Subscribe

Ray Bradbury: Thoughts at Life's End (Video and Transcript)

Ray Bradbury, who died Tuesday night at the age of 91, spoke in 2008 with Truthdig’s Steve Wasserman about his books and the passions that drove his writing. Below is the full video and text excerpts. A rough transcript begins on page two.

Excerpts:

“Sixth Street was fantastic! There were eight bookstores on Sixth Street alone from Hill Street all the way up to Figueroa. You could go in all kinds of bookstores. That’s where I met my future wife. I went into Fowler Brother’s Bookstore and this youngster waited on me and she discovered I had written stories she read. I took her to dinner a couple of weeks later, held her hand, engaged her and married her. So that is the bookstores on Sixth Street for you.”

“A lot of it is the smell of books. A lot of those bookstores were used bookstores. Some were high quality used books and new publication, but the other bookstores were a lot of used books and there were thousands of them in there and they were covered with dust and the smell of ancient Egypt. So you’d go into a used bookstore and surprise yourself. Surprise in life should be everything. You shouldn’t know what you are doing. You should go into a bookstore to be surprised and changed. So the bookstore changes you and reveals a new part of yourself. That is the importance of a used bookstore.”

“60 years ago all the major science fiction authors lived in the LA area. Robert Heinlein became my friend and my teacher. He sold my first short story for me; it went into Script Magazine. All the other writers became my friends. Leigh Brackett was a leading scientist fiction writer. I used to meet her every Sunday down at 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.”

“You cannot teach a 10-year-old child to read and write. It begins when they are four and five, when they are mad to learn. The good thing about young children is they are passionate about life. If you look at them, they are eager, they run around grabbing things. You give them really good books when they are five years old and they are going to eat it. We’ve got to teach children to eat books, to devour them, to be passionate about life. By the time they are six years old and in 1st grade, they are ready for all of life. We’re not doing it.”

“I had a sign over my typewriter 50 years ago, which says ‘don’t think.’ All of my books are written by this interior self that wants to say something. I never get in the way. There are two of me: Ray Bradbury who writes and Ray Bradbury who watches. Everything has to be passionate! A typewriter helps you to speak more quickly, more passionately and more creatively. You mustn’t brood over things. You’ll make up things that don’t work. You must not correct what you do. You must throw up every morning and clean up every noon.”Rough Transcript:

Steve Wasserman: Ray Bradbury 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.

Ray Bradbury: That’s right, yeah.

Steve Wasserman: 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 edited that section. I wanted to sit down with you because you have been so outspoken and eloquent the whole of your life and most recently at the site of Acres of Books in Long Beach at the threatened closure of that remarkable second hand store. 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 LA Times and you took the occasion very memorably to denounce the LA Times for its meager coverage of books. You admonished the Times to live up to it’s own ambitions. I admired your ability to both bite the hand that feeds you as well as speak truth to power even though I have to confess it hurt a little bit.

Tell me, you grew up in Los Angeles very largely or at least you moved here when you were how old?

Ray Bradbury: At 13 years old.

Steve Wasserman: At the time when you moved here you were living in what is downtown Los Angeles.

Ray Bradbury: Almost downtown.

Steve Wasserman: At that time were there bookstores that flourished in Los Angeles, which for you became places of magical transport?

Ray Bradbury: Sixth Street was fantastic! There were 8 bookstores on Sixth Street alone from Hill Street all the way up to Figueroa. You could go in all kinds of bookstores. That’s where I met my future wife. I went into Foweler Brother’s Bookstore and this youngster waited on me and she discovered I had written stories she read. I took her to dinner a couple of weeks later, held her hand, engaged her and married her. So that is the bookstores on Sixth Street for you.

Steve Wasserman: Do you remember what it was about the physical contact with books, which seemed to be so exciting for you?

Ray Bradbury: A lot of it is the smell of books. 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 were thousands of them in there and they were covered with dust and the smell of ancient Egypt. So you’d go into a used bookstore and surprise yourself. Surprise in life should be everything. You shouldn’t know what you are doing. You should go into a bookstore to be surprised and changed. So the bookstore changes you and reveals a new part of yourself. That is the importance of a used bookstore.

Steve Wasserman: Is something being lost with the disappearance of these bookstores? The technology for conveying to people the contents of books seems to everyday advance.

Ray Bradbury: The bookstores are there for you to stumble over yourself. That is the trouble with 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 and I saw a mirror image of myself in there. I said, “Oh my God! That’s me! I’ll take that and go home.” So used bookstores are surprise boxes to be opened constantly. They are not there now so there is no chance of revealing people to themselves. They will get revealed with these new inventions with the telephones that they use, with the internet, what have you. That is no surprise. It doesn’t work.

Part II – The Book Review

Steve 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 5 or 6 or more decades in which you’ve been part of the very fabric of Los Angeles literary culture what has changed most dramatically for you, either for good or for bad?

Ray Bradbury: The bookstores are there for you to stumble over yourself. That is the trouble with 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 and I saw a mirror image of myself in there. I said, “Oh my God! That’s me! I’ll take that and go home.” So used bookstores are surprise boxes to be opened constantly. They are not there now so there is no chance of revealing people to themselves. They will get revealed with these new inventions with the telephones that they use, with the internet, what have you. That is no surprise. It doesn’t work.

Steve 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 is new and fresher writing. 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 clearing house by which writers might meet and recognize and critique each other’s work.

Ray Bradbury: Absolutely! In fact I helped a couple of bookstores along the way put together a literary meeting place. There should be a place in every bookstore with comfortable chairs, tables and drinks every afternoon. You can come sit with the other writer friends and assimilate what is becoming a writer.

Steve Wasserman: Right. 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 note that the Los Angeles Times did report last week that 1 out of every 3 high school students in Los Angeles drops out before the end of high school. It seems the very idea of being able to read itself seems to be challenged.

Ray Bradbury: Right now we have to rebuild our total education system in the entire United States over and beyond the book reports and the book publications and what have you. We are trying to educate people when they are in the fifth, sixth, and seventh grade is too late. You cannot teach a 10-year-old child to read and write. It begins when they are four and five when they are mad to learn. The good thing about young children is they are passionate about life. If you look at them they are eager, they run around grabbing things. You give them really good books when they are five years old and they are going to eat it. We’ve got to teach children to eat books, to devour them, to be passionate about life! By the time they are 6 years old and in 1st grade, they are ready for all of life. We’re not doing it. They have to change the whole educational system right now, completely, top to bottom. You cannot learn by hearing you have to learn by reading. We’ve got to eliminate hearing and the Internet and get books back into the hands. I’m dictating my books now. I had a stroke a couple of years ago. I can’t type anymore. So I dictate my books and it’s terrible because I can’t see them. The next day my daughter sends me the type and I can look at the type and go through and correct it. But I’ve learned from dictating books you cannot learn or dictate. 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. Steve 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 is new and fresher writing. 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 clearing house by which writers might meet and recognize and critique each other’s work.

Ray Bradbury: Absolutely! In fact I helped a couple of bookstores along the way put together a literary meeting place. There should be a place in every bookstore with comfortable chairs, tables and drinks every afternoon. You can come sit with the other writer friends and assimilate what is becoming a writer.

Steve Wasserman: Right. 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 note that the Los Angeles Times did report last week that 1 out of every 3 high school students in Los Angeles drops out before the end of high school. It seems the very idea of being able to read itself seems to be challenged.

Ray Bradbury: Right now we have to rebuild our total education system in the entire United States over and beyond the book reports and the book publications and what have you. We are trying to educate people when they are in the fifth, sixth, and seventh grade is too late. You cannot teach a 10-year-old child to read and write. It begins when they are four and five when they are mad to learn. The good thing about young children is they are passionate about life. If you look at them they are eager, they run around grabbing things. You give them really good books when they are five years old and they are going to eat it. We’ve got to teach children to eat books, to devour them, to be passionate about life! By the time they are 6 years old and in 1st grade, they are ready for all of life. We’re not doing it. They have to change the whole educational system right now, completely, top to bottom. You cannot learn by hearing you have to learn by reading. We’ve got to eliminate hearing and the Internet and get books back into the hands. I’m dictating my books now. I had a stroke a couple of years ago. I can’t type anymore. So I dictate my books and it’s terrible because I can’t see them. The next day my daughter sends me the type and I can look at the type and go through and correct it. But I’ve learned from dictating books you cannot learn or dictate. 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.

Steve Wasserman: Your observation reminds me with the passage of every technology something is gained and something is 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 memorize whole poems and to pass them on in an oral tradition. Once they decided to set down in parchment or illuminate in manuscripts, there were probably critics at the time who said, “Oh my God we’ve lost the facility to memorize. No one will ever write a poem as good as Odyssey or the Iliad. Which could only have been concocted by someone who is committed to the oral tradition and to passing on.” Probably someone bemoaned, now people are going to rely upon the crutch of the written word for what formally they committed to memory. 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 was the pause that refreshed. That was the moment for actual reflection. There were probably people who said now with the typewriter you’d have no time to actually think about what you are going to say similarly today with the computer and the older ways of doing things. Ray Bradbury: I had a sign over my typewriter 50 years ago, which says “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 of me. Ray Bradbury who writes and Ray Bradbury who watches. Everything has to be passionate! A typewriter helps you to speak more quickly, more passionately and more creatively. You mustn’t brood over things. You’ll make up things that don’t work. You must not correct what you do. You must throw up every morning and clean up every noon.

Steve Wasserman: 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. Let me go back to the question of newspapers for a moment because there have been so many cutbacks at the Los Angeles Times and they’ve not been alone in this. The whole newspaper industry seems to on its heels. Have newspaper book reviews been important for your career? Are they of any interest whatsoever? Or could we just as easily get along without them as perhaps we have with them?

Ray Bradbury: As a writer, I’ve always ignored the reviews because they are always wrong. Even the right ones are wrong. They love you for the wrong reasons. So you mustn’t read them. I’ve 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 is out. You can’t change that book by criticizing it. It’s too late. You are too late for me. If you could help by looking over my shoulder when I’m throwing up, you can teach me to throw up better. But those reviews can’t help me throw up you see.

Part III — The News:

Ray Bradbury: Newspapers should teach us to be in love with life. They are in the business of criticizing life too much. They are too negative. The do all the rapes and murders and destruction. They are happier with the tornadoes and the earthquakes. I’m sorry but that doesn’t help me to survive all of that or teach me how to be in love every day in my life. They 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 got to 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. They gave me an idea and I sat down and said, what are you paying me week? $300. I said, I’ll tell you what I’ll do I’ll give you two scripts. I’ll do one for you and one for me. At the end of 10 days I turned them in and by the way you choose the right one I’ll either stay or I’ll go. You’ve got to pick the right one to keep me. I turned in 2 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. That’s the right one. 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…I’m teaching people day by day, don’t read the headlines, don’t look at the newspaper the negative things. There’s got to be a positive attitude by the newspaper not to be political all the time. The Times was busy trying to destroy Schwarzenegger a couple of years ago. They shouldn’t have tried to do that. That’s not the function of the newspaper. It’s to inform us formerly and completely about character. You must not be a critic unless there is a terrible crisis at hand. Otherwise, don’t turn on TV because it’s disaster after disaster. It doesn’t work the same way.

Steve Wasserman: With all due respect, I have to say I have a principle disagreement with this view. I would say that it’s the responsibility of writers to explore character and it’s the responsibility of newsgathering organizations whether they exist on the internet or if they exist in what has been newspapers to try to best they can in a human world to describe the way we live now, the way we have lived and perhaps to explore the way we might live. To thoroughly investigate the conditions by which our arrangements have been made whether political or social. To reveal to people the news that comes from elsewhere. If I hadn’t had reporters trying to get to the bottom of what the education system is in Los Angeles, I would never know that 1 out of every 3 drops out. That is 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.

Ray Bradbury: You have to do both functions at the same moment. Tell me that people were dropping out of school and tell me what to do at the same time. Be negative and be positive at the same instant. You must tell me what to do also. You must also do it reflecting all sides, left, right and middle. You have to reflect everything, totally in a newspaper not just one side.

Steve Wasserman: I would agree in the sense that the newspaper or any kind of news gathering institution should be a forum for through going over public debate on 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 to live. We have to create a political system by which we can hold politicians accountable. It’s they who are charge with developing the answers to the questions that a newspaper properly raises.

Ray Bradbury: The newspaper has to do everything though. I have, by speaking my mind changed 6 malls all over the United States. I’ve recreated downtown LA. I wrote an article for the LA Times 30 years ago. I put my design for the new LA in there. The Glendale Galleria was built around my idea. They came and told me thank you for changing our minds. Century City is recreated by me. I came in twice and wrote and told them what was missing. There weren’t enough restaurants, there weren’t enough good things in this city. They rebuilt it twice. There are two articles on this and it happened because I told them how to do it. I told them things are terrible here is what you must do to recreate Century City. That is what newspapers have got to do, criticize but then offer the solution. You’ve got to believe it though. It shouldn’t be political it should be aesthetic.

Steve Wasserman: That is I think where the concern comes from because in a challenged economy and in a newspaper which finds its resources shrinking and its debt increasing. How are you going to continue to provide a forum and a space for concerned and active and passionate citizens like yourself to propose solutions where there is less space, less energy and less ambition to do just the things you say. That’s why it’s something of a concern for many people particularly in Los Angeles as the city grows and becomes ever more complicated.

Ray 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 are using oil and coal, burning coal and making pollution. I’m going to write an article. I want it featured in major magazines 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 never would have had an American Revolution. I want a new revolution. Get rid of all the oil, all the coal, bring in the nuclear power. Bring the French technicians over and then save the whole country. I’m going to write this article. It’s going to be talked about by both parties and I can change my country because I believe it right now. I’m going to do this and that is what a newspaper should do and that is what a book section should do. You’ve got to believe it the way I believe it. I think I can save my country right now.

Steve Wasserman: The thing I’ve always admired about you Ray is that like Andre Gide the French write 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. You’ve kept the capacity to wake up angry about the way the world is the single greatest hope for the future and I thank you for it.

Ray Bradbury: I’m glad. Thank you. Part IV — Love:

Steve Wasserman: Of the objects that fill this room which I assume are 1000 memories for you are there any that leap out as you cast your eye around that you could tell me something about?

Ray Bradbury: They are gifts from people who love me. This dinosaur is a Tyrannosaurs 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 Houston and he read it and said my God that’s Herman Melville. He gave me the job of writing “Moby Dick” because I loved dinosaurs. So you have one right here. It’s a good example. I’ve got an Emmy Award over here where I won for “The Halloween Tree”. It’s a result of my love. Everything in life should be love. I felt love at Halloween when I was 3 years old. When I grew up I began to paint pictures about the Halloween tree that was in my mind. I knew Chuck Jones the animator; I had lunch with him 40 years ago because 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 do you want to make a cartoon? He said yes! So I went home, brought him my painting of the Halloween tree that I’d done with the children down in the basement 30 years ago. 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? I wrote a screenplay and it was made into a film and turned it into a novel. I got the Emmy because it represents my love. My love surrounds me here. Everything is love. If you look up here, there is all the best films made in the last 30 years. I have formed 3 film societies in Hollywood myself, during the last 20-30 years. The film society for the writers, a film society for the actors, a film society for the directors. Now I’m teaching people how to love films. Three different film societies I formed. One person did this because I was angry at the quality that was going on and I changed the education by forming the film societies and teaching people what to love. There you have it.

Steve Wasserman: Now I want you at your advanced and young age to form 3 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 they can learn how to read responsibly; and a society for the writers so they can get us better stories.

Ray Bradbury: Absolutely. A book review could do this. A really great book review in the LA Times with a great cover teaching love and promoting a new book that teaches you the love of life. Some of the other books can be inside. There can a complete schedule again of all the major lectures given around LA every week and then you go and meet the authors. A book review can do this. But it’s not doing it right now.

Steve Wasserman: The day that the UCLA library put a plaque for you in its basement for a nickel or a dime feeding the typewriters that you were too poor yourself to afford, and you wrote in 3 weeks?

Ray Bradbury: Nine days.

Steve Wasserman: Nine days. Fahrenheit 451?

Ray Bradbury: Yeah. We are going to do that next month I hear. They are going to give me a plaque at long last.

Steve Wasserman: Finally! Congratulations 50 odd years after writing!

Ray Bradbury: I want to make points about love here. I love John Houston that’s why I worked for him. I didn’t meet him for years. I was afraid of meeting him because I loved him. I published 3 books. I said to my agent, I want to have for John Houston now. I took my 3 books to dinner, I put them out on the table and I said, Mr. Houston here is “Dark Carnival”, “The Martian Chronicles”, and “The Illustrated Man”. If you love these books half as much as I love you hire me someday. Two years later he hired me the new “Moby Dick”. I loved him. You see you’ve got to do this you’ve got to do it more often. I say to Schwarzenegger he’s the governor of this state not because of me because I protested 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 road and I turned and said you sons of bitches! Turn that film back on. I said you don’t like weightlifters you don’t like body builders you don’t like surfers. I slept with one for 27 years. They said, what? I said, my brother. I grew up at 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 your prejudice against weightlifters. I’ve see 10 minutes of the film now. It’s worth seeing and made them turn it back on. They changed their mind and Schwarzenegger got his start there. 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.

Steve Wasserman: Has he thanked you?

Ray Bradbury: He was in the woods with me a couple of years ago and he heard the story. He ran on stage and grabbed me, pulled me up by his arm and pulled it out of its socket, with his love. There you go. Everything is love. Everything is love.

Now you can personalize your Truthdig experience. To bookmark your favorite articles, please create a user profile.

Personalize your Truthdig experience. Choose authors to follow, bookmark your favorite articles and more.
Your Truthdig, your way. Access your favorite authors, articles and more.
or
or

A password will be e-mailed to you.

Statements and opinions expressed in articles and comments are those of the authors, not Truthdig. Truthdig takes no responsibility for such statements or opinions.