Saturday 12 June 2010

Neil Gaiman writes about Ray Bradbury

Neil Gaiman: Ray Bradbury made me want to write
Why I can’t imagine life without this author who made the American Midwest magical and tangible for me

May 21, 2010

I can imagine all sorts of worlds and places, but I cannot imagine one without Ray Bradbury. Not Bradbury the man (I have met him. Each time I have spent any time with him I have been left the happier for it), but Bradbury the builder of dreams. The man who took an idea of the American Midwest and made it magical and tangible, who took his own childhood and all the people and things in it and used it to shape the world. The man who gave us a future to fear, one without stories, without books. The man who invented Hallowe’en in its modern incarnation.

There are authors I remember for their stories, others I remember for their people. Bradbury is the only one I remember who sticks in my heart for his times of year and for his places. He called a book of short stories The October Country. It’s the perfect Bradbury title. It gives us a time (and not just any time, but the month that contains Hallowe’en, when the twigs tap on windows and things lurk in the cellars) and it makes it a country. You can go there. It’s waiting.

Places: the green meadows of Green Town, Illinois, in Dandelion Wine; the red sandy expanses broken by crumbling canals that could only be Bradbury’s Mars; the misty Venice Beach of Death is a Lonely Business. All of them locations that linger.

It is hard for me to talk about the stories without thinking of Bradbury the person: I remember his 70th birthday, 20 years ago, in the Natural History Museum. A decade later I had the honour to present him with the Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Master Award and I have never seen a room of people cheer and clap with more joy than they did that night. More important, though, was that I got to say thank you, in person, to someone whose fiction helped to make me who I am.

The first Bradbury story I read was called Homecoming, and it changed me. I was 7. The story was in a collection of science fiction that I had borrowed from a friend’s father. Homecoming is about a normal human boy, Timothy, who lives surrounded by all the creatures of the night. I identified more with Timothy, the boy being brought up by a loving family of vampires and monsters, than I had ever identified with any fictional character before. Like him I wanted to be brave, to not be scared of the things in the darkness. Like him, I wanted to belong.

I read The Silver Locusts next, a collection of stories now more often known by its alternative title, The Martian Chronicles. I thought the book was like nothing else I had encountered (although I was young enough and literal enough that I kept waiting for the locusts to turn up). I fell in love with Usher II, in which Martian settlers, representing the repressive anti-fiction movement on Earth that Bradbury had created in his novel Fahrenheit 451, arrive at a scary house on Mars and are murdered by robots controlled by an aficionado of horror and the fantastic. The murders were in the style of the Poe stories The Pit and the Pendulum, The Murders in the Rue Morgue and culminated in The Cask of Amontillado. It was after reading this story that I resolved that I would one day read Poe, become a writer, find a Scary House, and own a robotic orang-utan that would do my bidding. I have been fortunate in achieving at least three of these goals.

The first Bradbury books I bought with my own money were from a travelling bookshop, which would set up once a term in a room in my school. I was about 11. The books were Dandelion Wine and The Golden Apples of the Sun.

So much about Bradbury’s writing was important to me, so much of it helped to form me. I read all I could. But I never thought of emulating it. I never consciously wanted to copy him.

Bradbury was not ahead of his time. He was perfectly of his time, and more than that: he created his time and left his mark on the time that followed. He was one of two men to come from Waukegan, a small town in Illinois about 30 miles from Chicago, who made art that allowed America to define itself from the 1940s until the 1960s (the other son of Waukegan was the comedian Jack Benny). And, for more than 60 years Bradbury has made art, and he still makes art, and sets cats among pigeons, and he gets people talking.

Bradbury’s best short-story collections have themes and they have patterns. They are arguments and they are conversations. The Machineries of Joy is a reminder of a Bradbury who, while too many fine writers were still writing for the pulps, had liberated himself and was writing for the glossies. He had been one of the first writers to have made the transition from the world of people who read that sort of thing to the world at large.

The tales in The Machineries of Joy are, with a few exceptions, stories in which genre elements are muted or absent. A collection of stories, some fantasies, some not. Priests argue about space travel, and an old woman seals her house from Death, and we ask, who are the Martians?

Bradbury at his best really was as good as we thought he was. He built so much, and made it his. So when the wind blows the fallen autumn leaves across the road in a riot of flame and gold, or when I see a green field in summer carpeted by yellow dandelions, or when, in winter, I close myself off from the cold and write in a room with a TV screen as big as a wall, I think of Ray Bradbury . . .

With joy. Always with joy.

The Machineries of Joy will be reprinted by P.S. Publishing next month, priced £20; The Everyman Library edition of The Stories of Ray Bradbury is available now, £14.99 (offer £13.49)

1 comment:

  1. Well, thank-you, Ray Bradbury, for inspiring Gaiman, one fabulous writer.