Jonathan Eller on the Surprising Research Into Ray Bradbury’s Life

Editor's Note: Jonathan R. Eller is a professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis and the director of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at IUPUI. He is the coauthor of Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction and the textual editor of The Collected Stories of Ray Bradbury, Volume 1: 1938–1943. Eller joins us to discuss the surprising research behind his most recent biography, Ray Bradbury Unbound (sequel to Becoming Ray Bradburyuncovering the indomitable will of the late, great science-fiction whisperer.  

In many ways, Ray Bradbury’s life is a biographer’s dream -- the extensive record of his very public life as a master storyteller surfaces through thousands of media publications, announcements, advertisements, and his own reminiscences. Many years of private interviews led me to still more sources, published and unpublished, and the first surprise came when I realized how much of his past was preserved by his own hand.

Tokens of his formative years -- tickets to silent films and early talkies, a pewter figurine of Buck Rogers, a perfectly preserved scrapbook of 1930s full-page Sunday color comics of Tarzan by Hal Foster, and thousands of Hollywood autographs -- were as dear to him as his Academy Award nomination, his Emmy figurine, and his Pulitzer Prize citation. Thousands of letters from major twentieth-century political figures, authors, Hollywood actors, directors, and producers survive, along with draft stages of many stories and almost every novel, screenplay, and stage play that he created across a seven-decade career. Not every document or memento is dated, but almost every day of his very public life is recorded in some form or another.

The second surprise slowly registered in my mind as I explored the many hundreds of biographical anecdotes that emerged from countless published and unpublished interviews, letters both to and from Bradbury, and his own published and unpublished reflections on his career. We expect that a gifted storyteller’s stories about his own life would become larger than life, but I was surprised to find that his many anecdotes, although sometimes remembered slightly out of sequence, almost always agreed with the recoverable facts. He was who he always maintained he was, a writer who started with nothing except the will to believe in himself, a writer who through stubborn determination and great good fortune became one of the best-known American writers of our time.

Many critics and scholars had identified the great change in his writing after World War II, when he matured from a skilled imitator of the themes and settings of other genre masters into a creator of original tales told through a unique and metaphor-rich style. But I was surprised to find through my own research and interviews that this transition happened far more quickly than the publication record reveals; some of his best dark fantasies and early science fiction tales were composed during the early and middle war years, but most would not reach print until the late 1940s. Many of the stories that he would weave into The Martian Chronicles (1950) reached print in the late 1940s, but some of the best -- "Ylla," which opens the Chronicles, and "The Million-Year Picnic," which closes them -- were also written during the war, a year or more before he first began to move out of the genre pulps and into the mainstream American magazines.

I was also surprised to find how deeply he revised and even rewrote his stories for inclusion in subsequent story collections and novelized story cycles -- timeless volumes that have never gone out of print, but which greatly overshadow the early versions that first reached print in the 1940s.

But as my discussions with him moved on into the middle years of his career, the greatest surprise of all soon emerged: Beneath his wonderful mid-career successes in television and film, many other Hollywood productions fell by the wayside. The resulting loss of time and creative momentum slowed his production of stories significantly, forcing him to bring older stories he had passed over for earlier collections into all of his new story collections after 1964. Nevertheless, these dreams deferred are more than balanced by the mid- and late-career stories, novels, and adaptations for stage, film and television that did succeed, and together offer a remarkable testimony to Bradbury’s boundless creativity.