The Night I Met Ray Bradbury

by James Scott Bell

Author-Ray-Bradbury-dies-8H1K9JO0-x-largeOur Reader Friday this week paid tribute to the late, great Ray Bradbury. He lived in L.A. so I got to hear him speak on a number of occasions. One time I got to meet him.

This was back when I was an unpublished writer unsure if I had the goods. Two books that had helped me keep my hopes up were Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write and Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing.

Bradbury was set to speak at the Woodland Hills branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, the very branch I grew up in. I couldn’t wait. I’d gobbled up The Illustrated Man in junior high school, and it was one of those transcendent reading experiences you get only once in a great while. This collection of stories is a glorious imagination on fire. It certainly turned up the heat on my own nascent desire to someday write stories myself.

So I took my well-thumbed and underlined copy of Zen to the library and settled in with a packed room. Bradbury arrived, walking slowly and wearing his white hair long and a bit wild. His hair was a metaphor for his writing approach––let it go, untamed, and put off a neat cut for as long as possible. “Time enough to think and cut and rewrite tomorrow,” Bradbury wrote in Zen. “But today––explode––fly apart––disintegrate!”

Bradbury spoke about his love of libraries, and it was great to hear from his own lips the well-known tale of how he wrote Fahrenheit 451 on a rented typewriter in the basement of UCLA’s Powell Library. (You can hear the man himself tell that story here.)

Then he talked about writing, and I took notes. Here they are:

  • Do word associations, as a way of letting your subconscious tell you what is inside you.
  • Creating is NOT about fame, NOT about money. It’s about having fun.
  • Just do it.
  • Writing every day for 57 years. That wasn’t work. That was fun!
  • The intellectuals want us to believe it’s no good unless it’s tortured. The hell with that!
  • Do what you love. Let it out into the world. If you’re lucky, you’ll get some money. But if you don’t, do it anyway.
  • “I work for free. I haven’t made any money on any of my plays. But I love theatre. And I put up productions around town. And when I see the actors who’ve been in them on the street, we embrace, because we did what we loved and we had this experience together. For free. All the money went to my actors.”
  • Don’t think while you’re doing it. Think after it’s done.
  • He uses no outlines. He wakes up in the morning and lays in bed until his characters, his voices, compel him to “scramble to the typer” and record them before they get away.

He signed books after his talk, so I stood in line with my treasured copy of Zen. I introduced myself and we shook hands.

“Are you a writer?” he asked.

I quoted from the book: “‘Stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.'”

He laughed and said, “Oh, you must!”

I asked him if he set himself a daily quota, and he said, “I let my love determine how much I write.”

“Ah, so you fall in love daily?”

“That’s right.”

He signed my book. “Do you write every day?” he asked.

“Five days a week,” I said. “Weekends are for my family.”

He laughed again. “That’s the way to do it!”

He offered his hand once more and said, “God bless you.”

And off I went into the night, feeling blessed indeed for having had the chance to chat with one of the legends of our literature –– Ray Bradbury, American original.

Have you had the chance to talk to an author you admire? Who would be at the top of your list of writers you’d love to meet?

34 thoughts on “The Night I Met Ray Bradbury

  1. I don’t recall having read Bradbury, but after a few of you mentioned “The Illustrated Man” a few days ago, I decided to check that one out of the library. I’m going to start it tomorrow.

    The most compelling of the tips you mention learning from Bradbury is “Do what you love. Let it out into the world. If you’re lucky, you’ll get some money. But if you don’t, do it anyway.” While we have talked here many times about writing what you love but paying some degree of attention to the market, I know I walk to a different beat then most so in the end, writing what I love has to come first.

    As to top of my list of authors to meet, unfortunately, Zane Grey died nearly 30 years before I was a twinkle in my mother’s eye. I would have loved to meet him to talk writing and to hear of his exploits here in Arizona before it became largely a concrete jungle. I’m so jealous of that! 8-). I would have also wished to have met Theodore Sturgeon and Gene Roddenberry, also departed.

    • BK, Sturgeon would indeed have been an interesting conversation. In addition to a fertile imagination and approach to the craft, he’s the only writer ever to have a law named after him.

  2. Jim, I’ve met many writers who inspired me and continued to point me in the right direction (including you), but I’ve yet to meet the one whose material about the writing life brings me back again and again: Lawrence Block. Thanks for this vignette about Ray Bradbury.

    • Ah yes, Doc, Lawrence Block. He was my first “mentor” because I’d read his fiction column in Writer’s Digest every month. I could not have imagined that a decade later I would be writing that same column!

      I got to meet him a few years ago at the Men of Mystery conference. It’d be nice to have an extended conversation with him on the craft of writing, but his writing books are a close second because he writes in such an easy and understandable manner. He knows how a writer thinks.

      • His TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT (which is actually a compilation of those columns) is a book I’ve re-read a couple of times. Highly recommended for writers (and a fun read for non-writers).

  3. I established an online relationship with Tito Perdue, acknowledged in the New York Press as one of the most important Southern writers. We met once in his home state of Alabama, and he was gracious and supportive. He even wrote a nice blurb about my book.

    I’d like to meet Ron Rash, whose novels I’ve long admired. He now teaches at my alma mater. Maybe I need to attend the next homecoming.

    • Thanks, Mike. There’s a mystique about Southern writers. Their ability to spin yarns and weave mesmerizing conversations. I could have just sat down and listened for a week to Shelby Foote talking about the Civil War.

  4. Great stuff today, Mr. Bell. I had a chance to see Lawrence Block at a book signing here in Kansas City several years ago. I heard him speak and he autographed a book for me. During his presentation someone asked about his thoughts about Whoopie Goldberg playing Bernie Rhodenbar in the film Burglar, and he asked, “Isn’t that how you pictured Bernie?” Then someone asked how he felt about Hollywood messing up his books when they made movies from them. He said Hollywood hadn’t messed up any of his books. They were still available just the way he wrote them. Another asked him if they should read his books in order. He said, “Well, I wrote them in order.”

    I did get to meet a writer at a community college writer’s conference one time years ago. His name was Harold King. I had never heard of him or read any of his work. He offered to meet with any of us who wanted to talk after his presentation, and I was the only one who showed up. He an I sat in the student union area and talked for nearly an hour. I had bought his newest book, Shelkagary, at the conference and he autographed it. I fell in love with his work, and then read everything he had written. He specialized in WWII thrillers, including a collaboration with Lawrence Block, but also wrote a medical thriller and the historical thriller mentioned above, about the search for a legendary diamond once owned by Alexander the Great. I highly recommend it to you.

    As for writers I’d love to meet, Jules Verne would be at the top of my list. But since I’m a little late for that, number two would be a writer whose books I think I’ve read all, at least twice, James Scott Bell. I’d love to see him in Kansas City where I could take him to the best barbeque place in the city and chat between mouthfuls.

    • Dave, thanks for the memories. I love Block’s answer about the “messed up” books.

      And I’ve heard all the legends of KC barbecue. I long to know if they’re true. You’re on if I ever get there!

  5. Jim,
    Yes! That’s one thing I also remember, his great joy in the writing. It fairly radiated from him. And thanks for posting these two things in particular. The first will be passed along to a writer friend who needs it, and the second describes me exactly, scrambling to get it out!

    -Don’t think while you’re doing it. Think after it’s done.
    -He uses no outlines. He wakes up in the morning and lays in bed until his characters, his voices, compel him to “scramble to the typer” and record them before they get away.

    • That was always so apparent with him, Justine. He SO loved writing. He loved letting his imagination take flight. “Not to write is, for many of us, to die,” he wrote in Zen. Here’s something he wrote on the occasion of his 82d birthday, which explains a lot:

      I fell in love with motion pictures when I was three years old and saw “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Lost World.”

      I moved on to become intrigued with magicians when I saw Blackstone the Magician on the stage.

      Then I read the magazine Amazing Stories when I was eight and saw “Buck Rogers” when I was nine, and later, at thirteen, was impressed by the movie “King Kong.”

      My life filled up with these wonderful events and people and images, and they stirred my imagination so that by the time I was twelve I decided to become a writer. Just like that.

  6. Wonderful blog, as always, Jim. I saw Anne Perry, who writes historical mysteries, at a book signing in DC. When she was a young teenager, she and a friend murdered the friend’s mother in another country. Anne served her time (in juvie, I believe), repented and became a much admired writer. The story had just come out in the US press and someone at the signing asked her about it.
    Anne said, “There is nothing that God or the Devil can do to you that is worse than what you do to yourself.”

    • What a story that is, Elaine. I met Anne once, though our conversation was brief.

      I was reminded just now of sitting next to a famous author at a big group book signing. I tried to have a craft conversation. Famous Author was rather more interested in talking about Famous Author and Famous Author’s yacht.

  7. I wish I could have met Bill Hicks. He was not an author but he wrote and he read and he expanded the minds of countess people and he may have saved my life.

      • He was a stand up comic. You tube is filled with bits and pieces of his acts if you, or anyone, is so inclined. beyond that there are documentaries and books as well.

  8. What a wonderful story. I got an spend an afternoon with the late Jack Bickham, author of the Apple Dumpling Gang books. (He was actually pitching in for a professor at the University of Oklahoma.)

    Jack Bickham was a nice man. He told me, “You should write. And, you should enjoy it.”

  9. The pinnacle of my “meet a writer” experiences came at a conference in Nashville several years ago. Three of us (one now a bestseller) went to dinner and did the ‘hey, we need to check the bar’ thing and sitting alone at the bar was:

    Peter Straub.

    Alone for about 15 seconds. We ended up closing down the bar with this kind, funny, charming, brilliant writer. And I got to ask the burning question of the ages:

    Was it your idea or Stephen King’s to kill Henry Leydon.

    He burst into laughter, slapped his knee and said, “I told Steve we’d never live that down.” And, no, he never answered me.

    And during this fabulous evening I looked over my shoulder and Jeffery Deaver and his wife were at a table in the corner. Emboldened by a couple of beers, I had a wonderful conversation with this giant of a writer.

    And my writer friend, Jamie Mason, ended up getting blurbs from both of them.

    Best. Night. Ever.

  10. I have never met a well-known author, but I have met a few local authors at book fairs and signings. The top of my list would have been the “Queen of Mystery”, Dame Agatha Christie, but I am much too late. I would love to meet Stephen King and Harlan Coben. I would also like to meet all of the bloggers here at TKZ. I did get a tweet back from Diana Gabaldon. I tweeted her and asked if she had any advice for a beginner. I didn’t expect an answer, but she tweeted back: “Just keep writing.” Great advice! 🙂

    • Rebecca, sometimes local authors can be the most interesting. That’s certainly been true for me, but then again I live in LA, and local for us has a rather large meaning!

  11. I used to review Ray Bradbury’s plays for an on-line paper. I got to see Fahrenheit 451 and The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit and several other of his plays. He was always so inspiring when he spoke before the performance. I dedicated my short story collection to him. My favorite story about Ray was when he asked ME to send him MY book, which I did. How many famous people take the time to inspire others. He did… in spades.

  12. Mr. Bell, meeting you at the Surrey International Writer’s Conference was an education and a pleasure. Thank you for that. It’s one of my most memorable experiences in all the years I’ve been going to that conference.

  13. Great story, Jim. I had a similiar “book signing event” meeting… with James Patterson.

    You may have heard of Powell’s Bookstore in Portland. They had a second store in the ‘burbs, which featured James Patterson already at the height of his fame. The place was packed, they’d moved all the racks and display tables from the front of the store to make room. So packed, that one couldn’t find a clear path to the podium. I was standing at the back (standing room only), and someone tapped me on the shoulder.

    I turned. A man extended his hand. Big smile. “Hi, I’m John Grisham.”

    I shook James Patterson’s hand, his smile broadened and he began making his way through the crowd, shaking hands as he went.

    • Hilarious. Hey, I was just at Powell’s a couple of weeks ago, up there for a writers conference. What a great store. I found a couple of used books I’ve been wanting for a long time. Also sampled Blue Star Donuts in Portland. That’s another stop I will always make!

  14. As others have said, great blog post!
    “Famous” authors I’ve met are a guy from LA named James Scott Bell (Colorado Christian Writers Conference 2004); Tracie Petersen, aforementioned JSB’s co-author in the Kit Shannon series; the incomparable Liz Curtis Higgs.
    Authors I wish I could have met: Leon Uris (Exodus); James A. Michener (Centennial, Chesapeake); General Lew Wallace (Ben Hur); and Alexandre Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers). Then contemporary author Francine Rivers who fictionalized the Biblical story of Hosea abd Gomer ub Redeeming Love, and unforgettable novel.

  15. What a delightful story, Jim. It’s terrific that Bradbury was so kind and direct and encouraging. It’s always a relief and a pleasure when Very Famous Writers turn out to be nice people.

    My husband has been close with Joyce Carol Oates since he studied with her in New Jersey. I am a huge fan of her work so it’s been a privilege to spend time with her over the years. But she still scares the hell out of me. The intensity of her work is matched by the intensity of her persona.

    Ever since I read my first Inspector Gamache book, I’ve wanted to meet Louis Penny. But I missed her at Bouchercon a few years ago when I had to cancel, and now I’ll be in Nashville when she appears in St. Louis this coming Friday. I fear it’s never meant to be. I do love her novels.

    Here’s the thing about meeting writers…The writer is the person who sits at the desk and channels the work. When I fall in love with the work, I sometimes don’t even want to meet the writer who goes out and about in the world. Some of the books I adore were written by very grouchy unpleasant people. I’d rather not know!

    • I totally get that, Laura. That’s why I’d rather not know the personal lives (or public spoutings) of actors. Too many times that’s made me never want to watch them again.

      Wow, Joyce Carol Oates. Your description of her sounds right on. Her fiction is intense. Her photographs the same. I can well imagine what it’s like to be around her.

  16. I met Ray Bradbury once at the old Carnegie Library in Waukegan, IL – his hometown, and the “Greentown” of Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes. He was there to sign books, and he didn’t have a pen, so I loaned him mine. That was exciting! His newest book “Yestermorrow” had just come out and he was signing that, but I also had a copy of “Dandelion Wine” and asked him to sign it also. As he was signing, I told him that was my favorite of all his books. He said, “Yes, that’s one of my favorites, too.”

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