Listen to the Echoes

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RETURN TO THE CITY OF ANGELS

By Sam Weller at 8:08am ET

I spent my early and formative years living in Los Angeles. I moved back again when I was 23 for a time, but soon left after my mom was diagnosed with cancer.

And then, on a fateful day in 2000, I flew to LA to interview Ray Bradbury for a Chicago Tribune Magazine story. Now, 15 years later, with four Bradbury-related books and a recent Bradbury-inspired comic book series under the proverbial belt, the journey only continues. A “biographer” is a life appointment.

After Ray died on June 5, 2012, I haven’t had many reasons to return to Los Angeles. I flew back for his funeral. I returned again for the wonderful street naming of Ray Bradbury Square outside of his beloved Central Library. I went back last summer simply to visit his grave.

This last week I returned to the City of Angels for two events that would have thrilled Ray. First, I spoke to a capacity lunchtime crowd at the Los Angeles Central Library where Ray went three-nights-a-week for a decade after high school to self-educate himself. He loved this library—passionately. He effectively earned a liberal arts degree here. Along with the old Carnegie Library in Waukegan, Illinois, where he first fell in love with reading, Central Library was central to Ray Bradbury’s soul. To speak here was both a privilege and honor.

That evening, I drove down to Palos Verdes to speak to the Southwest Manuscripters, a SoCal writers group founded in 1949. Ray spoke before this group that first year, and every year thereafter. It was a writer’s community close to his heart, and for this reason I went to channel a bit of Bradbury. In his later years, Ray knew I could go to events as his emissary, to deliver his message, to inspire with his words and wisdom.

The Manuscripters are an eccentric bunch—an aging lot of characters dedicated to supporting their creative community. It was a terrific evening and Ray was with us in spirit.

But perhaps most important, while I was in LA, I went to visit Ray’s house of 54 years. I also went to his graveside for a chat and a damned good and long overdue cry.

The house. What can be said? At this point most people, at least in Bradbury circles, are aware that is was bought and razed in a hurry by architect Thom Mayne. Most surprising to me was that, while it was torn down in a shock-and-awe barrage of bulldozers, the old lot at 10265 Cheviot Drive now sits empty and vacant with nary a brick laid. All that remains now of the incredible old Bradbury residence is a leveled moonscape of dirt.

I was surprised to find fragments of the old dandelion yellow stucco still embedded in the soil, amidst the weeds and the broken glass. It was bewildering to stand where I had once spent so much time with Ray. The storied basement where books like Something Wicked This Way Comes had been written was now gone and filled with soil. Maggie Bradbury’s rose garden was but a memory. The den where Ray sat and talked with visitors was gone, along with all the other rooms. I instinctively wanted to bound the front flagstone steps and ring the doorbell and hear that booming voice one last time. But there was simply nothing left. The house is now completely gone.

After saying goodbye for the last time to the lot at 10265 Cheviot Drive, I ventured up to Westwood Memorial Cemetery and visited Ray and Maggie’s graves. It was so good to kneel there and reconnect with them in my mind. I told Ray about my next book projects—a Bradburyesque novel and a short story collection—and asked for his strength to help me complete them. While he was still alive, he commanded me to write these books and I was proud to tell him of my progress. It was a beautiful day and a tearful visit.

Life moves on. The house is gone. Ray and Maggie are gone. But I am always buoyed by the fact that at any time I wish to hear Ray’s voice I need go no further than my bookshelf. His words really do live forever.

My visit to Los Angeles was good and necessary. It provided some needed closure. It also reminded me just how good the city has been to me over the years. Before I left, I went up to Griffith Park and looked down at the city below. It was all right there sprawling and vibrant before me, stretching on and on and disappearing into the ubiquitous haze to the east and the marine layer to the west.

As I stood there, the eucalyptus trees swaying in the cool breeze, it struck me. I needed to thank this beautiful city for all she has given me over the years. She truly lives up to her name.

So thank you, Los Angeles. Thank you.

THE HOUSE PART IV

By Sam Weller at 6:22pm ET

As I began this blog series about Ray Bradbury’s longtime residence, I suspected the worst may happen, and, indeed, it has. The Bradbury home at 10265 Cheviot Drive in Los Angeles sold last June for $1.76 million. Apparently, in today’s market, that’s a just a modest sum for a tear-down. Demolition on the Bradbury home has already started. In a matter of days, the house will be but a ghost. I thought I would celebrate the beautiful dandelion-yellow house on Cheviot Drive with a gorgeous photo taken of the built-in bookcases in the living room. This photograph was taken by Zen Sekizawa as part of the still-life photographs I envisioned when I was putting together Listen to the Echoes. I’m now more grateful than ever that we documented the house and Ray’s possessions.

A brief anecdote about the photograph here, as the giant framed portrait of Bradbury deserves some explaining. The framed photo within the photo is a picture of Ray on the set of the film Something Wicked This Way Comes. He’s holding the screeplay for the motion picture, which he authored. Ray was given this picture as a gift, but Maggie thought its size was absurd, so Ray took it out to his second home in Palm Springs. One day in 2006, I discovered the picture in his garage and brought it in. He laughed and said Maggie hated it and we should bring it back to the house in LA as a gift for her. We loaded that giant picture in the back of my rental car and delivered it to Maggie. She rolled her eyes and said, “I thought I had rid myself of that terrible thing. Thanks a lot!” She had a wonderful sense of humor. I placed the picture in the living room and it stayed there for many years thereafter.

THE HOUSE (PART III)

By Sam Weller at 8:34pm ET

Here’s a fuzzy cell phone shot of the Bradbury living room looking west toward the front entryway and, beyond it, the dining room. Worth noting: On the wall to the right is the painting Modern Gothic by Los Angeles artist Joseph Mugnaini. Mugnaini was, of course, Ray Bradbury’s longtime illustrator and cover artist. Along with the iconic cover of Fahrenheit 451, Muganini created the cover for The Golden Apples of the Sun, as well as the story illustrations inside the book. He also provided cover art and story illustrations in The October CountryThe Halloween Tree, and other works.

Bradbury first encountered Mugnaini’s work in April 1952 while strolling through Beverly Hills with his wife Maggie. They happened by an art gallery window and there, Ray found an artistic kindred spirit. “It was a spooky moment when I saw that Joe’s mind and my mind met somewhere out in space,” Bradbury said in my book, The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury.

They went into the gallery and Bradbury was magnetized. He first spotted the work Modern Gothic, a rendering of a gothic house. It was the kind of domicile Bradbury’s vampire family from his story “The Homecoming” might live in. But the house had a modern urban twist: outside was a shadowy, cloaked figure standing near a graffiti-covered billboard. Bradbury wanted to purchase a few of Mugnaini’s pieces, but realized he couldn’t afford them. So he contacted the artist and they started a friendship. Along the way, Bradbury paid for the pieces in installments. One of them was the 23” by 36.5” oil painting Modern Gothic. From this art gallery encounter, Ray Bradbury met his longtime artistic collaborator.

PHOTO I

PHOTO II

A photo of Ray Bradbury in 1956 taken by film historian and critic Arthur Knight. Bradbury is standing beside Modern Gothic. This photo was not taken in Bradbury’s Cheviot Drive home; it was taken two years before the family moved in. This photograph shows Bradbury in his first home, at 10750 Clarkson Road.

PHOTO III

Here I am standing next to the famed Modern Gothic, in 2003.

PHOTO IV

Modern Gothic by Joseph Mugnaini.

PHOTO V

Next to Mugnaini’s Modern Gothic is a stunning original 41″ x 31″ oil painting on board by Disney artist Eyvind Earle of the golden California hills.


The House (Part II)

By Sam Weller at 10:29am ET

One of the reasons I wanted to run an ongoing series on the longtime home of Ray Bradbury was to document the house as it was, while he lived in it. Bradbury was a collector and had deep connections to his personal belongings because they represented memories. The house on Cheviot Drive tells us much about its famous inhabitant. And with the house now sold and its future uncertain, this domestic documentation is more important than ever.

Photo 1

An angle of the Bradbury living room, looking east. This photo was taken the morning of June 28, 2010. In the foreground are copies of the limited edition of LISTEN TO THE ECHOES; in the background is a limited, signed print, “Beyond the Valley,” by Disney famed background artist Eyvind Earle. Bradbury kept oversized stuffed animals on the two sofas in the room.

Photo 2

“Beyond the Valley,” number 60/150 signed by Eyvind Earle

The House (Part I)

By Sam Weller at 11:55am ET

Photo I

Ray Bradbury in his living room. Several of the shelves over his left shoulder contain first and foreign editions of his own books. The frame with the white matte contains an original acetate animation cel from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, given to Ray by Walt Disney himself. Note the award on his left shoulder, given to him in 1993 for his television series, The Ray Bradbury Theater.

Photo II

1993 WFA Award for the Ray Bradbury Theater episode “The Great Wide World Over There.” Season 6, Episode 14.

Photo III

Close-up on award

THE HOUSE ON CHEVIOT DRIVE

By Sam Weller at 6:00pm ET

I often wonder if the badminton birdie is still in the rain gutter?

Ray Bradbury loved to tell the story: When he was a young father, his children often gathered on the small rectangle of Bermuda grass in the backyard. It was soft and loamy and, in the late afternoon, the house and the yard and the roses and all the bougainvilleas in the flower garden were bathed in the glow of late-afternoon Los Angeles sun. The Bradbury family played badminton at dusk. And one of the daughters launched the shuttlecock up, up into the evening air, and it arced back down, landing softly in the rain gutter along the side of the Bradbury house. They carried on, the game continued, a new birdie was put into play.

Years later, with the girls now grown, Dad was up on a ladder cleaning the downspouts and he found the small birdie. He held it in his hand. He smiled and remembered that twilight of so long ago. He squeezed the birdie and then placed it back in the rain gutter—back in its nest of time and memory.

I wonder now if it’s still there? Ray is now gone, of course. The girls have all grown and aged and moved away. And the house, once so alive with young laughter and brilliant ideas and energy, now sits empty and dark on that West Los Angeles street. It was put on the market this past summer and sold rather quickly. While I worked with Ray Bradbury over the course of 12 years, I saw other classic homes in his neighborhood go on the market, sell, and then razed to make room for oversized, lot-line-to-lot-line domiciles of wealth. I hope the dandelion-yellow house at 10265 Cheviot isn’t razed. It deserves better than that. This is where Ray Bradbury wrote. This is where he created many short stories, plays, essays, screenplays and novels, including a portion of Something Wicked This Way Comes, which was written in the basement office. And what an office that was! I’ll never forget the first time I ventured down, coming to the realization that this was a laboratory of imagination. The space was dusty and disorderly, filled with papers and books and old magazines and boxes and boxes of letters and files. A row of metal file cabinets stood marked, “Novels in Progress,” “Short Stories in Progress…” The first time I set my eyes on these old cabinets, I wondered, Just how much unpublished Bradbury was there?

Quite a bit, as it turned out.

His father’s old Stetson hat hung from a heavy timber overhead. Fan-made artwork was everywhere. And atop the old office desk was his IBM Selectric, long dormant since his stroke in 1999, but somehow yearning to come to life to tell yet another story. I wonder where that typewriter is now? And if it was turned on and left in alone in a dark room, perhaps, perhaps, the mechanized sound might be heard yet again? Maybe the old machine had another great story to magically produce.

I spent hours and hours and days and nights in that house. I cared for Ray. I laughed with Ray. I laughed with his wife Maggie. We carved pumpkins one Halloween, and answered the door to trick-or-treaters. We talked for hundreds of hours and drank wine and dined. I pored through his closets and files. When Ray couldn’t find something, he’d laugh and say, “Oh, it must be Somewhere.” “Somewhere” became the name of his basement from that point forward, the catch-all of his life and memories.

I love that house. I have always had an intense connection to places. Locations are where memories occur. And that house has a whole lot of memories. It makes me sad to think that one day soon, that old beautiful home so full of memories may no longer stand. And this got me to thinking. In tribute to the grand old house on Cheviot Drive, I should run a series of blog posts—an ongoing photo essay—showing the home and its various rooms and objects and mementos. In the coming days, I will do just that. I will post photos from my private files, along with other pictures of the dandelion-yellow home that I’ve been given or have discovered. The house may not stand forever, but the memories, and the photographs presented here, certainly will.

THE LAST INTERVIEW

By Sam Weller at 2:50pm ET

I’m excited to report that my book, Ray Bradbury: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, will be published by Melville House on December 2. This will be part of the great “Last Interview” series that also includes Kurt Vonnegut, David Foster Wallace, Hannah Arendt, and more. I’m happy to see Bradbury included with this great crowd of thinkers and writers.

All of the conversations in this new book occurred after Listen to the Echoes was published. Ray Bradbury was in the final chapter of his life. He was elderly and frail, but still impassioned, opinionated, and full of ideas and hope. The interviews capture Ray, as he would say, very late in time.

Things are subject to change, but at this point the book includes two conversations I had with Ray in front of live audiences; three essays he dictated to me; and what is truly the “Last Interview,” recorded in part on April 11 and 12, less than two months before he passed. In this conversation, Ray reflects on his life, career and his mortality.

The Essential Bradbury #16: “The Sound of Summer Running”

By Sam Weller at 9:03pm ET

(Original story illustration for “Summer in the Air” by Amos Sewell from The Saturday Evening Post, Feb, 18, 1956)

“The Sound of Summer Running”

Where to Find It: Dandelion Wine, The Stories of Ray Bradbury

First Published As: “Summer in the Air,” The Saturday Evening Post, February 18, 1956

Plot Synopsis: At the beginning of summer 1928, Douglas Spaulding sees a pair of brand-new tennis shoes in a storefront window. His shoes are worn out, his feet feel heavy, and he is convinced that this resplendent pair of Cream-Sponge Para Litefoot Shoes will change his summer forever.

Backstory: Bradbury on the origins of the story from Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews:

“I was on a bus going into Westwood a few years ago, and a young boy jumped on the bus, threw his money in the box, raced down the aisle, and threw himself into a seat across from me.  And I looked at him, and I said, ‘My god, if I had his energy, I could write a poem every day, a story every week, a novel every month.  What’s his secret?’  I looked down at his feet.  He had the brightest pair of new fresh tennis shoes on his feet.  And I said, oh, my god, I can remember when I was a kid, my father taking me downtown and buying me my first pair of new summer tennis shoes.  I went home, and I wrote the short story.”

Critique: This story is a shining example of Bradbury’s range as a literary writer. He did not need an otherworldly landscape or elements of the fantastic to meditate on the human experience. Bradbury found magic in the everyday—in this case, a new pair of tennis shoes and the perspective of youth. The best Bradbury, in my opinion, is rooted in unforgettable story with a philosophical question at its center, all told in his singular, poetic style.

Excerpt:

Somehow the people who made tennis shoes knew what boys needed and wanted. They put marshmallows and coiled springs in the soles and they wove the rest out of grasses bleached and fired in the wilderness. Somewhere deep in the soft loam of the shoes the thin hard sinews of the buck deer were hidden. The people that made the shoes must have watched a lot of winds blow the trees and a lot of rivers going down to the lakes. Whatever it was, it was in the shoes, and it was summer.

Roadside Cross

By Sam Weller at 9:31am ET

My new short story, “Roadside Cross,” will be published by Amazon.com’s new digital publishing imprint, Story Front, and will be released on March 12. The story is currently available for pre-order, and I could really use your help. The story is just 99 cents—less than a can of soda from a vending machine—and I want to make an impact. I’d love to see the Amazon sales rank skyrocket. On March 12, can you do me a huge favor and order the story? It will take only a few minutes. The story is available for Kindles and iPads. “Roadside Cross” is steeped in the tradition of Ray Bradbury’s classic collection, The October Country. It’s a modern, Midwest gothic tale of mystery and melancholy that poses the question, Do ghosts mourn the dead? I’m excited about the story and truly appreciate your support!

The Essential Bradbury #15: “Kaleidoscope”

By Sam Weller at 9:23am ET

“Kaleidoscope”

Where to Find It: The Illustrated Man, The Stories of Ray Bradbury

First Published: Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1949

Plot Synopsis: A rocket crew experiences a catastrophic explosion onboard their ship, finding themselves cast out into space, going off in separate directions, yet still able to communicate to one another over helmet radios as they each come to terms with their inevitable fates.

Bradbury on the story: “I sat down at my typewriter and asked myself, ‘What would happen if an explosion occurred on a rocket and all the astronauts on board became castaways?’”

Critique: Bleak in its concept, Bradbury’s astronauts each have their own epiphanies regarding mortality as they drift off into the forever vastness of space. Anger, regret and acceptance are all examined amidst the chilling, absolute loneliness of outer space. Is there anything more lonely than drifting off, alone, into the vacuum of the cosmos? Bradbury’s ability to unify the quickly separating and drifting astronauts via helmet radio is a seamless and artful experiment in characters communicating in dialogue while no longer physically together. The ending of the story, with the point-of-view shift to a country road on Earth and a little boy seeing the astronaut Hollis reentering the atmosphere as a shooting star is a classic Bradbury metaphoric finale.

Anecdote: In the four years I worked on The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury, I travelled from my home in Chicago to Bradbury’s home in Los Angeles every two or three weeks. I took the first flight out on February 1, 2003. When I walked into the rental car agency, I looked up at the TV monitors. Fiery debris was streaking across a brilliant blue sky. The space shuttle Columbia had catastrophically burned up upon reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. My first thought: Kaleidoscope.

When I arrived at Ray Bradbury’s house 30 minutes later, I found Ray waiting for me. He was seated in his big oversized leather chair. The television was on and he was watching the news reports on the shuttle disaster.

“Kaleidoscope,” I said.

He had had tears in his eyes.

“By God, you’re right,” he said.

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