I first met the master writer, Ray Bradbury, who died on June 6, 2012 at age 91, at a beauty salon on Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx, circa 1960. I was stuck there, as usual, while my mother had her weekly hair appointment, suffocating in the superheated atmosphere of helmet dryers and yakking yentas. A precocious reader, I’d been into my dad’s paperback sci-fi collection since I was eight, but had in my hands a full-on, cellophane-protected library copy of Something Wicked This Way Comes which gave off that intoxicating smell that seemed to rise from the pages, of new-mowed grass and promise. I was deeply into the unfolding of evil on the plains of America when I was brusquely reminded by the screeching voice of one of the beauty shop regulars, “DON’T LEAVE YOUR PURSE OPEN!”
No wonder I identified with lone explorers on distant planets. Like millions of other readers and writers, my imagination thrived in Bradbury’s vivid evocation of surreal but strangely familiar landscapes, and the existential ironies that put his protagonists there — usually isolated, often victims of technology run amok — anxious about the human condition and how it had become so puzzling. The situations he created were simply astonishing and resonated with my childhood fears, but there were two elements of Bradbury’s work that spoke more deeply and have shaped my working life: the writer’s identity, and the possibilities of prose. He often placed himself as an observer in the stories, and mused on the relationship of a writer and his characters. The author looking at his fractured self in a hall of mirrors was an image that has stayed with me. It said: a real person wrote this. A person who struggles and often feels at a loss. A person like you. And his lyrical prose was like no other. Bold, rhythmic, unafraid to make far-out associations, he painted in original colors, and his sense of structure was pitch-perfect. Drama and suspense were effortless; the message accessible and understated. I absorbed it all through my skin.
My dad passed away six months ago, almost to the day. He had always encouraged me to write. And now another differently beloved father is gone. But I’ll always have this: It was the very first year of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. By then I had published short stories, written and produced teleplays, and now a first novel. If you’d asked who had been the greatest professional influence on this checkered career, I would have said without hesitation, “Ray Bradbury” — and there he was — whizzing by on a golf cart, his signature mane of hair flying, his tie blowing over his shoulder, looking like he always looked — like the happiest guy on earth. I ran after him.
I tracked him and a sizable entourage to the basement of some obscure building on the UCLA campus where he would give a talk, and said, “Mr. Bradbury!” He stopped, and then everybody stopped. It seemed like hundreds, but it was at least dozens — publicists, reporters, Festival personnel and fans — staring at this young upstart who had inadvertently stopped the show. “Mr. Bradbury,” I blurted, “I’m an author” — and showed him the tags to prove it –”And just published my first book, and I wanted to tell you that you were the greatest influence in my life and — to thank you.” There was a moment of uncertainty, and then, in the morning light pouring down the staircase, Ray Bradbury crossed the basement and came up close. He looked into my eyes, smiled faintly, said nothing, and laid a hand on my cheek. The crowd inhaled. Silently, he gave his blessing.
Then he moved on.