged her and married her. So that’s the bookstores on Sixth Street for you.
Wasserman: Right. And do you remember what it was about the physical contact with books which seemed to be so exciting for you?
Bradbury: A lot of it is the smell of books. There are—a lot of those bookstores were used bookstores. Some were high-quality used books and new publications, but the other bookstores were ... a lot of used books, and there’s thousands of them in there, and they were covered with dust and the smell of ancient Egypt. So, you go into a used bookstore and surprise yourself. Surprise in life should be everything. You shouldn’t know what you’re doing. You should go into a bookstore to be surprised and changed. So the bookstores change you and reveal new sides of yourself. That’s the importance of a used bookstore.
Wasserman: And is something being lost with the disappearance of these bookstores, even as the technology for conveying to people the contents of books seems to every day advance?
Bradbury: The bookstores are there for you to stumble over yourself. You must—that’s the trouble. ... Universities do not teach you; they do not discover you. I raised myself in used bookstores. I went in looking for myself and I found me on every shelf. I opened strange books. I saw a mirror image of myself in there and said, “Oh, my God, that’s me! I’ll take that. I’ll go home.” So used bookstores are surprise boxes to be opened constantly. And they’re not there now, so there’s no chance of revealing people to themselves. They don’t get revealed with these new inventions, with the, the telephones that they use, with the Internet and what have you. That’s no surprise—it doesn’t work.
Wasserman: As you’ve lived the literary culture of Los Angeles and have been one of its defining personalities—as you look back over these five or six or more decades in which you’ve been, you know, part of the very fabric of Los Angeles literary culture, what’s changed most dramatically for you, either for good or for bad?
Bradbury: Well, we don’t have the authors here that we used to have. Sixty years ago, all the major science fiction authors lived in the L.A. area, and Robert Heinlein became my friend and my teacher, and he sold my first short story for me. It went into Script Magazine. And all the other writers became my friends. Leigh Brackett was a leading science fiction writer. I used to meet her every Sunday down in Muscle Beach, and she read my terrible stories and I read her good ones. So over a period of five years of going to Muscle Beach and meeting my favorite writer, I became a writer. But that environment is no longer here. Those writers don’t exist anymore.
Wasserman: Well, some would argue, and perhaps convincingly, that those writers have been replaced by other writers who are writing about all kinds of things—whether it’s science fiction or the politics of assimilation of the new waves of immigrants who’ve come to Los Angeles—that there’s new and fresher writing. But what disturbs many of us, of course, is that in a region so geographically sprawling as Los Angeles, that there exists no particular publication any longer that provides a central clearinghouse by which writers might meet and recognize and critique each other’s work.
Bradbury: Absolutely. In fact, I helped a couple of bookstores along the way put together a literary meeting place. There should be a fireplace in every bookstore with comfortable chairs and tables and drinks every afternoon [so that] you can come sit with the other writer friends and assimilate ways of becoming a writer.
Wasserman: Right. And what are the obligations, if any, of those people who yearn to become readers? Are newspapers as they existed helpful for people who aspire actually to become a reader? I mean, I note that the Los Angeles Times did report last week that one out of every three high school students in Los Angeles drops out before the end of high school. And so, it seems the very idea of being able to read itself seems to be challenged.
Bradbury: We have to go—right now we have to rebuild our total education system in the entire United States over and beyond the book reports and the book publication and what have you. We’re trying to educate people when they’re in the fifth, sixth and seventh grade—it’s too late. You cannot teach a 10-year-old child to read and write. It begins when they’re 4 and 5—when they’re mad to learn. See, the good thing about young children is they’re passionate about life. And, if you look at them, they’re eager. They run around grabbing things and you give them really good books when they’re 5 years old—they’re gonna eat it. We’ve got to teach children to eat books—to devour them—to be passionate about life by the time they’re 6 years old in the first grade they’re ready for all of life. We’re not doing it.
We’ve got to change the whole educational system right now, completely, from top to bottom. You cannot learn by hearing. You have to learn by reading. So we’ve got to eliminate hearing and the Internet and give books back into the hands—I’m dictating my books now. I had a stroke a couple years ago; I can’t type anymore. So I dictate my books and it’s terrible, cause I can’t see them. And the next day, my daughter sends me the typed ... I can look at it type and go through and correct it. But I’ve learned from dictating books, you cannot learn or dictate—it’s wrong. I don’t like doing that. It’s changed my style; it’s changed my ideas. I don’t want to do it that way.
Wasserman: Your observation reminds me that, with the passage of every technology, something’s gained and something’s lost. I imagine an earlier period in human history when we went from an oral culture—from Homer and the responsibility of bards and poets to memorize whole poems and to pass them on in an oral tradition. Once they decided to, you know, set down in parchment or in illuminated manuscripts, there were probably critics at the time who said, “Oh, my God, we’ve lost the facility to memorize, and no one will ever write a poem as good as “The Odyssey” or “The Iliad,” which could only have been concocted by someone who was committed to the oral tradition and to passing on, and probably someone bemoaned—now people are going to rely upon the crutch of the written word for what formerly they committed to memory. And then I imagine that when we went from quill pens and parchment to typewriters, someone must have said, “Oh, my God, we’ve lost something very valuable.” The time it took to dip the quill into the ink—that was the pause that refreshed. That was the moment for actual reflection. And there were probably people who said, “Now with the typewriter you’d have no time actually to think about what you’re going to say.” And similarly today with the computer and the older ways of doing things.
Bradbury: I had a sign over my typewriter 50 years ago which said, “Don’t think.” Typewriters help you write better because it all comes out. You should be passionate. All of my books are written by this interior self that wants to say something. I never get in the way. There are two mes: the Ray Bradbury who writes and the Ray Bradbury who watches. So everything has to be passionate. A typewriter helps you to ... speak more quickly, more passionately, and more creatively. You mustn’t think—you mustn’t brood over things. You’ll make up something that doesn’t work. You’ll correct it. You must not correct what you do. You must throw up every morning and clean up every noon.
Wasserman: Well, the computer arrived a little late, because a man with that attitude would, it seems to me, have embraced the computer with some enthusiasm, since the computer is a very fancy typewriter that makes things go very quickly and very fast. And let me just go back to the question of newspapers for a moment, because there’ve been so many cutbacks at the Los Angeles Times and they’ve not been alone in this—the whole newspaper profession seems to be on its heels. [Have] newspaper book reviews been important for you for your career? Are they of any interest whatsoever? Or could we as easily get along without them as perhaps we have with them?
Bradbury: No, as a writer, I’ve always ignored the reviews, because they’re always wrong. And even the right ones are wrong. They love you for the wrong reasons. So you mustn’t read them. So I turned down 200 reviews in the last 40 years, because I knew they couldn’t help me. It’s too late. I’m already me! The book’s out—you can’t change that book by criticizing it. It’s too late! You’re too late for me. If you could help by looking over my shoulder when I’m throwing up, you could teach me to throw up better. But those reviews can’t help me throw up, you see?
Newspapers should teach us to be in love with life. They’re in the business of criticizing life too much. They’re too negative. They do all the rapes and murders and destruction. They’re happier with tornadoes and the earthquakes. I’m sorry, but that doesn’t teach me, help me to survive all that—teach me how to be in love every day of my life. I only teach one thing to people: Do the thing that you love, and love the thing that you do. Don’t do anything else. Don’t do anything for money. Don’t listen to anyone who gives you money and says, “Do this.” Stop that! You can’t do it. You’ve gotta do what you love.
I worked for Universal Studios 50 years ago. They wanted me to work on a project, and I was suspicious of them. And they gave me an idea and I sat down and said, “What are you paying me every week—$300?” I said, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do: I’ll do two scripts. I’ll do one for you and one for me. At the end of 10 days, I’ll turn them in, and by the way you choose the right one, I’ll either stay or I’ll go. You’ve gotta pick the right one to keep me.” So, I turned in two scripts in 10 days and they said, “Won’t you choose? Don’t you want us to choose the one that you love?” I said, “Yes, I do, cause that’s the right one!” And luckily, they chose the right one.
I stayed on and we did “It Came from Outer Space.” It’s not a great film, it’s a nice film, but if they’d got out of the way even more it would have been better. So, I’m teaching people day by day, don’t read the headlines, don’t look at the newspaper—the negative things—look at the—there’s gotta be a positive attitude by the newspaper not to be political all the time. The Times was busy trying to destroy Schwarzenegger a couple years ago; they shouldn’t have tried to do that. That’s not the function of the newspaper. It’s to inform us fully and completely about character. And you must not be a critic unless there’s a terrible crisis at hand. But otherwise, don’t turn on TV, cause it’s disaster after disaster. It doesn’t work the same way.
Wasserman: Well, with all due respect, I have to say—I have to say I have a principled disagreement with this view. I would say that it’s the responsibility of writers to explore character and it’s the responsibility of news-gathering organizations, whether they exist on the Internet or whether they exist in what has been newspapers, to try to as best they can in a humanly fraught world, to describe the way we live now, the way we have lived and perhaps to explore how we might live and to thoroughly investigate the conditions by which our arrangements have been made, whether political or social, and to reveal to people the news, as I say earlier, that comes from elsewhere. If I hadn’t had reporters trying to get to the bottom of what the educational system is in, say, Los Angeles, I would never know that one out of every three kids drops out. That’s important news to know, it seems to me, in order to evaluate how politicians are fulfilling their responsibilities to creating a better city for all of us.
Bradbury: You have to do both functions at the same moment. Tell me that people are dropping out of school and tell me what to do at the same time. Being negative and be positive at the same instant. You must tell me what to do also and try to do it reflecting all sides: left, right and middle. You’ve got to reflect everything totally in a newspaper, not just one side.
Wasserman: Well, I would agree in the sense that the newspaper or any kind of news-gathering institution should be a forum for a thoroughgoing public debate over all of these issues. I don’t think the newspaper alone has the mission or even the responsibility itself of telling the rest of us how to live. We have to tell ourselves how we are to live, and we have to create a political system by which we can hold politicians accountable. And it’s they who are charged with developing the answers to the questions that a newspaper properly raises.
Bradbury: But the newspaper has to do everything, though. I have, by speaking my mind, changed six malls all over the United States. I’ve re-created downtown L.A. I wrote an article for the L.A. Times 30 years ago. I put my design for the new L.A. in there, and the Glendale Galleria was built around my idea. And they came and told me, “Thank you for changing our minds.” Century City is re-created by me. I came in twice, I wrote and told them what was missing—there weren’t enough restaurants, there weren’t enough good things in the city. And they rebuilt it twice—there are two articles on this; that happened because I told them how to do it. I told them things were terrible, here’s what you must do to re-create Century City. That’s what newspapers have got to do: criticize, but then offer the solution. And you’ve got to believe it, though. And they shouldn’t be political, they should be aesthetic.
Wasserman: Well, that’s I think where the concern comes from. Because in a challenged economy, and a newspaper which finds its resources shrinking and its debt having increased, how are you going to continue to provide a forum and a space for concerned and activist and passionate citizens like yourself to propose solutions when there’s less space, less energy and less ambition to do just the things you say? So, that’s why it’s something, I think, of a concern for many people, particularly in Los Angeles as the city grows and becomes ever more complicated.
Bradbury: You have to speak up as an individual. Right now, I’m trying to save my country. We have pollution all over the United States. We’re using oil and coal and were burning coal and making pollution. I’m going to write an article; I want it featured in a major magazine, and the front cover should say “Lafayette, Come Back!” I want to bring the French in to save the United States again. They saved us 200 years ago. Without the French, we’d never have had an American Revolution. I want a new revolution here—get rid of all the oil, all the coal, bring in nuclear power. Bring the French technicians over, and they’ll save the whole country! I’m gonna write this article; it’s gonna be talked about by both parties, and I can change my country, because I believe it right now. And I’m going to do this. That’s what newspapers should do; that’s what book sections should do. You’ve got to believe it like I believe it. I think I can save my country right now.
Wasserman: Well, the thing I’ve always admired about you, Ray, is that, like Andre Gide once remarked to his journals, he said, “I know I will have entered old age the moment I wake up and I’m no longer angry.” And that you’ve kept the capacity to wake up angry about the way the world is, is the single greatest reason for having hope in the future, and I thank you for it.
Bradbury: I’m glad, thank you.
Wasserman: Of the objects which fill this room with what I assume are 1,000 memories for you, are there any that leap out as you cast your eye around that you could tell me something about?
Bradbury: They are gifts from people who love me. This dinosaur here is a Tyrannosaurus Rex which came from Japan from a sculptor there who carved it out of wood and sent it to me because dinosaurs have been the center of my life. I saw them when I was 6 years old in movies; I wrote about them when I was 30; I gave a copy of my dinosaur story to John Huston and he read it and said, “My God! That’s Herman Melville.” And he gave me the job of writing “Moby Dick” because I love dinosaurs. So, you have one right here. It’s a good example.
I’ve got an Emmy award over here I won for “The Halloween Tree.” Now, it’s a result of my love. See, everything in life should be love. I fell in love with Halloween when I was 3 years old, and when I grew up, I began to paint pictures about the Halloween tree that was in my mind. And I knew Chuck Jones, the animator—I had lunch with him 40 years ago cause I loved the cartoons he made for Warner Brothers. My love was intense for Chuck Jones! Halloween occurred the night before, and Chuck Jones said, “Did you see that show on TV last night—‘The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown?’ ” I said, “Yes—I hated it!” He said, “The pumpkin never showed up, did it?” He said, “Would you like to write a Halloween show for me?” I said, “You want to make a cartoon?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Wait there.” So I went home here, I brought him my big painting of the Halloween tree that I’d done with my children down in the basement 30 years ago, and he looked at that painting and he said, “Isn’t that the history of Halloween? Why don’t we do a film about that painting?”
So I did a screenplay, and it was made into a film, and I’ve turned it into a novel, and I got that Emmy because it represents my love. See, my loves surround me here. Everything is love. If you look up here, there’s all the best films made in the last 30 years are there. I have formed three film societies in Hollywood myself during the last 20, 30 years. A film society for the writers, a film society for the actors, a film society for the directors, and now I’m teaching people how to love films. Three different film societies I formed. One person did this ‘cause I was angry at the quality that was going on, and I changed the education then by forming the film societies and teaching people what to love. There you have it.
Wasserman: Well, now I want you, at your advanced and young age, to form three societies for the advancement of books and book reviewing: One, a society for the critics to teach them how to criticize responsibly; one, a society for the readers so that they can learn how to actually read responsibly, and three a society for the writers so that they can give us better stories.
Bradbury: Absolutely. A book review could help do this. A really great book review in the L.A. Times with a great cover teaching love and promoting a new book that teaches you the love of life, and some of the other books can be inside. ... Then there can be a complete schedule again of all the major lectures is being given around L.A. every week so that people can go and meet the authors. A book review can do this ... but it’s not doing it right now.
Wasserman: But I still await the day that the UCLA Library will put a plaque for you in its basement where for—what was it, a nickel or a dime, feeding the typewriters that you were then too poor to afford yourself, you wrote, in what was it, three weeks ... ?
Bradbury: Nine days.
Wasserman: ... Nine days—“Fahrenheit 451.”
Bradbury: Yeah. They’re gonna do that next month, I hear. They’re gonna give me a plaque, at long last.
Wasserman: Fifty-odd years after the original writing.
Bradbury: That’s right, yeah.
I want to make points about love here. I love John Huston; that’s why I worked for him. I didn’t meet him for years—I was afraid of meeting him because I loved him—but I published three books. I said to my agent, “I want to have dinner with John Huston now.” I took my three books to dinner, I put them out on the table, I said, “Mr. Huston, here’s ‘Dark Carnival,’ here’s ‘The Martian Chronicles,’ here’s ‘The Illustrated Man’—if you love these books half as much as I love you, hire me someday. So, two years later, he hired me to do ‘Moby Dick,’ because I told him I loved him.
You see, you’ve got to do this; you’ve got to do it more often, I say, Schwarzenegger—he’s the governor of the state now because of me, because I [professed] my love. I was on the Academy of Motion Pictures documentary committee 30 years ago. We ran films and turned them off if we didn’t like them. One night we were running a film called “Pumping Iron,” and they turned it off. I was in the front row. I turned and said, “You sons of bitches! Turn that film back on!” I said, “You don’t like weightlifters, you don’t like bodybuilders, you don’t like surfers. I slept with one for 27 years!” They said, “What?!” I said, “My brother! I grew up in Muscle Beach. I know all these people, and this film is about Muscle Beach and the people that I knew and loved when I was a child, but you don’t like—you’re prejudiced against weightlifters. Now, goddammit, I’ve seen 10 minutes of the film—now it’s worth seeing!” I made them turn it back on, and it changed their minds, and Schwarzenegger got his start then. I saved his skin that day. You see what passion does? Love is everything! I saved Schwarzenegger’s skin, and now he’s governor because of me.
Wasserman: Has he thanked you?
Bradbury: He was in an awards with me a couple years ago, and he heard this story I just told you. He ran up on the stage and grabbed me and pulled me up by his arm and pulled it out of the socket with his love, yeah. Everything is love—everything is love.
Always a champion of books, Ray Bradbury poses in front of the stacks during a book signing in the late 1990s.