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Approaching Your Idol: Ray Bradbury Wrote To Somerset Maugham (Who Replied), And I Wrote To Bradbury (Who Replied)

In Media on April 1, 2010 at 11:15 am
Photo of Ray Bradbury.

Ray Brabdbury, one of my idols. Image via Wikipedia

If you ever dreamed of entering a specific profession, you might have found someone, even you were very young, who inspired you. If you were bold, and lucky, and wrote to them, they might have written you back:

Contact! Connection! Inspiration!

Ray Bradbury, whose work I discovered when I was 12 — and which so made me want to become a writer — did this when he discovered the work of British author Somerset Maugham.

From a recent story in The Wall Street Journal:

On an upstairs-corridor wall, for instance, hangs a sepia-tinted photograph of the English author W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965). “He was a big influence,” says a white-thatched Mr. Bradbury, seated nearby like a benevolent wizard. “I loved his short stories, and I wrote him when I was 39 years old; I wrote a fan letter, and sent him my first book of stories. And Somerset Maugham wrote back and said: ‘I think Edgar Allan Poe would have liked some of these stories.’ Isn’t that a great thing for him to say?”

I was at summer camp way up north in Ontario when I wrote to Ray Bradbury, begging him to not stop writing, I so loved his work. I was 12, and hopefully mailed my letter to his Manhattan publisher, Ballantine. To my delighted shock, within a week or two, I received a blue paper personalized postcard from him (with his return address) with his felt-tip-pen signature — and his typewritten reassurance that he would, indeed, keep writing.

I treasured his card then, as I still do today. I wrote, twice, in my 20s, to John Cheever — whose former home lies about a 2o-minute drive north of mine — and he, graciously, wrote me back both times, also on personal stationery.

I simply couldn’t imagine writers of their stature and skill taking the time to read and answer, but they did. And that left an enormous impression on me. I was touched by their graciousness and, since then, have realized that the life of a writer — certainly pre-Internet and email! — can be an isolated one. Even though millions of readers enjoy your printed, published work, depending what you write and for whom, it’s rare for some to reach out and let you know that, and a treasured moment.

Every writer shares this: you put your bum in the chair (as Margaret Atwood told me, when I was the editor of our high school paper and she, a graduate of that school, became my first Big Name interview) — and write. It’s what we choose to do, but lonely. Hearing back from someone so insanely accomplished I remember the plot-lines of several of his short stories decades after reading them made me realize he, too, appreciated being appreciated.

Have you ever reached out, in gratitude and admiration, to someone well-known and accomplished whose work you distantly admire?

What happened?

  1. Love, love, love Ray Bradbury. Read all of his books from the age of 11 or 12 through my early teens, and I recently purchased a hard cover anthology of his short stories and reread many of them. They still hold up after all these years. He’s a brilliant writer and, while I don’t know this for a fact, was probably an early influence of Steven Spielberg, given his penchant for telling stories from a kid’s point of view. The two stories that to this day still send shivers down my spine are “The Small Assassin” and “The Veldt”.

    Anyway, back to your question, I once wrote a letter to Don Hewitt at “60 Minutes” about 20 years ago, complaining about a segment that was pretty sexist, in my view. He answered me personally, but was fairly dismissive and condescending–something along the lines of “that’s why I’m the editor and you’re not.” But he did take the time and I think that’s worth commending when so few do.

  2. The Veldt is amazing! So nice to find another rabid fan. I loved the one about the footpath and time travel and the crushed butterfly — you know it, I’m sure.

    I’m not at all surprised by Hewitt’s answer. Journos can be terrible when challenged.

  3. When I was a young college student, behind the Iron Curtain, I wrote to Guy Davenport, whose work I really loved. He was extremely generous and kind, and replied at length, several times. But I soon became crushed by the extent of his erudition and wit, so I stopped writing; the thought of my own smallness was too much to bear.

  4. I don’t know of his work — thanks for this. It looks interesting; what drew you to it?

    How nice that he took the time, but I know the feeling you describe. “I am not worthy”, etc.

  5. Does it count that I comment on blogs I like?

  6. cd, if I’m one of your idols, of course. :-)

    What I find fascinating and a little odd is the accessibility — chosen — of bloggers to their audiences. It creates an air of intimacy that may not be real(istic), whereas someone like Ray Bradbury seems, for me, to dwell atop Everest in terms of his accomplishments. I had the nerve to write him when I was little. I wonder if I would do it as an adult.

    • The belle of the Baal!

      I’m old enough to find the accessibility of bloggers completely weird but kind of a thrill. I’m used to the idea that when you read a columnist or another writer that they’re far away and you think to yourself “huh. That was smart,” and move on with the rest of your day. It’s still intriguing to me that on some blogs everybody gets to know each other. Kind of cool. It seems healthy to me that instead of on Everest, the writer just lives at the top of the street.

  7. Wow. Had to look that one up!

    I agree that greater access can be a terrific thing — if/when commenters (which thank heaven most are at T/S) are smart and civil, not nuts. As you know, on-line anonymous commnuication can bring out the aluminum helmet brigades.

    I have tried (!) to contact fellow writers, like NYT columnist Bob Herbert, and got a generic email reply. Please. No one should be that self-important and the institutional armor allows for and encourages it.

    I also really enjoy it when people commenting do get to know another. The creation of community has always been one of my passions.

    The only downside, which has gone away for now, is if or when someone gets too volatile and a little stalker-ish, as one person did with me. Being accessible, certainly for anyone concerned about their personal security and safety, has some risks attached to it.

    • It’s the great vicious circle of online life. Anonymity fosters bad behavior which encourages anonymity. I wish bad things for cyber-stalkers (a category separate, I assume, from voluble commenters.)

  8. I do think bad behavior is enabled in this fashion. But you’re either an a—hole or you’re not. Being able to hide behind a screen name doesn’t absolve anyone of the responsibility for their actions and rudeness.

  9. I used to work in the publications department of a public library and Ray Bradbury was a featured author at an event there. During that job, I saw dozens of authors come through and no one had the grace and kindness that he did. Hundreds waited in line to meet him after the talk and he sent every one of them away feeling like they had reconnected with an old friend. Your post reminded me of that event.

  10. Michael, great story! I love it when your idol turns out to be a human being also worth idolizing — not just (as can be the case) their talent. I met one of my (formerly) favorite writers, a woman, to do an interview with her. I was so excited! And she was horrible. Oh well…

  11. [...] Approaching Your Idol: Ray Bradbury Wrote To Somerset Maugham (Who Replied), And I Wrote To Bradbury… [...]

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