Bradbury Couldn’t Get Enough of Paris: Appreciation

Alec McCabe's Short Story
"Farenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury with the author's critique of Alec McCabe's short story, attached to the manuscript. Bradbury wrote the critique in 1994. Photographer: Lili Rosboch/Bloomberg

Ray Bradbury, who died this week at 91, had some advice for an aspiring writer during the summer of 1989: “FINISH YOUR NOVEL, START ANOTHER TOMORROW!” he wrote in a paperback copy of “Fahrenheit 451.” “REMEMBER, WRITING IS ALMOST AS MUCH FUN AS SEX!”

I took his advice -- sort of.

Though I never did finish that novel, my career in journalism has lasted more than two decades. The benediction from Ray was thanks to my father, Robert McCabe, a journalist based in Paris who got to know him through mutual friends.

Ray, who never learned to drive, would fly across the Atlantic by Concorde and then tool around Paris with his wife, Maggie, in a Mercedes chauffeured by a somewhat mysterious eastern European driver named Stefan.

Introduced by friends, including the book critic at Time magazine, where my father had worked, Ray would be a witness at my father’s wedding in 1995.

“He hated to be called a science fiction guy, just hated it,” my dad said by phone from Paris yesterday. “He’d say, ‘If anything, I write fantasy.”’

Ray couldn’t get enough of the French capital.

“He spoke terrible French and spoke it with a great smile on his face,” said my father, who retired after a long career as an editor at the International Herald Tribune. “The French loved it.”

Liquid Affair

“He had a delightfully kind touch to him,” Dad continued. “He spread these little bits of himself around. He had a gift for that.”

I had the pleasure of dining with Ray and my father at La Grande Cascade, a favored Bradbury retreat in the Bois de Boulogne, on a steamy July day in 1993. It was a long, rather liquid affair in which he encouraged my nascent ambition and even offered, as he did to many young writers, to critique my work.

Six months later, I took him up on the offer and sent him my latest short story, a Blade Runner-ish tale of a troubled reporter (what else?) set some years in the future.

He quickly replied, typing on a yellow mailing label decorated with a pen-and-ink drawing of a robotic creature standing atop a spiky, somehow lunar-inspired landscape.

“It is well-written, of course, and fascinating,” he began. “I think your first two pages need tightening because you tell things instead of show them, correct?”

Hmmm, did he like it or not?

‘Somewhat Confused’

“I am not sure that the story ends where you end it,” he continued, confirming my suspicion. “I am somewhat confused as to the final meaning. Sit down and ask yourself: wht [sic] is the story about? what effect do you want to have on the reader? what does the story mean to YOU?”

To this I had no answer.

“Sorry to bug you with all this, but I had to take similar criticisms from my writers group (8 friends) fifty-five years ago when I st [sic] out to write one thousand stories,” Ray continued. “And I DID! One a week every week from high school on!”

It was, in short, the nicest evisceration I’d ever had.

As for the drawing, it was probably by Ray himself.

“He’d draw sketches of people all the time,” my father said. “Generally they all looked a bit like Martians.”

(Alec McCabe is an editor at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and Greg Evans and Craig Seligman on movies.

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