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Sam Weller Talks of Slipping Into Ray Bradbury’s Skin

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An Exclusive Authorlink Interview With Sam Weller
author of The Bradbury Chronicles (William Morrow, April 2005)

By Doris Booth

March 2005

 

The Bradbury Chronicles

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Ray Bradbury, the literary icon of science fiction/fantasy and other genres, said of his biographer, "It's as if somehow Sam Weller slipped into my skin and my heart and my head—it's all here."

THE BRADBURY CHRONICLES (William Morrow/HarperCollins, April 5, 2005) is the result of more than five years of research and work by Sam Weller, a college professor and journalist. Weller has produced a stunning profile of Bradbury's life, uncovering never-before published letters, documents, and photos, and providing detailed insights into Bradbury's creative genius.

Sam writes for the Chicago Tribune Magazine, and has contributed to National Public Radio's All Things Considered. He teaches fiction writing at Columbia College Chicago, and lives in that city with his wife, daughter, and two dogs.

In this exclusive Authorlink interview, Sam talks about how the project came into being, and of his deepest concerns in portraying Ray Bradbury with both accuracy and respect. The Bradbury Chronicles richly details the life of the literary giant and leaves us with deep and compelling truths of the man behind the famous words. Highly recommended to all Bradbury fans.

"I grew up, as many young men did, on the words and work of Ray Bradbury. He was my favorite childhood author."

 

—Weller

AUTHORLINK: How did you conceive the idea to write about Ray Bradbury's life?

WELLER: I grew up, as many young men did, on the words of Ray Bradbury. He was my favorite childhood author. I loved his work. In my adult years I became a career journalist and met Mr. Bradbury while working at Publishers Weekly. Knowing that Ray was a native of Illinois, I pitched the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine on a cover story about him as he was turning 80 years old. They bought the story idea, so I flew to Los Angeles to meet with him. That's how the journey began. I felt as though I were getting away with a crime—talking to somebody whose work I loved and getting paid for it. After the story was published, Ray told me, "Write more articles on me." And so, I did.

I thought it odd that no biography of this great icon appeared on bookstore shelves or in libraries. So I asked Ray why. He said he had never wanted to have his story told, since a biography signified the end of one's life. And he had so much more to do. "Let them write about me after I'm gone," he said.

"Yes, but don't you want to look over the biographer's shoulder to see what the writer is doing?" I asked. He looked at me as a perceptive man. "I want to write your book," I repeated. He giggled.

I believe he liked my brassiness and boldness. Perhaps it reminded him of himself as a young man. "Let me think about it," he said.

After a few months of more interviews and magazine articles, I gently persisted. Then one day, over lunch, he gave in. "I want you to do this," he said simply.

AUTHORLNK: How did you feel at that moment?

WELLER: Ecstatic, overwhelmed, overjoyed! I had the kind of deep appreciation of his life needed to properly tell the story. Then after the initial excitement, my anxiety kicked in. I suddenly felt the weight of a great responsibility. Ray was in his early 80s and he had lived fully. It was a gigantic story to tell. What if I failed? I had a number of anxiety-ridden nights. Then I reminded myself of Ray's own writing philosophy, "Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down." He has lived his life by that creed. So I jumped in and figured out how to build my wings as I went along.

AUTHORLINK: What was the most challenging part about writing the book?

WELLER: I had to walk the line between telling an honest, compelling narrative while at the same time knowing full well that someone had opened their life to me, and had let me see into every corner. I had to respect him as a human being, and to put his sensitivities first. That required a delicate balance between my duty to tell a good story and my duty to be a good person.

"I was surprised that a man

 

of 84 years old can have such

a high level of excitement

and passion for creativity."

—Weller

AUTHORLINK: Is this your first book?

WELLER: I wrote a quirky and off-the-beaten path travel guide as one in a series by a Canadian publisher, ECW Press. It's called, Secret Chicago. My pedigree was as a staff writer for an alternative weekly in Chicago. The travel publisher saw that I knew the city and could write well and came to me and asked me to write the Chicago book.

AUTHORLINK: What surprised you most about working with Ray Bradbury?

WELLER: I was surprised that an 84-year-old man can have such a high level of excitement and passion for creativity. One would think he would have gotten tired as he grew older. Yet, he still gets up and writes every single day. And he really appreciates every day. He is an inspiration. He made me want to stay passionate about storytelling. He absolutely amazes me.

AUTHORLINK: In one place in the book you quote Ray's wife as saying that one is burned out by age 60. Isn't that contradictory?

WELLER: Ray's wife, Marguerite, a wonderful woman, died a little more than a year ago. She felt most authors and creators tend to peak. There's a golden period in the history of every writer's career. For Ray, that universally accepted golden period of productivity was in the era of the 50s and 60s when he wrote masterpiece after masterpiece. The Martian Chronicles. The Illustrated Man. Fahrenheit 451. Dandelion Wine. Something Wicked This Way Comes. Ray's wife was saying that in her opinion most artists tend to burn out, but that Ray was actually a better writer today than yesterday, that he had learned so much about the process.

AUTHORLINK: You mean we are never too old to learn?

WELLER: Precisely. If you are innately curious and stay up on current events, you can continue learning your whole life. I was surprised one day when Ray asked my opinion of the rap star Eminem. Most 80-year-olds wouldn't know who he is! Ray is still asking and solving questions in his mind about subjects of our current times.

"This man had won the O. Henry Prize for literature, and so many other awards, not only in science fiction/fantasy; he had transcended even his own genres. It was very intimidating."

 

—Weller

AUTHORLINK: Weren't you intimidated about your writing in the presence of such a literary giant?

WELLER: Perhaps it's a sign of my own ego or confidence, but that didn't really bother me. The only time that creative insecurity reared its head was when Ray asked to see my finished manuscript on his brief stay in the hospital last August. He had never asked to see the book before.

"I'm bored," he said. "Bring me your manuscript."

Then the insecurity bell started to ring. This man had won the O. Henry Prize for literature and so many other awards. He transcended genre fiction. He altered the finest of popular culture. It was very intimidating. I handed him the 600 manuscript pages (just over 400 in book length form).

"Be gone," Ray said.

Uh oh. My Lord. This is the master I have loved since childhood. That scared me. But he was older. It's a lot of trouble for him to read. He sees out of one eye. Perhaps he won't read much, I thought. But when I entered his hospital room the next day, he had already read 100 pages. I held my breath.

"Beautiful," he finally said. "Beautiful, I love it. You've written a beautiful book."

Those words were all I needed to validate the rest of my career.

"I wrote six drafts of the proposal and sent each one to her. She would edit the work from a selling standpoint. It took two years

 

to finish."

—Weller

AUTHORLINK: How did you find a literary agent to represent you?

WELLER: My agent is Judith Ehrlich. She is my partner, my confidante, and my friend. I adore her. Her advice is uncanny. It's as if she's psychic! I happened to meet her when I was Midwest correspondent for Publisher's Weekly, and we had struck up a conversation. After I had the idea for the book and started looking for an agent, I contacted her. She was supportive and excited. She couldn't believe there was no book about Ray Bradbury. The first draft was 60 to 70 percent there. But I had to go back to the drawing board. I wrote six drafts of the proposal, and sent each one to her. She would edit the work from a selling standpoint. It took two years to finish. Meanwhile, I was flying to Los Angeles every two weeks on my own money to interview Ray with no publication deal in hand. By the sixth draft I wondered if all of this was worth it. I had feelings of destitution. Then one day, I took the final draft to her and she said "You've done it! You're ready to go."

Judith started sending the work out to publishers. She set up meetings for me with several New York editors. It was an exciting few days. A few publishers, including Ray's publisher, William Morrow, expressed interest. Ray loved his editor at Morrow, Jennifer Brehl. She showed incredible enthusiasm for the biography and for marketing the book together with Ray's titles. William Morrow made me an offer. I wanted to publish with Morrow. Dollars didn't matter so much. Judith countered. I was overjoyed when we worked out a deal in the low six figures.

AUTHORLINK: Looking back, how did you benefit from all the rewrites?

WELLER: I am glad I wrote six drafts. It gave me two extra years to research Ray and to analyze the structure of my story. The architecture of narrative is so vital. It took me another two years to write the whole book. It just so happened that the week the manuscript was due at the publisher, my wife delivered our first baby.

AUTHORLINK: Did Jennifer make many changes in the manuscript?

WELLER: I turned in one draft. Jennifer had very astute advice about the writing, and overall comments about the structure. I took a few more months to make some tight line edits. A few months later, I turned in the final draft and Jennifer called me from her home.

"Sam," she said, "I'm sitting here reading your manuscript and having a glass of wine. You've written a great book!"

"I love writing and crafting

 

words and telling

a compelling story."

—Weller

AUTHORLINK: What are your writing habits?

WELLER: Just as Ray does, I write every day. I have hard days when my brain is fried, but I love writing and crafting words and telling a compelling story. We writers all got into this because we like story telling. I am surprised by people who complain about the blood, sweat, and tears of the job. I am blessed to do this for a living, whether I'm writing for radio or newspapers, whether I'm writing essays or celebrity profiles. A good writer should always cross-pollinate.

AUTHORLINK: What quirky habits do you have?

WELLER: When I was younger, I was a nighttime writer. Now my brain works better in the morning. I love having the whole day before me. Mornings are important. If you get rolling, you feel wonderful about the rest of the day. I also love music. A lot of writers find music distracting, but it's imperative for me to have music. I'm very social, and I have to reach out. Music helps me feel less isolated—that, and my two dogs. I go for long walks with them. The walking process is vital to me. It's a ritual of working things out in the head first. I must think before I write. That way I seldom have writer's block.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on now?

WELLER: I have quite a few projects in the works. I am now teaching the only college-level course on Ray Bradbury at Columbia College Chicago. At the end of the semester, we do a phone call to Ray Bradbury while in class. The students love it. I am editing an anthology of West Coast science fiction writers for Red Hen Press, and I have a Bradbury-esque novel in progress. I hope to continue what he has done as a storyteller. I am also writing a graphic novel, and am patiently looking for a new nonfiction subject to appear. I hope it happens soon, before I run out of patience.

AUTHORLINK: What words of encouragement would you offer to those who are still struggling to become published?

WELLER: I get frustrated as a teacher when I see writers who get discouraged. The publishing process breaks their back. People tell them often that they have no chance at publication. I'm living proof that a dream can happen. There are more books published today than ever before; more magazines, opportunities aplenty—particularly with the Internet. Publishers need content! I encourage every writer to stay with it. But remember, the onus is on you to get good. Write as often as you can. Most importantly, read! Study the good writers and what they did to tell a compelling story.

Be encouraged. The opportunities are there, but it's your responsibility to work hard and get better.

—Doris Booth