“I found the best way to inspire myself,” Ray Bradbury once wrote, “was to go to the library in Los Angeles and rove about, pulling books from the shelves, reading a line here, a paragraph there, snatching, devouring, moving on, and then suddenly writing on any handy piece of paper.”
Bradbury, whose status as a 20th century American writer is nothing less than monumental, found more than inspiration at the library.
In 1950, Bradbury was a 30-year-old with a family, a set of publishing credits, and very little money to show for his efforts. Born in 1920 in Waukegan, Illinois, he was surrounded by a loving family that read and encouraged him to read. He also fell in love with libraries during those early years. His father moved the family to Arizona a couple of times during his youth while seeking work and finally found permanent employment in Los Angeles—a place the young Bradbury would forever call home.
Bradbury started writing at an early age and sold his first story when he was 18 years old. He was particularly taken with what was then known as the science fiction genre. Bradbury would expand that genre to include what he loved the most: fantasy.
His poor eyesight kept him out of the service during World War II, and he began his goal of becoming a full-time writer. He wrote and sold numerous stories to magazines, and his first collection of short stories, Dark Carnival, came out as a book in 1947. That same year, he won the O. Henry Award for the best short story of the year for “The Homecoming,” a story that appeared in Mademoiselle magazine after it was picked out of a slush pile by a young editor named Truman Capote.
In 1949, with his wife expecting their first child, Bradbury rode a Greyhound bus to New York City where he got a room for 50 cents a night at the YMCA and began visiting publishers in hopes of selling another collection of short stories. The publishers he visited, however, didn’t want short stories; they wanted novels. An editor at Doubleday, coincidentally named Walter Bradbury, suggested that he string his stories together and suggested calling such a book The Martian Chronicles. Bradbury took that suggestion back to the Y, stayed up all night writing an outline for the book, and took it back to Doubleday the next morning. The editor gave him a check for $750, a princely sum to an author who was chronically short of cash.
The book was published in 1950 and achieved the rare feat of being liked by both the science fiction public and the critics. Those critics saw in Bradbury a talent and a potential rare in American letters. Christopher Isherwood called him a “great and unusual talent” and compared him to Edgar Allan Poe as a master of the grotesque.
The book established Bradbury’s reputation as a writer who could go beyond the limitations of science fiction, but its immediate sales—while healthy for a book of its type—did not make him a rich man. It did, however, allow him to support his family and gain a literary agent.
About this time, Bradbury moved his family into a small house in Los Angeles that had a garage he intended to make into his writing room. He hadn’t gotten to that just then when he found himself wandering around the Los Angeles library, picking up books and getting inspiration. He was near a stairwell when he heard the sounds of a typewriter coming from the floor below and decided to investigate.
There, he found a room of typewriters that could be rented for 10 cents per half hour. All you had to do was feed a dime into the machine next to the typewriter, and you could type to your heart’s content.
Bradbury had found his temporary writing room.
Next week: The making of Fahrenheit 451.
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