In one way or another, I’d been planning to be a writer from the time I was a teenager. When I graduated college, though, I needed a job that paid a salary rather than one that had some vague potential for remuneration somewhere down the line. I interviewed with a number of publishing houses and hooked on with Bantam Books as a schlepper (I think the actual job title was “administrative assistant,” but I was decidedly a schlepper). A few years later, though, I got my first meaningful position at Bantam when they charged me with reinventing their science fiction and fantasy program. This became Bantam’s Spectra imprint, which celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary recently. (There’s really no way to say that without making me seem old, is there? Would you believe it if I said I started at Bantam when I was nine?)
Bantam had had a fairly limited presence in science fiction up to this point, but it did have some gems. Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea novels, for instance, and selected titles from Philip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany, and Frederik Pohl. What shone brightest on the list for me, though, was the work of Ray Bradbury. Bradbury was the first writer I’d ever idolized. In many ways, he was the writer that made me want to be a writer. The simple fact that I was shepherding the list that carried many of his most important paperbacks filled me with more pride than I had any right to feel.
About six months after I took on this assignment, I made a business trip to Southern California. Ray Bradbury lived in Southern California. I decided to roll the dice and call his office to see if he might have a little time to meet with his “publisher.” In reality, I knew that the only publishing I was doing for him was sending him notes when his books went back to press, but I figured it was worth trying to connect with him. This paid off when his office said that he’d meet me for a drink at my hotel.
The day of the meeting, I sat nervously in the hotel bar waiting for this literary icon to arrive. One of the first lessons my colleagues had taught me was that writers are often far less appealing in person than they are on the page, and I’d already had some experience with this. What if the man who’d written so magically about enchanted summers and a fanciful Mars turned out to be an ogre? What if he sneered at my being so young and presuming to be worthy of his time.
By the time he entered, I’d steeled myself for the worst. What happened instead was one of the most precious experiences of my publishing life. Ray handed me a signed hardcover copy of The Martian Chronicles and then took my hand in both of his and said, “Thank you so much for what you’re doing for me.” I’m not the swooning type, but I came very close then. What I was doing for him? That could never compare to what he’d done for me in that moment. Thus began a relationship that lasted for more than fifteen years, one that allowed me to become Ray’s hardcover publisher and to even send him on his first national book tour. Ray Bradbury wasn’t the man I idolized on the page; he was so much more substantial than that.
When I finally embarked on my writing career after twenty years in publishing, I wrote relationship novels and collaborated on a number of nonfiction books. However, I always told myself that some day I would try to write a novel in the spirit of Ray Bradbury’s stories. Finally, I started work on my novel Blue. It took me six years to get it where I wanted it, but I can only hope that it has a glimmer of the wonder and openheartedness that Bradbury’s work always has. In many ways, that novel was a tribute to him. I’m not sure I ever would have become a writer if he hadn’t taught me the magic of words.
Lou Aronica, in addition to running The Story Plant, is also a nationally bestselling author. His latest book Flash and Dazzle was published in November. You can learn more at our website.