I don’t tell anyone how to write and no one tells me.
—Ray Bradbury, The Paris Review,
The Art of Fiction No. 2031
I was ten years old when I first read Ray Bradbury.
My mother was in the UK, visiting friends, and it was decided well in advance that it would be best for me to stay with my grandparents, for a month, in the small South Texas town where they had lived since shortly after they married.
My grandmother managed to get me a temporary library card and a secondhand bike.
The bike I could ride up and down the street, but never around the block. My grandmother was strict. She had her reasons.
She drove me to and from the old brick library in her Buick twice a week, and I was not allowed to roam unguided through the strange experience of a small town library.
The town library was strict too, as it turned out.
This library still had a “restricted” section. I found that puzzling. The metropolitan library my mother and I used had no such thing. What was in a restricted section?
I asked my grandmother what books the library restricted and she didn’t give me a straight answer.
The answer I did get from my grandmother and the librarian was that children weren’t allowed around any of the adult books, not just the mysteriously restricted ones.
My grandmother had to give permission for me to use the regular adult section. It was a slow morning in the library, so the librarian followed me into the adult books and proceeded to offer suggestions.
That librarian helped me select Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Hemingway’s Old Man and The Sea —which seems pretty strange to me now, I guess.
I was ten, after all.
But, I read night and day, everywhere, and I could be a royal pain in the neck when I was bored. It was best for all concerned that I have a stack of books and my dance shoes for practicing and a bike to ride up and down the block under the canopy of the early summer pecan trees.
We got home and ate lunch. Tuna fish salad on toast, I suppose. My grandmother cooked well, but hated to cook, so she made simple, meticulous meals. There would be fine diced apple in the salad, and celery for crunch, a little fresh pecan, maybe a little yellow curry powder.
I started reading Fahrenheit 451 that afternoon in my grandparent’s formal living room, perched on the brocade cream-colored couch.
Bradbury shocked me. I had no idea you could tell a story in a way that sounded like music in your head. I didn’t know that prose could be as lyrical and as measured as poetry.
When my grandparents turned on the evening news, I hightailed it for the fold-out couch in the guest bedroom.
I kept reading.
I sprawled sideways on the sagging cushions of the couch in my grandparents’ guest bedroom and the house and the town and the evening news fell away.
Bradbury’s story of the Fireman and the dilemma of his ethics and his newfound love of art, played out in the prettiest, crispest language I had ever heard.
It was a song, my friends. Bradbury had written a piece of music that was also a book.
I had no idea this could be done.
Yet, Bradbury had done it.
I went back to the library with my grandmother three days later with my little stack of books. “I liked this one,” I said, pointing to the hardback of Fahrenheit 451 on the counter. “Are there more? Please?”
Once again, I was escorted to the non-restricted adult section of the library, and this short woman in sturdy shoes and an iron-pressed skirt reached up and pulled down The Martian Chronicles. My mouth opened in a little “o” as I examined the cover. She saw this expression, I guess, because she pulled down The Illustrated Man, too.
That night I read The Martian Chronicles until midnight, with the bedside light on and the blinds tipped shut. In those days, I slept in a long flannelette nightgown, one of the old fashioned kind with the flounce at the bottom and the twee floral print that faded in the wash 20 years before I was born. My hair was tied back with a ribbon that once tied back my grandmother’s hair as a child.
Curled up in the dark of night in my flannelette nightgown, I learned another new idea about writing from Bradbury.
In addition to the musicality of his language, Bradbury was not afraid, at all, to interweave stories and ideas that did not bear a direct relationship to one another.
The Martian Chronicles is often called a novel, but it’s not a novel, really. And it’s otherwise called an interlinked set of short stories, or a “fix-up,” which is a word I learned today that basically means that stories published elsewhere are rewritten in a way to tie them together as a whole.
I don’t think The Martian Chronicles is a novel, or a collection of short stories, or a “fix-up”.
None of those things sounds right.
And with Bradbury, the sound of an idea is the sense of the idea.
For instance, The Martian Chronicles is poetic and full of dream logic.
If The Martian Chronicles is a novel, it is what a novel dreams when it is asleep.
If it is a collection of interlinked stories, they are the stories that belong to night and bonfires and a drape of bright stars.
I finished Bradbury’s beautiful book, then fell asleep as the central air conditioner droned on and on. I dreamed of fire-phials and Mars and dead seas and books that sang as you read them.
The next morning, I got up late. My grandfather was reading in his recliner. My grandmother was out at one of her volunteer jobs. I had The Martian Chronicles in my hand. He closed his paper.
“We-eell, look who’s up!”
I was still in my old long flannelette nightgown. My feet were bare on the carpet. In the night, my hair ribbon twisted sideways around my head.
“Grandpa, you need to read this,” I said.
I held the book out. His scarred, callused fingers looked just right against the cover of the book. I stood in front of his chair and waited for his reaction.
He opened the first pages using his index finger and his thumb.
He looked up at me through his thick glasses. He nodded.
“Rocket summer,” he said. “I’ll take a look at this.”
He began to read. I went into the kitchen and found my breakfast covered in tin foil. I pulled off the foil to cold eggs and toast.
I looked at my grandfather reading The Martian Chronicles through the window cut-out of the banquette.
A book that sings.
A book that dreams itself.
Rest In Peace, Ray Bradbury.
Top photo: Publicity image of Ray Bradbury when he wrote for The Twilight Zone.
Bottom photo: I couldn’t find a legit copy of “The Martian Chronicles.” That’s me, last night, holding one of my copies of my favorite Ray Bradbury book.