Q&A with Jonathan R. Eller, author of Bradbury Beyond Apollo

Jonathan R. Eller, author of Bradbury Beyond Apollo, the final book in his trilogy biography of Ray Bradbury, answers questions about his reasoning for writing a trilogy, academic and literary influences, and all-things science fiction.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

Bradbury Beyond Apollo completes a biographical trilogy—what began in Becoming Ray Bradbury and continued in Ray Bradbury Unbound remained incomplete until I could tell the story of Ray Bradbury’s final four decades. He approved this project in the fall of 2004, providing answers to countless questions and access to his personal archives as I wrote the first two volumes. Since his passing, his remaining archives and office have been preserved in the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies, where I was able to complete Bradbury Beyond Apollo just as his centennial year of 2020 began.

Q: Who were your biggest influences?

As with most biographers, I found that the central influence was the subject’s life. I had read Bradbury since the early 1960s, starting with his wide-ranging collection, The Golden Apples of the Sun. Beginning in the late 1980s, I had the great good fortune to get to know him, work on various limited editions of his works, and eventually spend time with him as I gathered the basis for four books on his life and career. Donn Albright, Bradbury’s good friend and principal bibliographer, along with writer and close Bradbury friend William F. Nolan, have been influential advisors over the years through their deep personal knowledge of Ray Bradbury’s life. But Bradbury Beyond Apollo, like it’s two prequels, is really a biography of the mind; as I worked with Ray Bradbury and his office library, I came under the influence of writers who had inspired Bradbury’s fantasies of space and time, including Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Leigh Brackett, John Collier, Cornell Woolrich, Robert Nathan, Nigel Kneale, and Shirley Jackson.

Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?

Perhaps the most interesting discovery in researching Bradbury Beyond Apollo involved the improbable journey of a digital copy of The Martian Chronicles to the surface of the planet Mars. In 1992, Planetary Society founders Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Lou Friedman developed an “ABCs of Science Fiction” Project that was scheduled to carry novels by Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke to the Red Planet aboard a Russian lander. The vehicle and the digitized CD missed its Martian trajectory boost and fell back to Earth, but The Planetary Society never gave up the mission. In 2008, America’s Phoenix lander arrived in the high northern latitudes of Mars, carrying a far more sophisticated DVD full of science fiction by many writers. The Martian Chronicles text on the Phoenix DVD included cover art by Michael Whelan and an influential 1950s introduction by Jorge Luis Borges.

Jonathan R. Eller is a Chancellor’s Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis.

Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?

It is important to learn that Ray Bradbury was not just a writer for mid-century America who’s widely read stories of other worlds outpaced his limited understanding of science and technology. Bradbury understood the workings of the human heart—how we dream, how we learn, and how we remember the past in order to shape our future. Bradbury did not mistrust technology; he mistrusted those who misuse technology for their own ends. Looking back from the final pages of Bradbury Beyond Apollo, we can see that generations of astronomers, astrophysicists, planetary geologists, aerospace engineers, and astronauts were inspired by Ray Bradbury’s imagination. They grew beyond what he had to teach, but they never forgot the lessons learned.

Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?

The most important premise in Bradbury Beyond Apollo ties together all the many creative trails he followed during the last forty years of his seventy-year career. Witnessing and celebrating the great tale of space exploration changed the trajectory of his role in American culture. His deepest convictions would surface more frequently in essays and lectures, and less so in the ever-diminishing output of new stories. His felt purpose had become that of a visionary, “asked over and over again to tell us why we desire to explore, why we should go to the stars, and what we might become when we get there.”

Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?

Bradbury felt that science fiction is premised on the possible, fantasy on the impossible. We need a mixture of both impulses in our lives. I read the kind of science fiction that Bradbury found most compelling, science fiction that focuses on what makes us human, and what keeps us human as we journey to other worlds. I also enjoy the kind of fantasy that centers on the world of libraries, a world that Bradbury also loved beyond measure. The “Literary Detective” world of Jasper Fford’s Thursday Next novels are a great source of enjoyment, as are the more recent Invisible Library novels of Genevieve Cogman.

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