Growing up in a small country town in Australia, my only experience of the wider world came through grainy black and white TV images and the magic of the books that I borrowed from the local library.
I remember being eight-years-old, in July 1969, when teachers assembled the entire school – barely a hundred students – into one classroom. They wheeled in a television and we watched Neil Armstrong emerge from the landing module of Apollo 11. We held our breath. One small step…one giant leap…
Everyone applauded except me. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the enormity of the achievement, but I had already been to the moon and walked on the surface of Mars and smelt the pungent odour of Jupiter. I had travelled the universe with a writer called Ray Bradbury, who is perhaps the reason that I’m a novelist today.
Bradbury was born in 1920 in Waukegan, Illinois, the son of a lineman for the local power company, who moved often for work between Illinois and Arizona. When very young he developed a passion for the books of Edgar Allan Poe and L. Frank Baum, while immersing himself in popular culture such as cinema, comic strips and travelling circuses.
There were tragedies in his early life. His beloved grandfather and his baby sister died of pneumonia – which could explain why a sense of loss haunts so many of Bradbury’s stories and novels.
At the age of fourteen he moved to California and has lived there ever since. After he graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1938, he joined the Los Angeles Science Fiction League, befriending writers Robert Heinlein and Leigh Brackett. In 1940 he sold his first story to a literary magazine – and a career began that would span more than seventy years.
Apart from numerous books and short stories, Bradbury wrote for years for both Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. He has penned the screenplay for the classic 1956 version of Moby Dick starring Gregory Peck and directed by John Huston.
I wasn’t born until 1960, but I discovered Bradbury when I graduated from picture books to short stories. From memory, the first I ever picked up was The Illustrated Man a collection of eighteen short stories that opens in Wisconsin where two men sit down to share a meal around a campfire and one unbuttons his shirt to reveal a canvas of ink-decorated skin. In the flickering firelight, the images begin to breathe and move. Each of the tattoos tells a story and gives a vision of humankind’s destiny. There were tales of star-travel, Martian invasions, junkyard rockets and technology awakening our worst instincts.
I was mesmerised and went looking for more Ray Bradbury stories, finding The Martian Chronicles, The Small Assassin and his most famous novel Fahrenhiet 451 about a future world where books are banned and burned.
Then I struck a problem. In my small town, I couldn’t get any more of Bradbury’s books. They weren’t available. I made a decision. I wrote a letter to Mr Bradbury addressed to 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, because that was the address on the flyleaf of one of my books.
Months passed. I didn’t expect to hear anything back. Then a parcel arrived at the post office. My mother had to go down and collect it. I came home from school and it was sitting on the kitchen table, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string.
Inside there were five books – the Ray Bradbury titles that I couldn’t get in Australia – as well as a letter from the man himself, saying how thrilled he was to have such a passionate young reader on the far side of the world.
It was an astonishing gesture – life-defining if not life-changing. Almost from that moment, I wanted to be a writer. I became a journalist to gather material and a ghostwriter to teach myself the discipline, and finally a novelist.
I recounted this story last year, writing an article for a publishing website in America. I quoted Ray Bradbury, who once said: ‘Jules Verne was my father. H.G. Wells was my wise uncle. Poe was the batwinged cousin we kept in the attic. Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers were my brothers. And Mary Shelley was my mother. There you have my ancestry.’
About a week after the story was posted on the website, I had an email from Ray Bradbury’s youngest daughter Alexandra. She told me that her father was now in his nineties, still living in Los Angeles and almost totally blind.
‘I read him your story and it made him cry,’ she told me. ‘Dad wanted you to know that you are his son.’
Ray Bradbury died on the June 5, this year. It led to a tremendous outpouring of praise and admiration as people recognised his achievements. I wasn’t alone in crediting Bradbury as being my inspiration. Stephen King, Stephen Spielberg and Neil Gaiman joined a chorus of other writers and directors, who lauded Bradbury as one a literary giant of genre fiction.
I still have my collection of his books, but sadly I have misplaced his letter in one of my many moves between the UK, Australia and Africa. I have a feeling it will turn up one day, pressed between the pages of a book. That’s where all great letters belong.
Guest Blogger: Michael Robotham was an investigative journalist and ghostwriter in Britain, Australia, and the U.S before his career as a novelist. He lives in Sydney with his wife and three daughters. His latest psychological thriller is SAY YOU’RE SORRY.
Learn more at http://www.michaelrobotham.com
Michael, thank you for sharing this wonderful story with our readers.
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