It was 22 years ago this summer that I met Ray Bradbury.
I grew up reading Bradbury, as many of us did. But for a couple of years, I saw him regularly at writers’ conferences where we were both booked in to speak and to teach. He was a main draw, of course, and I was listed in much smaller print inside the brochures, among all those other people whose names wind up as also scheduled to appear.
These writers’ conferences were produced by a woman named Joan Jones who was a real raconteur, a middle-aged live wire with a honeyed Southern drawl and a smooth persistence in getting what she wanted. Joan was what all of us want in a producer: a detail-oriented force of nature who paid on time. She also proved to be a formative influence on my life. I’ve been teaching writing for 22 years now—thanks to Joan, bless her soul, getting me started. Without Joan, my circle of friends and scope of accomplishments would be far smaller. And Joan was loyal: If she booked you once, and you didn’t screw it up, she kept booking you.
So it was that I met Ray Bradbury and saw him periodically for a time. He was 70 when I met him and a warm presence – gregarious, thoughtful, generous, and funny. He knew seemingly everyone and told stories about them not to name-drop but to share adventures, as when he talked about working on the film version of Moby Dick with Walter Huston and, well, setting Walter Huston straight about a few things. Bradbury was kind to everyone who wanted to talk to him, even when they were interrupting our lunch. (This sort of kindness – kindness during the interruption of lunch – is not the norm with well-known figures in Los Angeles.) And he was passionate about writing – about the value of it, about what it meant to be a writer, about sticking to your guns, and about plying your craft every day. On the subject of writing, he was evangelical. As a writer, and especially as a well-known, highly regarded, appropriately lauded writer, one who also had his own television show hosted by himself, he also knew he didn’t have to play by the rules. This meant:
- That he didn’t have to drive. (Others always drove him. He routinely figured that someone would always give him a ride, no matter what time or to what place – and he was right.)
- That he could show up every time wearing short white tennis shorts without the slightest thought that perhaps this was not what people would like to see him wear.
- That no, he did not have to get off stage at the appointed time.
This latter point led more than once to a scene where an irresistible force (Joan) would meet up with an immovable object (Bradbury). As someone who has produced conferences himself, I fully understand the importance of sticking to the schedule of events. But Bradbury would have none of it. If he was giving a talk of some sort and wanted to make more points, or field more questions, he was damn well going to do it. Joan tried everything: signaling him from the back of the audience, then signaling him from the side, then signaling him from the front of the audience, then trying to call for the last question, until she was edging her way up onto the stage, and then, standing directly beside him in a proximity that would make almost anyone else flinch, and still he wouldn’t stop until he was ready. In this way, Ray Bradbury was a rock star. I’ve never seen any other writer get away with this. (Although I’ve seen Werner Herzog do nearly the same.) As much as I felt for Joan Jones who, after all, had hired me to do this, had brought me into the circle of teaching writers, who made an enormous impact on my life, I had to admire the way Bradbury wielded power while retaining an aura of gentility.
At some point, Joan stopped producing writers’ conferences—she’d talked of doing them on cruise ships, which I was keenly interested in, but then changed her mind when she figured she could make more money running more private classes, her own and those of others. (And she encouraged me to start my own. So: no Joan Jones, no “Words That Speak” playwriting workshop, now in its 19th year. Thank you, Joan.) And so although I would run into Bradbury around town – at the theatre, mostly, and I have numerous friends who worked with him the past 35 years in the theatre – it was only every few years.
Over the past five or six years, the encounters with Bradbury were far less satisfying. I understand that he was older, and unwell, and I’m going to do my best to be charitable here, but the more I saw of him the less I wanted to hear from him.
The photo above was taken in December of 2008 when my friend and colleague Sid Stebel, who was a close friend of Bradbury’s, hosted a small dinner party in Chinatown. Bradbury was 88 at the time, and in recent years had been making appearances at Comic-Con in defense of the Bush administration, its “war on terror,” the invasion of Iraq, and other viewpoints that were difficult to reconcile with the man—and the writer—I thought I’d known. I have friends of all political persuasions, and I tried to take Bradbury’s support of the war in Iraq in the way that Christopher Hitchens supported it: as a defense of liberty and an attack against militarized theocrats. But there was no way to make anything good of his unfortunate and loudly expressed views about “minorities” both racial and non-Christian. When a mixed-race friend of mine walked out on a Bradbury appearance at Comic-Con, I knew why.
Thinking about some of Bradbury’s stories now, I’m reminded that he was a romantic—someone nostalgic for the blessed days of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Science fiction writers are futurists (even when that future is dystopian), but Bradbury, who was mislabeled an SF writer, was fixated on the past, and how we might bring it with us. (One bit of evidence: This quote, from a BBC interview in 2011: “We have too many cellphones. We’ve got too many internets. We have got to get rid of those machines. We have too many machines now.” That’s the voice of someone extremely out of touch.) And what do we call a wounded romantic? A cynic. That’s something I never thought I’d see in Ray Bradbury. The Ray Bradbury I had known thought that even if the government outlawed books, thinking people would memorize them and confound the authorities, that ultimately we could always triumph over oppression and small-mindedness. That doesn’t quite equate with cheering on jingoism years later.
So my feelings about Ray Bradbury are now complicated. Do I regret having been present when he said so many of the things he said in his later years? Yes. Am I glad I met him? Yes, because of those early experiences, and because it was nice to know even a little bit someone who inspired so many writers, and also because, obviously, I can say I met him. It makes for a good story, and I know that’s something he would have appreciated. I just wish I had a photo of myself with him from years before, when I could still recognize him.