After Ray Bradbury accepted the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 2000 National Book Awards, the legendary author (and Waukegan native) needed to use the men’s room. Unable to locate a lavatory in his huge New York hotel, he relieved himself in a potted palm.
The “ficus incident” is among the funny anecdotal bits included in Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews, a new book by Chicago-based writer, journalist, and Bradbury biographer Sam Weller. Last night Weller read from the interview collection at The Book Cellar (4736-38 N. Lincoln Ave.) and provided insight into an American icon.
“This is an odd book to come out and talk about,” he told the sizable crowd. “Many of you have heard me talk about Ray Bradbury for 10 years.”
Indeed, Weller has been immersed in “Bradburyworld” for some time now. Five years ago he published The Bradbury Chronicles (William Morrow), exploring the life and career of the man who authored such classics as Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles.
In preparation, he spent years talking to the sci-fi writer (who now lives in Los Angeles) and ended up using about 10 percent of their conversations in the book.
The publishers of Stop Smiling (formerly an arts and culture magazine, now an imprint of Melville House Publishing) called Weller and asked what he’d done with the remaining 90 percent of those interviews. “I told them, ‘They’re sitting three feet away from me in a file cabinet—in darkness.’” Thus, the idea for the companion book was born.
A journalist recently asked Weller if Listen to the Echoes is comprised of “leftovers warmed up in the microwave”—extra bits that didn’t fit into Chronicles. But Weller told the Book Cellar audience that these interviews are more like a time capsule of his and Bradbury’s relationship—conversations on such topics as friends, family, faith, and celebrity that effectively capture the author’s wit and wisdom. “You get his personality, his outlook on the world, his voice,” Weller said. “It’s unfiltered and undistilled.”
The result is a book that captures Bradbury’s sensitivity, humor, and childlike sense of wonder—and even a bit of his ego. “He’s a dichotomy,” Weller said. “[He has] this incredible humility and gratitude, and then other times he’s ‘going to the ficus.’”
Weller shared a few passages from the book, including one where Bradbury recalls meeting (in Waukegan at age 12) an eccentric circus performer named Mr. Electrico who knighted him with a silver sword and shouted, “Live forever!” The electrically charged encounter colored young Bradbury’s world, and two weeks later, he started writing and didn’t stop.
In another section, Bradbury explains his antidote to depression, which is simply: “Get your work done.”
During the audience Q&A, someone commented that he’d heard Bradbury’s “Get your work done” mantra before and that it had really resonated with him. He asked what the author’s work ethic is like these days, now that he’s 90 years old and dealing with various health issues. Weller said it’s becoming increasingly difficult for Bradbury to work. He has hearing problems and, because of a stroke, is unable to type. Instead, he dictates his stories and essays to an assistant over the phone. His next collection, Juggernaut, is culled from stories he wrote during his literary “golden era” of the 1950s.
Before signing copies of Listen to the Echoes at the conclusion of the event, Weller shared with the audience what he believes to be the key to Bradbury’s success and prolificacy: He has always been deeply curious.
This, too, seemed to resonate with the crowd, and if they’re like me, they walked away from the reading with an even greater curiosity in Bradbury’s fascinating life and work.