I was fortunate enough to be on a panel at this year’s AWP conference in Boston with Mort Castle, Alice Hoffman, John McNally, and Sam Weller. What did we all have in common? An appreciation of Ray Bradbury and original stories published in the tribute anthology, Shadow Show. The panel, “Shadow Show: Writers and Teachers on the Influence of Ray Bradbury and Other Genre-Bending Authors,” took place during what’s usually a deadly time at AWP, 4:30 on Saturday, the last day of the conference. By that time, many attendees have already caught flights home or are too exhausted or hung over to make it to the last sessions. What a pleasant surprise it was, then, to find our room filled with people, some of them standing in the back. The questions and comments from the audience after the panelists’ remarks were lively and stimulating. I’ll tell you this: there was a good deal of love in that room, enough to lift us up and send us home with the exhortation from Sam Weller, channeling the spirit of Ray Bradbury, to write. “Why aren’t you writing?” Sam thought Bradbury would say to us. “Go home and write.”
My contribution to Shadow Show, a story titled “Cat on a Bad Couch,” was a response to the only story that Bradbury published in The New Yorker. His story, “I See You Never,” touched me the first time I read it. It’s a poignant portrait of loss and what it means to try to make a home for oneself far away from one’s native land. In a little more than a thousand words, Bradbury tells the story of Mrs. O’Brian, whose tenant, Mr. Ramirez, has come in the presence of police officers to tell her he must give up his room as he’s being returned to Mexico; his temporary visa has long ago expired and the police have now discovered that fact. He’ll have to give up his job at the airplane factory, where he makes a good wage. He’ll have to give up his clean room with the blue linoleum and the flowered wallpaper. Most of all, he’ll have to give up Mrs. O’Brian, his “strict but kindly landlady,” who doesn’t begrudge him the right to get a little drunk at the end of the week.
I’ve used this story for years in my fiction workshops, asking my students to notice how skillfully Bradbury evokes the aching loss at the heart of the story by paying such careful attention to the details of Mrs. O’Brien’s home—the huge kitchen, the long dining table covered with a white cloth and laden with water glasses and pitcher and bright cutlery and platters and bowls, the freshly waxed floor—and the facts of Mr. Ramirez’s pleasant life in Los Angeles—the radio and wristwatch he bought, the jewels he purchased for his few lady friends, the picture shows he attended, the streetcar rides he took, the grand restaurants where he dined, the opera and the theater. Those details contrast with what Mrs. O’Brien recalls from a visit she once made to a few Mexican border towns—dirt roads, scorched fields, small adobe houses, an eroded landscape. Such is the world to which Mr. Ramirez must return, and the details of the story do the work of portraying his heartache. No need for the author to offer comment.
I ask my students to notice how Bradbury stays out of the way, allowing Mr. Ramirez’s agony to emerge organically form the details of the story. Mr. Ramirez says, “Mrs. O’Brian, I see you never, I see you never!” In the final move of the story, Mrs. O’Brien, sitting down to dinner with her children, realizes that this is indeed true, and again the details evoke her melancholy. With graceful understatement, Bradbury describes how she quietly shuts the door and returns to her dining table, how she takes a bit of food and chews it a long time, staring at the closed door. Then she puts down her knife and fork, and when her son asks her what’s wrong, she says she’s just realized—here she puts her hand to her face—that she’ll never again see Mr. Ramirez. The full brunt of her loss comes to her when it’s too late for her to express her sadness to him the way he has to her. Notice the irony in that last move, I tell my students, how it comes to us covertly because a skillful writer lets it emerge from the details of the story’s world.
I’m always interested in characters who are trying to live decent lives in spite of the human flaws that get in their way. In this same way, Bradbury’s work explores what Faulkner called the “verities and truths of the heart” in prose that expresses the fragility of everything. That sense of possible loss is always hovering and the question of how to behave in the face of that fact is what drives so much good literature.
Like Bradbury, I came from Illinois, living downstate and eventually spending six years of my childhood in Oak Forest, a southern suburb of Chicago. Because I found myself drawn toward tales that fell into the category of what I’ll call Midwestern gothic, I suppose my first mentors were those that some might call genre writers or popular writers, but whom I’ll call storytellers. Of course, Ray Bradbury was one of those. Here, in closing, are some of the other things I learned from Bradbury that I carried over into my literary fiction.
1. Let the characters create a plot made up of choices, actions, and consequences.
2. If that plot has an element of mystery or intrigue, all the better.
3. Make the familiar strange and the strange, familiar.
4. Create a vivid world from closely observed details
5. Give your language energy and simplicity.
6. Get on the stage quickly, do what you have to do, exit gracefully.
7. Pay attention to your own nightmares; don’t be afraid of your imagination.
Bradbury always cited Jules Verne and H. G. Wells as two of his biggest influences, but he also learned from writers such as John Steinbeck, Eudora Welty, and Katherine Anne Porter. Always, he was interested in not only telling a gripping tale but also touching his readers’ hearts. “If you’re reluctant to weep,” he said once, “you won’t live a full and complete life.” He approached his work, unafraid of his imagination and his emotions. Of Verne, he said, “He believes the human being is in a strange situation in a very strange world, and he believes that we can triumph by behaving morally.” To me this sounds like a belief that can pay off handsomely for both writers of genre and literary fiction. A good tale shouldn’t be divorced from a nuanced portrayal of characters, nor should a character study be devoid of plot. Ray Bradbury taught me a little bit of both. He taught me how to entertain while also turning a keen eye to the mysteries of ordinary folks.