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.