“The act of writing is, for me, like a fever — something I must do. And it seems I always have some new fever developing, some new love to follow and bring to life.
“I’ve never doubted myself; I’ve always been so completely devoted to libraries and books and authors that I couldn’t stop to consider for a moment that I was being foolish. I only knew that writing was in itself the only way to live.”
It was the summer of 1990 and I was in Los Angeles on assignment to cover a national convention of health professionals and dieticians. The LA riots were light years away, not many people paid attention to some place called Iraq, and O.J. Simpson was considered a hero. George Bush was in the White House, George Herbert Walker Bush.
The keynote speaker, for some reason I know not why, was none other than Ray Bradbury, the author of such books as The Illustrated Man, The Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine, and, of course, Fahrenheit 451.
Now, I have met a number of celebrities in my life: one president, lots of athletes, movie stars, and even rock stars (one day I encountered Dee Snider, sans makeup, in a used book store in midtown Manhattan. Imagine that, the lead singer of Twisted Sister reading a book – a business management book at that – I think he was considering leaving the band and going solo and man, that kat was tall and buttuuuugly…). Anyway, getting back to the story.
So after the keynote, I go up to the press room to file my story. I had already interviewed people from the night before, and was just wrapping up when one of the conference organizers, a woman whose mother, Frieda Kaplan, had created this entire line of exotic produce, like cherimoya (tastes like ice cream) and purple potatoes. So my friend pops her head into the otherwise empty press room, sees me typing away, and calls out, “hey Jay, want to meet Uncle Ray?”
Now “Uncle Ray” is the affectionate name legions of Ray Bradbury fans have given him. I looked over at her nonplussed but inside my heart was about to pop out of my ribs.
See, it was Ray Bradbury who helped inspire me to be a writer. I had discovered him in fifth grade, about the time my parents were going through a lousy divorce. We were poor and now lived in public housing. The kids in the neighborhood were pyschopathic, especially to the new arrivals. My guts hurt most of the time and I didn’t have the stomach to go outside and play just to let Eugene Cruz spot me, knock me down, and scratch a fork across my chest like he had done twice already. So when this bookmobile first pulled up in front of our apartment building, I was in heaven.
I remember the first time I checked out a book and nervously asked the guy at the wheel how many books I could check out. He looked at me funny and said, “kid, you take as many as you can read. But we come here every Wednesday, so you don’t have to worry about it, ok?”
I checked out about ten books that day and lugged them up four flights of stairs. Reading was my only solace. It was summer, and I didn’t know hardly anyone, but these books took me places where I had never been before. One of the first books I read was The Martian Chronicles. I was delighted to discover in this book a short story I had already read in fourth grade. “There will come soft rains…” I was in the advanced reading class and I hated how the rich kids in the class treated me, leaving empty seats next to me and mostly ignoring me and keeping me out of their conversations, mainly because I wore the wrong clothes, my skin was too dark, I had a chipped tooth and I was small and skinny. But reading gave me confidence. It was something I was good at and I didn’t care if people laughed at me. I learned so much and could escape the chipped paint, squat concrete blocks of buildings where we lived and I could travel to other planets, other universes, other times.
So the next Wednesday the bookmobile returned and I checked out every Ray Bradbury book they had: Something Wicked This Way Comes, Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine. I ate those books, consumed them, devoured them in the middle of the night, never stopping except to eat or wash up. I read in the bathtub, on the floor, in bed, and kept turning page after page. I had to know more. I felt like a pilgrim being taught a secret language. And it started out as a pre-adolescent thirst for science fiction.
I then began reading more sci-fi, stuff like Arthur C. Clarke’s The Nine Billion Names of God, Childhood’s End, and Rendezvous with Rama. Next I began reading Brian Aldiss’ Barefoot in the Head. Then I read Phillip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go. I followed up with A Canticle for Leibowitz, and then 1984. BOOM. And from there I began reading other authors, agonizing over Ayn Rand, laughing my ass off with Kurt Vonnegut, discovering Hemingway, Joyce, Beckett, and shit, the list just goes on and on stretching from Jack Kerouac to Don Delillo to Albert Camus and beyond. Uncle Ray had lit a rocket up my ass.
So, of course, muthafucking A! do I ever want to meet Uncle Ray.
So I put down my stuff and follow my friend to the speaker’s lounge. We’re at a posh hotel in downtown LA. The room is on the fourth floor and you could see the work being done a few blocks away on what is now the landmark LA library building. There are about a dozen leather armchairs set about two round tables, each with pitchers of water and fresh fruit.
No one is in the room except Uncle Ray. He’s relaxed, wearing an open collared polo shirt and khaki slacks. His hair is long and amazingly white. He’s wearing big black framed glasses and he’s a little florid in the face. He spots me as he’s munching on a pear. He waves me in.
I look to my friend and she gestures with her open palm and retreats. So it’s just me and Uncle Ray.
I sit down across from the man and uncap my pen.
“So, young man, tell me your name.”
I do so and explain what newspaper I work for.
He chuckles. “How do you like your job?”
This catches me off guard as I’m supposed to be interviewing him.
I put the pen down and start gushing like a fool, asking him a million questions, like how did he know exactly what new tennis shoes feel like the first time you put them on? How did he come up with those strange martian names? I asked him if it was true that the author of so many books about space and astronauts is actually afraid of flying.
“No, that’s not true. I go to Paris a lot. You can’t get there by car, you know.”
So I tell him how I grew up reading his books and wondered what he thought about the movie versions and if he ever met Rod Steiger. If I remember, he said no authors are ever entirely pleased with a movie version because so much of the romance is left out and too many unnecessary things are added in. But if the movie keeps the tone or the spirit of the romance, it’s better than nothing.
I told him my intention was to someday give up reporting and turn full-time to writing.
“You already are, just write for yourself.”
That made me laugh and I told him about all the editors and journalism professors and english teachers who had drilled and admonished me to think first of the audience.
“Ho ho!” Uncle Ray hooted. “No, you are your own best audience. Write for yourself. Get up out of bed and get to it. Listen to the stories and the voices in your morning head and bring them to life.”
I asked him how he wrote.
He told me he gets up and after listening to the voices in his head, he sits down and pounds out about three to four thousand words a day.
“Hemingway did a thousand. I’m no Hemingway so I write more and that way I can edit it down.”
I asked him if he knew exactly how the story would end before he sat down to write.
“Hell, no,” he laughed. And his cheeks shook. He tossed the half-eaten pear into a nearby waste can.
“That kills the creativity. That’s the
fun part. Sit down and play. It’s funny. Some people call writing for a living work. It’s play. Every day I get up and I play. That’s the secret to a long and happy life.”
The interview ended, and I thanked him for his time. I never did write down what happened that day, at least not until now. So there you go, Bill, true story. My one hour with Uncle Ray was pretty fucking cool. He probably will never remember me. But I will always remember meeting the hero of my youth.
The one thing I learned from Uncle Ray is that good writers are great readers. A heartfelt thanks to you, dear old Uncle Ray.