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Ray Bradbury -- the man who gave voice to the human soul

  • FILE - This Dec. 8, 1966 file photo shows science fiction writer Ray Bradbury looks at a picture that was part of a school project to illustrate characters in one of his dramas in Los Angeles. Bradbury, who wrote everything from science-fiction and mystery to humor, died Tuesday, June 5, 2012 in Southern California. He was 91.AP

It is as if someone turned a light off in the universe. Or a planet has just disappeared. Whatever the case may be, something BIG has happened. Something sad and undeniable and impossible.

He is gone.

Gone.

Ray Bradbury, the man I have known for 12 years, has left us, leaving an immeasurable void in the world of creativity, literature, and the arts.

Like so many, I grew up on the words of Bradbury, author of such timeless masterpieces as "The Illustrated Man," "Fahrenheit 451," "The Martian Chronicles," "Something Wicked This Way Comes," "Dandelion Wine," and so many others. I first encountered him in utero, when my father read Bradbury to my pregnant mom.

In 2000, after writing a cover story on the Illinois-born author’s 80th birthday for the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine, I asked the great man if I could write a book on him. He was hesitant, at first. “Biography,” he said, “means life is over.” He had a gleam in his eye and looked at me and added, “call me in 30 or 35 years, Sam, and we can get working on it!”

Ray Bradbury wrote like Monet painted. He strung words into melodies worthy of Bach. He envisioned the future better than Nostradamus ever did. Ray Bradbury was a writer who wrote from the heart, stories drenched in compassion. Stories that were often melancholy and celebratory all at once. He had the ability to give voice to the human soul.

But he soon changed his mind. I had come into his life at a moment of vulnerability. Just seven-months earlier, he had suffered a stroke and was working diligently to make a full recovery. He saw in me an enthusiasm and a passion for his life and his career.

“My Twin! My Twin,” he often said to me, quoting his old friend, the film director Federico Fellini, who once said the same thing to Bradbury.

12 years and thousands of hours of interviews later, I have written two books on Bradbury, 2005’s "The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury" (William Morrow), and 2010’s "Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews" (Melville House/Stop Smiling Books). 

This summer, my third Bradbury book, co-edited with seven-time Bram Stoker award nominee Mort Castle, will be released. "Shadow Show: All-New Stories Celebrating Ray Bradbury" will be published by William Morrow. The book gathers 26 new tales penned in the grand and imaginative Bradbury tradition by a wide spectrum of writers: Neil Gaiman, Alice Hoffman, Dave Eggers, Audrey Niffenegger, Margaret Atwood, and others. As Castle and I wrote in the introduction, Bradbury’s shadow is long and wide.

In the years since my first biography of Bradbury was published, his towering influence is something I have endeavored to illustrate in presentations at libraries and universities across the country. I fervently believe that Ray Bradbury was the most influential writer on the finest of popular culture in the last century.

Hence my assertion that something very big and sad has occurred with his mortal departure.

Along with the multitude of literary achievements, the 600 published short stories; the classic novels; the doorstop collections of poetry and essays, Bradbury wrote screenplays (most notably adapting Melville’s "Moby-Dick" to the screen for director John Huston in 1956). He wrote for Rod Serling’s "Twilight Zone" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." He won an Emmy award for adapting his own book, "The Halloween Tree" into an animated television program. He was nominated for an Academy Award. He staged his plays around the world. He wrote architectural concepts that were the design influences behind shopping plazas in Los Angeles and San Diego, even Spaceship Earth at Disney’s EPCOT. In 1971, the Apollo 15 astronauts even named a crater on the lunar surface after Bradbury 1957 novel-in-stories, "Dandelion Wine."

The achievements are mind-boggling. Making them more impressive is the very fact that Bradbury came from extremely modest means. Born on August 22, 1920, he was the son of a working class utility lineman. The Depression hit the Bradbury family hard. Ray’s father lost his job and moved his family west, to Los Angeles, in April of 1934. Bradbury knew no one. He had no connections. No money. And at 13, while he knew already that he wanted to be a writer, admittedly, he had no talent. But he loved books and libraries and movies and on that first sunny day in Los Angeles, he fetched an autograph from actor W.C. Fields. He soon after began building the talents and career that would make him the towering influence he was.

Through all of his many accomplishments, Bradbury has left an indelible tattoo on a diverse and large number of contemporary creators in virtually every avocation of creativity. Writers from Joyce Carol Oates to Stephen King; film directors Spielberg, del Toro, Darabont, Truffaut and many others; musicians from David Bowie to Elton John to Black Francis of the Pixies who penned the foreword to my 2010 book, "Listen to the Echoes." When Bradbury went to Houston in January of 1967 to do a story on the Apollo program for LIFE magazine, the crew-cut space cowboys came running to meet their true hero, the man who had taken astronauts to Mars in "The Martian Chronicles."

His influence is astonishing. Why? Because Ray Bradbury wrote like Monet painted. He strung words into melodies worthy of Bach. He envisioned the future better than Nostradamus ever did. Ray Bradbury was a writer who wrote from the heart, stories drenched in compassion. Stories that were often melancholy and celebratory all at once. He had the ability to give voice to the human soul.

A husband of 56 years (Marguerite Bradbury passed in 2003), a father of 4, grandfather of 8, Ray Bradbury was also a generous mentor to many, including myself.

In my 2005 book, "The Bradbury Chronicles," I described Ray Bradbury after my first meeting with him:

The man I encountered on that fine Los Angeles afternoon on Memorial Day Weekend, 2000 was nothing short of miraculous. Since his stroke seven months earlier, he moved cautiously. Physically, this great, jolly blurt of a man had been slowed down. But here he was hobbling to and fro with the use of a four-pronged cane, talking at lightspeed, pontificating, philosophizing, positing solutions for the future of all humankind, and, most of all, referencing the past with reverie and respect. I thought this man was a great contradiction, a beautiful paradox. He wrote of the far future, but did it with the machines of old, cog-and-gear ironclad throwbacks to Wells and Verne; he wrote of the far past with a pained longing, as if to tell us all that our future would only be well served if we looked to yesteryear. Indeed, he was a contradiction. Ray Bradbury was a nostalgic visionary: He predicated the past and remembered the future.

And now we must move forward into our own future. The days, weeks, months, years, decades ahead—we will live in a world without Ray Bradbury. Certainly, for me, and so many others, that world is a much darker place.

Sam Weller is the authorized biographer of Ray Bradbury. He is an Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago and the co-editor of Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury, published this July by William Morrow. Follow him on Twitter @Sam__Weller.