Fact-checking Ray Bradbury
June 6, 2012 | by Stephen Hiltner
I didn’t grow up reading The Paris Review. My earliest encounter with the magazine—I’m somewhat ashamed to admit—came in graduate school, when I stumbled upon an interview with Milan Kundera. (I was writing a paper on translation, and the quote I pulled didn’t even make it into a footnote.) Had you asked me, a year or so later, when I found myself applying for an internship, what the magazine meant to me, I wouldn’t have given you an honest answer. It didn’t mean much of anything to me. I wanted a foot in the door in New York, and The Paris Review’s seemed as good a door as any.
The latest issue, 191, had closed just before I started, so my first few weeks were quiet. I read submissions, delivered packages, distributed the mail. Then came my first real assignment: We were running an interview with Ray Bradbury, and it needed fact-checking. I volunteered.
Ray Bradbury was, by then, eighty-nine years old. He’d had a stroke in 1999, and it showed in the interview manuscript: he misremembered dates, names, years; he attributed books to the wrong authors; the quotes he offered from memory—I remember one in particular from Moby-Dick—were nine-tenths invention. It made for a lot of work. But what I found in the interview were things that had escaped me for much of my undergraduate and graduate years—years spent earning a supposedly literary education. He promotes friendship, love, self-discovery, the daily intake of poetry. He instructs us to read from every kind of literature we feel drawn to. (Speaking about his own influences, he calls himself a “conglomerate heap of trash.”) He talks about the “fiction of ideas,” a term he uses to describe the need for literature to engage with major developments in science, art, and contemporary culture at large. He warns against the dangers of intellectual snobbery (“If I’d found out that Norman Mailer liked me,” he says, “I’d have killed myself”). He asserts the primary importance of public libraries. In the early days of e-books and Kindles (“Those aren’t books,” he says. “A book has got to smell. You have to hold it in your hand and pray to it.”), he makes a case for the printed page.
If you haven’t read his Paris Review interview, you should. Then, when you’re done, and when you’ve given it some time to soak in, read it again. It’s the reason I took up an interest in my work at the Review. It’s the reason I’m an editor. And it’s a large part of the reason I write.
Bradbury wouldn’t have made it today as a writer in New York; he was too rough, too raw, too tender. (He attributed to New York critics a “terrible creative negativism.”) But Ray Bradbury, who never went to college and was entirely library educated, had what so many of the sophisticated, MFA-carrying writers today lack: passion, vitality, emotional awareness. And, maybe most admirably, he found a way to carry his imagination past the boundaries of childhood, where so many of us so often discard it.
One section of the interview gave me more fact-checking trouble than all the rest combined: the part that deals with Bradbury’s lifelong literary inspiration, Mr. Electrico. The story of their meeting is well-known—he told it often—but no one had ever confirmed Mr. Electrico’s existence. (The director of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies later told me, over the phone, that the search for Mr. Electrico was the “Holy Grail of Bradbury scholarship.”) I combed through contemporary newspapers from Waukegan, Illinois; I posted on circus-history message boards; I inquired into the American Circus Collection’s cache of posters and programs. Nothing. Not a trace.
The entire section—the best part of the interview, in my opinion, or at least the part most characteristic of his writing—fell onto the chopping block. But it was so integral to the piece that editor Philip Gourevitch and fiction editor Nathaniel Rich found a way to keep it in, largely by introducing some factual doubt into the interviewer’s lead-in question. And so it stands exactly as he recalled it: Ray Bradbury’s story of running from a funeral to discover a Dill Brothers circus performer who’d give purpose to the rest of his life.
“Seventy-seven years ago,” he concludes, “and I’ve remembered it perfectly. I went back and saw him that night. He sat in the chair with his sword, they pulled the switch, and his hair stood up. He reached out with his sword and touched everyone in the front row, boys and girls, men and women, with the electricity that sizzled from his sword. When he came to me, he touched me on the brow, and on the nose, and on the chin, and he said to me, in a whisper, ‘Live forever.’ And I decided to.”
It’s so clearly too good to be true, isn’t it? And I was the fact-checker. And yet, if they’d cut a word of it, I would have invented a source and put it all back in.