Columbia fiction instructor practices what he teaches

By CiaraShook

Sam Weller’s cozy office on the 12th floor of the South Campus Building, 624 S. Michigan Ave., is packed with books, a small desk and a giant painting of a robot breaking out of a toy store by a member of the metal band Galactic Cowboys. The bookcases are studded with works by Joan Didion, Ambrose Bierce and Bill Zehme, but Ray Bradbury’s books commandeer almost two rows in the small library.

“That’s not even a tenth of my collection,” Weller said of Bradbury’s books.

Weller was a voracious reader in the early ’80s when he was a kid growing up in Geneva, Ill. At 13, he was introduced to Bradbury’s work, which changed his life even though he didn’t know it at the time.

“It’s a huge misnomer to call Bradbury a science fiction writer,” Weller said.

He said Bradbury couldn’t care less about technology and hardware and instead, he writes about the human condition, occasionally using the future as a prism to comment on  contemporary society.

“I first fell in love with his ideas, but then discovered his language—very musical and lyrical,” Weller said.

As a teenager, Weller began reading more and he fell in love with the world of magazine writing. He pursued that rather than fiction and started his writing career as an intern at the Houston Press, an alternative weekly magazine in Houston.

When Weller moved back to Chicago, he entered the graduate program at Columbia, majoring in fiction.

“I needed to learn more writing, storytelling chops and scene description—fictional techniques,” Weller said. “Secretly, in the back of my mind, this huge dream has always been to sort of carry on the storytelling of Ray Bradbury for when he is no longer with us.”

Weller met Bradbury while doing a profile story for the Chicago Tribune, and the two struck up a close professional relationship. Weller continued to do magazine and radio pieces on Bradbury, and soon became interested in writing the author’s biography.

“I asked him simply one day, ‘Why is there no biography on you?’” Weller said. “And he said, ‘I think biography means you’re dead. I don’t want anyone to write on me until my life’s over.’”

Bradbury kept suggesting that Weller write more stories on him so Bradbury could get publicity while the two hung out.

“I saw an in there,” Weller said. “I stayed after him gently saying, ‘Look, I want to do this book. I’m passionate about your life, I know about your life, I respect your life, I’m the one to do this.’ He said, ‘Your enthusiasm reminds me of when I was a young writer,’ and one day over lunch, he said, ‘Do it.’”

After extensive research and interviews, Weller published The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury in 2005. The book peaked at the number nine position of the Los Angeles Times bestsellers list, and was awarded the Society of Midland Author’s Award for Best Biography of 2005. The book was also a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award.

Weller said he has maintained his relationship with Bradbury since the book’s release. He also strives to emulate Bradbury’s writing discipline, a discipline that has resulted in Bradbury having released 144 books and screenplays and 600 short stories.

“People wonder how [Bradbury] gets all of it done,” Weller said. “[Bradbury said], ‘I only write two hours a day, but I make those hours count. I don’t sit down and dally, I don’t procrastinate.’ So when I write, I write. If I can write two or three hours a day, I’m a happy camper.”

Now an assistant professor in the Fiction Writing Department, Weller manages to squeeze in time to write between his duties of being the faculty adviser for events like Story Week, Creative Nonfiction Week and Fictionary, and being a father. He has two girls, Mai-linh, 5, and Le-anh, 2, with his wife, Jan, and lives in Lincoln Square.

“I find a peaceful time during the day [to write],” Weller said. “Or I push myself and write very late at night.”

Weller said it is imperative for Columbia teachers to continue their craft.

“It’s incumbent upon us teachers that we have to practice what we teach,” Weller said. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable standing in front of a classroom if I wasn’t working myself. Setting the bar and saying I have work to do is very important.”

Randy Albers, chairperson of the Fiction Writing Department, said Weller has made terrific contributions to the department, but more so to students.

“He’s really making his mark in a lot of different areas,” Albers said.

Weller is currently working on Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews, which is scheduled to be published in March 2010 by Melville House/Stop Smiling Books, an imprint of Random House. A 10,000-word excerpt has been sold to The Paris Review, a literary magazine.

Julia Keller, cultural critic for the Chicago Tribune, thinks highly of Weller and his enthusiasm for books and literature.

“He’s irreplaceable in the city of Chicago,” Keller said. “He truly believes that the next Ray Bradbury could be sitting in a class at Columbia, and it’s his job to help that person find their voice.”

Weller said his time at Columbia has been life-changing on a multitude of levels.

“What I love about Columbia is that it creates a palpable energy,” Weller said. “I had that as a student here and I still get it as a teacher. It’s really neat to teach a four-hour class and go home so fired up that I have to write. It’s because of the energy of my students and the ideas of my students.”