By JOSEPH TINTLE
During the summer of 1997, I heard that the late great fantasy writer Ray Bradbury was going to speak during a writing conference at the College of New Jersey. Bradbury had been among my favorite writers and to get the chance to hear him and speak with him was an opportunity I wasn’t going to miss.
I asked my older son, Kieran, to accompany me. Kieran was nine at the time, but he knew Bradbury and he agreed to tag along.
As we sank into our auditorium seats out stepped the great man himself and for 90 minutes he spoke about his life, writing, the future of mankind, the creative process, and assorted anecdotes that kept everyone in stitches. Amazingly my son did not fall asleep.
Bradbury spoke about being able to remember his birth, still cultivating his inner child, his mentors, his self-education, the effect Mr. Electrico had on his life, how his short story “The Pedestrian” came about after a police officer stopped him and a friend who were out walking one night and asked what they were doing. Bradbury, a bit of a wise ass, said, “Putting one foot in front of the other.” That led to a minor verbal scrap but nothing more. However, an incensed Bradbury went home and wrote a story about a night walker named Leonard Mead in the year 2130. By story’s end Mead was picked up by an empty police car with a metallic voice and driven to the Asylum for Regressive Tendencies, never to be heard of again.
By far Bradbury’s greatest story that night was when he was invited to a college class in California titled Ray Bradbury 101. Not long into the class the professor was telling students what Bradbury was thinking when he wrote certain short stories. Now writers — even Bradbury — don’t care if you speculate about the meaning of what they write, but don’t tell them — and especially Bradbury — what they were thinking. After all, that is impossible.
Bradbury recalled that he just sat and stewed. Then the students chirped about what he was thinking of during the writing of Fahrenheit 451 and that moved Bradbury to action. He rose and asked what in the hell kind of class this was that they could sit around and pontificate on his writings in such a manner.
Suddenly the students were defending the professor and shouting down Bradbury.
So Bradbury waved his beefy hand at the class and the professor, and shouted, “Well, you can all fuck yourselves.” Then he stomped out.
The crowd at the College of New Jersey loved the story and Bradbury won them over even more when he announced that he would sign books and give autographs after the lecture. “And you don’t have to purchase one of my books, either,” he added.
Fortunately, I had brought a hard copy edition of Something Wicked This Way Comes. I figured the line would be long and circuitous, so Kieran and I quickly dashed up the side steps to be among the first to meet the author.
He was most friendly and asked my son if he liked to read. Kieran said he did and Bradbury gave him great advice, advice I give my students every day: “Read, read, read. Read everything. Of course, read books, read magazines, newspapers, soup cans, directions on boxes, even graffiti. Just keep your eyes moving, kid.” Bradbury was about to say something else when a lady 15 or 20 feet back back yelled out, “Hey, let’s get this line moving.”
Bradbury raised his aging frame and looked her in the eye.
“Hey, lady, I’m Ray Bradbury and I’ll tell you when the line is going to move.”
There was silence for just a moment then a smattering of applause soon turned to cheers. Bradbury, ever the individualist, had put the loudmouth in her place.
“Guess I lost a fan there,” he joked quietly.