Saturday, November 02, 2013

Searching for Ray Bradbury

Earlier this year Blüroof Press released Searching for Ray Bradbury: Writings about the Writer and the Man by Steven Paul Leiva, a collection of essays written during Bradbury's final years and since his death in 2012. Novelist Leiva was central to several tributes to Bradbury in Los Angeles, and it is thanks to his efforts that the city officially celebrated Bradbury's ninetieth birthday with Ray Bradbury Week in 2010, named Ray Bradbury Square next to the Los Angeles Public Library, and recently dedicated the Palms-Rancho Branch Library in Bradbury's name.

Searching for Ray Bradbury reads as a personal journey, revealing something of what made Bradbury a significant figure in American literature and Los Angeles' civic affairs. It also, in a way, is a search for Steven Paul Leiva, addressing the question: who is this fellow who has helped bring Bradbury the recognition he deserves?

Let me first say that this isn't the kind of book to tell you a great deal about Bradbury - for that, you need a biography like Weller's The Bradbury Chronicles,  or a literary biography like Eller's Becoming Ray Bradbury. But Searching for Ray Bradbury does give a unique view of a moment of transition, where celebration of Bradbury's longevity necessarily gave way to memorialising. 

The slim volume (just under ninety pages) is best seen as a thick chapbook rather than an undersized paperback, and is modestly priced at $5.39 on Amazon, but is also available for Kindle at $1.99. I have read only the print version, but I understand that the Kindle version omits the photographs found in the print version.

The book's cover is a reproduction of Lou Romano's affectionate caricature of Ray Bradbury, originally created for the Writers' Guild magazine Written By (you can read Romano's own fascinating account of the creation of this piece on his own blog, here.) The foreword is written by SF writer and futurist David Brin, who gives his appreciation of Bradbury's ability to both explore the darkness of the human heart and promote a optimistic vision of humankind's future beyond the Earth, an idea which Leiva also picks up on in one of the essays. Brin describes Leiva's book as a "personal and deeply moving tribute" which shines a loving light upon some little known aspects of this intricate and deeply passionate man".

So what of the essays contained here? They were all originally published elsewhere - some of them on Leiva's own blog This 'n' That, others in places such as Written By, and The Huffington Post. While each one was written for a different, specific purpose, collecting them together here allows us to see a broader picture. Articles which were illuminating celebrations with Bradbury in life are now joined with items which to some extent eulogise the late author. It's great to see the pictures of Bradbury and Leiva triumphantly enjoying the dedication of Ray Bradbury Week, and quite poignant to then see the photos of the tributes a couple of years on, after Ray's passing.

The first essay, "Searching for Ray Bradbury," originally appeared in an L.A.Times blog,and attempts to give an account of what Ray Bradbury is, and where such an individual comes from. Leiva addresses what most people (think they) know about Bradbury: science fiction, and small-town America. He could have presented this essay as biography, but he chooses instead to take a Bradburyan turn and address it through metaphor:

Where did Bradbury come from? A magnificently powered nineteenth century submarine travelling 20,000 leagues; a time machine traversing centuries; a lost world where dinosaurs roam [...]
Bradbury defies easy categorisation, Leiva decides, concluding that a new word will be needed in dictionaries. "What is Bradbury?" he asks. His answer: "Bradbury is Bradbury."

The second essay, "Ray Bradbury Week in Los Angeles," explains how the previous essay led directly to Leiva's creation of Ray Bradbury Week, a week-long celebration of Bradbury's life and work, timed to coincide with Bradbury's ninetieth birthday on 22 August 2010. I was fortunate enough to get to L.A. around the time of these events, and attended Ray's public birthday party, held in Glendale's wonderful Mystery & Imagination bookshop. I had to leave before the official week began, but the party gave me an opportunity to briefly meet Steven Paul Leiva, and to see him MCing the open-mic tributes to Ray which ran throughout the afternoon. The essay on Ray Bradbury Week is surprisingly brief, and in the context of the book seems unduly modest for such a grand achievement. It's not every day that a major city dedicates itself unreservedly to the celebration of an author, and I can't help feeling that it was a lot more difficult to negotiate than Leiva allows us to believe in this chapter. Nevertheless, the photos in this section speak volumes, showing us Bradbury looking sometimes proud, sometimes awed, and occasionally overwhelmed by his adopted home's expression of affection. (It occurs to me that this chapter will lose some of its power in the Kindle edition, where the pictures have been removed.)

Ray's 90th Birthday Cake: a burning book

Essay three, "London to Los Angeles, Dickens to Bradbury: a Tale of Two Signs" sees Leiva on his first naive visit to London, literally stumbling in the dark as he tries to make sense of his new surroundings, and serendipitously spotting a sign linking a church to a Dickens novel. In parallel to this, he writes of driving around Venice, California, in search of the houses Bradbury had lived in when he first moved to the West Coast. Bradbury makes a brief appearance in this piece, a sad tale in which the old Bradbury house is demolished. Fortunately, a sign attached to the house, commemorating Bradbury's having written The Martian Chronicles there, turns up, and Leiva is the one to report this happy news to others who feared it had been lost along with the house itself. A somewhat rambling piece - how did we get from a flat in London to a demolished house in Venice, CA? - but an effortless one which begins to fulfill the book's title Searching for Ray Bradbury and in the process begins to reveal just a little of Leiva's background.

The third essay also introduces Jon Eller, the co-founder of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies, as a somewhat intrepid biographer, and essay number four follows directly on from this, being a review of Eller's book Becoming Ray Bradbury. It's a fine assessment of a fine book, bookended with a couple of anecdotes of Leiva's friendship with Bradbury.

My personal favourite of the essays collected here is chapter five, "Masterheart of Mars". Here Leiva explains how it was that Bradbury, that most non-technical of SF writers (if he even really was an SF writer; Leiva says he wasn't, and I tend to agree) came to be such an enormous inspiration to space scientists, to the extent that the team in charge of the Curiosity Mars rover decided to name the planetary explorer's base "Bradbury Landing" in 2012. Leiva puts it down to Bradbury's almost instinctive address of three aspects of the human condition which led him to advocate moving our species out to the planets, starting at Mars: we have an urge to survive, we have an urge to seek knowledge, and we have a difficult-to-define urge to not be hemmed in. This last is something that Leiva is ambivalent about, saying it is either incredibly primitive, or incredibly advanced. The resolution to that particular conundrum is probably to be found in Leiva's smart characterisation of Bradbury as "a romantic with a nineteenth century imagination combined with twentieth century anxieties", an assessment which successfully accounts for the yearning-yet-jaded view of humankind in The Martian Chronicles.

Ray signs a poster at the Chronicling Mars conference in 2008

Essay six is a brief account of the creation of Ray Bradbury Square, a public space at Fifth and Flower in Los Angeles, right outside the public library that meant so much to Bradbury. Essay seven then continues the story with a detailed account of the dedication ceremony. As with the declaration of "Ray Bradbury Week" there is a sense of celebration, but this time with the tinge of sadness that Bradbury was not around to see the simple legend "Author - Angeleno" beneath his name.

Signage at Ray Bradbury Square, Los Angeles

Finally, essay eight tackles the title of the volume, and searches for the real Ray Bradbury. Here Leiva goes into the greatest detail about his own personal connection to Bradbury, which dates back to work they did together on a film adaptation of Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland. Leiva points to a transition which had somehow occurred in Bradbury's career, where he slipped from being "just" an author with the near anonymity that so often accompanies authorship, to being a sought-after interviewee, public speaker and raconteur. Leiva almost suggests embarrassment at having, for a time, fallen into just seeing Ray as the the public persona. The essay shows how he re-connected with Bradbury the author through directing a staged reading of "The Better Part of Wisdom" in 2010.

Bradbury as public speaker

Searching for Ray Bradbury is a brisk read, partly because it is a slim volume, but also because of Leiva's essay-writing skill. Because of his initiation of so many Bradbury tributes, there is a danger that this collection could place Leiva at the centre of events, and inadvertently become self-aggrandising. But what lifts the book above this is precisely the way he finds the object of his search: hidden in plain sight, right there in Bradbury the public persona, is Bradbury the humanitarian, Bradbury the author. Leiva finds the true Bradbury by connecting anew with Bradbury's text.

Steven Paul Leiva at Mystery & Imagination bookshop in 2010

1 comment:

William Hutchison said...

Very good blog. Just finished my first novel Dust in the Wind. Available on Amazon . First review I got compared it to The Martian Chronicles. Which I admit I haven't read. Guess I will be reading more of Ray's work. William Hutchison.