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MR. BRADBURY

This commentary came from the latest (more or less monthly) version of e-publication DarkEcho.

DarkEcho #23
05.23.03

I recently had an opportunity to hear Ray Bradbury speak, an experience I'm sure many of you have shared at some point over the years. It wasn't my first time either, but a combination of time, space, place, and people made it special.


One of the best things about visiting Los Angeles, for me, is seeing friends like Peter Atkins and Dennis and Kris Etchison. Pete is the charming Liverpool lad who, among other things, wrote a couple of "Hellraiser" movies, invented the "Wishmaster," and occasionally brings himself to write a story or novel. (There's a Darkecho Interview with the chap here on the site.) Dennis Etchison has been in the writing business for more than 40 years now. I hope he needs no introduction, but if he does, then you can read a 2000 interview.

Along with catching up on other subjects, I'd asked Dennis about Ray Bradbury's health and in his answer, he mentioned how important a figure his was in his life --"like a father."

A lot of writers feel that way about Bradbury, even if they've met him only through his stories, books, and poems. In Dennis' case, he meant it literally: Bradbury has truly been and remains a father figure for him. He's a member of the second generation of writers who were mentored by Ray Bradbury. The first "direct" generation of the "sons of Bradbury" included writers like Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, William Nolan, George Clayton Johnson, and others. They, along with Bradbury, mentored Etchison and his "generation." Now, 56 years after the first publication of THE OCTOBER COUNTRY, we're a generation or two beyond the second.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of writers who feel Bradbury "fathered" them in a less literal, but still meaningful way.

Dennis' wife of fifteen years, Kris, is the daughter of Les Anderson, one of science fiction's "First Fandom." She practically grew up at Worldcons and legendary writers were just family friends. She has known Bradbury since she was a child.

During my visit, Kris and I went tromping around the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. It's great to see thousands of people attending a celebration of books and literacy. More than 140,000 attended last year; 85,000 people attended the festival on its first day this year, a Saturday, and more were expected on the second day. Even with poor math skills, I figure that to be more than 170,000 people.

Sure, a lot of famous celebrity authors were there to lure the masses -- everyone from Barney to Arianna Huffington to Gene Simmons -- but it was still uplifting to see all those people interested in book. As George Plimpton* of New York's Paris Review was quoted, "It's the damndest thing -- all these people show up. And we'd thought people in L.A. don't read books."

So, Kris and I picked up some free cardboard fans, resisted the temptations of a lot of deeply discounted books, and dropped by the bookseller's booth where Bill Nolan was signing (since we had the fans, we took it upon ourselves to be "fan girls" to Bill and later George Clayton Johnson). Genre stores were not highly represented, although there were several of the local SF dealers there and the gang from the marvelous San Diego bookstore, Mysterious Galaxy, made a grand showing.

We knew Ray Bradbury was to speak at Royce Hall and we thought we'd drop by, show support and say "Hi." We are both obviously overly influenced by the small world of sf/f/h gatherings to even consider that such intimacy would be possible. Royce Hall seats 1800 and by the time we got there only the "nose-bleed" balcony seats were left. The place was packed...and Ray Bradbury was having a great time entertaining an appreciative audience.

Although in a wheelchair, Bradbury looked healthier than he has in years. He'd lost weight since the last time I'd seen him, but Kris said he'd lost a bit too much weight not long ago and had now gained some back. His color was good and he still has a healthy head of silver-white hair.

Kris has pretty much heard all of Bradbury's "material," and I know quite a bit of it, but that doesn't stop one from enjoying the performance again and again. Among others, he told the "John Huston Story" (in which he does a stellar impression of Huston) and the "'King of Kings' Story." He had at least one new one, a pretty silly thing about a bunch of U.S. Senators gambling the country away -- or rather back to -- the Indians. He had so much fun telling it that it was funny, although I tried re-telling it and, well, you had to be there.

At the end, Bradbury spoke, as he often does, of his sense of the universe and the exchange of energy between the individual and that universe. He urged us to greet each day with new energy, to look forward to it. Life is worth living if we each give all that we can to living it.

It wasn't so much the words he said, in fact I couldn't come close to actually quoting them, but everything that emanated from him as he said them. Here was a man who will be 83 years old this August. His has several health problems and no matter how much we would like to ignore it, he is at the point in his life when he is facing his final curtain. I doubt if he has much, if any, belief in an afterlife. You get the feeling that his guess is that there is nothing beyond that which is the here and now -- and that's just fine with him. One journey is enough if it is well traveled.

And part of the effect came from his own personal charisma, from what and who he is, the elder statesman, the father of us all, and the chief storyteller.

Perhaps there were other reasons, too, but the end of my story is that by the time the audience rose to a standing ovation and Ray Bradbury acknowledged them by briefly standing himself, Kris and I were crying.

Veterans of many an inspirational talk by not only Bradbury, but other artists; jaded ladies with troubles our own and a lack of youthful optimism that many in the audience still possessed; wise and past manipulation by magician, charlatan, shaman, or prophet: we're beyond the razzle-dazzle, we know how the smoke and mirrors work, we know the tricks of the trade and can sort illusion that has the appearance of truth from truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion. Still, we were moved to tears. We left with more than we had come with. We had been inspired.

Some, like Thomas M. Disch, say the core of Ray Bradbury's success as a writer is that he retains "the clarity and innocence" of the wise child. Bradbury himself has accounted for his youthful outlook by saying, "Live a life in which you cram yourself with all kinds of metaphors, all kinds of activities, and all kinds of love. And take time to laugh -- find something that makes you truly happy -- every day of your life..." On his 82nd birthday, he wrote: "I have never stopped writing which means I have never stopped loving... I'm only 82. There's so much more to do, to see, to experience, to create. I'd better get busy..."

So, excuse me. I need to go cram myself with metaphors.


*Bob Patterson happened to take a picture of Plimpton that day at the Paris Reviewbooth. In the background, you can spot both Johnson (with trademark long white locks and straw hat) and Etchison (the gent looking off to the right behind him). The photo and others, along with Patterson's take on the Festival can be found at Delusions of Adequacy. He mentions the Rock Bottom Remainders' performance. What he (diplomatically) doesn't mention is that with Roger McGuinn on guitar, and ringers Josh Kelly (drums) and Erasmo Paolo (saxophone), the band sounds, Kris and I agreed, a hell of a lot better than when they let that guy from Bangor sit in.]

And here's a recent from The Minneapolis Star Tribune.



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Copyright © 2003 by Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.