He is 81 now and, slowed by a stroke, sometimes uses a wheelchair to navigate the nooks and crannies of Los Angeles, the adopted hometown Ray Bradbury fell in love with on the day actress Jean Harlow gave him a kiss.
But put him behind a typewriter and the grand old man of science-fiction still pumps out the pages without missing a beat.
He has a new novel in bookstores, "From the Dust Returned," and jokes that it only took him 55 years to complete. A volume of poetry, "They Have Not Seen the Stars," is recently released. And he's writing "Falling Upward," a play based on the time he spent in Ireland in the mid-1950s writing the screenplay for the movie version of "Moby-Dick."
"Then I'm doing a new version of 'The Illustrated Man' for Columbia-Tristar and a film version of my story, 'Sound of Thunder,' that will be filmed by Pierce Brosnan," says Bradbury, sounding as bright and sunny as the weather on this 80-degree fall day.
Having labored in relative obscurity in recent years, the author of more than 30 books was recently declared the hottest writer in Hollywood by Salon magazine and awarded the National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American
And, to top it all off, there are plans for a second movie version of his classic science-fiction novel, "Fahrenheit 451," with Frank Darabont ("The Shawshank Redemption") directing.
"I've lived long enough! I've stuck around and waited," the white-haired, bespectacled author declares jovially in a stentorian voice as he explains his current run of good luck.
"A lot of this is due to the fact that my books have moved into our school system. Starting about 25-30 years ago, the children brought my books into the schools and to the teachers - a very unusual situation in education.
"So now you've got a whole new generation ... who read me in school 20-30 years ago. It's only natural they'd pay attention to me now that they're older."
Many of Bradbury's books seem at first glance tailor-made for readers on the cusp of puberty. What 14-year-old, fresh, from "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" or "Huckleberry Finn," can resist "Something Wicked This Way Comes," with its affectionate remembrances of touring summer tent shows and their mysterious, scary carnival barkers?
But a closer reading will show that "Something Wicked" is not really a sci-fi book about a spooky old carnival run by people who never die. It's a metaphor for a universal human fear - not the fear of dying, but of growing old and being forgotten. Or, in the case of children, never growing old enough to be taken seriously.
"It seems to me that he possesses a remarkable gift of facing what is dark in the human spirit and at the same time never really losing faith that individual small people can struggle through to some kind of affirmation," says Katherine Hayles, a professor of the University of California at Los Angeles who specializes in the study of science fiction.
"There ar always people in his books who are willing to fight against the forces of evil and try to do the right thing. I think 'Fahrenheit 451' is an example."
Bradbury's masterpiece portrays an ugly, futuristic society where firefighters burn homes to keep people from reading the books inside. One firefighter, though, can't resist picking up a book, reading it and then standing up against the evil of which he was once a part.
Named for the flash point of paper, "Fahrenheit 451" has been credited with inspiring everything from the invention of Walkman radios and CD players (they were called seashell radios in the book) to foreseeing such an infatuation with television that it would lead to wall-sized, stereophonic sets and a society that would drop whatever it was doing to watch another police chase on them.
He wrote the book in nine days in 1950. Bradbury, who couldn't afford a private office and never learned to drive, would walk, roller-skate or bicycle from his home to the UCLA library. There, he would pound out his manuscript on typewriters that rented for 10 cents a half-hour, calculating that he invested 98 dimes in the process.
"But that was very unusual," he now laughs, adding that no other book came to him that easily. "From the Dust Returned," he insists, took more than a half-century.
"Some years I wrote one chapter, other years I wrote five," he recalls. "I'm not in control of my muse. My muse does all the work."
Set on Halloween in an old gothic house on the edge of a small midwestern town, "From the Dust" brings together a friendly, if eccentric, family of old ghosts and the young mortal boy who befriends them. It was drawn in part from his experiences in Waukegan, Ill., where he lived until the Depression drove his family to Los Angeles in search of work.
"I had a wonderful Aunt Neva who raised me far more than my family, you might say. And she loved Halloween. So every Halloween we went out into the country and bought pumpkins and corn shafts and did my parents' house over, and it became a Halloween gothic house. And then she made me up as a witch and hid me in the attic, where I was supposed to scare people."
But if "From the Dust" and other novels evoke pleasant memories of early life in the Midwest, their creator was no less quick to embrace Los Angeles.
"I hung around the studios and had my picture taken with Marlene Dietrich, which was really something for a 14-year-old," he recalls fondly. "And I got a kiss on the cheek from Jean Harlow. It's still burning there, all these years later."
He was still hanging around those studios a few years later when he met Forrest J. Ackerman, bit-part actor, sometime literary agent and founder of "Famous Monsters of Filmland" magazine.
A patron to any number of young, local science-fiction writers, Ackerman is credited with coining the term "Sci-Fi." He edited some of Bradbury's early stories and bankrolled one of his first publishing efforts, the small fantasy mgazine "Futuria Fantasia." The two remain fast friends, and Bradbury says he helped launch his career, though Ackerman insists the writer needed little help.
"I saw an incredibly enthusiastic youngster who would go around to the radio stations, talk his way in and when the actors were about to go on the air live, hand them four or five jokes he'd written and, if they used any of them, try to get them to pay him," Ackerman, now 85, recalls.
But despite his acclaim as a science-fiction writer, Bradbury shuns the title.
"I write fantasy," he says. "I've only written one science-fiction book, 'Fahrenheit 451.' That book is a book based on real facts and my hatred of people who destroy books. But all my other work is fantastic. It doesn't exist."
Even "The Martian Chronicles," he notes, takes place on a planet with people and an atmosphere similar to Earth's.
It also contains the requisite Bradbury metaphors, including those examining persecution and racism. Among the people who migrate to Mars are blacks from the South, their mass exodus confounding their white employers, who can't understand why they weren't satisfied with being given the right to vote.
Such broad themes, Hayles says, place Bradbury's work closer to mainstream literature than science fiction.
"Stylistically, he's a classic writer," the UCLA professor says. "He goes for the realistic narrative. No matter how fantastic the events get, the narration itself is usually pretty straight forward."
The result, she believes, is that his best work will live on long after his passing.
Not that the author is in any hurry to go. He still spends part of each day writing in the basement of the home in which he's lived for decades, in a quiet middle-class neighborhood of rolling hills a couple miles from the Pacific Ocean.
He's lived long enough to see such things as interactive computers, giant TVs and even a limited version of the space travel he envisioned.
But he wants seedy Hollywood restored to its glory days, when a wide-eyed adolescent hanging out in search of movie stars could actually be kissed by one.
And he has high hopes that public education will be turned around over the next few years, adding that after a time in which society spurned reading in favor of what he views as wasted time with video games, the public is getting back on track.
"We've got to do the job from the inside," he says, proposing that everyone be taught to read beginning in kindergarten.
"If we don't," he adds, "we're just going to raise another generation of morons. And we can't afford that, can we?"
By John Rogers
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