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Sam Weller & Mort Castle

press photo of Mort Castle (left) and Sam Weller (right)

Sam Weller & Mort Castle | Shadow Show: All New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury

by Pawl Schwartz

Rarely do I come across a short story collection that is explosively delicious from cover to cover, but sometimes, it happens, and it is always a surprising and harrowing experience. Shadow Show: All New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury sets the bar for American magical realism and speculative fiction. It is packed with nostalgia, longing for lost people and times, and the desire to truly live forever through divinely wrought tales.

Shadow Show is a collection meant to celebrate Ray Bradbury, and at this task, it more than succeeds. It was put together by Sam Weller and Mort Castle, an unlikely tag-team that share a love of Bradbury, and SEVEN nominations for the Bram Stoker Award between them.

As part of Columbia’s Story Week, Mort and Sam will be hosting the event Ray Bradbury: A Tribute to a Visionary at the Harold Washington Library on Tuesday, March 19th at 2:00PM. The event features readings from locals Joe Meno and Audrey Niffinegger, both of whom have stories in the collection.

cover of Shadow Show (click the image to purchase the book through Amazon.com)

UR Chicago: When and why did you get the idea to make a collection in celebration of Ray Bradbury?

Mort Castle: In many ways we were following in the tradition of 'tribute' albums, books, etc. There have been such works in music celebrating the songs written by Pete Seeger, those that Ella Fitzgerald made her own, and even bluegrass renditions of the hits of the Moody Blues. In literature, we had such recent works as Chris Conlon's He is Legend, a Richard Matheson anthology, and a bit before that, Robert Bloch: Appreciations of the Master, edited by Richard Matheson and Ricia Mainhardt. And of course we had plenty of books for Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft — I'd been in a couple of those.

But it hit me, right around the end of June of 2009, that there'd not been such a book for Ray Bradbury. And who was more deserving? I said that to Sam. Sam said he agreed. He shared the idea with Ray Bradbury. Ray was flattered and pleased and very humble about it, and he told us he had to think about it. On July 9, he said he was good with it and we were underway.

From the first, we wanted to make this a unique approach to the 'tribute' compilation. There had been a book years back that used the 'shared world' approach, writers setting their stories in vistas first imagined by Bradbury. You know, kind of a 'The Veldt I' or 'Return of the Pedestrian.' That wasn't what we were after. We wanted our authors to have complete freedom to give us a story which in whatever way was influenced by the writing or ideas or person of Ray Douglas Bradbury.

UR: Why Ray Bradbury as opposed to any other literary type sci-fi/fantasy writer?

MC: He published in Weird Tales and The New Yorker. More than a few fantasy writers have influenced other fantasy writers and fantasy writing in general, and science-fiction writers like Stanley G. Weinbaum and Theodore Sturgeon have taken sci-fi to new areas and new standards — but Bradbury's influence is confined to... writing. And to the culture at large. He was viral when viral was still a descriptor for a disease.

UR: If we were to, as a culture, forget Ray Bradbury, what would we lose?

Sam Weller: We would lose one of the finest imaginations of the 20th Century. Six hundred published short stories, poems and essays. Plays. Screenplays. Television scripts. Architectural concepts and urban design. Then there are, of course, the books! We aren’t likely to lose the man. He already has a crater on the moon named for him, along with an area on Mars.

UR: Joe Meno and Audrey Niffenegger will be participating alongside yourselves in the event for this book at Story Week. What will this event entail?

SW: A great celebration of the man himself; brief readings of our own stories from Shadow Show; a discussion on his influence and career; and a spirit of love that he always shared with others.

UR: "You've got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down," said Bradbury. Do you think this is awesome or awful writing advice? Why?

SW/MC fused as one: This is of course Bradbury saying trust in the power of your imagination, your ability to problem solve if you do not overthink. But it doesn't include the many, many stories first written and the many stories studied before one is ready to jump off the cliff. It's like the poem about Ted Williams: “All you need is 10,000 rounds at bat and then you get up to the plate and forget everything you've ever learned.”

UR: Did Bradbury read all of the stories in this collection?

MC: Yes, although we have to qualify that with Sam having read some of them to him. We're so happy that was the case. Alice's story had him crying. He cried at Neil Gaiman’s. When he listened to Sam’s story, he said, “That is a Bradbury story!” He knew we wanted to thank him, honor him, and as it worked out, he knew just how we had done so.

UR: I love the Bradbury style “about” afterwards that each author wrote after their story. Did any writers have trouble writing one?

MC: There were a few authors who, let's say, "would have preferred not to," but did so, anyway, in the spirit of "All right, I'll do it as a favor."

UR: In a lot of these afterwords, we learn that these authors actually had touching correspondences with Bradbury when they were young writers. This, along with Bradbury's heartbreaking intro, “Second Homecoming,” really makes it feel like this is a kind of passing of the torch from Bradbury to a generation of writers that he has inspired.

SW: Indeed!

UR: What exactly was the torch Ray Bradbury carried, and what sort of task do these writers who have received it now have ahead of them?

SW: The torch flickered brightly with originality, poetry, philosophy, and a deep and abiding curiosity for what makes the human heart tick. Bradbury may have written often about far off places in time, about fantastic settings, about technology gone awry, but, in the end, his stories were always about human beings.

UR: Was this “passing on of the torch” exactly how you intended the book to feel, or did it just happen as the stories came together?

SW: It was very organic. We knew this would be a cool book based simply on the many people Ray influenced. We did not know that it would become this “Family Reunion” as he called it, and we certainly could not have expected his very sad passing just a month before the book was published. His departure, for me, was heartbreaking. I spent 12 years working with him. But this book was a nice send off.

UR: Looking at the book from this angle, why did you decide to include Harlan Ellison?

MC: Oh, man, because Harlan in so many ways, Harlan is Ray's younger brother. He's far more contentious than Ray ever was. And Ray had a genuinely spiritual side and spiritual is hardly how people think of Harlan — or how he thinks of himself.

But like Ray, Harlan has refused to let himself be bound by other peoples' perceptions of what his art — or what he — should be.

UR: Do you see Bradbury's influence gaining or waning in the literary world?

SW: It is unquestionably growing. He started out in pulp fiction magazines. He moved into the slick — The New Yorker, Harpers, Esquire, Playboy, etc. Then he moved into classroom curricula. Today he is canonized; included in anthologies alongside Melville, Baldwin, Cather, Morrison, Dickens, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald… His place in the pantheon of literature is only becoming more important.

UR: “It should be the function of every science fiction writer to offer hope. To name the problem and offer the solution,” said Bradbury. Do you agree?

MC: No, I don't agree, not literally, but I think this statement is reflective of what John Gardner later came to define as "moral fiction": that is, at its heart, the fiction that lasts, that stands as art, is life-affirming and not nihilistic nor cynical nor just "smart and clever."

UR: What was it like putting this book together? Was it a difficult process?

MC: It was... pretty great. It was great when we had yet to sell the anthology to a publisher to have Robert McCammon and Jay Bonansinga say, "Well, here you have a story; hope it helps sell the book." Those stories did. It was great to see the drafts of one of our writers "jes' keep coming," getting better each time, when draft one had been excellent.

And I've got to say, I had a lark working with Sam, one of those guys who's genuinely enthusiastic when he's enthusiastic — and isn't too cool to show it.

SW: Mort has been a dream partner to work with. He is a veteran and brought his knowledge and sensibilities to this project. We had a great time doing this book together. I think we have had an even better time promoting it. We spent five days on the road with Margaret Atwood. That was insane. Driving down the 405 freeway and talking books and movies and history and science and comic books and Bradbury with Margaret Atwood. Life is great and weird.

UR: If you could have made this into a multi-media project, would you have? Or is the literary element key with Bradbury?

SW: A documentary down the road would be fun, but Mort and I write stories and books and that was the natural extension. We are thrilled with the audio book of Shadow Show. It includes readings by F. Murray Abraham, Kate Mulgrew, George Takei, Neil Gaiman and many others.

UR: Were there any possible titles for the collection that didn’t quite make it?

MC: Oh, yeah, there were a lot of classy titles we had to ultimately leave behind. Go the Fuck to Mars was one, 50 Shades of Mars, Mars is Fucking Heaven, you know, subtle understated stuff.

SW: We were first going to call it Live Forever!, a famous reference to an encounter Ray Bradbury had with a carnival sideshow magician in 1932 named Mr. Electrico. He tapped Ray Bradbury on the nose with a sword that was charged with electricity and cried, “Live Forever!” Bradbury started writing two weeks later and never stopped. We liked the immortality metaphor that went with it. But, ultimately, Shadow Show had a broader, more atmospheric vibe that spoke to a wider audience.

UR: What advice would you give to someone who has skimmed the surface of Bradbury (read F451) but has not really delved into him?

MC: I wouldn't offer any advice. Instead, I'd say I envy you. You've got so much fine reading, memorable reading to look forward to.

UR: On Bradbury's headstone, the words “Author of Fahrenheit 451” are engraved. Most authors seem to try to shrug off their most popular work so as not to be pigeonholed, but Bradbury owned the hell out of his instead. Why?

SW: He always said that his books were all his children. He was very proud of Fahrenheit, and rightfully so. The e-book rights sold in the high seven figures just before he passed away. But more than that, the book celebrates books. That is the message here. Ray Bradbury loved books so much he took that love to the grave and continues to shout it out.

Get your copy of Shadow Show!

Learn more about Columbia's Story Week!

Follow Sam Weller (@Sam__Weller) and Mort Castle (@MortCastle) on Twitter!

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