When I decided to write my recent piece about The Bradbury Chronicles, Sam Weller’s biography of Ray Bradbury, I knew I’d also have to write (just a few words) about the book I always think of as its fraternal twin. Not to do so would’ve meant ignoring the other half of Bradbury.
I declared (perhaps rather grandly) that Weller’s subject in 2005’s The Bradbury Chronicles was a portrait of Bradbury as an artist, a narrative about the development of a writer—his “Other Me”—alongside the details and milestones of the life he’d led. What Weller gives us in 2010’s Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews is a portrait of the man behind the typewriter. How does it rate, then, when compared to the earlier volume? I’ll be frank and say that this book is not a “must read” for everyone who read The Bradbury Chronicles.
Not because it isn’t good—far from it, in fact. It’s as thorough and scrupulously crafted as his biography (thanks to Weller’s considerable experience as a journalist and researcher). The detailed oral history that Weller has recorded directly from one of SF’s greats is indispensable. Moreover, the picture he presents to us of Bradbury’s personality is a fascinating, fully human one that’s well worth exploring.
However, I believe the primary reason you should read this book is if you’re truly, deeply curious about the man behind the classic books and stories. In the forward to Listen to the Echoes, singer/songwriter Black Francis (of Pixies fame) writes, “I had no need for Ray Bradbury the man, because I had his words.” Similarly, many people are content to focus on the creative output of an artist, and have no need to know the person and personality who produced that work. And that’s perfectly okay.
If, however, you’re like me, and you wish to learn about and understand Bradbury as a person—to know what he was like away from the typewriter—you couldn’t ask for a better place to start than with these interviews.
Before becoming Bradbury’s biographer, Weller was a journalist. Journalists, perhaps more than any other type of writer, need to possess one attribute in order to succeed in their job: grade-A people skills. It would be difficult to interview people for profile features and other articles if you can’t communicate well and establish a rapport with fellow humans. This profession and that particular skill set first brought Weller into his hero’s orbit when he wrote a profile on Bradbury on the occasion of the author’s 80th Birthday.
For Weller, a Bradbury fan since before he was born (according to family legend), this represented the ultimate assignment. His in-depth knowledge of and enthusiasm for Bradbury’s work, established over years of reading and re-reading, made such an impression that it eventually earned Weller the job of writing the legendary author’s official biography.
In the course of such an endeavor, an intimate friendship grew over time. Following their first meeting in 2000, Weller spent five years finding out everything he needed to know in order to compose the biography. By the end of Bradbury’s life, not only had Sam Weller come to record the story of a man’s life and chronicle his development as an artist, but he came to know and understand the man himself on a profound level—who he was, the nature of his views on a wide variety of subjects, and the reasons and philosophy behind those views and opinions.
It’s that insight into the character of Bradbury-the-man that Weller offers his reader in Listen to the Echoes. The book’s subtitle tells you exactly what you’ll encounter: Each chapter is essentially one long interview—a casual one that builds into a freewheeling conversation, as the best kind often do—centered on one particular topic. Some explore themes that related directly to Bradbury’s fiction, major themes, and status as a writer, such as Childhood, Science Fiction, Writing and Creativity, Hollywood, his work, his famous friends, Art & Literature, and the future. Other conversations, however, touch on topics that might surprise more casual readers, delving into Fame and Celebrity, Politics, Faith, and Sexuality.
No matter the topic, though, a singular personality emerges in each interview, alternating answers with his own questions, complicating and deepening the exchange. For example, in the “Science Fiction” section, Weller asks Bradbury a question about Robert Heinlein, one of the major influences on Bradbury’s work and career:
Weller: […] What are your memories of him?
Bradbury: Heinlein was a big influence. He was a humanist. He wrote stories about real people, instead of mechanical stories. He was a vast influence. He was older than me, and when I met him in the Science Fiction Society, he had already been published and made a name for himself. I went up to his house in Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills, and he let me stand behind him and watch him while he typed his stories. He was very strict. He didn’t speak to me for years because I didn’t join the army. There was a science fiction convention at the Century Plaza Hotel about twenty-five years ago, and I gave a speech and Heinlein was in the audience, but I didn’t know it. And during my speech I praised Bob because he sold my first short story. And when my speech was over, I was down mainly with the fans, and I felt a hand on my shoulder and it was Heinlein and we made up after all those years.”
From an answer like that, given in response to such a simple question, we can begin to glimpse the kind of man Ray Bradbury was, to some degree. The adjectives one could employ to describe the personality are abundant: loquacious, forthcoming, honest, blunt, open, appreciative, and—most significantly—enthusiastic. He puts it all out there: beyond recognizing Heinlein’s important role in his life, he dives immediately into their personal dynamic—their friendship, their falling out, and eventual reconciliation.
This kind of uncensored honesty fills the whole book.
In the chapter titled “His Own Work,” Weller asks Bradbury to explain the process by which the ideas for several of his best stories originated by writing lists of nouns, something he touches on in Zen in the Art of Writing. “You can go and make up your own list,” Bradbury says, “and it would be different than mine… Then, when you get the list down, that’s when you begin to word-associate around it.” In the section on “Sexuality,” Weller questions about Bradbury’s views on homosexuality are answered with a simple statement, “Look, love is love.” (A sentiment with which most of us will hopefully agree).
Most interesting of all, though, Weller also gives us insights into the contradictions that Bradbury embodied. For example, though he was married only once, and remained married for over 50 years, Bradbury had at least two longterm affairs with other women. Additionally, though his inclusive and open worldview clashed with many of right-wing social policies, he voted mainly along conservative party lines in the later years of his life. He despised Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, yet he also had a low opinion of the Hollywood Ten and their actions. He also believed in God, but he didn’t identify with or attend services for any organized religion.
Yet, when Weller puts questions about these subjects to him—subjects that some people might view as too personal, touchy, or private—Bradbury (as far as we know, since we only have the text) didn’t shy away from responding. He also makes no real attempt to defend his opinions or reasoning (he does occasionally explain himself, but only for clarity’s sake). The openness and candidness always remains. He acknowledged things as they were; nothing was out of bounds or off-limits. Everything was up for discussion.
In my assessment, the remarkable honesty that fuels these interviews is due to three things.
Most obviously is the fact that by this time, Weller and Bradbury had formed a highly intimate friendship. Bradbury, a member of the G.I. Generation, likely wouldn’t have openly talked about these things with just anyone. “As a biographer,” Weller said at an event at the College of DuPage, “You are utterly invasive.” And he’d been so for over a decade—Weller knew and understood so many facets of Bradbury, and Bradbury obvious recognized that and trusted him unconditionally. (Besides, once you’ve gone through a man’s underwear and sock drawer—which Weller stated he did at that same event—I’m certain that makes you a Diamond Club-level friend).
We also have to consider that Bradbury, at the time of this book’s release, was in his late 80s. If my experiences with my own Midwestern relatives of that age are any indication, the part of the brain that fears the judgements of others seems to retire at a certain point. Once you’ve reached such an age, you’ve earned the right to drop many of the filters and pretenses of the social contract and be entirely honest about life, the universe, and everything else.
And lastly, we have to credit Weller for his journalistic expertise. Never, in the course of the book, does he attempt to make himself the center of attention. He keeps his questions clear, straightforward, and pointed, guiding the conversation forward. He clearly recognizes that even though this is his book, with his name on the cover and spine, all of our attention should be on Bradbury. He simply asks the important questions and stays out of Bradbury’s way, providing ample room for such open and organic answers.
Based on his words alone, captured in these interviews, it’s clear that Bradbury was a man of deeply held convictions and deeply felt emotions. He’d lived a long time, written numerous classic tales, and gained a great deal of wisdom on the subjects that interested him the most. He had his flaws and quirks, but he also had his strengths and his endearing traits. Simply, he was human. He was a human I wish I’d gotten to know and befriend—had I gotten the chance, I would’ve loved to have met and thanked him.
I envy Weller for having gotten the chance, and I remain grateful that he was able to share the experience with the rest of us in this remarkable book.
In an alternate reality, Ian Martínez Cassmeyer might very well have been Bradbury’s biographer. Sadly, that reality isn’t the one in which he presently finds his consciousness. If you’d like to see some of the examples of odd musings his consciousness can conjure, check out his blog, Ian’s Two Cents, and his Twitter @Ian_SMC.