When I was a very young woman, and Ray Bradbury was already a senior citizen, I was trying to impress a guy I liked by reading a story to his little daughter. The story was called 'I Sing the Body Electric,' which, if you saw a charming 1982 TV production that starred Edward Hermann, you might know as 'The Electric Grandmother.'
The story was more than I bargained for.
Like every child, I'd read 'Dandelion Wine,' 'The Halloween Tree,' and other of Bradbury's short novels at school. But I found myself unable to get through 'I Sing the Body Electric' in one sitting. And it was not because the little girl, who was about five or six, was bored. I kept havng to run for the box of tissues. 'I Sing the Body Electric,' the story of a widowed father who takes his children to a factory to assemble a robot caregive for them, simply was one of the most perfectly pitched and moving stories I ever read. If you know it, you know that eventually the children outgrew their need for the nanny who could spin kite string from her fingertips (as children will: this is the precipitating idea for such films as 'Toy Story 3') but, when they are old, their own children grown, and they are frail, those same children return to find their electric grandma just as loving and spry as ever was.
Later the same week, I read again to the little girl. The story was 'The Homecoming,' the tale of a Halloween night on which a family of pre-'Twilight' vampires, werewolves, and shape-changers of all descriptions gather for a reunion, to the excitement and grief of Timothy, the youngest child, who has the misfortune of having been born human. At the end of the story, his mother tells him that, should he die, they will visit him every year on the homecoming, and tuck him in, all the closer.
I was undone. Somehow, although Ray Bradbury's writing was sentimental in the sense that Steinbeck's is, it was not syrupy, simply the interation of honest human emotions we can neither out-run or deny.
So thrilled, I wrote to Ray Bradbury. What I told him, I can't recall; perhaps that one day, I hoped I could write something with such strange inventive tenderness. Then, I was a cub newspaper reporter and you must imagine the face of the clerk in the big newsroom who, a few weeks later, brought me a letter drawn all over with dragons, and vampires, and castles with dark winged things, and moats and bats with the eyes of shiny dimes. It was addressed only to 'JACQUELYN MITCHARD, A VERY GOOD WRITER INDEED.'
That was the beginning of a correspondnce that has lasted thirty years, and over several dinners together, and a numer of letters. Once, when the great man was in a city nearby (as an expert on vampires, he was addressing a national convention of dentists), I arrived laden with books, one to be signed for each of my (then) six children. "I know who you are!" he laughed, and we talked about many things -- my hope that 'The Homecoming' would one day be a film and how Mr. Bradbury's growing up in Illinois near Ronald Reagan was very good preparation for writing 'The Martian Chronicles.'
That was the thing of it, he said.
The reason that Rod Serling and some few others succeeded with science fiction was that they saw the manifest and immense oddities in daily life and asked, why not? Who would not want a grandmother who never tired of playing and never left you alone, whose feelings could not be crushed -- even when you didn't need her? Who would not grieve for a child born into a family of bloody immortals, whose fate was mortality? What kind of human being would want an alien species' child ('Venus Babies') as a pet? (We have the answer to that in the stories of people who buy and try to raise chimpanzee, people --- if not human people -- as surely as we are.
Ray Bradbury taught me that the secret of writing was the secret of life. Look closely. Be generous. Be honest with genuine emotion. Remember the details. Observe the impossible through the filter of the possible.
Now, Mr. Bradbury is 91, and I just read 'I Sing the Body Electric' to my son, Will, a first grader and the seventh of my nine children. The story is not cloying. It has not aged. It is as subtly humorous and precise as it ever was, and as heartbreaking.
"Wouldn't it be nice if we could put you away until we were old grandpas?" Will asked, with the icy candor of childhood.
"It sure would," I said. "Maybe it would be better to put your dad's mom away."
But it would. It would all be good. Ray Bradbury's worlds are fierce and sometimes violent but they are never vile. Whatever events befall the characters, they do so within the gentle protectorate of a man who, as a writer, valued human dignity and warned of human foibles and te humor that must inform both.
When I was nearly 40, more than 15 years after that first note, I send Mr. Bradbury a copy of my first novel. I did not expect him to write back. He was ill for a bit, I'd heard, and had only recently gotten better. However, a week later, in his own hand, I received a note. It said simply, 'Well. I was correct. Wasn't I?'
As it seemed to me then, and later, and now, I suppose he was and is -- in most ways.
Causes Jacquelyn Mitchard Supports
National MS Society, Women Against MS, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, One Writer's Place