From May 2001 to January 2010, professor of creative writing, fiction author, and biographer Sam Weller interviewed one of America’s greatest and most original talents, Ray Bradbury. Not every moment of every day, of course, but over countless hours, nonetheless, throughout the decade. As Mr. Bradbury himself admitted not long before his death, “Sam Weller knows more about my life than I do.” While this is certainly an exaggeration, it is not a gross one. In 2006, Mr. Weller published his full biography of the author entitled, appropriately enough, The Ray Bradbury Chronicles.
Four years later, in 2010, Mr. Weller published an edited version of his numerous conversations with Mr. Bradbury in Listen to the Echoes. For all intents in purposes, the reader can joyously see this second volume as either a sequel to the 2006 biography or as a wondrously extended appendix or massive footnote. Whatever one calls it, Mr. Weller’s Listen to the Echoes is a must own and a must read.
For several years now, I have been on a roll when it comes to reading good books. That is, I have really not picked up a dud. And, becoming enthralled with audible.com and the joy of being read to, my “reading”—a mix of real reading as well as listening to books—has at least doubled and nearly trebled my relationship with good reads. In no way do I want to sound something akin to “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Humans.” I am the last person you would want to model if you are looking for “efficient” use of time. I despise the word “efficient” unless it is in the context of energy consumption. It really does not belong in a conversation about humanity or human to human relations. But, deep into middle age, I also realize how limited our time on this big blue world is.
Of all of the books I have encountered over the last several years, Mr. Weller’s Listen to the Echoes is one of the best. I have now read it thoroughly once and through it again for enjoyment and comfort multiple times. It is a book of intense and beautiful wisdom on almost every subject imaginable. While it is Mr. Bradbury’s humanity and genius that shines through in these interviews, it does so in large part because of Mr. Weller’s incisive and thought-provoking questions. At times, Weller comes across heavy-handed and at other times merely curious in his questions. Regardless, he is never inappropriate. There are times when Mr. Bradbury needs to be pushed and times when he needs to be merely set free to speak his mind. Mr. Weller is, truly, the perfect interviewer.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Bradbury is Mr. Bradbury. He can be no other. Some men can disguise. He has never hidden his views about much of anything in his life, as he is equal parts enthusiastic, honest, earnest, and imaginative. His openness has always been a apart of his charm. [He, tellingly, admitted fully his one sexual indiscretion in his life.] Indeed, it is difficult to imagine having to read “between the lines” when interpreting a Bradbury speech, saying, or non-fiction article and essay. When he writes fiction, of course, we must read him differently, as he is as layered and subtle as any great artist.
Mr. Weller and Mr. Bradbury covered subjects ranging from Mr. Bradbury’s metaphysical and cultural views to his life as a father, husband, and as a friend.
For generations now, thankfully, primary and secondary schools have introduced students to Mr. Bradbury’s fiction. Few students could escape school without knowing the horrors of being locked in a closet on the only sunny day on Venus, the monotonous continuation of a mechanized house after a nuclear war, or the firemen paid to burn fine literature. Each of these stories, however, come from the earliest writings of the man, and he published—mostly essays and short stories, almost too numerous to count—until he passed away in 2012. There is still much to discover in the vast corpus of this great man.
As mentioned above, Mr. Weller excels at bringing out the most interesting elements of an already fascinating figure. As a part of his eternal optimism and joy of life, Mr. Bradbury loved his fame and renown. He did not chase after it, but he happily accepted it. He had spent much of his own youth chasing down Hollywood movie stars for autographs, and he understood and even sympathized with those who sought his. He even endangered his own health to remain at book signings, making sure he signed every last book.
As mentioned in previous essays at The Imaginative Conservative, Mr. Bradbury and Russell Kirk had a deep friendship with one another, and the two had much in common. They each feared the growth of technology, despised conformity, distrusted unearned authority, and loved the writings of the other.
Here are a few of snippets from the book to give a sense of Mr. Bradbury’s sense of life and wonder.
“When my big book Bradbury Stories came out in 2003, when that galley arrived, I wept. I couldn’t believe I’d written all those stories. When I look at that, along with the earlier book, The Stories of Ray Bradbury, there are two hundred stories in two big books. I look at those and I realize that I owe back to the universe.”
On writing as staving off death:
“But you know, my life has been a fight against death. I finish a story, go to the mailbox, drop it in and say, “Okay, Death, I’m ahead of you.” You see, every time I write a new short story, or essay, or poem, or publish a new novel, I’m that much ahead.”
On his friend Charlton Heston:
“I knew Charlton Heston. He had a library of first editions you wouldn’t believe. Incredible. He was very intellectual. I went to his fiftieth wedding anniversary, and he came to ours with his wife. They were lovely people, and the people who hated him when he was still alive are wrong. They didn’t know him. They hate him because of the NRA. That’s a lot of crap.”
On the mythic inspirations for his own works:
“I write Greek myths and Roman myths, and that makes the difference. When we are kids, we love the Greek myths. It’s all about love, and we don’t know exactly what love is. I was influenced by the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Norwegians, the Chinese, and the Swedish—the Norse Eddas.”
Who were the bookburners in Fahrenheit 451:
“All during the mid-Thirties, they had newsreel footage in movie theaters. I remember seeing newsreel footage of the Nazis burning books in the streets. And Russia was just as bad. And then along came McCarthy, and he handled things very badly. He came to Hollywood and looked for Communists because it was easy to stigmatize them. But people don’t talk about Russia, even though they killed millions of people. All of that is in my book.”
His greatest hope:
“The thing that makes me happy is that I know that on Mars, two hundred years from now, my books are going to be read. They’ll be up on dead Mars with no atmosphere. And late at night, with a flashlight, some little boy is going to peek under the covers and read The Martian Chronicles on Mars.”
These quotes, of course, only provide the merest sampling of this extraordinary book. Perhaps, I am giving the reader, at best, a short breath in the meniscus. In conversation, Mr. Weller and Mr. Bradbury go deep into the meaning of metaphor, the essence of words (and THE word), and the importance of being a bibliophile and remaining a child. Mr. Bradbury also discusses everything from the New Deal to the Cold War, offering some truly interesting insights into a variety of prominent persons over the past century.
Though I have been reading Mr. Bradbury’s story and about Mr. Bradbury’s life since roughly 1977, I found much new and surprising in these conversations. Again, one must credit Mr. Weller for not only his native ability to bring the most interesting out of his subject, but also for his sheer tenacity over a decade of conversations.
I cannot recommend Listen to the Echoes highly enough. It serves not only as a profound look into the overwhelming moral imagination of one of America’s greatest artists, but it also provides a fascinating look into twentieth-century life.
Finally, while Listen to the Echoes helps satiate a near-life long obsession with all things Bradbury, it also makes me excited to see where Mr. Weller goes next. He is a writer who deserves our close attention over the next several decades.
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