The Man Who Fact-Checked Ray Bradbury

There are things most of us instinctively understand do not belong in appreciations written about people who have recently passed away, assuming we are remembering them as a positive influence in the world. So will somebody please smack Stephen Andrew Hiltner who wrote Fact Checking Ray Bradbury for The Paris Review Daily?

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.

In the first place, if The Paris Review required precision it should not have been interviewing an 89-year-old stroke victim. Shouldn’t the whole point of the encounter have been to hear from one of our great fantasists? Might as well fact-check Buffalo Bill, Cool Papa Bell or Parson Weems. As the newspaper editor in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

In the second place, Mr. Hiltner, so what if you fact-checked that forgetful old man? We do not need to hear from you. Did you cash your check? Then shut up about it. Don’t gravy-train that pathetic assignment into another paycheck from The Paris Review for God’s sake.

8 thoughts on “The Man Who Fact-Checked Ray Bradbury

  1. Smack him? You thought that lovely piece that made me want to go and read the interview right away was a hatchet job? Wow.

  2. The right way to have printed the interview was to leave Bradbury’s words as they were, but have them heavily footnoted. All due respect to a writer who was practically sainted, no good comes of spreading misinformation. In fact, the contrast between the established facts and the author’s recollection of them can be fascinating in itself — it doesn’t necessarily represent a failing mind. The way a man interprets his life may tell you a great deal about him and perhaps the events as well. But the contrast must be there to be appreciated.

  3. @Richard: Where are you getting “hatchet job”? I said Mr. Fact Checker was offensive, self-aggrandizing and greedy. So, it didn’t bother you to read that The Paris Review wanted to market Bradbury’s name but found that the reality of his interview was so factually garbled that they did not want to use it until it had been turned into a kind of meta text, and now that the subject has died they’ve capitalized on his name again by drawing back the curtain on their earlier exploitation?

  4. Dear Mike, Richard, and Taral,

    Many thanks for reading and responding to my essay. I hope it’s not too intrusive to post here; I simply thought it might be helpful to clarify a few misconceptions about our interview process.

    It may come as a surprise to know that all Paris Review interviews are edited; they are not faithful reproductions of one-off conversations. And, like most publications, The Paris Review has a thorough fact-checking process to verify the factual claims in the pieces we publish. If there are factual inaccuracies in an interview transcript—and there always are—then we do our best to find them and correct them. (All of this, of course, is done with the consent of the interviewer and the interviewee; they are very much involved in the process.)

    Our interview with Mr. Bradbury was handled no differently than any other interview; it was edited and fact-checked according to a process we’ve used for years. (I should say: the editorial history of Mr. Bradbury’s interview is uniquely fascinating in that the published interview is actually an amalgamation of two separate interviews; one was conducted in the late seventies by William Plummer, and one was conducted in 2010 by Sam Weller. All of this is explained in the interview’s introduction.) And, having now worked on several Paris Review interviews, I can say that Mr. Bradbury’s interview didn’t present an unusually difficult case as far as fact-checking is concerned. Even at eighty-nine, and in spite of his stroke, Mr. Bradbury had a brilliant mind. Like most eighty-nine-year-olds, though, he was susceptible to misremembering details. So while his thoughts were cogent and illuminating, he fuddled some of his facts.

    (I should say: It pains me a bit to see the above quote pulled from my essay without so much as a hint toward the greater context of the piece, namely that Mr. Bradbury (and his interview) was, and remains, inspirational to me on many levels.)

    To answer a few questions directly:

    No, I haven’t cashed any checks, not for my work on the interview (I was an unpaid intern at the time) nor for the article I wrote for our Web site. (Editors at The Paris Review aren’t paid for their online contributions.) Furthermore, since 2000, The Paris Review has been funded by The Paris Review Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization set up by the magazine’s founders to ensure its long-term continuity. To put it simply: we’re not in it to cash checks; we’re in it to publish and promote the best writing we can find.

    My hope in writing about my experience fact-checking Mr. Bradbury’s interview, which I’m glad to see has played out in the reading experience of people like Richard, was mainly to point readers in the direction of Mr. Bradbury’s interview. I also wanted to express how much of an impact Mr. Bradbury (and his interview) had on me as a newly graduated student entering the world of writing.

    Thank you, again, for reading and responding to my post. I do hope you’ve had a chance to read the interview itself; I find it a remarkable window into the life of a man who meant so much to so many of us.

    Yours sincerely,

    A link to the interview:

  5. First of all, the tone of my earlier comment was unnecessarily sharp. I apologize for that.

    From the article: “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.” The essay describes how Bradbury’s minor factual errors were of no consequence compared to the insight and inspiration the interview offered to Mr. Hiltner and, by extension, any other writer and editor. It’s a tribute to Bradbury, not exploitation.

    My hackles always rise when I feel as if my heroes or the tribe of SF are being slighted. Friends know never to mention Margaret Atwood around me lest they be subjected to a 30 minute rant on her misconceptions about SF. However, SF fans also have gained a reputation in some circles as being overly defensive and insular and too quick to see insult where none exists. Let’s not actually be those people.

  6. @Stephen: As is often the case, the appropriately-nuanced reaction likely falls in the range between our collective sentiments. It’s understood that publications routinely fact-check material, including interviews. If you were going to run a Bradbury interview you would certainly want to present him in the best light, and I would not have wondered at all about that choice if you had avoided preening about it in the post under discussion.

    I’ve appreciated The Paris Review’s attention to sf. If you search this blog you will find several posts pointing to sf author interviews in last summer’s issue.

    @Richard: Thanks for the expanded comment. There’s no reason not to enjoy the interview. As for the post pointuing to it, you are right about its virtues but I won’t pretend I don’t see the part that upsets me.

  7. I used to know Margaret Atwood’s three nephews. One was an actual acquaintance for a few years, and we would still know each other to say hello if he wasn’t in London, England, at the moment.

    What a wonderful irony that Robert Atwood is a did in the wool SF reader and was for a while an active SF fan! His younger brother Even is at least a comics fan…

  8. @Mike:
    Longtime reader, first-time commenter. I’m generally a big fan of your site, but you definitely missed the mark on this one. Like Richard said, Mr. Hiltner only brought up Ray’s factual errors to emphasize how trivial they were with respect to everything else the interview has to offer. And I was doubly disappointed by your reply to Mr. Hiltner’s civil and dignified comment. An apology was in order, not further degradation. He wasn’t “preening” about anything.

    @Stephen, in case you ever find your way back to this page:
    Please DON’T shut up. We DO need to hear from you. Your post was an articulate, heartfelt, and thoughtful tribute. And I’ve been around long enough to know that you WILL be cashing checks someday for the writing you do. Please let’s see more of it.

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