NEA Arts Magazine

Creating Fahrenheit 451

Dana Gioia Interviews Author Ray Bradbury


Cover of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Cover used with permission of Del Ray/The Random House Ballantine Publishing Group.

On January 5, 2005, NEA Chairman Dana Gioia interviewed Ray Bradbury in Los Angeles about his book Fahrenheit 451, one of the books featured in the Big Read. An excerpt from their conversation follows.

GIOIA: How did you come to write Fahrenheit 451?

BRADBURY: In 1950, our first baby was born, and in 1951, our second, so our house was getting full of children. It was very loud, it was very wonderful, but I had no money to rent an office. I was wandering around the UCLA library and discovered there was a typing room where you could rent a typewriter for ten cents a halfhour. So I went and got a bag of dimes. The novel began that day, and nine days later it was finished. But my God, what a place to write that book! I ran up and down stairs and grabbed books off the shelf to find any kind of quote and ran back down and put it in the novel. The book wrote itself in nine days, because the library told me to do it.

GIOIA: What was the origin of the idea of books being burned in the novel?

BRADBURY: Well, Hitler of course. When I was 15, he burnt the books in the streets of Berlin. Then along the way I learned about the libraries in Alexandria burning five thousand years ago. That grieved my soul. Since I'm self-educated, that means my educators - the libraries - are in danger. And if it could happen in Alexandria, if it could happen in Berlin, maybe it could happen somewhere up ahead, and my heroes would be killed.

GIOIA: Decades after Fahrenheit 451, do you feel that you predicted the world, in that sense, fairly accurately?

BRADBURY: Oh, God. I've never believed in prediction. That's other people's business, someone like H.G.Wells with The Shape of Things to Come. I've said it often: I've tried not to predict, but to protect and to prevent. If I can go to the library and be sensible, without pontificating and without being self-conscious, that's fine. I can teach people to really know they're alive.

GIOIA: Did you think of this book from the beginning being about the growth, the transformation of Montag's character?

BRADBURY: Never for a moment. No. Everything just has to happen because it has to happen. The wonderful irony of the book is that Montag is educated by a teenager. She doesn't know what she is doing. She is a bit of a romantic sap, and she wanders through the world. She's really alive though, you see. That is what is attractive about her. And Montag is attracted to her romantic sappiness.

GIOIA: What do you think the turning point is in this novel, in terms of making Montag come into his new life?

BRADBURY: Well, when Mrs. Hudson is willing to burn with her books. That's the turning point, when it's all over and she's willing to die with her loved ones, with her dogs, with her cats, with her books. She gives up her life. She'd rather die than be without them.

GIOIA: If you joined the community that appears at the end of Fahrenheit 451 and had to commit one book to memory, what book would that be?

BRADBURY: It would be A Christmas Carol. I think that book has influenced my life more than almost any other book, because it's a book about life, it's a book about death. It's a book about triumph.

GIOIA: Why should people read novels?

BRADBURY: Because we are trying to solve the mystery of our loves, no matter what kind you have. Quite often there's an end to it and you have to find a new love. We move from novel to novel.