At 79, Ray Bradbury is as prolific as ever. The author of such seminal works as Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, as well as novels like Something Wicked This Way Comes and hundreds of short stories, Bradbury is not one to take breaks: He's been more or less writing non-stop since he was 20. The Onion briefly pulled Bradbury away from his work long enough to talk to him about his place in the canon, the state of education, and bad taste.
The Onion: I'm one of many to have grown up reading your work. How does it feel to be canonized?
Ray Bradbury: I don't think about it. Just get your work done and never think about that sort of thing.
O: Still, it must be exciting to know that students are required to read your books in school.
RB: Yeah, occasionally. I was at a ceremony yesterday to give an honorary degree to Ray Harryhausen, my old friend, the animator of dinosaurs. So, things like that, the two of us get one heck of a lot of love and affection from people. That's good, yeah.
O: Really, though, there are so few authors who are actually on reading lists. Isn't that a validation?
RB: It's amazing. I never thought it would happen. I wrote stories to please myself, and it's very gratifying to see that Fahrenheit, or The Martian Chronicles, or Something Wicked are in schools all over the country.
O: It's also relatively unusual for a science-fiction writer.
RB: I'm not a science-fiction writer. I've only written one book that's science fiction, and that's Fahrenheit 451. All the others are fantasy.
O: What's the distinction for you?
RB: Fantasies are things that can't happen, and science fiction is about things that can happen.
O: Well, you had originally set The Martian Chronicles in 1999, which then was a long way off. For all you knew, what you wrote about was not completely out of the realm of plausibility.
RB: My Mars is fantastic, you see. It's not real, so it's a fantasy. I've just had to change all the dates for the new edition. [Laughs.] I've set our colonization of Mars ahead to 2050.
O: Why did you originally estimate 1999?
RB: Well, it seemed like a long way off. It was 50 years ago! The space age was nowhere in sight, and I thought that that gave it enough time. [Laughs.] At least we got to the moon.
O: It must be weird to see the present catch up to your future.
RB: Oh, no. They haven't caught up. We've only been on the moon for a few hours. I'm way ahead of them.
O: I was thinking strictly chronologically. The whole world is now the date you chose, regardless of whether any of the changes you predicted actually occurred.
RB: Oh, yeah. Of course.
O: Does the fact that it's already 1999—"the future"—and you're still writing put your career into perspective?
RB: Oh, no. I just get my work done. That's the important thing.
O: Fahrenheit 451 is one of the definitive anti-censorship books. What do you think of the renewed efforts to restrict or regulate the content of books, movies, music, and the like?
RB: That's not censorship. You have to have taste. You know, there's a hell of a lot in movies that doesn't have to be there. I'll give you a good example: Mel Gibson is doing a new version of Fahrenheit 451 next year some time. There are nine screenplays—nine screenplays! Now, if you know the book, you can just shoot the book off of the page. It's an automatic screenplay. Well, I gave them one screenplay, and there are eight more by various screenwriters. And to give you an example of what should not go into a film—and it's not censorship, it's taste—there's one of the scenes by this other screenwriter. The fire chief comes to visit Montag, and Montag's wife, Mildred, says to him, "Would you like some coffee?" And the fire chief then says, "Do bears shit in the woods?" Do you want that in a film?
O: It's certainly not necessary.
RB: No, it's not. It's not in the book. It's not me. So, that's not censorship. It's just their bad taste.
O: Is it hard to watch people changing what you wrote?
RB: Oh, sure, because I don't have control. Once you sell those things to the studio, they can do anything with it that they want. You have the privilege, of course, of not selling it to them. But Mel Gibson is a fine director and a fine actor, and I trust him to do a good job. But at the right moment, when they start production, I'll make a list of things that don't go into the film. And if he doesn't [listen], I'll call a press conference.
O: Compared to most of the films out there, the example of bad taste you brought up is pretty mild.
RB: [Laughs.] There are a lot of "fuck" words in there, too!
O: I guess it's just a business, and that stuff sells.
RB: They think they need it, but I have a new film out now, The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, and… Have you seen it?
O: No, it played only briefly.
RB: No, it didn't. That was only the premiere. You can rent it for a dollar. They didn't put it in a theater. They were experimenting with videocassette sales, which I don't approve of. It belongs in theaters. It's the best film I've ever made, and there's not one curse in the whole film. And it's about people who could very easily curse, you see? But you don't need those swear words.
O: Do you think screenwriters are just too lazy to write without profanity?
RB: Oh, they're just trying to show off. It's just male macho crap.
O: But that sells tickets.
RB: No, it doesn't. At least, I don't think it does. They imagine it does. It all started with Saturday Night Fever about 20 years ago. In the very first scene, the guys drive up and call him a "fuckhead." That's the point where I got up and left the theater with my wife. I said, "I don't need that." That's where it all started, about 20 years ago.
O: It's one thing if it's a matter of personal taste, but isn't it bad if someone else imposes their own tastes? Isn't that a dangerous direction to go, or can the task be handled responsibly?
RB: I'll handle it for them. If they want, I'll kick 'em!
O: Well, you complained that you don't have control over the rights to your book…
RB: But I can take a press conference, though. I'm a danger to them if they're not careful.
O: I suppose the new Star Wars film went out of its way to avoid bad language and blood.
RB: And it's doing very well. In fact, it's doing better than it deserves, I gather. I haven't seen it, so I can't judge. It looks like a lot of special effects. People go to see that.
O: You've always written about people first and foremost, and I think that accounts for the longevity of your stories.
RB: Also, I deal in metaphors. All my stories are like the Greek and Roman myths, and the Egyptian myths, and the Old and New Testament. If you speak in tongues, if you write in metaphors, then people can remember them. The stories are very easy to recall, and you can tell them. So it's my ability as a teller of tales and a writer of metaphors. I think that's why I'm in the schools.
O: But there's a whole new generation of fantasy and science-fiction writers that don't write in metaphors. They write visually, as if they're writing a screenplay.
RB: I don't read them, so I can't judge.
O: Though you have expressed disdain for a lot of the cyberpunk novels.
RB: They look boring to me. But I haven't read them. Again, it's a male macho fad. Women don't care for this sort of crud.
O: Why do writers gravitate toward the macho stuff?
RB: I don't know. I have no knowledge. I just hear these things. I don't have time to read these books.
O: Are you always working, then?
RB: [Laughs.] Are you kidding? I've got six new books coming out in the next two years. I've been writing every day of my life for 65 years.
O: That's an admirable habit.
RB: Oh, it's not mine. It's God-given. It's not discipline; it's passion. Passion is the discipline.
O: Do you think contemporary writers have a similar passion?
RB: Of course they do. You just have to look around for it, though. There are people writing in every field: essays, poetry, plays. But you have to search them out.
O: Do you think the average person these days has enough passion for reading to search these things out?
RB: Sure, my fans.
O: But besides your fans. Are people reading enough?
RB: Well, there are 20,000 new books published every year.
O: But do people really purchase them?
RB: They wouldn't be published otherwise.
O: It seems as if everybody winds up reading the same things.
RB: Well, there's a lot of junk around. Barbara Taylor Bradford, Judith Krantz, and what have you. And they sell in the millions. It's always been true. There have always been soap operas and summer-reading books. That goes back 100 years. Look at Gone With The Wind. That was a big bestseller 60 years ago. But, you know, it's very shallow. It's a woman's book, and they read for the adventure of a woman trying to make do with these beasts called men.
O: Do you find it inspirational that people are still attracted to your writing through all the changes in fads and tastes?
RB: Nope. I write just for myself. My tastes are the same. I've always loved Tarzan, I've always loved John Carter Of Mars, and I still collect Buck Rogers comic strips. I still love Prince Valiant. It doesn't change.
O: Still, it must be difficult to weather cultural changes, because we're all inundated with external stimuli.
RB: But you can cut it all off. You don't have to turn on the TV set. You don't have to work on the Internet. It's up to you.
O: Many people act like they're compelled to consume these distractions.
RB: But they're not. Not for a moment. Everything is generated through your own will power. You don't have to do anything you don't want to do. This is a democracy. You go where you want to go and do what you want to do.
O: A lot of young people may not have the maturity to make such decisions.
RB: Well, better they decide on me. That's all I ask.
O: On the subject of computers, I found a quote from you that says, "I don't understand this whole thing about computers and the superhighway. Who wants to be in touch with all those people?" That's from 1995.
RB: That's right. And I haven't changed my mind. Bill Gates was at the library ahead of me two years ago. He signed in the guest book, and I wrote underneath his name, "I don't do Windows."
O: Have computers been a benefit?
RB: Yes and no. It depends on how you use it. Some things you use it for, searching for certain kinds of facts, are good. But if you're not careful, it turns into just one more toy.
O: It is a good way for people to share certain passions.
RB: That's a lot of nonsense. Go out and meet people! Don't get on a machine and do it.
O: You have written a good deal about the future—or what was then the future—so surely it must be interesting that some of your predictions have come true.
RB: Fahrenheit is full of 'em. A lot of things are unpleasant, like local television news. I'm sorry I predicted that. But here it is. It's all crap. At least we don't have a totalitarian government like what they had in the book. But through lack of education, we're not teaching kids to read and write. So there is the danger that you raise up a generation of morons.
O: But the fact that a book like Fahrenheit 451 is taught in schools—and that students are required to read it—may help prevent the rise of a totalitarian government.
RB: Oh, no, because the responsibility is at the kindergarten and first-grade level. And if you don't do the work there to teach people to read, they're not going to read Fahrenheit.
O: What can be done to make students more interested in reading?
RB: That's not it. It's the teachers who have to do the job in kindergarten and first grade. Once you teach them to read and write, then the students will be curious. But the education system has failed, and all the money that Washington sends out in the next two years has got to go to local schools, first grade, and kindergarten. Then we can cure the problem.
O: What do you think went wrong?
RB: The teachers stopped teaching. They're lazy, and they don't want to be graded. And yet we're all graded constantly.
O: As a writer, do you feel like a teacher yourself?
RB: You must be. You can't be self-conscious about it, but Dr. Schweitzer said years ago, "Do something good and someone might imitate it." So if you like my writing, you may very well imitate my passion.