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Rich Schneider

Last modified: Monday, August 29, 2011

IUPUI professor brings unique expertise to bear in book on Ray Bradbury

Aug. 29, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS -- A new book, Becoming Ray Bradbury, offers a unique look into the mind of an iconic writer who has been called America's "prose poet for the space age."

"It's sort of a biography of his mind," said Jonathan R. Eller, author of the book and co-founder of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies, senior textual editor of the Institute for American Thought and a professor of English in the School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI. "I always wanted to write about how he learned, how he read and how he became a writer."

The official release date for Becoming Ray Bradbury (University of Illinois Press) is Sept. 5, 2011.

The book ends when Bradbury is 33 years old, traveling to Europe with his family. He has accepted an offer from director John Huston to write the screen play for the Warner Brothers production of Moby Dick. At that point in his life, Bradbury was just becoming famous, having published the Martian Chronicles, in 1950, the Illustrated Man in 1951, and Fahrenheit 451 was just about to be released.

One reviewer of Becoming Ray Bradbury has already called for a sequel -- which Eller is already writing.

Eller draws upon an encyclopedic knowledge of the works of Bradbury and an unprecedented access to Bradbury's personal papers -- as well as a relationship with Bradbury that spans 22 years. Eller and Bradbury first met in 1989 while Eller was on the faculty of the Air Force Academy.

In the 1990s and especially over the last decade, Eller was able to work with Bradbury and edit some limited editions of Bradbury's classic works. Since 2004, when he began work on Becoming Ray Bradbury, he has spent a week or two each year interviewing Bradbury.

One influence on Bradbury that stands out, Eller said, came from a small group of science fiction writers who lived for the most part in Los Angeles and were Bradbury's mentors. These were writers of that "golden age" of science fiction writing in the late 1930s and the war years, including Leigh Brackett, her husband-to-be Edmond Hamilton, and Henry Kuttner.

"These were the people who showed Ray that he needed to break away from forumula writing and write from his own experience. If he was best at writing about childhood fears and the ambitions and passions that translate into adulthood, then that's what he should write. And Bradbury did," Eller said.

"Bradbury wrote about young people who go to outer space and that became his brand of science fiction. And he wrote about scary things that children encounter in the dark at the top of the stairs. Once he learned how to do that -- with the encouragement of these writers -- he became Ray Bradbury."

Other Bradbury experiences and beliefs also found their way into his writing, Eller said, among them:

  • Bradbury is a mix of conservative and liberal. He detests totalitarian dictatorships of the left or the right. He would write about burning and censorship, even as he became more concerned that popular culture and the media were beginning to dilute creativity and take attention away from the great works of literature and issues that needed to be discussed in a public forum. Bradbury saw the beginning of that and wrote about it in Fahrenheit 451. He wrote several stories about the danager of censorship as cautionary tales about what might happen in the future.
  • Bradbury was a courageous writer when it came to racial issues. Some of his stories are about equality and the tyranny of racism and how evil it is. He was one writer who was not afraid to talk about the injustice of racism in America.
  • Bradbury hated intolerance of any kind. As a child he watched his father desperately search for work during the Great Depression, traveling twice from Illinois to Arizona with his family in a 1926 Buick before finally settling in Los Angeles. His family lived happily, but close to poverty. He was intolerant of anyone who wasn't fair to the common man.

Unlike other great American authors of the 20th century whose works have faded from the literary scene, Bradbury's works are still relevant and prevalent today, largely because his writing is so easily transferred to various kinds of media adaptations such as graphic novels, graphic comics, stage drama, film and televison, according to Eller.

"There are nearly 2,000 anthologies, including textbooks, that have Ray Bradbury stories in them," Eller said. "In any given year, kids are still reading Ray Bradbury stories, so he is still with us for the 21st century."

That's only appropriate, Eller said, for an author who had an innate ability to write poetic prose in a way that combined with a unique and unusual metaphorical style and an incredible storytelling ability.