Sam Weller’s The Bradbury Chronicles: A Portrait of the Artist That Every SciFi Fan Should Read

I’ll admit that, after combing through the Tor.com archives (shamelessly searching for ideas for more articles), when I discovered no one had written about Sam Weller’s biography of Ray Bradbury, my reaction was twofold.

On the one hand, I was incensed. Here was the authorized biography of one of my heroes—one of the faces on my personal literary Mount Rushmore—and nobody had dedicated a word to it. That reaction, however, was short lived as a wave of joyful realization replaced it. If no one else had written about it, then the opportunity to do so could be mine for the taking.

Now, (to be fair to my great host), Tor only established its website in 2008. Weller originally published his biography in 2005. Thus, a three-year-old book was likely not on their radar when they started to publish their reviews and other nonfiction. However, late is better than never. Besides, a book about one of the most important authors of SF deserves to have a couple a thousand words said about it, even 13 years on.

So, what is the best way I can describe Weller’s book?

Well, the cheeky answer is that it’s the ultimate fanboy project.

At the beginning of his introduction, Sam Weller admits to being a total Bradbury devotee: “Like many in [his] generation, [he’s] a lifelong, card-carrying member of the Intergalactic, Time-traveling, Paleontology, Mummies, Martians, Jack-o-Lanterns, Carnivals, and Foghorn-coveting Ray Bradbury fan club.” (Just imagine the size of that membership card).

Weller has been a fan since he was in utero; his father read The Illustrated Man to his mother while she was pregnant with him. His love of the author’s work only intensified when he listened to The Toynbee Convector as he was looking after his mother toward the end of her too-short life (cancer took her in her fifties). The “profound melancholy to one of [Bradbury’s] tales—“Bless Me, Father, For I Have Sinned,”” spoke to him deeply, and in that moment, Weller “felt a kinship, [he] was not alone.” With such devotion already in place, it’s no wonder this journalist from Chicago grew up to be Bradbury’s official biographer.

The more serious answer to the question of how to characterize The Bradbury Chronicles is that Weller’s book is, above all, a thoroughly researched piece of nonfiction. The index of referenced material takes up almost a quarter of the volume (at least in the eBook edition I read). Quotes from other nonfiction works on Bradbury and snippets from numerous interviews punctuate the prose. It’s clear from this thoroughness that, though Weller may have loved his subject like a second father, this opus is no sycophantic piece of pro-Bradbury propaganda. An honest, scrupulously fact-checked work, it evokes an image which isn’t hagiographic but is always unfailingly genuine.

The picture of Bradbury that Weller conjures with his words is, “a contradiction.” (That is to say, he was human).

“He wrote of the far future, but did it with the machines of old cog-and-gear ironclad throwbacks,” Weller writes, “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, the adult Bradbury was a paradox. Weller explores the many contrary elements in Bradbury’s own character, such as the fact that though he wrote of the future and developing technologies—cautioning us to be mindful of their use as he did—he never learned to drive, nor did he use a computer. He also writes of how, despite living to be a nonagenarian, the author always remained sensitive and sentimental—a child at heart, a real-life Peter Pan. (And that’s only the tip of The Halloween Tree that is Bradbury).

But that’s Ray Bradbury the man; that Bradbury is not the real subject of this book.

The Bradbury Chronicles weaves the important events in Bradbury-the-man’s life throughout the book. This is natural, given that the artist and the man are the same, and the events in man’s life influences what the artist produces. Those life events, however, remain in the background of Weller’s overall story.

The real subject, in the foreground, is a question: how did Ray Douglas Bradbury, a boy born in Waukegan, Illinois during the Jazz Age, who grew up during the Depression in Los Angeles, become Ray Bradbury, the author?

In his collection Zen in the Art of Writing, Bradbury included a poem—one of a number in the section under the heading “On Creativity”—titled “The Other Me.” Its opening lines read:

I do not write—

The other me

Demands emergence constantly.

But if I turned to face him much too swiftly

Then

He sidles back to where and when

He was before

I unknowingly cracked the door

And let him out. (Bradbury, 1-9)

The Bradbury Chronicles is the answer to Weller’s question. It’s the story of the development of that “Other Me,” and the work that “Other Me” eventually produced.

The book is 26 chapters long, and, in the recent editions, includes an epilogue that covers the events of Bradbury’s life after the book’s original publication in 2005 (he passed away in 2012). Though it has an uneven number of chapters, one can read it as telling two halves of the same story.

The latter half—roughly chapter 13 through the epilogue—covers Ray Bradbury’s long adult life and accomplished career as a writer. It details the events that lead to the publication of many of Bradbury’s most famous works, beginning with his first collection of stories, Dark Carnival. We learn of the circumstances that lead to the publication of The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, and Dandelion Wine. We come to understand the world events and political context that led Bradbury to write his most famous work, Fahrenheit 451; how it began as a short story and grew gradually, fanned by the paranoid flames of McCarthyism, into the novel we know today. We even learn how a single short story titled “The Fog Horn”—published in his fourth collection, The Golden Apples of the Sun—led to him getting the job of writing the script for Moby Dick for director John Huston.

However, the more interesting half of the book—at least to me—is the first half (chapters 1 through 12). In these chapters, Weller enumerates the core experiences and influences of Bradbury’s early life that impacted his later career. He also takes pains to acknowledge the people who were most influential on Bradbury’s development into the writer that Time magazine would one day name “The Poet of the Pulps.”

It is, in short, the “Making of…” section of the book.

The major influences on Bradbury’s career are rooted in his childhood and adolescence. Of course, there were the authors he read growing up: Poe, Baum, Burroughs, Conan Doyle, The Brothers Grimm, Verne, Wells, Wodehouse, and Twain. Later on, Lovecraft, Wolfe, Cather, Porter, Collier, Dahl, Steinbeck, and Anderson joined this amalgam of literary influences. But then there were the present influences, the people in Bradbury’s life who significantly affected him.

The first of these present influences were members of his family. Bradbury’s grandfather, Samuel Hinkston Bradbury (who worked in publishing), loved books and was therefore instrumental in making Bradbury a reader simply by making them abundantly available for his grandson.

His mother, Esther Bradbury, had a love of movies that influenced not only Bradbury’s desire to eventually pen scripts himself, but also influenced his “cinematic” writing style later in life. The two of them “averaged a film a week” when they still lived in Waukegan. (The two films that impacted him the most, because of the outsider characters at their heart, were The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, both starring Lon Chaney.)

His Uncle Bion’s love of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ adventures featuring Tarzan and John Carter of Mars first exposed Bradbury to the author and to the world of pulp science fiction. Such magazines would one day be the initial outlet for his own early work. And, without the inspiration of Burroughs’ Mars, he might never have written The Martian Chronicles.

Finally, and most importantly, there was Neva Bradbury. “Aunt Neva,” as Bradbury called her, was only ten years his senior, but she was the person who guided his creativity more than anyone else did during his early life. She was a fellow creative who painted, acted, and made costumes, and read prodigiously. She introduced Bradbury to Grimms’ Fairy Tales and L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, fostering and feeding his love of the fantastic and speculative. She was also a fellow outsider in the Bradbury family (Neva was a lesbian during a time when people didn’t openly acknowledge such things). Her empathetic understanding of her nephew’s sensitive and artistic temperament nurtured Bradbury’s imagination and confidence in his abilities, which would serve him well in the future.

After the Bradbury family’s move to Los Angeles, however, the main influences on Bradbury’s creative work were fellow science fiction writers. Originally founded as a correspondence club in 1934 by Hugo Gernsback (for whom the Hugo Award is named), the local chapter of the “Science Fiction League” would eventually coalesce into the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society in the late 1930s. It was while socializing with this society that Bradbury encountered his second major group of mentors: his fellow SF writers.

For the young Bradbury, the three most significant out of this group—which included authors such Edmond Hamilton and fans such as Forrest J. Ackerman—were Robert Heinlein, Henry Kuttner, and Leigh Brackett. Weller writes of these three that, “From Robert Heinlein, [Bradbury] had learned that all good stories are of human begins; from Henry Kuttner, he had learned to cut the “purple” language and not blurt out his ideas until they were written; and in Leigh Brackett, [he] found a dear friend and possibly his best mentor.”

Here, Weller reveals the secret behind Ray Bradbury’s success: hard work, fueled by a persistent desire to improve and succeed. “By his own admission,” Weller writes, “[Bradbury] was a poor writer in high school; his work was too derivative. He imitated rather than trying to develop his own voice, spending his time coping Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves, and Edgar Allan Poe’s tales.” Yet, it was thanks to the advice of his three main mentors in L.A. that Ray Bradbury became Ray Bradbury.

Heinlein told him to keep at it and convinced him that it was best to focus on the human element, rather than the technology, in his SF stories. Kuttner told him to stop being flowery, to shut up and work, and introduced him to new authors (he put Sherwood Anderson’s Winesberg, Ohio into Bradbury’s hands, for example, which later influenced the structure of The Martian Chronicles). And Brackett, for her part, “taught [him] pure story writing.”

In addition to these valuable lessons, Bradbury then discovered a book in Los Angeles’ public library system: Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. Brande’s book advocated an approach to writing that he adopted as his own: “To write quick and passionately…to trust his subconscious, to not overthink or second-guess his words.” In 1941, he instituted a writing regiment that would serve his career well, which was “to write one short story a week, every week, for a year.”

With all that valuable advice absorbed and a method—his “Other Me”—in place, it should come as no surprise that in July of that year, Bradbury received his first check for a short story from Super Science Stories, for a story titled “Pendulum.” (Bradbury wrote the story in collaboration with a fellow Society member, Henry Hasse). It was, as Emerson wrote to Whitman upon reading Leaves of Grass, “The beginning of a great career.”

And what a career, and life, it was.

Besides offering readers the full details of how the events of Bradbury’s life unfolded and came to be, Weller’s book is valuable for more than simply biography. It depicts a story from which other creatives can glean an important lesson about artistic development. Its narrative pulls back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz that is Bradbury. Bradbury was not an innate, creative genius, magically destined from the womb to be somebody…

He had passion and dedication, yes, but he also had guidance. Without the impact of that guidance, Weller might never have written this book about the man and his work (and I wouldn’t have written this essay). The Bradbury Chronicles reminds us that artists are not born—love, from the people around them who nurture their dreams, and love of what they choose to do, makes them into who they become.

Ian Martínez Cassmeyer’s mother raised him and his two older siblings in a household where the word “bored” was understood to mean, “You’re too stupid to find something to do.” If you’re looking for something to do after reading this piece, check out his blog, Ian’s Two Cents, and his Twitter @Ian_SMC. You might not agree with everything he says, but you certainly won’t be bored.

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