An Interview with Ray Bradbury,
by Rob Couteau
(New York: Dominantstar, 2010).
Excerpts of this interview were published in the November 1990 edition of the Paris Voice (Paris, France), the spring 1991 edition of Quantum: Science Fiction & Fantasy Review (Gaithersburg, Maryland: Thrust Publications), the Nelson Thornes Framework English Resource Book 2 (Cheltenham, UK: Nelson Thornes Ltd.), and Conversations with Ray Bradbury, ed. Steven L. Aggelis (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2004). The complete interview is featured in the literary anthology Collected Couteau (New York: Dominantstar, 2010). Quotations have also been cited in articles appearing in the California Literary Review (2007), Senses of Cinema (2010), Archdaily (2012.), and the Chicago Reader (2012).
One of the most well known writers of science fiction and the recipient of numerous awards for his stories and screenplays, Ray Bradburyís books include The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, and Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury was also the Idea Consultant for the United States Pavilion at the 1964 Worldís Fair and has worked as a consultant on city engineering and rapid transit.
A frequent visitor to Paris, especially to the restaurants and bookshops in the Latin Quarter, he claims to have fallen in love with it all thirty-seven years ago when he first arrived here, to work with John Huston on the screenplay of Moby Dick. Seated in the lobby of the Hotel Normandy near the Palais Royal, he spoke of his fascination with Paris and of his other passions, such as city planning, his method of writing, and the future of science fiction.
Couteau: My first question concerns the process of writing. Do you have any sort of daily ritual that serves as a preparation to writing, or do you just sit down every day at a certain time and begin?
Bradbury: Well, the ritual is waking up, number one, and then lying in bed and listening to my voices. Then, over a period of years ... I call it my morning theater; itís inside my head. And my characters talk to one another, and when it reaches a certain pitch of excitement, I jump out of bed and run and trap them before they are gone. So, I never have to worry about a routine; theyíre always in there, talking.
Couteau: How long do you write for?
Bradbury: Oh, a couple of hours. You can do three or four thousand words and thatís more than enough for one day.
Couteau: How has the use of the computer affected your writing?
Bradbury: Not at all, because I donít use it.
Couteau: You never use a computer?
Bradbury: I can write faster on a typewriter than you can on a computer. I do 120 words a minute, and you canít do that on a computer. So, I donít need anything Ö Thatís plenty fast.
Couteau: So youíre saying the technology still hasnít caught up with you.
Bradbury: Well, if it wonít be any more efficient than my IBM Selectric, why should I buy it? Itís for corrections, you know? Then I give it to my daughter, and she has a computer and she puts it in, and she then corrects it in the computer. And we have a record, so we have the best of both worlds at the same time.
Couteau: How about the imaginative process itself, the building of a story? How do characters and plots first arise? Youíve maybe covered this a little just now. Do they appear spontaneously or do they first originate in a carefully planned conscious construct?
Bradbury: Any carefully planned thing destroys the creativity. You canít think your way through a story; you have to live it. So, you donít build a story; you allow it to explode.
Couteau: Do you, for instance, use people and places out of the past, out of your own life?
Bradbury: Very rarely. More recently, yes, in my two murder mysteries, Death Is a Lonely Business and the sequel, which just came out, A Graveyard for Lunatics. Events in my past life are in there: some people that I knew. But most of my stories are ideas in action. In other words, I get a concept, and I let it run away. I find a character to act out the idea. And then the story takes care of itself.
Couteau: Certain modern writers, such as William Burroughs, have used characters and settings first observed in dream states as the basis for fictional experiments. Others, such as Henry Miller, have spoken of being ďdictated toĒ by the unconscious Ö
Bradbury: That sounds more like my cup of tea Ö
Couteau: Have you had similar experiences with what might be termed non-ego influences on the creative imagination? I mean there are others: drugs or meditation or whatever. Or dreams.
Bradbury: No, dreams donít work. And I donít know of anyone that ever wrote anything based on dreams constantly. You may get inspiration once every ten years. But dreams are supposed to function to cure you of some problem that you have, so you leave those alone. Thatís a different process. But the morning process when youíre waking up, and youíre half asleep and half awake: thatís the perfect time. Because then youíre relaxed, and the brain is floating between your ears. Itís not attached. Or getting in the shower, first thing in the morning, when your body is totally relaxed and your mind is totally relaxed. Youíre not thinking; youíre intuiting. And then the little explosions, the little revelations come. Or taking a nap in the afternoon. Itís the same state. But you canít force things. People try to force things. Itís disastrous. Just leave your mind alone. Your intuition knows what it wants to write, so get out of the way.
Couteau: Where did you fly in from?
Bradbury: From New York City. But Iím from Los Angeles.
Couteau: New Yorkís my hometown.
Bradbury: Well, itís a good place to get away from. Itís a shame. Because Iíve been going there since I was nineteen, and Iíve watched the whole thing go to hell. I had a lot of friends there. And I love the Metropolitan Museum and the Guggenheim. But I mean, how much love can you have for something? The only livable place is down on Pier 17: South Street Seaport. Have you ever been down there? Itís great. And itís very social. Itís very safe. A lot of good restaurants. And I go up to this restaurant facing the Brooklyn Bridge: Harbor Lights. A lot of wonderful Irishmen run the place. And I go up and get drunk with them. I lived a year in Ireland. So, we get on very well. We talk about the Royal Hibernian Hotel and things like that.
Couteau: Youíve been the recipient of numerous book awards. Youíve been received by world leaders such as Mikhail Gorbachev. When the Apollo astronauts landed on the moon, they paid you homage by naming the Dandelion Crater in honor of your novel, Dandelion Wine. How has this overall acceptance by people in positions of great responsibility affected your writing and your life?
Bradbury: Not at all. You just donít think about it; you shouldnít. The most dangerous thing you can do is know who you are. See, Norman Mailerís problem is he thinks heís Norman Mailer. And Gore Vidalís problem is he thinks heís Gore Vidal. I donít think Iím Ray Bradbury. So, thereís a big difference. Just do your work every day; donít go around thinking, ďGee,Ē you know, ďwow!Ē To hell with that. The work is important; the work is fun. And thereís no time. If you get into your work every day, thereís no time to think who you are. So Ö these are very nice things, and I was exhilarated by them when they happened. My day with Gorbachev was joyous, and I went home immensely happy. But then the next day, youíve got things to do. So, it hasnít affected me at all.
Couteau: Iím curious about your vision of the future. Iím thinking now of a story that first appeared in the early 1950s: ďThe Pedestrian.Ē In this rather paranoid vision of the future, a Mr. Meade is arrested and sent to a psychiatric center for having committed the transgression of walking, without a purpose, through the streets at night. Itís a world in which magazines and books donít sell anymore and people sit in rooms mesmerized by television sets. In many ways, this tale epitomizes the very dark undercurrent of the 1950s. Yet there are forces at work in the world today that are not that dissimilar. What about your personal vision of the future, especially the political future?
Bradbury: Well, itís very optimistic. Look whatís happened in the last eight months. Because America stood firm, and helped form NATO, and just stayed quietly there, finally, the Communists gave up. They were an evil empire; you know, Reagan was absolutely right. And they partially still are, because they havenít finished disarming.
But who could have foreseen that the end would have come so quickly? And within just a matter of months. We said, take down the wall. We implied it many times. Only one president ever said it: Reagan. Heís not going to get any credit for it. Everyone hates him for being successful. Heíll probably go down in history as the most important president of the century. Because he did in the Communist empire. Just by holding steady and being very quiet. And when the Communists left the negotiating table three or four years ago, everyone said, ďOh, President Reagan, donít do that,Ē you know, ďcall them back.Ē He said, ďTheyíll be back. They have to come back. Because their economy isnít working, so if we just, if weíre not belligerent, donít take advantage of it, donít rock the boat, theyíll be back. And eventually, the Wall will come down.Ē And thatís exactly what happened. So, two weeks ago, the Russians welcomed Reagan to Moscow, huh? Because he helped them get free of their own system. Itís ironic. Itís beautiful. And the one president we thought would never be able to do this is the one who did it.
Couteau: How about the opening of the East Bloc? How will that affect science-fiction writing?
Bradbury: I donít think it will affect it much. Because weíre running ahead of all that. Weíve always talked about freedom; weíve always talked about totalitarian governments. After all, Fahrenheit 451 is all about Russia, and all about China, isnít it? And all about the totalitarians anywhere: either left or right, doesnít matter where they are; theyíre book burners, all of them. And so, Fahrenheit will continue to be a read book, by people all over the world. Because there are still totalitarian governments. And book burners. So as long as thatís true, or if the threat is true, the book will be read.
Couteau: This past August you celebrated your seventieth birthday. After devoting decades of your life to writing science fiction, have you arrived at any conclusion concerning the function of science fiction, either in our individual lives or in the life of the social collective?
Bradbury: Well, itís the most important fiction ever invented; it always has been. People havenít given it credit. Because it has to do with the history of ideas. Of dreaming an idea, birthing an idea, blueprinting an idea, making it into a fact. And then moving on, to the next idea.
The history of science fiction started in the caves 20,000 years ago. The ideas on the walls of the cave were problems to be solved. Itís problem solving. Primitive scientific knowledge, primitive dreams, primitive blueprinting: to solve problems. I never really realized how honorable and how long the history of science fiction is. You look on the walls of the caves: they had pictures of antelopes, and gazelles, and mammoths. And the problem there is: how do you kill them? And thatís a science-fiction problem, isnít it? You have to think of it first before you can solve it. Then you find ways of inventing knives and then spears. A spear is an extension of a manís arm and his imagination. And when you throw it, youíre throwing your will. Youíre throwing your arm, and youíre killing the animal. So thatís science-fiction dreaming becoming primitive fact. You finally find out how to kill animals. So you can survive. And then, how do you build a fire? Thatís science fiction, isnít it?
As soon as you pose the question, thatís science fiction. Because youíre imagining something and trying to figure out, ďGee, if we can bring fire to the cave Ö but it goes out. We find it in the forest after the lightning strikes, and we grab it and bring it back, but, the next day, itís gone. How do you keep it forever?Ē So, you dream that, and then you solve it, and then you have science fact. Primitive science, huh? So, the whole history of mankind is survival. Science-fiction dreaming science-factual finding. And then, moving on to the next problem.
How do you go to the moon, huh? Science fiction, just forty years ago. Impossible! I had to put up with people saying to me, when I was thirty: ďWeíre never going to do that. Come on; donít be stupid. Itís a silly thing to even think about. Why go to the moon? Why go to Mars?Ē Well, all of a sudden, just a few years ago, we solved the problem. So, the science-fictional dream became the Apollo missions. So now, weíre dreaming of what? Weíre dreaming of landing men on the moon. Weíre dreaming of going out to the other planets, with manned missions eventually, sometime in the next forty or fifty years. Probably land on Mars sometime in the next twenty years. And look at the Hubble Telescope. I take it that itís beginning to function now. Thatís a dream that goes a long way back: a long way back. And it was totally impossible. It was science fiction. Now itís out there, looking at the stars. Eventually, weíll go to Proxima Centauri. That will be sometime in the next thousand years. Maybe even sooner. If we can make our rockets go half the speed of light, we can get out there in eight or ten years. And thatís not bad. Anything longer than that is pretty hard on the human psyche, not to mention the human body.
And then, all the other things that have occurred. The invention of a Xerox machine, which is a printing press for every human being in the world. Thatís why they donít exist in Russia. All these technological things are freedoms in the United States, right now. Most people couldnít tell you how many airplanes there are, private airplanes. There are 900,000 aviators: private aviators. There are between 200,000 and 300,000 airplanes, private airplanes, owned by individuals, and 20,000 landing strips. Thatís a freedom, isnít it? You can go anywhere you want to go. The airplane doesnít exist in Russia. Thatís one freedom thatís denied everyone. Because theyíre afraid if they had airplanes, theyíd leave the country. And they have very few telephones. Because they donít believe in communication. Thatís a freedom. We have a telephone for every person in the country, in America. There are no automobiles in Russia. It has yet to be invented Ö
Couteau: If they can afford them though, right?
Couteau: You said we have a telephone for everyone in the country. Everyone who can afford a telephone.
Bradbury: Everyone has a telephone. Whether they can afford it or not. Itís one of those things that people have, regardless of their income.
Couteau: Well, how about someone who is ÖYouíre answers are piquing my interest in other questions, of course Ö
Bradbury: [laughs] Okay. No, there are some things that all poor people have, automatically. They have TV Ö
Couteau: Well, how about a homeless person in New York Ö
Bradbury: Well, no, thatís another problem entirely, which has to do with our emptying the lunatic asylums twenty-five years ago. It was a big liberal movement, and a conservative movement, too, because we hated lunatic asylums; we hated the idea of them, and we had medicines which we thought were going to work, right? It was an honorable experiment, but it didnít work. So, those people are out there. Now we have to take them off the streets; we cannot leave them out there.
Couteau: I worked in a program in New York that was involved with trying to find housing and jobs for homeless mentally ill people. It was one of the few programs set up to solve that problem. And I did encounter many people who barely got by, who had a home but couldnít afford a telephone or couldnít afford clothing or other things that we all take for granted. And what Iím getting at, what Iím leading to is Ö youíre talking a lot about the Soviet Union. Iím wondering about your feelings about totalitarian strains within the United States.
Bradbury: There are none.
Couteau: You donít feel there are any?
Bradbury: No. Of course not. Never have been. Weíre a free society; weíve got television. We have radio. We have newspapers. We have the videocassette, which is coming into play. These are new freedoms.
Couteau: How about right-wing reactionary forces, like the Klan? Wouldnít you say thatís a totalitarian strain?
Bradbury: No, those things exist on both sides. The left wing want to burn certain books, too, but they donít. We donít allow them to. The Huckleberry Finn liberal groups have been against Ö but we have to oppose that.
Couteau: Well, thatís what Iím getting at. Do any of your stories, do they just talk about Ö Something like ďThe Pedestrian,Ē which to me, when I read it, I thought it was such a wonderful thing, because I thought it was universal. It was something that wasnít specifically about China or the Soviet Union, but it was about totalitarian forces that may exist within any individual Ö
Bradbury: Oh, yeah. Every single individual is that same thing. You are; I am. And we have to make sure that we donít misbehave. Well, look what happened with the French Revolution. It started out honorably. And then it passed into the hands of the mob. And so, they decided to have revenge, and everyone got killed. And then they devoured themselves. Which is neither left nor right. Itís just destruction.
Couteau: Your stories do speak, then, to these totalitarian strains that may exist within any individual.
Bradbury: Oh, everywhere. Us Ö but our record is clean compared to whatís Ö I mean, China has burned millions of books in the last twenty years.
Couteau: How about our record not domestically but letís say some of our questionable policies in South America over the last hundred years. Do you think itís that clean?
Bradbury: We recognized that. I think most people have discussed it, and weíre, here and there, trying to do something about it. So that we erase the memory of that. But itís not totalitarian in the sense of what Russiaís done when they invade a country and they kill millions of people. We havenít done that.
Couteau: Do we want to erase the record or do we want to face the record?
Bradbury: I think weíve faced it. Weíve got plenty of books on it. Our libraries are full of them. And plenty of newspapers to remind us of that.
* * *
Couteau: In many ways, Mr. Bradbury, I see you asĖitís perhaps a silly termĖbut I see you as the granddaddy of science fiction Ö
Bradbury: [laughs] Iíve turned into one!
Couteau: And, you know, I mean that even if you were twenty-five or thirtyĖin essence!
Couteau: If you were to prophesize, what are some of the directions and problems that science-fiction writing will explore in the oncoming decades?
Bradbury: Well, weíve already done a lot of it. I mean, Orwell was certainly a good example, and heíd had terrible personal adventures with Communism. And other people have had encounters with other kinds of totalitarian forces.
I think a lot of our thinking and writing in the next twenty or thirty yearsĖat least mine will beĖwill be focused on the need to get us back into space again. Because weíve allowed the Challenger to destroy our willpower. I mean, you know, it really is just a few people who were killed. Iím sorry theyíre dead. It was very hard on them. Itís hard on their relatives. Itís hard on our psyche. But if we allow it Ö See, what happened in the twenty-four hours, forty-eight hours following the explosion: that film was on the air a hundred times. Well, if you see a thing often enough, you begin to disbelieve in the future. Television is very dangerous. Because it repeats and repeats and repeats our disasters, instead of our triumphs.
Look at what happened two years ago with the grapes from South America. It was blown all out of proportion. Destroyed an industry. TV did that, not newspapers. What about poison apples, you know? Where the old witch, Meryl Streep, says, ďHereís an apple that isnít poisoned.Ē* And they destroy the apple industry. What about radon in the cellar? Itís a panic a week. So, TV Ö The problem in a free society is: how do you control a thing that is supposed to be free? Can you say to them, ďOne hundred times is enough for the ChallengerĒ? That we turn it off for a while? Because we see it still, every once in a while. In one of the news shows, I think it was on CNN recently, I saw repeated that air accident, at Dresden or Hamburg, where the jet crashed into the crowd and burned up a hundred people right in front of you. They put that on the air every night. So, the disaster inclination, the panic inclination of TV, is very dangerous. But I donít know what to do about it, except to set an example, and say, hey, you know. TV is so vivid, and it rams it down your eyeballs night after night. So, I guess all we can ask of the TV networks is a little discretion. So that we wonít believe the end of the world was yesterday. And we stop doing things.
My final point is: we havenít been in space. Weíre finally going back. And itís taken years now. Weíre afraid to move. Weíre frozen. So, the job of the science-fiction writer Ö Iíve been down to Canaveral during the last month. Iíve had meetings with some NASA people. I want to build a set of bleachers there for 5,000 people, and with gantries, and Dolby sound and music, and my narration, poetry, what have you, and, every night at sunset, put on a light-and-sound show, like they do here, in Paris, at various buildings, or in London. To teach us the history of Apollo, with all of its incredible intensity and passion and ability to move the soul, so that we can ďreteachĒ ourselves how exciting the thing was and still can be. So that from the bottom of the pyramid, people pressure the Congress into lopping off some money from the military and putting it over into space travel.
Thatís always been the problem. The last twenty-five years, Iíve argued about this many times. That we spend so much on the military, and the damned stuff just sits there.
It was important at one time. Now that Russiaís beginning to back off, Iím hoping that some of that moneyĖand once the Gulf Crisis if over, God help usĖwill be put into space. Because we need something to lift us: we have a tendency Ö because we all watch the 6:00 local news. See, thatís the really destructive news. Because itís all suicides, murders, rapes, funerals, and AIDS. About most of which we canít do anything. AIDS we can do something about. But the funerals we canít go to. The murders we didnít commit. We didnít have anything to do with the rapes. But thatís rammed into your eyeballs every night.
Iím trying to get people to watch McNeil/Lehrer, who are responsible, informative, and nonpolitical. Very important: nonpolitical. David Brinkley on Sunday, with Sam Donaldson on the left, George Will on the right, Brinkley in between: you know what the labels are. And the more informative programs we can have, with no panic and no disaster every night, so that we have equilibrium in our society.
A lot of people have been looking at the news 365 nights a year. At the end of a year, you give up on the human race. I donít want happy endings. I donít want to be Laughing Boy Number One. On the other hand, I donít want to see people going around disbelieving in the future in a country thatís one of the best. Done a lot of good things. Weíve been taking in 500,000 immigrants a year for thirty years now, and some years a million. Now weíre going to up it again this next year. I mean, where in hell do people go in this world? They come here. They come to America, rather: not here. But they also come to France, because itís a place to survive: a good place to survive.
Couteau: A moment ago, you mentioned something about the need to be uplifted, and you used the word ďsoul.Ē Is this the long-term function of science fiction or your vision of what we need in the future? Are you talking about a unifying spiritual vision?
Bradbury: Yeah, I try to write about it. My stories are warnings; theyíre not predictions. If they were predictions, I wouldnít do them. Because then Iíd be part of the doom-ridden psychology. But every time I name a problem, I try to give a solution.
So not only have I talked about the future and the past, but Iíve been part of creating three malls in California: the Glendale Galleria; the Horton Plaza, in San Diego; and the Westside Pavilion, at Westwood Boulevard and Pico. In other words, the failure of cities is the failure of chambers of commerce and the failure of the mayors and the city councils, who donít understand what cities are. Theyíre in for political power; theyíre not in to re-create the city and make it better for everyone. So my dream has been: if they wonít do it, some sort of corporate effort has to do it.
And Disney is my hero; I knew him when he was alive. And he created a model, on one level: Disneyland, Disney World, EPCOT. Theyíre all social. Theyíre not cities, but they give you examples of ways of living. Of lots of trees, lots of flowers. Lots of fountains and ponds, lots of places to sit, lots of places to eat, so that you can get out of the house again. In a lot of cities, people canít get out of the house; theyíre not safe. So a mall is an environment which is safe and beautifulĖit can beĖand creative and filled with examples of ways of living, like you find in the Latin Quarter here, over by Notre-Dame. Those mazes of restaurants: 200 of them, 300, 400. So, Iím trying to introduce that into American culture: to give people a chance to walk with their families, like down on Pier 17, and be social, and to be happy, instead of being afraid, walking through the streets of New York.
Hollywood Boulevard is a disaster. Iím trying to help them rebuild that. Parts of downtown L.A., I have plans for that, if the city mayor would only listen. But heís a big jerk, and heís trying to build an immigrant monument, which is stolid and massive and nothing, when we need something fluid to connect the areas of the city so the people can leave their cars behind and walk for miles, as you do in Paris here. You donít dream of driving. I mean if you do Ö I was trying to get here tonight; I was across town playing some tapes; it took me forty-five minutes just to come about a mile to get here. I couldíve walked it faster, and next time I will.
So, again: to give people back their feet, to give back their freedom, should be the job of the cities, except they donít know how to do it, and we science-fiction writers know. I know, and I criticized Century City in Los Angeles. Twenty years ago, they built two new cities, next to each other, and they interviewed me, and I said they wonít work. And donít build them that way. And I said, you donít have enough restaurants. You have to have forty restaurants; you have to have a thousand tables, a thousand parasols, 4,000 chairs, spread all throughout this area, so that people can sit. Itís a Mediterranean climate, California; itís beautiful! Three hundred days a year, you can sit out.
They didnít listen to me. Ten years later, disaster: both cities werenít working. They called me again and said, ďWe want an interview.Ē I said, ďIf you let me tear your skin off, Iíll do it.Ē So, they printed everything I said. And I repeated: Restaurants, restaurants, restaurants are the secret of cities. People want to eat. And then, after theyíve eaten, they shop. They donít go out to shop; they go out to eat. They think theyíre going out to shop, but, really, theyíre going out to eat.
And once you do that, the whole soul is aerated. Your ambience changes. And walking around Paris, gee, you turn any corner, there are seven restaurants. And little shops. And millions of people on the street every night.
So, the social life here is incredible. And Disney was influenced by France. And I try to teach people at home: do what Disney did. He came here: time and again. He sent his best co-workers here, to study at the Sorbonne.
Couteau: Is that why youíre in Paris so often?
Bradbury: Well, I fell in love with it on my own, thirty-seven years ago. I arrived here in 1953 to write the screenplay of Moby Dick, for John Huston. So this is where I met him, at the rue díAthŤnes, and then we moved over to Ireland, and I lived there for seven months, finishing the screenplay. But every time I kept coming back and coming back, and now I spend every summer here, and this is my fourth trip this year. My wifeís arriving tomorrow night; she loves it as much as I do.
Couteau: So, itís a personal love.
Bradbury: Yeah, and Iím learning all the time. And the things that I can take back to improve the whole world. The whole world has cities. Most of them donít have as many problems as we Americans do. My hometown, Waukegan, Illinois, is a disaster; the whole downtown section is falling apart. Because the city fathers donít know what a city is. They go in with the wrong reasons. If I became mayor tomorrow of a city, overnight, boy, Iíd be in there planning, and changing, and building, and improving, and my motive would be to make the city. And that would give me a personal feeling of triumph, which is more than enough, instead of just pure power, which the average mayor wants: he wants to be mayor.
Couteau: When did you first become intrigued with cities?
Bradbury: When I was eight years old and saw the covers of the science-fiction magazines. Theyíre all architectural. We love science fiction because itís architectural. All the big science-fiction films of the last twenty years are architectural. 2001, when you see the rocket ship flying through the air, itís a city; itís a big city up there. And in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, when the mother ship descends, itís not a ship; itís a city. Itís so beautiful. And when the aliens come out of the ship, you want to go back in with them and go away forever. And when one of the characters does, your heart goes with him.
So we love architecture; we love the romances of places. And Paris: identifiable objects; London, Rome Ö if you took the Eiffel Tower out of Paris and the Arc de Triomphe, half the city would be gone, because of the objects: the romance of objects. And Iíve written articles which have influenced the building of these malls at home. I wrote an article called ďThe Aesthetics of Lostness.Ē We travel for romance, we travel for architecture, and we travel to be lost. Thereís nothing better than to walk around Paris and not know where in hell you are: ďGee, where is this Ö No, Iím lost.Ē And you say, ďHey, thatís good.Ē And youíre safe. Lost and safe. And you canít do that in New York City. Once upon a time, you could. Thereís hardly a place where you can do that. Someday, someday: if I have my say. If I have my influence. But while weíre waiting for that, the mall is the temporary answer. It is a city away from the city, because the city doesnít know what itís doing.
Corporations know what to do. Because they have to know: they have to make a profit. Profit is a great motive. But cities donít have to make a profit. Governments donít have to make a profit, do they? If the experiment doesnít work, they say, ďOh, what the hell; letís tax people.Ē But corporations: youíve got to make sure you know what youíre doing, because otherwise youíre out of business.
Couteau: What would you see as the ideal formula in the creation of a city if we were to take these various elements: the corporation, the citizenry that is affected, and the local government? How would the formation of a city come about?
Bradbury: First of all, you tell the cities: ďhands off.Ē Thatís what Disney did.
Couteau: The local government, you mean.
Bradbury: Yeah, because they donít know what theyíre doing. They have no knowledge; they donít have the individual knowledge that a corporation should have. You pick the people from your environment who know a city block, who know the local parish, who know the local aesthetics, whatever it is.
Couteau: So who would pick them? Would the citizenry Ö
Bradbury: Disney; myself. If you were to give me a project tomorrow, letís say in Ö
Couteau: How about the people affected? Would they have any choice in the selection?
Bradbury: Yeah, they would have a choice of being excellent instead of having the city dead. If I could do something to help my downtown in Waukegan, which is Ö All the shops are closed, so the people who own the closed shops, you say, ďHowíd you like to open them again? Well, come on and sit in with us; have some input here. Itís like: you didnít know what to do in the first place, and the city is dead; we have to start from scratch.Ē
Couteau: So you would leave it in the hands of nonelected officials?
Bradbury: Yeah, elected officials donít know anything about cities and how to build them.
Couteau: But how are we to select who is going to make these decisions that will affect us?
Bradbury: Let the corporations get together. Thatís how they build most of these malls. And they turn out very well. And theyíre getting better all the time. Because more and more restaurants, more and more really fine shops of all kinds. And thereís excellence Ö
Couteau: Let me give you a possible conflict here. What if the local citizenry is at odds with the planning of the local corporations?
Bradbury: Well, theyíve got to be part of it, of course; sure. But if they donít want it, then you donít build it. Itís that simple.
Couteau: So you do see a partnership of some kind between the two.
Bradbury: Oh, yeah. But the main thing is to have the people who know how to do these things. I know several people who know how to build these things.
Couteau: In researching for this interview, Iíve noticed that commentators have often made note of your ambiguous, or at least changing, relationship with technology. The obligatory remark is that you chose to downplay its role in favor of literary stylistic innovations while everyone else was exploring it. And then, when other writers were catching up with your own stylistic concerns, you gained a certain faith in technology and even, for the first time, flew in an airplane, after many years of avoiding them. Is this an oversimplification, and do you care to comment on your current feelings regarding high-tech?
Bradbury: Well, you know, when youíre twenty, itís easy to be negative. And we just came out of, we were going through World War II and coming out of it. And so, it was a negative time. And then the atom bomb came along, and I got married in those periods: 1946, í47, I was courting my wife. And there was that day which you didnít experience because you werenít born. But there was the time, in the middle of the summer of í46 or í47, when they were going to explode the first super-nuclear warhead, out in the islands. But the scientists werenít quite sure whether the earth wouldnít catch on fire. What if the earth caught on fire and the whole thing went up? Well, the night before, you know, I think everyone in the world thought about it, everyone that could hear about it on radio, because there was no TV in those days, and it was primitive: a few thousand sets in the United States. So, you become a philosopher that night, donít you? What if this is the last night of the world?
So, it didnít happen, thank God. But nevertheless, it was a negative time, and out of that I wrote a lot of things that went into the Martian Chronicles. Including ďThere Will Come Soft RainsĒ: the house that lives on, after the people, and talks to itself. So, itís all part of a time, and my being very young, in my twenties.
And then, as time progressed, I learned more about those positive inventions that give us freedoms. The Xerox machine is the freedom to have your own printing press. I couldnít afford one. There werenít any such animals; they had mimeograph machines, but they were too expensive when I was nineteen. So a friend of mine gave me money to publish my own magazine, Futuria Fantasia, and it cost eighty dollars to put out each issue. But I was only making eight dollars a week, selling newspapers on a street corner. So you see, it was impossible. And most people didnít own mimeograph machines; they borrowed them. Or theyíd do the things at work. But everythingís changed now.
We have the Xerox machine, everywhere; el cheapo, you can put out your own magazine. And now, we have the Fax machine, which is another printing press. Not only can you send things, but you can print things in your own house. So the ability to acquire knowledge and to dispense it is a thousandfold.
Couteau: Was your faith in government shaken at that time? After all, those were elected officials Ö
Bradbury: I think that, politically, the world is mad: always has been; probably always will be. Itís a bunch of chickens everywhere. Theyíre all chickens. Look at whatís been going on with our budget problems in America the last few weeks. I know a few senators. Al Simpson of Wyoming I love: wonderful man. Terrific sense of humor. And very opinionated. But so many of them have no opinions.
Couteau: You do have mixed feelings about government, then.
Bradbury: Oh, God, yes. Oh, sure! There should be no tax raises; more money should go back to the people. Again, no one wants to talk about it, but, during the last eight years, weíve got employment for nineteen million people, new jobs; no one wants to talk about it. I said, Wait a minute, thatís good! You want them to go back on relief? Then your deficit goes up. No one has done any research on how much of the deficitís already been retired through interest. Weíre paying interest on this deficit, every year. How many hundreds of billions of dollars of interest have been paid, and donít they equal the principal? We could retire the whole thing tomorrow and forget it. There would be no profitĖthat is, the interestĖbut, in effect, itís semantics here. The principal has long since been retired. So we should get on to the next problem. And because of giving the money back to the people, which we did, with lower taxes, weíve got all these jobs. Weíve got a new tax base; weíre taking in more revenue now than ever before in the history of the country. No one talks about that. Every year now, weíve got forty billion extra dollars beyond what the revenue used to be. Now, whoís spending that? Whereís it going? Has anyone researched that?
They donít talk about it on TV. Itís there. And itís every year. Whoís spending our money, and what is it being spent on? These people are irresponsible.
Frank Lloyd Wright Jr. was a friend of mine, years ago, and he was part of an endeavor I had to build rapid transit in L.A., which had been destroyed. It was all there, thirty years ago. We destroyed all of it; now, weíve got to rebuild it. Well, itís impossible. And anyway, he gave me the rule which applies to politicians. Put one million dollars out on the table to build a building, and it will disappear. Now put two million dollars out for the same building; itíll be spent. If youíre foolish enough to put two million out there, the architect will be: ďWell, what the hellĖgimme!Ē So, these people canít be trusted with money; theyíre drunk. And they think they can throw money at a problem. That isnít it.
The problem of education is: where do you apply the money? Itís in the first grade. And itís in the kindergarten. And if we donít teach reading and writing, we lose the generation and we lose our civilization. It has nothing to do with money. It has to do with the will to teach. The will to care. And you canít buy that. And we should test all the teachers and fire half of them next year. Because if you let boys grow up to the age of ten and twelve and they canít read, theyíre bored silly. Then they begin with the dope, and they begin with the gangs. And if we could solve the problem of gangs and drugs tomorrow with education, itís got to start in kindergarten. And theyíve got to know how to read by the time theyíre out of first grade.
The administrators donít care. I have listened to people lecture on this, and Iím one of the few that says, ďFire the teachers.Ē Test them and fire them. And then all the first and second grade students must be tested immediately. And if they canít read, then you intensify the effort with your money there. Because thereís no use in having enriched programs up in the eighth grade if they canít read them! I mean, itís madness!
Couteau: Do your plans involve a political role of some type?
Bradbury: No, no. Thereís no power there, and you become one of those dummies. And they wonít let you Ö if youíre inside the political scheme, you canít do anything. Youíre not allowed to speak up.
Couteau: I agree with you.
Bradbury: Yeah. The good things in our country are coming from the outside corporate effort. EPCOT is a permanent worldís fair, which I always wanted to have when I was twelve. Because I saw the Chicago Worldís Fair, in 1933, and discovered they were going to tear it down in two years. Why tear down something so beautiful that is a centrifuge for the young, to whirl people into life, so that when they come out of a museum, or a worldís fair, they want to live forever? That happened to me with the fiction that I read and the worldís fairs that I saw.
And then, finally, I was invited to create the interior of the United States Pavilion at the New York Worldís Fair, in í64. Can you imagine how excited I was? Because Iím changing lives, and thatís the thing. If you can build a good museum, if you can make a good film, if you can build a good worldís fair, if you can build a good mall, youíre changing the future. Youíre influencing people so that theyíll get up in the morning and say, ďHey, itís worthwhile going to work.Ē Thatís my function, and it should be the function of every science-fiction writer around. To offer hope. To name the problem and then offer the solution. And I do, all the time.
* This interview was conducted in the fall of 1990. Excerpts were published in the November 1990 edition of the Paris Voice (Paris, France) and in the spring 1991 edition of Quantum: Science Fiction & Fantasy Review (Gaithersburg, Maryland: Thrust Publications). The complete interview was featured in Conversations with Ray Bradbury, ed. Steven L. Aggelis (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2004) and in Collected Couteau (New York: Dominantstar, 2010).
* A reference to actress Meryl Streep, who appeared in public service announcements warning of the dangers of apples that had been sprayed with carcinogenic chemicals.
Chloe Potter interviews Rob Couteau on the death of Ray Bradbury. First broadcast on 6 June 2012 by the international media conglomerate, Monocle 24, based in London.