The Cemetery Dance Interview: Barry Hoffman revisits Ray Bradbury with Phoenix 451

banner graphic that says Cemetery Dance Interviews

cover of Phoenix 451 by Ray Bradbury (Gauntlet Press edition)Founder of Gauntlet Press Magazine, which dealt with many controversial topics of its time, Barry Hoffman is also the Bram Stoker Award-winning publisher of Gauntlet Press, a specialty publication focused on signed, limited books both classic and modern. Through Gauntlet Press, Hoffman has published some of the most acclaimed writers in dark culture such as Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, Jack Ketchum, Ray Bradbury and so many others.

Most recently, Gauntlet Press published a massive book titled Phoenix 451 by Ray Bradbury, available in three collectable editions. Weighing in at over eight-hundred pages, the publisher has claimed this could be their last signed Bradbury title. If so, what a way to go considering the enormous effort and amount of content which went into this book, including various drafts of Bradbury’s timeless classic novel, Fahrenheit 451, various scripts and plays of the novel, personal letters to and from Bradbury, plus several of Bradbury’s drawing and photos from his home presented here for the first time.  

A literary treasure, a celebratory work of art, an important achievement in culture and entertainment; all these and so much more, this is a book I was eager to sit down and discuss with Barry Hoffman, who was kind enough to open up about his time publishing the work of Bradbury and getting to know the man behind the words we’ve all come to cherish.

(Interview conducted by Rick Hipson)

photo of Gauntlet Press founder Barry Hoffman
Barry Hoffman (photo by Dara Hoffman-Fox)

CEMETERY DANCE: Clearly the work of Ray Bradbury fits into Gauntlet’s library as another celebration of classic literature within the dark fiction canon. Few are more classic than Fahrenheit 451. That said, when did you decide to publish such an all-encompassing time capsule of this particular book at this particular time?

BARRY HOFFMAN: We had approached the Bradbury estate (though Bradbury’s agent) a good five years ago to publish a short story collection. We never received a response to that query. We (Donn Albright and myself) decided to explore a different idea that we had tossed back and forth. That idea was the F-451 screenplays and oddly enough we received a positive response from the estate within six months. 

I can’t imagine a more thorough collection of F451. From early outlines to various drafts and scripts to personal letters between those involved in bringing the book to life way back when; it’s all here. No doubt an easier question to ask than to answer, what can you tell us about the arduous task of compiling all the content for this book? I can’t imagine all the content was easy to come by.

Actually, it wasn’t all that difficult. We had to make a list of what we wanted to publish in order to get permission from the Bradbury estate. Donn Albright compiled the list. We added items as we began working on the book. I love the Bradbury doodles and Donn and I came up with the idea of using them in conjunction with the short passages dealing with Donn’s experiences with Ray. We didn’t know that the items we had would end up being over 800 pages!!! But it’s our final Bradbury title and we wanted to give the reader something special.

Was there anything you were surprised to learn or uncover about Ray and his work through the process of compiling this book?

I was reminded that when Ray had something unique (and F-451 is nothing if not unique) he fiddled with it for years until he was satisfied. Fortunately, when he completed one variation for the script of his novel he didn’t toss out earlier versions. The changes he made in the various scripts meant he had a number of versions of scripts that differed all the while staying true to the theme of the novel.

What does a book of this magnitude mean to you after all the years you’ve spent brining so many other significant dark tales to light over the many years of Gauntlet’s existence?

My goal in publishing Ray’s work was to enhance his legacy. Over the years we’ve published a large amount of material that had never seen the light of day. We’ve done the same with Phoenix 451 and my hope is that fifty years from now both fans and scholars of Ray’ work will dive into this book to get a further glimpse of his genius.

As incredible as it is to finally be able to see the many incarnations of this classic story from the ground up, for me it was perhaps even more fascinating to get an honest glimpse into the man himself through the many personal letters and recollections included in this book. Of the many anecdotes, one of the most profound for me was how emotionally devastated Ray was at having important works of his rejected, in particular, his earliest script work for F451. Surely, he knew how great of a talent he was, no matter the writing platform he chose. Was the crippling sadness he felt at being rejected something you were aware before you put the book together?  Was this sensitive side of Ray and his need to be admired, accepted and enjoyed a well-kept secret up until now?

photo of author Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury

What I’ve learned working with masters such as Bradbury, Matheson and Bloch was how insecure they are were even at the height of their popularity. I’ve mentioned before how Matheson would put a manuscript back in a drawer if his agent had qualms about it. When we published Psycho I asked Bob Bloch who could write an introduction and an afterword for the book. He didn’t feel he was worthy of such treatment yet both Bradbury and Matheson eagerly agreed to write those pieces. Ray was no different. I believe his tinkering (it took him 50 years to pen Somewhere a Band is Playing to his satisfaction) with his work was due to insecurity. And, yes, I think he kept this a secret though I was well aware of it. Nobody wants their work to be rejected. And, in Ray’s case there was genius in all he wrote. His mass market publisher rejected a short story collection Ray had assembled before his death. Sadly, his estate has not granted permission to publish these stories. Not all are brilliant, but all are good (some exceptional) and should be published. 

Do you think we’ll ever get to see a film version of F451?

There have been two to date. Both are decent, neither exceptional. I don’t believe either used Ray’s script. It would be nice if one of the scripts he penned was the basis for a film but, like Matheson’s script for I Am Legend, I fear Bradbury’s script for F-451 will never be adapted for the screen.

What do you think it would take for Ray’s F451 script to get optioned and produced? A indie filmmaker with the guts to do so? A big studio with an independent approach? Or something else? I fear both these films may be a pipedream as far as aver actually seeing them.

  Unfortunately, film-producing has changed over the past fifty years, and not for the better. Both Bradbury and Matheson wrote numerous scripts which were adapted pretty much unchanged for the screen. Steven Spielberg, for instance, took Matheson’s script for Duel and produced the film with few if any changes. Now, moving into the 2000s, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was optioned to be remade. There were at least 12 scripts that were written. None were Bradbury’s but he was allowed to comment on those that were written. No script was approved until after Bradbury’s death. With other scripts there is a collaborative approach with a script passing through numerous hands before it is approved and filmed. The days when a Bradbury or Matheson would submit a script and it was approved without going through many hands is gone.

 It is possible that an independent filmmaker could take a Bradbury script and film it as is. It would not be a blockbuster but a small film. I would have no problem with this and that’s one reason we published Phoenix-451 as well a Matheson’s script for I Am Legend.

As someone who was privileged to have spent time with Ray and enjoyed his company in his home, what can you tell us about your personal experiences with him and your lasting impressions about the time you got to spend with the man?

Well, I only met Ray once, but it was memorable. I visited his home and was ushered down to his basement where Ray spent several hours regaling me with tales. My son actually spent more time with him, visiting numerous time to help Ray sign tipsheets for the books of his we published. During those visits Ray told my son dozens upon dozens of stories. Ray could be stubborn but he was not an immovable object. I approached Ray a number of times to publish Dark Carnival. The first time I did so he said “no” — firmly. He had no desire for us to publish his first collection. I waited a year (near the end of the century) and broached the subject again. I suggested we publish the book in 2000. Nope, he said, if he allowed us to publish the book it would be in 2001. Six months later we brought up the sore subject yet again, this time suggesting that we use one of his oil paintings for the front cover. He was intrigued. It didn’t matter that he had turned us down several times. He finally relented and we published the book using his oil painting for the cover art. He could be stubborn, but with patience he could be swayed. 

When you say your son was rewarded with many stories from ray when visiting him, are there any stories which your son shared which stood out to you? Likewise, were there any stories that Ray shared with you in his basement which are especially memorable you are willing to share with us?

 For the most part the stories Ray shared with my son were private and I’d rather not divulge them. I can say that Ray told my son the story of being aware of his birth (he shared this with others who have gone public). He discussed many films with my son. Ray was a great storyteller. Some tales were deeply personal. Others was Ray’s opinion on anything and everything.

It both frightens and amazes me that Ray not only talked about immensely important topics such a censorship of information and story telling through, but it seems as though his story of book banning and burning is still as relevant today as ever. You mention as much in the commentary of your newsletters. As someone who has had a direct and good relationship with Ray, what do you think he would have to say about seeing the effort by so many schools, libraries and various other groups who think certain books should be banned in our so-called information age? And also, what the heck are we supposed to do about it at our local levels?

cover of the first edition of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray BradburyRay’s fight against censorship is timeless. I remember reading the afterword to F-451 a good forty years after he wrote it and thinking to myself that he could have written it in the nineties (and even today). I asked him if we could run the afterword in Gauntlet Magazine and he agreed (and didn’t ask for a penny in return). In the same afterword he attacked special interest groups who fought against the rights of others. 

Sadly, we have allowed the censors to co-opt local school boards and libraries. Censors aren’t stupid. Rather than fighting on a national level they have run and won seats so they can remove books from local schools and libraries. Those who oppose  censorship, meanwhile, are not running for these positions. What those who oppose censorship must do is fight at a local level — run for these local positions to make their voices heard. 

Speaking of things too easily slipped away and put out of sight, I recently read an older article detailing how Bradbury’s house was bought and demolished by an architect who wanted to build something modern in its place. In the article, the owner claimed he had no idea the house had belonged to Ray Bradbury until fans made an uproar which came too late to save the house. While I find it hard to believe the new owner was unaware considering the listing mentioned the historical significance of the house as it tied in with fifty years of Ray’s life, I was saddened by how quick we can be to push back the past as if it doesn’t belong in our present. Can you talk about the historical significance, the influence if you will, on how the work and life of Bradbury has affected and contributed to present day literature and the ideas it has left behind for us to enjoy and study as we please? 

cover of Match to Flame by Ray Bradbury
Match to Flame by Ray Bradbury

I think F-451 is Ray’s most important novel for obvious reasons. Censorship was in the back of Ray’s mind long before he penned his novel. In Match to Flame we have ALL of short stories and novellas (some published, some never-before published) Ray wrote on this theme. This doesn’t include the scripts he wrote which are in Phoenix 451. I don’t see the censoring of books ever ending. Fifty or one hundred years from now F-451 will be as relevant as it is today.

Do you think we will ever see a time when a physical, or even digital, destination is built to recognize, showcase, and celebrate literature in dark culture and fantasy in the same vein as a hall of fame or museum? What do you think it would take to make such a thing happen and be properly sustained? 

Sadly, I don’t think there will be such a tribute to dark culture. Authors such as Bradbury, Matheson and Rod Serling have material that has already been donated to college libraries. To create some sort of memorial would mean collecting material that is in the hands of universities who won’t want to let the material go.

What do you hope folks will ideally take away with them once they get this definitive book in their hands and turn the last pages?

I hope fans and collectors will read the scripts and go back to the novel to determine how close they adhere to the source material. 

And one final one if you will: To your knowledge, where is the best place or places to further explore the life and works of Ray Bradbury?

 I know this is self-indulgent but Gauntlet’s library of books with previously unpublished material is a good place to start — until he are sold out. Match to Flame is a great source for all the tales that led to F-451 and Phoenix 451 does the same for Ray’s scripts he wrote to adapt his novel.

 There’s also the Ray Bradbury Museum located on the campus of IUPUI in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Museum features its recreation of Ray Bradbury’s basement office and library as it evolved in his Los Angeles, California, home for more than half a century which houses his vast works, manuscripts, artifacts, and much more.

Thanks so much, Barry. This chat has been a real treat.

Rick Hipson is a Canadian genre journalist living in Kitchener Ontario with his partner in crime, young spawn and two cats who insist they aren’t vying for world domination. For over twenty years Rick has written for a variety of small press publications in print and online which no longer exist through, assumably, no fault of his own. He continues to share his love for dark culture entertainment through his film and book reviews, interviews and articles, which can be found through Rue Morgue Magazine, Cemetery Dance and Hell Notes.

Leave a Reply