The story of finding a message from Ray Bradbury on my answering machine is an inspiring and magical tale that ends with a poetic nod to the wisdom of childhood. And if you believe that, can I interest you in some riverside property on Mars?
My introduction to Bradbury’s work was a common one: the required reading list in my high school, where he was sandwiched between some guy named Steinbeck and a satirist we much preferred called Vonnegut (or, as he was known to us, “that guy who was in Back to School with Rodney Dangerfield”). The book was Dandelion Wine, a nostalgic yarn in which a boy named Douglas covets a pair of Cream-Sponge Para Litefoot Shoes because he’s convinced his summer will die without them. As a devotee of natural colored Converse Chuck Taylors, I had, at last, found something I could relate to in an American novel.
In time, I became familiar with The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451 and many of his short stories, but it was with Bradbury’s wistfulness that I most connected to. Dandelion Wine seemed to be written by a man who had never reconciled the end of his childhood and, as I aged out of it myself, I tended to turn to Bradbury annually, in October, with a reading of The Halloween Tree. I didn’t know another soul who’d read this book, so it became a private conversation between Bradbury and myself, a quiet smile between us at a time in our lives when thoughts of death carried with them no threat.
A year out of film school, I’d settled into a schedule that involved agonizing over spec scripts by day and numbing my brain with television by night. A few days before Halloween, I stumbled upon Bradbury appearing on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. He was describing a night in his twelfth summer when a magician in a traveling carnival implored him to live forever, which he decided, then and there, to do through writing. The morning after the show, I wrote him an earnest letter detailing my struggles as a writer and, essentially, asking him to perform a magic trick on me.
I was doubtful the letter would reach him via the publisher’s address inside my copy of Dandelion Wine, but a FedEx envelope from an unfamiliar Los Angeles address arrived just two weeks later. Inside was a copy of Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, inscribed to me in a scrawl of black marker:
For Paul Foster! With thanks for his kind letter and in hopes that this book will answer all of his questions! Onward!
— Ray Bradbury
Let’s say that the book answered some of my questions. Becoming intimate with his beginnings and methods, while comforting, did not result in the kind of electric spark the carnival man had generated in him. But it was important to my development to be able to think of him as a peer, in pursuit if not in talent. Several years later, I wrote again, this time to illustrate my gratitude for the book by relating a few of the modest victories my writing had enjoyed in the intervening years.
I was slinging coffee in a New Hampshire café at this time, working alongside kids who didn’t understand my pop culture references, and I took pleasure in exactly two things about the job: the intoxicating aroma from the roasted beans and the fact that I could walk home for lunch. If I hurried. I had pressed the blinking button on my answering machine and was making a sandwich when I heard an aged voice speaking on the tape:
“Yes, this is Ray. Bradbury. I want to leave a message for Paul Foster. I’m a little worried and I would like for him to call me.”
And he left his phone number. I sat in a chair next to the phone and played the message again, then walked back to work having forgotten to eat.
I called him that afternoon and found him home. He had been concerned, he said, by the tone of my letter and this immediately endeared him to me. This was an 84-year-old man who had suffered a debilitating stroke. He was, surely, still grieving the loss of his wife a year earlier. Bradbury was a man who was three months away from receiving the National Medal of Arts, whose influence on our literature and culture was immeasurable. And he was calling to comfort a complete stranger.
In retrospect, I can see where a dash of desperation did creep into my second letter. I’d wanted it to be an optimistic note, a list of achievements, but I’d spent considerable time bemoaning the need for income. There was angst. And there was bitterness. In Zen Bradbury had written, “… if you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer." One thing my letter had made clear: I wasn’t having much fun. “In terms of volume, though,” I’d written, “the one thing I write the most is cover letters.”
Our conversation centered on film. It was apparent that, while he’d been enamored of the movies since childhood, his involvement with the industry had been disheartening. He talked of all the film adaptations of his work that he hadn’t been consulted on. He talked of a certain A-list Hollywood celebrity who was intending to film one of his novels. He swore a lot. “Do you know that they never even called me?” he said. “I’m the writer! I wrote the book! And they hired two guys who’ve never written anything to write the screenplay.”
As I had in my letter, I gushed about independent film, of Kieslowski, of Iranian cinema, of Herzog. I agreed with him about the sorry state of films coming out of Hollywood and suggested that independent films offered an alternative. He didn’t seem to hear. “Look at Spiderman 2. Is that the kind of shit you want to make?” he asked.
But this was neither criticism nor attack. He was imploring me to stop wasting my time and my talent on an industry so fickle and so lacking in common sense. He knew of what he spoke. And, to that end, he made me an offer: “Write a novel, will you? Write a novel and send it to me in six months, okay? Can you do that?”
This is the point where the story should follow a master and apprentice formula, where I should talk about turning points and the path to success. But because this is a story about what really happened, I will talk about regret instead. I never wrote that novel, considered it only briefly. I felt the boyish passion for filmmaking that he had felt for science fiction stories and, after the aching internal debate between writing and filmmaking I’d described in my letters, I was pursuing the latter with all my energies. I was in talks with an indie producer about one of my scripts and had recently started collaborating on another. Things were looking up.
I don’t regret not writing a novel, but I do wish I’d found a way to keep in touch with him. I wasn’t about to haunt his phone, much as I would have been buoyed by a dose of his enthusiasm and wonder every week or so. But his return address was on the FedEx envelope and I could, at least, have written him from time to time. I suppose I was trying to respect him, and to respect myself, to see us as fellow writers, not as icon and fan.
And I saw our conversation for what it was: a kind, old man, touched by the struggles of a younger one, reaching out with his experience and wisdom. This was enough. Bradbury was a man so in love with writing, had such a belief in the power and importance of stories, that he called me to make sure I didn’t give up. He had his own wallpaper of rejection letters and had learned that, even in disappointment, you have to retain your love of life and write. Always write.
All those years ago, the carnival man had touched him with a sword of fire as he conferred immortality. And I realized that, perhaps to Bradbury, the thousands of miles of phone line between us were his blade. “Live forever!” he was saying. “Live forever!”