Getting to interview Sam Weller was a privilege. He was nothing short of inspirational and an absolute joy to talk to. Sam Weller is a famous writer whose works have earned him two Bram Stroker awards, a job at the Chicago Tribune and various other prestigious literary publications. On top of all of this he is arguably best known for being the authorized biographer for the late great 20th century author Ray Bradbury. Sam’s story documents what it’s really like to go out into the world as an artist trying to turn creativity into a career. His story is filled with passion, pain, and purpose which can be seen throughout all of his work as a creator. I admire the enthusiasm he has for life, and creativity alone. This is one of my favorite interviews that I’ve gotten to conduct, and I am beyond excited for everyone to read it!
Sam Weller Interview
Leland: What type of kid were you growing up? Were you a good student? What was your childhood like?
Sam: I was the baby of the family, I was super energetic and I was definitely considered the joker of the family. I was not a good student at all I was easily distracted and this was a pre ADHD era where I wasn’t probably diagnosed, but I’m sure was somewhere on that spectrum. I was always living in dreamland, drawing pictures, and creating stuff. I was consumed by books, so at least I was able to pay attention to that, but I was really more so in an imaginative world than the real world. Film, television, comic books, music, etc. Art was always really essential to me even going back to when I was tiny. Overall I was super energetic, I got in trouble for talking a lot but beyond that I wasn’t much of a troublemaker, my family was very loving. I had three older siblings growing up, who were always very supportive of my creative pursuits which was super important. Arts been something that has been attached to me my whole life.
Leland: Why did you get into writing? Did you know what you were getting yourself into at the time?
Sam: Not at all, you know you blunder your way into your passion and your success. So I think when I was 10 years old I was really starting to read and fell in love with books. At some point I really wanted to write and illustrate my own stories, it just felt like a natural extension for my love of reading and drawing. Somewhere along the line, it wasn’t premeditated nor a conscious decision, but I just decided that I wanted to write my own book. When I was 11, I had stayed in the whole summer and wrote a book in the basement. It was terrible, and I actually still have it, it’s a mystery novel. My mom was like “All the other kids are outside playing and running around and riding bikes.” Meanwhile, I was down in the darkness in the basement listening to rock n roll and just writing all day long, and she got that. I was very lucky to have a parent who said: “let him do what he is doing.” I did all sorts of stuff, I would make movies, I would record radio programs (this was before CD’s, or streaming or anything like that.) I was always just trying to produce stuff, soon I realized that the thing I was probably the best at was the written word pieces and telling stories. I was able to put stories down on a page and was able to tell them to people. I would try filming them, and really just try to find different mediums and media to tell them in.
Leland: I know some of your best work that has been released, are the books written about your conversations with the late, great Ray Bradbury. How did you get to meet him, and become as good of friends as you two were?
Sam: That’s a great story. I grew up with his books as a kid and absolutely loved them. I started reading his stuff when I was probably between the ages of 11 or 12 years old. I loved the imagination of his story ideas, I mean he writes about really cool things to kids. You know stuff like rocket ships, and dinosaurs, and time travel and stuff that appeals to young readers. So I fell in love with his books and then eventually became a professional writer on my own, and worked my way up in the food chain of publication. Backtracking a little bit, Bradbury lived a long life (92 years) so my dad would use to read his stories when he was younger and he loved him. When my mother was pregnant with me, my dad would read a book that Bradbury has written called ‘The Illustrated Man” to her while I was in the womb. So I was exposed to his stories while I was 8 months in utero. It’s crazy because after all those years I ended up becoming his authorized biographer which is pretty amazing and he’s the one who made me become a writer. So in 2000, I realized that in sense now I had been working in journalism, and I had worked for a number of newspapers, and magazines and at that point was working for the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine which they use to put in the Sunday paper that I wanted to pitch a story on Ray. So I thought to myself “Wow this would be an awesome opportunity.” I’d get to pitch a story on Ray Bradbury who had grown up 45 minutes north of Chicago, he was turning 80, and I thought maybe if the editor says “Cool Idea” then I can go meet this guy who I had listened to really since before I was born. The editor ended up loving the idea, and gave me the “go-ahead” and I flew out to Los Angeles where he had lived. I met up with him, and the first interview lasted about 6 hours, I mean the guy was absolutely fantastic. At this point, he wasn’t in good health. He had a stroke, he lost hearing and had lost vision in one eye, he was going through severe physical rehabilitation to get his motor skills back, but he had given me 6 whole hours. He didn’t want to stop, he would say stuff like “please stay and hang out, I love your energy.” When it was done he asked me to send the story to him, he called me after the story had come out, and he said that he read it and loved it which was a huge affirmation of all the work that I had done as a writer to have this man who had made me want to become a writer now say “job well done.” We all need that. Kind of like what you (Leland) are doing with your project (Learn How To Walk) we all need support, and people who care and he truly gave that to me and he said: “You’ve written this beautiful story about me, but when are you coming back to visit me?” I was thinking to myself “Are you kidding me?” So I started flying from Chicago to Los Angeles just to visit him regularly and have lunch or visit him at his home, and just talk. He always told me to bring my tape recorder and wanted me to interview him. I thought to myself “This is really interesting, I’m done with my story, but he keeps on wanting me to ask him more questions.” Finally one-day I remember saying to him “There is no biography of you, there is no life story.” And he told me that “if you write somebody’s life story, that means that their life is over, I’m only 80 years old, call me in 35 or 40 years and then maybe we will work out a book.” Anyways after about five months of visiting him, we were having lunch in Santa Monica one day at a restaurant that he loved and he said: “I’ve been giving this thought and everything you do in your life should be about passion.” He said, “you are so passionate about my life, and you love my life so much that there’s no better person out there to write a book about me so I want you to do it.” I remember just sitting there blown away thinking to myself “Wow, he has just given me the keys to the kingdom.” That’s really how everything happened and now it has turned into four books and a graphic novel all based around his life. It all just keeps on going, and I travel the world now getting to talk about his life. Sometimes people will come up to me and ask “don’t you tire of him?” And I think to myself If you are really into something such as your favorite band, or this website, or really anything. You don’t tire over what you’re passionate about, you just won’t grow tired. It will always continue to evolve.
Leland: If Ray were alive today, what do you think he would be writing about? I know that you have mentioned before that you asked him before he died “Are you afraid to die?” And he said “Not at all, I’m afraid not to live. If I had four lifetimes there still wouldn’t be enough time for me to finish all of my ideas.” Where do you think his literature would have gone today?
Sam: He had a book of short stories, that were combed from his filing cabinets from over six decades of time that he had collected. That book has not been released, and I don’t think it was quite done yet. I know he would of like to have that out by now. He also told me something that he hadn’t told anybody at all so this is an absolute exclusive for you. He had a novel that he really wanted to finish that was considered to be a Sci-Fi story. It’s funny he never really considered himself a science fiction writer even though he was well associated with that genre. He called himself a fantasy writer, and said: “science fiction books are written about things that could happen in the future.” He wanted to write about fantasy and about things that were never going to happen. He would also probably say all of this with exception of Fahrenheit 451, that was definitely considered a science fiction novel. Anyways he had once told me that he did have an idea for a fantasy/science fiction book and that it was an idea that he had years ago that he wanted to dust off and finish. I’ve never shared this with anybody, but I’ll share it with you because you just asked a great question, and basically the novel was suppose to be about a group of Catholic Church cardinals in the far future who wanted to build a rocket ship to try to go out into outer space to find God and prove His existence. He said that he would have really loved to finish it. During the last few years of his life, his mind was as sharp as anybody else’s he would have loved to be here partaking in this conversation right now. It was just his body that gave out and started to deteriorate living as long as he did.
Leland: Taking a completely different direction and flipping the script here, but the time that we are currently living in now days is very segregated and divided up in regards to the human race. Many educators are beginning to urge the younger generation to take up more practical and traditional routes such as becoming a doctor, a lawyer, or a politician, etc. Why does the world need the creative mind in times like these? Why do we need art?
Sam: Art is the glue that pieces all of us together. Despite the erosion of unity that we have seen in the last year or so within the political landscape and the way it is. Regardless of whether you are on the left or on the right, we are so polarized nationally, but also globally. We have become so polarized as people and there is so much segregation not only on a community level but segregated politically. We are segregated now by religious and spiritual distrust, by gender and identity, I mean overall we are extremely segregated and just sad. Art is the one thing and the one conduit that brings us together in the end. It’s not politics, that drives us further apart and we are currently watching that. It’s not your political ideologies because that’s what is sending us to the hills. Art is the one thing that can help me understand the way you live, and it makes you understand the way that I’ve lived. It connects us all like an electrical current. I don’t mean to be grandiose or hyperbolic but I believe that art is the one language around the world that truly has the capacity to keep us connected and holt this continued philosophical, spiritual, creative, political segregation that we are facing right now. Art can do that fully.
Leland: What does it take to be successful as an artist in today’s world?
Sam: That’s a huge question, but I think more than anything you just have to want it.
If the talents there, but the drive and passion aren’t, then it’s not worth it. Stephen King once said “Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” And I fully believe in that ethos. It takes worth ethic, discipline, and a fire in the belly. If a fire in the belly isn’t there then you are going to be handcuffed big time. If you want to be an artist then you have to be fully dedicated and excited about your work.
Leland: When looking back on your life, I’m sure there were many obstacles you had to face, especially when you were on route to becoming the successful artist that you are now. What was the biggest obstacle that you had to face, and how did you resolve it.
Sam: I actually ended up writing about it in the intro to one of my books. I had very supportive parents who supported all of my creative pursuits, and that alone was extremely liberating. I see a lot of young people whose parents or extended family in particular will say things such as “why are you studying stuff like poetry?” Or “Why are you studying music? How are you going to make a career?” Those are valid questions for loved ones to ask, but I didn’t get that from my parents. As I said before, my mom saw this kid spend the entire summer writing a book in his basement, and she loved it. So when I was 24, I had moved to Los Angeles in hopes of pursuing my younger dreams of becoming a screenwriter. I thought that I was going to move out there, get an agent and rock the world. I had no connections and I had no money, but I was earnest. I had been out there for about four months and I ended up getting a phone call saying that my mother had been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer which is just about as bad as it gets. So I packed up all of my things, into my car and headed back down the same route that I had driven out and I abandoned all of my young man’s dreams, but I wasn’t even ready for those dreams yet either but I thought I was at the time. I drove home and took my mom to the University of Chicago for a doctors appointment and the doctor had basically told me “get your affairs in order” basically meaning it’s done. He said, “We can go through treatment, I mean why not we’ve seen things reverse before but I would get all of your affairs in order.” That was a really tough drive home from that doctors appointment you know. I was 24 years old, and this was the women who had supported my creative aspirations since the beginning of time. I wasn’t even on the launch pad yet in terms of my own creative pursuits and my career as a writer. I hadn’t even published anything yet at that time either. Anyways it was nine months of treatment with radiation, chemo, and grueling. I was living at my mom’s house and was taking care of her every day. I had older siblings who helped, but they all had lives and children. I stayed at home with her and I watched her deteriorate, and it was absolutely horrible. Devastating doesn’t even encompass that, watching someone suffer physically, makes you feel helpless and angry along with a whole array of emotions, it was hard. Something that I actually ended up writing about in this book was that the one thing that I would read to her, and myself whenever she was able to get a little bit of sleep and comfort was Ray Bradbury and he made me feel less alone. I listened to him on an audio book, and it was a tape of him reading the story and I remember just thinking to myself “I’m not alone.” There are other people in this world who have felt pain before and they have gotten through it. That alone is art, it gave me a little bit of comfort in the darkest time and that’s really what art is suppose to do. My mother ended up dying nine months after that diagnosis. It’s strange I’ve now lived more of my life without my mother than I did with her. I’ve now crossed the threshold of the halfway point, and have been alive longer than the time I had with her and I’m still not over it and you don’t get over it. A friend of mine who is a very famous author and an amazing grief counselor said “grief is like an amputation.” You don’t get over an amputation, you learn to live with it because that appendage has been removed from you, you learn to live with it and I’ve learned to live with it. I love life, and I love creativity, and I love writing, and I love my family, and I’ve learned to live with everything. Although she is gone, I will say that my mom does live on now through many different ways in that most the things I create as a writer now days are in one way or another traced back to something inspired by her. So the flowers of her existence here on earth, that were only 53 years of life continue to blossom when I put words to the page or write a comic book because it all came from her support of me as a creative individual.
Leland: If you could go back in time and talk to your 23 years old self who was about to embark on this massive journey to Los Angeles, knowing all that you know now, what would you say?
Sam: I‘d say go for it young man, sally forth! I’d probably say try to rock the world and fail. You have to fall, and get hurt a few times. I actually ended up getting mugged out there by six people and put in the hospital. I fled home with my tail between my legs, and I️ was terrified of the streets and the violence, I was terrified of my mothers illness and terrified of not making it as a writer. The great thing is that all those things clothed me in an armor to grow up and become a creative artist, and “make it.” As cliche as it is, every time you stumble, your fall gives you more material to use. You learn, and it makes me a better person and dad to my kids. As painful as it would be to see my younger self load the car up and head to LA knowing what’s in front of him, I’d still say enjoy it and go for it.
Leland: What is Sam Weller’s purpose here in the world? And why is life worth living?
Sam: I don’t think any one individual has one specific purpose, but I definitely think that we have primary purposes. When I became a young father, I felt like fatherhood was distracting me from my creative pursuits which was difficult. I also thought that being a father meant I couldn’t create as much as I used to. I remember talking about this to Ray, and he taught me that by being a father I was creating and am in charge of writing the most important books that I would ever write, and I needed to write them well. So that’s my soul purpose right now, I have three little books who are 13, 10, and 6 and I need to write them well and make those books my masterpieces, that’s my purpose that’s got to be it. Beyond that, it’s to try to be a better man, be a better global citizen, etc. I have a lot of work to do man. The final component to that would be to continue to celebrate Ray’s legacy for him, he entrusted that in me and that’s my job but he had a very specific purpose for me that I need to follow through on and that’s to continue being a writer. I am a creative writer, I write fiction and essays and everything else. He told me and I remember it very specifically he said “I want you to write a mystery novel” I don’t know why he said a mystery novel, but he said ” I want you to carry on everything that you loved in my writing and I want you to celebrate it in your writing and that’s what I want for you next.” Right now, I have three books of fiction that are locked and loaded and they are almost complete. That’s another purpose that I have right now. So I have creative purpose, I’ve got paternal purposes, and I’ve got just purposes as a man by just being mindful of these things everyday and just trying to be better at them, and I’m not always great at them.
Sam’s story is extraordinary. It was such an honor to be able to interview someone who has accomplished so much as an artist. Besides Sam telling us about what it was like to hangout with Ray Bradbury, and giving us an amazing exclusive piece of information about one of his unreleased works, I love Sam’s passion for art more than anything. Passion is what gets you from point A to point B. It’s something that we all will inevitably posses, but it’s also something we have to search for as well. Sam’s story outlines how he was able to take the skills he had been gifted with, and utilize them to turn his ideas into novels, radio shows, articles, interviews, etc. The overall pointI’m trying to make is that you have the exact same potential! Take the gifts that you have been given and use them to create a life, or a career for yourself and make sure it’s doing something that you love. I say this because I believe you CAN be the next Sam Weller, or the next Ray Bradbury, or whoever you dream of becoming. Be the hero you aspire to be, and show the world something they’ve never seen before.
“Stuff your eyes with wonder, he said, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds.See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.” – Ray Bradbury