Thursday, June 7, 2012

Ray Bradbury: a Great Writer, a Gracious Man

Ray Bradbury died Tuesday, and I am still trying to come to terms with it.

I know it sounds crazy: it's not like we were friends, right? But we were.

First of all, I am convinced he wrote for me. I was a voracious reader from an early age, and I knew Mr. Bradbury's books were meant for me. He was a space guy, which wasn't exactly my cuppa, but I trusted him — and where he took me was worth the price of admission.

Second of all, his vision was great. His scope was vast, his ideas were expansive — and yet, his stories were personal. Stuff didn't just happen, but happened to someone not unlike me. Okay, so the likelihood I would go to Mars as a child was unlikely, but it's what happened there that was personal. A Sound of Thunder resonated with me for decades after I read it, and I purchased a complete set of his short stories just so I could have it. I am a fan of time travel, and his single image of a butterfly made me ponder the responsibilities and dangers my entire life.

Finally, he was a generous man even to a young, wet-behind-the-ears feature writer.

When I was a cub reporter, I wrote about one of the best bookstores on the planet: the now-defunct Acres of Books in downtown Long Beach, California. My friend Vicky was claustrophobic when we walked in, shelves towering above us, sometimes touching low ceilings, sometimes just rising as far as physics would allow. Shoppers turned sideways when walking through the stacks, and if you passed someone in the aisle, you became very, very close friends. (I think in some countries, people would have become engaged after that contact.)

And yet I was in that bookstore every chance I got. I picked up old, brown-edged copies of paperback novels for a dime for my literature classes. (Wuthering Heights finally met its demise thirty years after I purchased it, page by page, on a Delaware beach.) I wanted to be a literature major, but my dad convinced me I'd find a better job and make better money as a journalist. I graduated one class short of a double-major, my bookshelves stocked with classic novels and classic feminist literature, all from Acres of Books.

At my first reporting job, I was able to write a weekend magazine on anything I wanted. The pay was abysmal, but I was able to write about teddy bears, Cats the musical, Chinese New Year — and Acres of Books. I had read that Mr. Bradbury was a fan of Acres of Books, having been seen in the stacks often, so I figured I'd give it a shot and see if he'd talk with me. I was nobody at a small community newspaper, but I learned that people love and trust their newspaper. Mr. Bradbury was no different. He also respected writers and loved his bookstore, and I got an interview.

I spent an hour chatting with him. I relied on a recording device attached to my phone's headset to capture the majority of the interview. However, I am a note-taker, not a doodler, so my notes still were pretty detailed. And yet — I was completely immersed in our conversation. He was gracious and generous, witty and anecdotal. He thanked me for talking with him. He. Thanked. Me.

I grew up in Los Angeles. "Stars" were a dime a dozen: movie actors, singers, people on the big screen and stage. I was in the media and took full advantage of the entertainment industry's Los Angeles offerings. I sat behind John Cusack at a movie premiere. (Yes, he was as cute as I thought he would be.) I met the Judds. I shared birthday cake with Waylon Jennings. (I don't think he ate any, but Vicky took a piece of Waylon Jenning's birthday cake home to her mom.) I interviewed Big Names. It was fun.

However, the people who left me feeling like a giddy schoolgirl were writers. In my poetry writing program, I had to try to get over that, but I never really did; I just got better at functioning while star-struck. These people wrote. I know it's hard and fun and amazing and addicting.

And Ray Bradbury thanked me for talking with him.

Some day, if I'm in the same position, I hope I have the grace and humility to know what that means to a cub reporter. I hope I can be as enthusiastic about my subject, suck them in with me, bathe them in the glory I feel — then thank them for coming along with me.

Mr. Bradbury will be missed, and not just by the aging reader who picks up his stories to travel back to her childhood and who chose a particular edition of A Princess of Mars because the great writer penned the introduction. He will be missed by the cub reporter who loved him then and loves him now, still, and will love him long after she has passed on that love of Ray Bradbury to her grandchildren.

Oh, and go to the library. It's what Mr. Bradbury would have wanted. I'll see you there.

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