May 2005

Beth Dugan

features

An Interview with Sam Weller

Sam Weller, award-winning journalist and the former Midwest correspondent for Publishers Weekly, was the somewhat unlikely recipient of the honor of being the biographer of an American icon, Ray Bradbury. Though Weller is a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune Magazine, National Public Radio's All Things Considered, and the Chicago Public Radio program 848, his reputation is firmly Midwestern and not the national presence that one might think would be chosen to work with Bradbury. He is a professor at Columbia College Chicago, and he teaches the only college-level class in the United States on the life and work of Ray Bradbury. Weller created the book out of an assignment for a cover story about the writer, of whom he was a lifelong fan. Bradbury was hesitant to “bookend” his life with a biography, since, at 84, he is nowhere near done living. However Weller’s enthusiasm for the project finally convinced Bradbury and he granted Weller unparalleled access to his life, work, archives and time. The result is The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury, and it's something rarely seen in the world of biography: an authorized, totally readable, fantastic story of a man’s unique life.

Weller talked to Bookslut.com about the experience of writing the biography of one of his heroes, the mammoth task of sifting through a life, and what the biographer’s responsibility is to the subject and audience.

What was it like delving so deeply into another person’s… another writer’s life?

It was heavy at times, because all the while I was thinking what if someone were doing this about my life. Would I be comfortable with it? The answer is probably no, I wouldn’t be comfortable but when you achieve such a level of stature and become such an icon in culture it’s part and parcel for your existence, someone is going to delve. I would have been slightly uncomfortable about it but he was really gracious and open about it and I think a lot of it had to do with [the fact that] I worked almost a year steadfastly trying to establish trust with the man and making him feel comfortable, conversationally with me. It was a real investment of time. So by the time I got my book deal and we really went full bore on interviewing for the book, I could ask him anything on earth. Anything. I mean anything. I’ve asked that guy the weirdest questions in the world and he doesn’t even flinch. It’s that I guess.

It sounds like you got total access…

Yeah, completely. There was nothing I couldn’t ask him. From his complete sexual history to any sort of criminal history, drug usage. We’re talking the National Enquirer material here, which I certainly didn’t want my book to be, but I was comfortable asking him all that stuff. Not once did he ever look at me and go, “You know kid, that’s none of your business.” He never ever said that. Ever. It was crazy. It even got to the point that with his wife, who is insanely private, I could ask her the same questions, and she would answer. This woman didn’t talk to anybody. So all of that was a result of taking so long, and embedding myself as a part of their family.

How involved was Bradbury in the actual writing? As a writer did he have impulses to try and control the outcome?

Nothing. And that is a testament to the man’s respect of the creative process. That was the whole reason he left me alone. Throughout the whole thing he said I don’t want to know what you’re doing. I don’t want to know what you’re writing. He never asked me to send him a thing. He said I don’t want to footprint your creative process so I am not going to recommend anything. He never once gave me one kernel of advice except to not think. That’s his credo. Don’t over-intellectualize your writing process. Enjoy it. When you over-analyze and second guess what you are doing as a story teller it can handcuff you and get you to the point where you start second guessing whether what you are writing is good or not. So, he says, trust the fact that you are a good writer at this point and just write it, let it rip. That is the only advice he gave me.

I would send him a couple of pages here or there when I had a good day of writing and I was excited, more to share with him as a friend than him as subject looking at it. He would immediately call back in tears saying, "I love this! It’s beautiful. If the whole book reads this way, it’s going to be incredible." He never told me a thing. Not even at the end, he didn’t recommend anything. At the very end of the process, he called me. I had given him the manuscript. He was in the hospital. It was done and I turned it into the publisher, and he said, "I only have two suggestions and I hope you don’t mind." I thought, oh god here we go. One was to change a word on page 236 from sarcastic to jovial. It was ridiculous.

You’ve been lecturing on Ray Bradbury. You are now a Bradbury expert. What kind of a response are you getting from audiences? How are people responding to his work and what you have to say?

I’ve been getting good response because I’ve learned a lot from him. He is an amazing lecturer and he is a preacher. He gets up there and is inspirational and he has good energy. I am trying to learn from that. If you are going to take people’s time up and have them sit and listen to some no-name babble, in my case, you have to find a way to grab their attention and inspire them and not be lazy about it. So, I’ve put a lot of energy into my talks and I think it pays off. I gave a talk to a couple hundred librarians last February and the whole talk was structured around how Ray Bradbury has a poetical love affair with libraries. They changed and altered his life completely. So I really told that sweeping history knowing that they would love that story because that’s their job, their bread and butter and their life. And by the end of it I could tell that people were really excited to be librarians. That’s what Ray is trying to do with his stories. To give people hope and make them feel better, so I try and use that when I give talks. Hopefully there will be more.

Why do you think Bradbury has had such a prolific career? His career is the career that other writers hope for. He has never stopped writing and being published. Why has he succeeded where so many others have floundered?

It’s hilarious because he often says, “I wonder what other writers do with their time?” People are always asking him, "How did you get so much accomplished in your 83 years?" In reality he only writes two hours a day and he has been able to published 600 to 700 short stories with another 300 to 400 stories in various stages of completion. All told, 30 books, including novels, poetry, short story collections, screen plays, on and on and on and on. All of this only writing two hours a day because he doesn’t sit and dawdle when gets down to writing. He doesn’t sit and fool around. That said, particularly early in his career he did write eight hours days like all of us do. That is how he was able to write so much so quickly.

But again it gets back to his mantra that he has no fear with the creative process. Procrastination comes from fear. Fear of failure, fear of your completed work not living up to the idea. He just tosses that all out the window and says screw it. If I blow it I will just write something else. He just doesn’t believe in fear in the creative process and I think that has been the secret to his prolificacy. The other thing that has really dictated his ability to crank so much out is that he really looks at writing as the one true way to achieve a level of immortality because his words will be here when he is not. Every time he completes something he is one more up on death. Really I think part of the fuel behind his mad motivation has been a race against death.

What was the hardest part of this process for you?

Incorporating mountains of research into a good story. I mean mountains of research. I dug through so many different historical societies from Waukegan to the Circus Museum to the Los Angeles public library to the FBI records, just on and on, academic institutions. Having all this stuff since this man has lived so long and done so much there is a lot out there on him. Trying to figure out what do I use. This book could be five times as long and I would have loved it to be a little bit longer. I was forced by my publisher to turn it in at the length that it is at. There is a lot that could have been included and that was really hard. Trying to decide what stays and what goes is really brutal. That and the psychology of working so closely with another individual. Keeping him happy and it’s not a one shot interview. It was four years of interviewing and the relationship that accompanies that.

What do you think is the biographer’s responsibility to the subject?

That’s a huge question. The biographer’s overall responsibility is to tell a truthful reflection that is as crystalline as humanly possible to achieve as a writer, of your subjects existence and to reflect that existence as honesty as possible in a way that is readable. That’s why the reviews I’ve had have been gratifying because everyone has said this is a very readable book and that was something I set out to do from the get go. Truth be told I find a lot of biographies dull. They’re like doorstops. You get past the birth chapter and your like oh that took forever. And that all had to go into mine but I tried to write it cinematically and I tried to write it with energy. So I think your obligation is to do a clear reflection of your subjects life that’s fair, that’s objective as possible and always adhering to the truth.

You are also a Bradbury fan I understand. Do you have a favorite?

At this point it changes all the time. When I was researching his Waukegan years I would have told you absolutely positively Dandelion Wine since that is all about his Waukegan years but now standing back, just as a reader and someone who appreciates his poetry, the poetry of his language and his ideas I would have to say for sure it's two books: Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles. I think he was hittin’ it on those two books on all cylinders. Those books read like gangbusters. They are myths that have a timelessness to them, and he was able on a visionary level to project the themes that would continue to vex humankind. Censorship, racism, and in the case of the Chronicles, the annihilation of a culture, of a people. All things that to a large degree continue in 2005 to perplex all of us. He’s very smart and good writers all do that. They take timeless themes. That’s what Capote did with In Cold Blood. He said I want to write a non-fiction novel and what is a theme that will never date itself. Murder. I think Bradbury did the same thing with those two books taking themes that sadly will never date.

What are you working on now?

Quite a lot actually. Obviously teaching. I teach this class on Bradbury which is fun. I am looking for a new non-fiction book slowly slowly slowly. I just want to make sure I attach myself to something that I can stick with for five years and be as passionate about. So I am leaning towards doing something that’s kind of a non-fiction book related to science or nature because that really interests me or music. A music biography. But I need to find a subject so I am taking my time with that. In the interim I am doing a lot of freelance work again. I am back to doing that. Which is fun after four years on one project to be able do short bursts again, thank god. I am working on a fictional novel based on a real life magician who lived at the turn of the century. He was a Chinese magician and it’s about how he is Indiana Jones-esque. When he’s not on stage he is kind of saving the world but when he goes home at night he has to face the racism of the time. So I am trying to get at some of the heavier issues within historical suspense thriller. Fiction is damn hard. I am slowly working on a graphic novel which is kind of quirky and weird. It’s about a group of redneck truckers who save the universe. It’s a theme for me, saving the universe.