Jonathan R. Eller Guest Post–“Ray Bradbury Unbound”

In writing about a life as rich and varied as Ray Bradbury’s, a biographer quickly learns that not everything in the notepads or the interview tapes will make it into the final book. It was a difficult challenge for both Becoming Ray Bradbury (2011) and Ray Bradbury Unbound (2014), where I had to make decisions to condense and even eliminate some of the detail of an incredibly fascinating life. Many years of close interaction intensified the challenge; looking through hundreds of pages of our interview transcripts, always informal and wide-ranging, as well as thousands of pages of correspondence files and drafts of Bradbury stories and novels, I sometimes wondered if my three-volume approach could accommodate all that deserved chronicling.

Becoming Ray Bradbury covered the first thirty-three years of the author’s life, right up to the moment he handed his final revisions for Fahrenheit 451 to his frantic but steady-handed Ballantine Books editor, Stanley Kauffmann. In my own telling of those early years, I had to cut 70,000 words from Becoming Ray Bradbury, and in the end it became a far better book. There were lamented casualties, of course, and among them were a half dozen chapters dealing with Bradbury’s Illinois childhood. A surviving opening chapter concisely covered the essential influences of these early years and allowed me to enter deeply into his high school years in Los Angeles, where Bradbury was fully absorbed by radio shows and motion picture wonders as he took the first steps toward a professional writing career.

Other cuts involved the more anecdotal details of his brushes with the stars of the silver screen and the famous voices of the airwaves during radio’s golden age. Other books and articles had documented these adventures, however, and condensing the narration of certain lesser episodes allowed me to focus on how the more important aspects of these Hollywood experiences stayed with him and influenced his own creativity (and public persona) as he slowly became Ray Bradbury. A few other episodes had to be cut outright, including a brief and anonymous 1945 meeting with John Steinbeck in Mexico City (one Cambridge, Massachusetts blogger has never forgiven me for that one). Little else was lost from the essential story, thankfully, and there will be a time when these lost pages will find life again.

Ray Bradbury Unbound, which covers the middle years of Bradbury’s career, offered new challenges. I was once again able to work with the subject himself, who never asked to be made into an icon; he only wanted fairness and objectivity, and I’m grateful for his blessing and his support during the final years of his life. But there was also another Ray Bradbury advising me—the one who wrote letters on a vast array of topics during the 1950s and 1960s, often revealing his innermost thoughts on creativity and giving voice to the private disappointments that Hollywood sometimes threw in his way. There were also moments of achievement and great good fortune in Hollywood, as there were in his relations with a widening circle of book and magazine publishers, and Bradbury’s letters convey the excitement and advantages that came with his ever-widening readership and name recognition throughout postwar American culture.

Once again there were cuts to be made, but only about 25,000 words came out this time around. The story of Ray Bradbury Unbound became an emerging contrast between the many multi-media successes that Bradbury was achieving in television and film, and his slowly diminishing output of new stories as Hollywood began to demand more and more time. This transformation is widely known in a general way, but the more dramatic aspects, such as Bradbury’s day-by-day interactions with actors, studio directors and producers, and his often less cordial encounters with studio executives, allowed me to show how many of his promising creative projects were deferred, distorted, or even discarded for reasons that had nothing to do with creativity at all. Bradbury had an abiding hatred of the financial bottom line, a counterpoint to his abiding love of under-budgeted libraries and underpaid writers. For every success in Hollywood, there were many disappointments, and re-living this process through Bradbury’s memory and his archives has been a most rewarding experience.

Writing Ray Bradbury Unbound also let me witness, through his correspondence, his many television and magazine interviews, and his surviving lectures, his growing status as a major spokesman (and inspiration) for the Space Age. And behind the various accounts of his hopes and fears, his achievements and occasional disappointments, was something that I had not seen before—a subtle but growing sense of urgency, a sense of time and opportunity slipping away more quickly with every passing year. Perhaps it resulted from the childhood terrors that were never far beneath the surface of his mature mind; even at fifty, where Ray Bradbury Unbound concludes, he was still just as susceptible to the power of suggestion as he had been at the age of twelve. Or maybe this sense of accelerating time was prompted by his ever-widening range of success across so many fields of writing and media adaptation, and by the fact that he had already created a lifetime’s worth of work. Or maybe, as he became unbound from the normal strictures of a genre writer and became one of America’s best-known authors, he simply began to feel what Robert Penn Warren once described as the awful responsibilities of time.

 

About the Author:

Jonathan R. Eller is a Chancellor’s Professor of English and director of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI). He co-authored (with William F. Touponce) Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction (2004) and prepared and prefaced 100 pages of historical material for Simon & Schuster’s sixtieth anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451 (2013). He is the author of Becoming Ray Bradbury (2011) and Ray Bradbury Unbound (2014), biographical studies of Bradbury’s early and middle career. He also edits The Collected Stories of Ray Bradbury, a multi-volume series that recovers the original versions of Bradbury’s earliest tales. Eller’s books have twice been Locus award nominees for best nonfiction title in the science fiction and fantasy field.

3 thoughts on “Jonathan R. Eller Guest Post–“Ray Bradbury Unbound”

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