Death Is a Lonely Business: My Memory of Ray Bradbury

Now that the dust is settling on the many Ray Bradbury encomiums and obituaries, let me share my memory of Ray, my first one anyway. I met the sci-fi master a few times over the years.

To start, however, I must share something most of us authors know but don’t readily acknowledge. Book signings are an embarrassment. Most of the time you’re lucky to get twenty people. Sometimes you don’t even get two and end up signing books by yourself off in a corner.

After one or two books’ worth of this kind of humiliation, the glamour of signings is gone and most authors see them as a chore for which you have to grit your teeth. I know I did.

So that was how I felt on December 1, 1985, when I drove reluctantly down to the Scene of the Crime, a now defunct mystery bookstore on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks in the Valley known as San Fernando -- I’ll explain why I know the exact date in a minute -- to sign my (then) latest Moses Wine detective novel, California Roll.

But as I pulled up in my…. (can’t remember the car, but I do remember the date)… I noticed a line of people coming out of the bookstore. It was extraordinarily long and went round the block and up the other side. What was this? A Creedence Clearwater Revival concert? Magic Johnson signing basketballs? (Actually, I could hear a jazz band playing.)

No, it was my book signing. But there was another author, to my surprise, signing with me – you guessed it, Ray Bradbury. I could see a giant photo of him plastered all over the store window next to a tiny snapshot of me.

Ray had just written his first mystery – a yarn called Death Is a Lonely Business, set, as I learned, in Venice, California, 1949. It was also Ray’s first novel in many years, since Something Wicked This Way Comes.

I slid past the line, explaining to the perplexed fans that I was also an author, and found the empty seat at the front next to Ray. I introduced myself – I wasn’t sure if he knew who I was or not – and stared at the stack of books in front of me. I had never seen one as tall of my own books, certainly at a signing. It was clear I had lucked out by signing with Ray.

I felt a little intimidated, but he treated me like a brother and colleague, urging his many fans to buy my book as well as his. He was the rock star but he was generous to me then, even asked me questions as the “experienced” mystery author, referring the fans to me as the expert in the genre, such as I was. After all, I was on my fourth mystery.

I sold more books that day, several hundred in my memory, than I ever have at any signing before or since (or am ever likely to).

At the end, the woman who owned the store looked pretty satisfied. It was her idea to team up. Ray turned to me and suggested we sign books for each other to commemorate the event. I signed California Roll to him and my copy of Death Is a Lonely Business stands open at the computer as I type this. It is inscribed “FOR ROGER SIMON! WITH FRIENDLY WISHES FROM Ray Bradbury, Dec. 1, 1985.” The inscription is in block letters as I have typed them and the word "friendly" is underlined. Ray Bradbury is signed in cursive.

After our work was done, Ray looked at me and said, “Would you mind driving me home?”

I was taken aback at first, but held my tongue, long enough to learn what many others already knew.

Ray Bradbury, the great master of science fiction and the future, didn’t have a driver’s license. And, yes, he was a longtime resident of the city of the car, Los Angeles. (I found out subsequently that he wasn’t the only famous L.A. resident who didn’t drive. Among others were Mae West and Erich von Stroheim. Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road, also didn’t drive. But he lived in Massachusetts.)

So I drove Ray home. I did that on a couple of other occasions, as I recall, when our paths crossed at writers’ events. A number of other literary-types I knew were similarly drafted. We would joke about it.

Anyway, that’s my Ray Bradbury story. Now, in his honor, I am going to crawl into bed with a book – Death Is a Lonely Business.

True enough.

(Read more on Bradbury from Michael Ledeen here.)