Meeting Ray Bradbury

Don Mowatt recalls a 1966 interview with the late writer

I first met Ray Bradbury in the fall of 1966 at his upstairs office in Beverly Hills. I was 23,  a junior radio producer from Canada and carried a heavy Swiss reel to reel tape recorder slung over my shoulder and a bag full of tapes, notes and books that I hoped the author might sign. He had agreed to my request for an extended interview for the national radio network of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and I had driven the fifteen hundred miles from Vancouver down to Los Angeles to meet him.

I loved the stories and novels of Bradbury, but I was not a particular fan of science fiction.  What I liked about his work was his evocative recollections and portrayals of mood and tone connected to places, people and events often going back to his childhood in the Mid- West. The lyricism of his writing had prompted Aldous Huxley to suggest to Bradbury that he consider writing poetry. But when he did write in verse, it did not achieve the grace, precision or strength of his prose.

 His office was full of photographs of his wife and daughters, original illustrations for his books and strange alien sculptures and toys.  It was also filled with floor to ceiling shelves of books and an ancient manual typewriter.   He noted that William Saroyan who had an office across the hall, used an electric typewriter and Bradbury worried that if he owned one, when he turned out the lights to leave his office at the end of the day, the electric machine might start creating manuscripts under his name on its own.

“Science fiction is a wonderful hammer”,  he said  ”And I intend to use it when necessary to bark a few shins in order to make people leave other people alone.”  It was in reference to our discussion of the origins of  Fahrenheit 451 and to his friends and colleagues who had been villified by charges of communism under the edicts of Senator Joe McCarthy’s committee in Washington in the early fifties.

His best writing contained this unusual balance between lyricism and fury, recollection and retribution.  Carl Sandburg once described Abraham Lincoln in just such a way: ” An iron fist in a velvet glove.”

At the end of the two hour long interview, I asked the author if he might read for the tape one of his short stories from his book A Medicine for Melancholy. “In a Season of Calm Weather”  is an account of an American tourist on the French Riviera who sees an old man drawing fantastical figures in the sand at dusk. The tourist wants to run back to his hotel
to collect his camera and return to capture these unique images on the beach before the tide comes in and washes them away.  But then he would miss the artist, whom he now recognizes as Picasso, in the act of creation. So he remains and watches the artist complete the drawings, then walk slowly away, back down the beach as the sea erases the animals, satyrs, flowers and lines in the sand and the sun sinks below the horizon.

His voice caressed the phrases, carving out the pictures of the scene imagined or recollected, he never revealed, for me and for the Canadian radio audience of forty-five years ago.

We remained in contact for thirty years….I sending him tapes of my productions of his stories and plays, he sending me books and manuscripts to produce on stage or radio. He took my wife and me to dinner shortly after our wedding as we drove through California on our way to Mexico. I had a camera with me on both occasions I met Bradbury, but treasured the moment, like the Riviera tourist, and forgot about capturing images on film.

The tape, transcript and notes of that interview so long ago have no doubt been washed away in lost archives somewhere,  but I retain the letters, signed books and recordings of the later broadcasts and a most clear memory of what we discussed together on that fall day in 1966 where his quick-silver, sun bright stories and reflections brought certainty that even the worst science fiction monsters could be overcome by energy and confidence.

Don Mowatt was born in Montreal and educated in Edinburgh on an eight year JP Crerar Scholarship in the 1950s.  He is a graduate in English and German studies at the University of Victoria, and later studied Theology at UBC.  He was appointed Arts Producer at the CBC in Vancouver in 1964 and remained there until 1997. While at the CBC, he won nearly every broadcast award available, including 2 George F. Peabody medals, ACTRA, Armstrong, Gabriel, B’Nai Brith awards and the New York Audio Arts award for his feature documentaries and radio plays. In the course of his career he interviewed and made feature documentaries on Ray Bradbury, John Irving, George Woodcock, Sir Malcolm Arnold, Sir John Gielgud, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Ned Rorem, Virgil Thomson, Lukas Foss,  and Carl Sandburg,  among others.

Since he left the CBC in 1997, he has been active in the theatre and classical music scene in Canada and the United States, writing plays and librettos and also performing. With his partner Carolyn Roberts Finlay – an accomplished pianist, teacher and actress who studied at the Moscow Conservatory of Music and performed at the Cambridge Music Conference for three years – in an on-going series of dramatic readings featuring celebrated couples: Carl and Emma Jung, Robert and Clara Schumann, Edvard and Nina Grieg, Mark Twain and Olivia Clemens HC Andersen and Johanne Heiberg, as well as an evening with Charles Dickens. In July 2012, Mowatt and Finlay will be performing At Home with Mark Twain and Olivia Clemens in the UK: July 17 at Thurlestone Hall in Devon, July 20 at a private salon in Teddington and July 22 at St. Luke’s Church in Cambridge and on July 28th at the Aboyne and Deeside Festival in the Scottish Highlands.

For information on the Aboyne and Deeside Festival, click here.

[Picture of Don Mowatt courtesy of Victor Aberdeen]