LOS ANGELES - On a golden apple day in a rambling house the color of corn, Ray Bradbury emerges from his basement lair aglow with satisfaction at having just about finished his 33rd book, ``Somewhere a Band Is Playing'' - more than 40 years after he put it aside.
"This thing I finished today ... I wrote it for Katharine Hepburn back around 1962. ... But she got tired of waiting, grew old and died." He punctuates the line with a wry smile. "I take my time, you know."
The congenital storyteller slips into campfire mode, sketching out his tale of a young writer who finds a desert community where everyone is 150 years old. He falls in love with a "maiden lady" who looks 30 but is pushing 120, and agrees to stay and live to 200. This prevents him from ever revisiting his hometown, "because you don't want to live around people and have them discover that they're dying and you're not. They're going to hate you, aren't they?"
Bradbury chuckles at the alloy of gain and loss.
"I had a lot of fun with it ... and I'm very happy. Very happy."
Time and mortality have always figured in the work of America's foremost writer of speculative fiction, but with the approach of his 85th birthday on Aug. 22, Bradbury seems to be racing the hourglass and joyously thumbing his nose at it.
Today's final sprint follows hard on his last polish to a sequel of sorts to ``Dandelion Wine,'' his 1957 novel about a young boy running riot in a pastoral small town, set during a bucolic summer before the Depression.
It's actually more a "continuation" than a sequel, Bradbury says. "The original book was 400 pages and my publishers said we'll publish 200 and that was
Dandelion Wine,' and then the second half will be a sequel and you'll call itFarewell Summer.'"
``Summer'' took nearly 50 years to arrive.
He's also nearing the finale of a novel based on his play ``Leviathan 99,'' which he wryly nicknames "Moby Dick in outer space," and he's advising organizers of a Bradbury play festival planned for next year in Mount Dora, near Orlando, Fla.
And he's trumpeting the Sept. 2 release of Peter Hyams' film ``A Sound of Thunder,'' based on his classic short story about big-game hunters traveling in time to hunt dinosaurs - with profound repercussions.
Then there are the lectures, book signings and interviews tied to last spring's launch of Sam Weller's loving but clear-eyed biography,
The Bradbury Chronicles,'' as well as a collection of his essays and articles,Bradbury Speaks,'' released last month.
Clad in a blue Oxford shirt, dark tie and white tennis shorts, the author settles into a den gloriously cluttered with a mosaic of mementos - the cover art for ``Something Wicked This Way Comes,'' a poster for Blackstone the magician, a two-foot sea serpent puppet - for a flow of scratchy-voiced reminiscence and enjoyment of the moment.
The devotion of Bradbury's fans is not just ardent, it's lifelong. Boomers who once thumbed inexpensive Bantam paperbacks until they fell apart are now buying Doubleday first editions of the same work.
Although the allure of space ships may have first attracted them, Bradbury has never been a science-fiction writer in the mold of contemporaries such as Isaac Asimov or Robert A. Heinlein.
Besides 408 published short stories, 267 articles and about 250 published poems, he has dabbled in detective novels and owns a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his screenplays, which include ``Moby Dick'' (the one not in outer space). If a label must be applied, fantasist seems much more apt. Despite tales of April witches and dark carnivals, aliens and grotesques, the majority of his output is set in a familiar Earth on the day after tomorrow, or in a past whose candy-colored barber poles and neatly trimmed town squares cloak dark undercurrents of terror.
His best-known works,
Fahrenheit 451'' andThe Martian Chronicles,'' are not simply about firemen burning books or space exploration. Secreting serious themes inside ingenious fables, as do all the best works of fantasy, his tales depict ordinary people discovering their innate humanity amid extraordinary challenges.
Bradbury's love of reading became the foundation of his vocation, first as a youngster in Waukegan, Ill., then as a teenager in Los Angeles.
"When I left high school, I couldn't do anything. I couldn't write poetry. Couldn't write plays. Couldn't write short stories. They had an anthology of short stories in my school. Everyone else was in it. But not me."
The metamorphosis resulted from "writing every day for 10 years, and living in the library and reading all the great books and all the great short stories and being influenced by Dickens and William Butler Yeats and Oscar Wilde and Sean O'Casey and all the women writers, Willa Cather, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty."
He once devoured the work of colleagues like Heinlein, but not anymore. "I don't believe in reading my compatriots. Well, why should I? I've outlived all of them."
Bradbury absorbed their lessons, then evolved a voice as famous for its lyricism as its ideas. Simultaneously lush yet economical, his evocative prose is suffused with metaphors that edge into poesy.
"If you open `Sound of Thunder' and read the description of the dinosaur there, it's pure poetry. I didn't know I was writing poetry, but I was."
A lifetime later, his process remains preternaturally intuitive: "It's all explosive and accidental," he insists. "The intellect is dangerous because it criticizes. The art of writing is not criticizing, it's emotionalizing.
"You should try sticking your finger down your throat. ... It's the only way to write. If it's work, that's wrong. You shouldn't work at it. You should throw up every morning and clean up at noon."
He'll put what he's working on aside for a few days, then look at it again. "I might make some minor corrections, a few words or a paragraph. But the story has to be of a piece and if it's not of a piece, I'm not happy with it and it doesn't go out."
Which is not to say the failures go into the trash.
"Are you kidding? Look at the junk here. I'm surrounded. ... Hundreds of stories."
His bibliographer, Donn Albright, frequently excavates material from Bradbury's cluttered basement.
"Sometimes I'm so busy moving ahead I don't look back. ... He says, `Why don't you finish this? It's a great idea.' So a lot of my books published in the last 10 years, half the stories are stories that he found."
His riff on the creative process reminds him of an encounter with Federico Fellini, which came about after he wrote a 1977 article in the Los Angeles Times expressing his love of the director's films.
Bradbury asked Fellini about his habit of refusing to look at the rushes while he was making a film. "And he said,
I never want to know what I'm doing.' And I said,That's the way I work, too. I write a short story and put it away and I won't look at it.'
"He took me back to the hotel and he embraced me and cried to the sky, `My twin! My twin!' And I wept. I was so happy, I wept."
The Fellini anecdote hints at Bradbury's lifelong affair with the movies.
In his home a few blocks from 20th Century Fox, two closets brim with videotapes. The stacks on his mantel include John Boorman's sledgehammer
Point Blank,'' Martin Scorsese's courtlyAge of Innocence'' and the Coen Brothers' anarchic ``Raising Arizona.''
"I walked through the halls of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and they've got 100 posters from all the films that have won the Academy Awards from 1927 till now. I've seen every one, and many of them five times."
From the age of 13, Bradbury would roller-skate to the gates of the studios, greeting stars heading home from work. Flashing that teenager's grin, he points to a dark wooden box buried under a tower of books near the doorsill. Inside are unlined index cards turning beige with age.
The first is inscribed in pencil: "Bette Davis." The next scrawl reads "Henry Fonda." The treasure chest holds a thousand souvenirs from vigils outside the gates.
"I couldn't stay away from the studio. I hoped one day to go over the wall and be employed."
Which he did. As screenwriter and consultant, Bradbury has intersected with much of Hollywood's royalty.
He recalls Gene Kelly apologizing because he failed to get overseas financing to film
`Something Wicked This Way Comes.'' Bradbury consoled him, "Don't say you're sorry, because I'm honored. You filmed the greatest musical ever made,Singing in the Rain,' which is a science-fiction musical about the invention of sound. Sure."
But he knows his legacy is tied to his vision of the not-so-distant future.
"I blundered into it through love. I fell in love with the (futuristic exhibits of the) 1933 Chicago World's Fair and when I found out they were tearing it down, I built it up in my back yard," creating tiny models of the buildings.
That was part of the initial impetus for his short stories: "If they were going to tear up the future, I was going to ensure it. So I wrote my first fiction to make sure the future was going to exist."
When that future arrived, it was as problematic as he predicted, only in ways he hadn't expected.
"The main problem is the automobile, because it doesn't work," says the Angeleno who never learned to drive. "The freeways are coming to a halt. Last night, I was an hour late to a lecture out in the Valley. Terrible. Terrible.
"Our city fathers are stupid," he announces, railing at their refusal 42 years ago to build monorails. "Now it's too late. In the next five years, all the freeways will turn to concrete. All the cars will be frozen."
Time, a recurring theme even to the chapter he finished that morning, lurks in corners.
Bradbury is a stroke survivor whose sometimes uses a walker, whose hearing isn't acute, whose wife of 56 years died in 2003 and who starts many anecdotes with "40 years ago."
Asked what he is proudest of, his answer is instantaneous.
"My total life I'm proud of. My total life, because I've been dedicated from the age of 12 and I've loved what I've done."
But he uttered a better benediction in a documentary playing nearby at the LaBrea Tar Pits, about an artist known for his detailed drawings of dinosaurs.
"If you do excellent things, you will live forever."
(c) 2005 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.