Jonathan R. Eller probably knows more about Ray Bradbury than just about anyone.
Eller, a professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, is the co-author of a critical study on Bradbury’s fiction—which encompasses more than 500 short stories, as well as plays, poems, and novels—and is the textual editor of a collection of Bradbury’s early short stories. A longtime acquaintance of Bradbury’s, Eller is the co-founder and director of IUPUI’s Center for Ray Bradbury Studies.
Eller’s latest book about Bradbury traces the author’s formative years as a writer that culminated in such classics as The Illustrated Man and Fahrenheit 451.
WFIU’s Adam Schwartz spoke with Jonathan R. Eller about his new book, Becoming Ray Bradbury.
Adam Schwartz: What was your aim in writing Becoming Ray Bradbury?
Jonathan R. Eller: I had known him a long time, and I had worked with his books in classrooms; been reading him since the early sixties myself.
But then, as an older scholar, I wanted to get beneath all the fascinating anecdotes of his life. And beneath the record of his publications—all that quick blooming fame in the early fifties with The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, The Golden Apples of the Sun.
There’s also a substrata of biography buried in his personal papers, in unpublished story manuscripts, fragments, and personal notes on writing. And then the letters, to and from him. And we find a lot of insights on how he became Ray Bradbury—that sort of American cultural icon.
The Power of ‘What if?’
Adam Schwartz: Did Bradbury give you a clue as to the source of his prolificacy?
Jonathan R. Eller: He is able to focus himself on not thinking about writing, to sort of get away from any self-conscious angst about writing. He will be reading or waking up in morning and an idea will just well up out of his subconscious mind. And he will say, “What if?”
“OK, I just thought of the concept of a nursery. What if the children who had a futuristic nursery on the wall panels of their playroom could actually enter that nursery playroom and be with the lions on the savannas of Africa?” Things like that.
It was always a “What if?” thing for him, and then he would simply write. And he would say to himself, “I am not going to think about this story, I am going to imagine these characters and I am going to let them tell their own stories. I’m going to let them act out through own stories. And where they go, I will follow.”
The Bradbury Twist
Adam Schwartz: Bradbury sometimes used his fears as material for his stories, as he did when he used the memory of a bad car accident he witnessed for his story “The Crowd.” Would you talk about the ways he dealt with his life experiences in his fiction?
Jonathan R. Eller: The thing about Bradbury’s fiction in his first fifteen years that’s unique—first of all, it is that poetic metaphor-rich style. But also it’s the edginess in certain stories. That thing that came to be known as “the Bradbury twist.”
The [multiple-fatality] car accident he observes at the age of fifteen becomes “The Crowd” through a “What if?” He remembers the accident and how quickly a crowd came out of nowhere. This was in a warehouse district, and suddenly in the middle of the night there were people coming from everywhere. He says to himself, “What if these are the living dead, or the dead, coming back to usher new victims across the threshold from life to death?” And that becomes a story. A trauma like that becomes a source of fiction for him.
‘Stop doing this or I’ll kill you’
Adam Schwartz: Who were the most important people in Bradbury’s development as a writer?
Jonathan R. Eller: I would say the handful of genre writers who worked with him in Los Angeles when he was 20 to 25 years old. There were still the last vestiges of the old Science Fiction League for fans, and a lot of writers gravitated towards the Los Angeles chapter, and that’s where Ray met them.
Leigh Brackett in particular worked with him constantly. They hit it off very well. He would meet her on Sundays down on Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, where she would bring her story drafts. She was already a professional writer. And she would critique his story drafts through the period when he was beginning to publish professionally.
And I would say Henry Kuttner was another important influence. Ray learned from him how to structure stories, how to cut out purple prose. Kuttner would be harsh with him sometimes and say, “Stop doing this or I’ll kill you.”
The Making of Fahrenheit 451
Adam Schwartz: Perhaps Bradbury’s most celebrated work is the novel Fahrenheit 451. What inspired him to write it?
Jonathan R. Eller: In 1944 he read Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon. That’s the real inspirational precursor for Fahrenheit.
Darkness At Noon, which Koestler had been writing when he got out of Europe at the beginning of [World War II] and into England, is really the first exposé of Stalin’s tragic tyranny in Russia in the thirties, and the show trials. Koestler was one of the first Westerners to get it—the tyranny of the Stalin years. And Bradbury was fascinated by that.
[Bradbury] had the values of his working class roots, and he hated tyrannies in government in the right or the left. So Fahrenheit emerges not as a statement about tyrannies of the left or the right, but just generally the tyranny of a regime that can make you stop reading books, that can drown you in superficial aspects of popular culture.
Visit the Web site of The Center for Ray Bradbury Studies here.
Visit Ray Bradbury’s Web site here.