Today would have marked the 92nd birthday of beloved science-fiction author Ray Bradbury. To celebrate, we caught up with three writers who contributed pieces to Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury.
The trio of writers we spoke with include Hugo Award-winner Kelly Link, 2006 Pulitzer Prize finalist Lee Martin and bestselling novelist Jacquelyn Mitchard. We’ve included their thoughts below.
If you are looking for more Bradbury birthday celebration, SiriusXM Book Radio host Kim Alexander will talk with biographer Sam Weller, author Mort Castle and novelist Margaret Atwood about the late science fiction author tonight at 7 p.m. ET.
KL = Kelly Link
LM = Lee Martin
JM = Jacquelyn Mitchard
Q: How did you become involved with this project?
KL: I was approached by one of the editors, Sam Weller, and jumped at the chance to write something for an anthology of stories inspired by Ray Bradbury.
LM: One of the editors, Mort Castle, invited me to contribute a story to the anthology. I believe Mort and his co-editor, Sam Weller, knew my novel, The Bright Forever, and they thought I’d be a good match for this tribute to Ray Bradbury. I immediately said yes because I often believe that such invitations are meant to guide me toward work that I need to be doing. I started to write my story, “Cat on a Bad Couch,” as inspired by the Bradbury story, “I See You Never.”
JM: This project was one I jumped to join… not only did I adore Ray, who truly was a godfather to my writing life, but I don’t write much short fiction, and I’d been messing with “Two of a Kind” for ages — literally years. My one true writing goal in this life (and the next!) is to write a truly terrific ghost story … or a series of them. And so I had permission to do this for a “real” reason.
Q: Was the writing process for your short piece contribution different from the way you approach a manuscript for a full-length book?
KL: I only write short stories, but yes, the approach was different. I went back and re-read collections like Golden Apples of the Sun and The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles. I thought about how to incorporate elements of Bradbury stories like “The Veldt” and “The Third Expedition.” I knew I wanted to mash up two genres, science fiction and ghost stories in a way that honored what Bradbury often did. In my original draft, the style was perhaps a bit too Bradbury-influenced, especially in the first few pages.
LM: The real challenge with writing my story was staying true to the vision Bradbury had in “I See You Never,” while at the same time making room for my own vision and making a happy marriage of the two. Working on a book-length manuscript requires me to hold more things in my head at the same time than writing a short story or a short piece of memoir does. The design of a novel, for example, requires a consistency over time and space that may evolve in unexpected ways because of the time that it takes me to write the book. I may be a very different person a year or two or five down the road while writing a novel, and that may affect the way I view my characters and their situations. I have to be careful, then, to remember that the characters exist in a well-defined time period within the narrative that isn’t analogous to the actual time period of the writing. A shorter piece doesn’t present that same challenge because I’m less likely to change greatly during the weeks or months that I’m writing it.
JM: The process was entirely the same: Idea, beginning, middle, end. Change everything, Start over, Beginning, middle, end, scary denouement.
Q: Can you name a specific incident where Ray Bradbury directly influenced your writing?
KL: I might not be the best judge of that! I’ve read his stories over and over again, so there’s bound to be some Bradbury-residue mixed up in what I end up writing. I love writing ghost stories, monster stories, stories of the uncanny. Ray Bradbury was one of the writers who showed me, by example, how to write the kind of thing that I wanted to do.
LM: I can remember the first time I read that Bradbury story, “I See You Never,” which is a piece of flash fiction. It touched me immediately with its poignant portrait of loss and its investigation of otherness and what it means to try to make a home for oneself far away from one’s native land. The sudden turn in that story at the end and the lost opportunity upon which it hinges is rendered with such restraint that instructs us to pay close attention to the small details and to make a very specific world with actions and consequences from those details.
JM: Ray told me once that growing up in Illinois at the same time as Ronald Reagan was very good preparation for writing The Martian Chronicles. He said that the best horror and fantasy was grounded in reality people understood as their own. That’s the key to it — to all of it. The fiction that scares us most is just reality with what Freud called “the uncanny” transposed on it like those old illustrations in the World Book encyclopedia, like transparencies, the flesh over the bones and the eye sockets. Think of the part in Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds, when the farmer is hurrying to pick his daughter up at the bus and all the sparrows are just sitting on the fences — hundreds of them, thousands of them, waiting for the sun to set. They’re just sparrows. They’re just sitting there. It’s one of the most terrifying passages in literature. When I first wrote Ray a letter, I was a 24-year-old newspaper reporter, and he was already a great man of letters, perhaps 60 years old and clearly the giant he was. I wrote him a long letter about how re-reading I Sing the Body Electric as an adult, reading it to my little stepdaughter, made me understand writing and true pathos in a way I never had when I was a kid. Well, a few days later, the copy clerk came running (that’s how long ago this was, more than 25 years ago) and there was this letter for me. There were drawings all over it, beautiful drawings of dragons and vampires and blue winged creatures like Uncle Einar, and it said only FOR JACQUELYN MITCHARD, A VERY GOOD WRITER INDEED, MADISON, WISCONSIN. It was like the letter in Our Town, addressed to Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America. Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God. Once, I thought I had lost that letter (which I have had framed) and I had to go lie down for hours. I was just distraught. Ray wrote me other letters. But not like that one.
Q: What do you think is the best way to self-edit?
KL: Different methods work for different writers. It’s the writer’s job to figure out what works for you. Having said that, it’s always useful to read your work out loud.
I revise as I work, starting over again at the beginning of a story each time I sit down, or whenever I get stuck going forward. I also show my work to other writers, because it’s useful to be told how someone else reads your drafts, what the story seems to be to them and how it makes them feel. Workshops and peer readers may not be necessary (in fact they may do more harm than good for some writers). But I write, in part, to have something to bring to a workshop so that I can talk about how fiction works with my peers.
When I revise, I think about language, repetition, about the ends of paragraphs, about how to make things funnier or scarier — about what I can cut, to what effect. I don’t aim for clarity, necessarily. The point of writing a short story isn’t to explain to the reader every character, every motivation, everything that happened and what it all meant. At least, that isn’t the point to me. I want to leave the reader in a different room than the one that they sat down in.
LM: At some point, the writer has to know what effect the piece of writing is trying to create, particularly at the end. Once the writer knows that, he or she can go through the manuscript thinking about the work that each chapter, each scene, is doing to contribute to that desired effect. That process shows the writer what to leave out., what to add, what to make more of, etc.
JM: I self-edit line by line. I literally read what I’ve written the day before, even if I have a crushing deadline, to make sure that what I’ve done has held up overnight. I have to be sure that everything that comes first is perfect before I do what comes next — whatever that is. And there’s this sense. When a part of a book starts to feel heavy, like an egg salad sandwich about to rip out the bottom of the paper sack, I know that there’s too much of it. I have to go in and take half of it out, because if it feels heavy to me, it’s going to feel like a weight around the reader’s neck. I guess the short answer is, the best way to self-edit is daily and ruthlessly.
Q: What’s next for you in your career?
KL: I’m working on several new short stories for a fourth collection. I’m putting together (with my partner Gavin J. Grant) a Young Adult anthology of original stories, Monstrous Affections, that Candlewick Press will publish in 2014. I’m working on jacket copy for a new Peter Dickinson collection that Small Beer Press will publish quite soon; we’re concurrently working on collections by Ursula K. Le Guin, Nathan Ballingrud, Kij Johnson, and an astonishing first novel by a writer named Sofia Samatar.
LM: I just had a memoir, Such a Life, come out in March, and now I’m close to finished with a new novel called, at least for the time being, Late One Night.
JM: A series of two Young Adult mysteries (creepy, creepy) is coming out this and next January. I’m working hard on a novel for adults about a former Chicago police officer who rescues a mute child from a tsunami in Brisbane, who learns the child is something .. different. He’s not a visionary. He’s not a physical healer. He has the ability to make anything mammalian stop acting crazy. I’m also writing a novel about how a long and epic friendship ends because of a silly misunderstanding, and beginning work on a story about a woman who has had the ability since childhood to find things and people. I would love to collect my recent essays — I’m not a contributing editor for More magazine — because that would be fun. And I’m doing things for anthologies. What I really want to do? I want to write a ghost story as chilling as Beth Gutcheon’s “More Than You Know” or Susan Hill’s “The Woman in Black.”