Capote in Kansas by Kim Powers takes a lot of chances. Recreating the lives of not one but two well known and well respected American writers and dealing with subject matter that has not only been covered by others, but covered very well. It is to Mr. Powers great credit that he pulls it off, giving readers an entertaining and haunting experience by telling us a story we already think we know.
Capote in Kansas is the story of Truman Capote and Harper Lee, their difficult lifelong relationship, their time together in Kansas researching In Cold Blood and how the subject of their research continued to haunt them long after the book was published.
Towards the end of his life, Truman Capote, who spends most of the novel at his home in Palm Springs with only his maid, Myrtle and a plumber he is infatuated with, has begun to fell the presence of Nancy Clutter’s ghost. (Nancy Clutter was one of four family members whose vicious murder became the subject for Capote’s non-fiction novel In Cold Blood.) Capote never wrote anything of substance again and ended up isolated from most of his friends and acquaintances. In Mr. Powers’ novel, he seems to regret this situation which is probably what causes him to think Nancy Clutter’s ghost is haunting him. Capote calls Harper Lee in the middle of the night, frantic with fear convinced that Nancy Clutter has come back from the dead to seek revenge on him for exploiting her life and her murder.
Harper Lee, Capote’s childhood friend, currently lives with her sister in their family home in Mississippi. She also never published anything after the success of her first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, which come out shortly after In Cold Blood, and has only recently begun to appear at public functions. In Mr. Powers’ novel she is also haunted, by the Clutters, by memories of her deceased brother whom she writes letters to, by the real man Boo Radley was based on, and by her now failed friendship with Truman.
Both people emerge as fully formed, believable characters in Mr. Powers’ novel. I was initially skeptical about this, I usually avoid fictionalized stories like this one, but after a few chapters I was hooked. Truman Capote was nothing if not interesting, and Harper Lee continues to fascinate if only by her absence, so Capote in Kansas can easily give the reader a sense of gaining insider knowledge. Some of this is a bit prurient at first, but by the end of the novel, I felt that I had come to understand the situation and the characters. The attempt to reconcile a long lost friendship, to apologize for things said and left unsaid, gives the book a human touch that would have otherwise been lost in the somewhat sordid details of Truman Capote’s end as interesting as those details are. Mr. Powers’ book serves as an attempt to bring both Capote and Lee back into the fold, so to speak. I think he succeeds.
It certainly must be said that the story of In Cold Blood and its creation is simply a fascinating one. Two effete southerners from New York City head off to the Kansas prairie and try to meet and interview just about everyone in town. I still find it difficult to believe that they pulled it off. Through both character’s flashbacks we see several scenes of their time in Kansas including the night Truman took several locals out to dinner and then dancing at what must have been the only drag bar in Kansas much to Harper’s chagrin. The fact that it’s so hard to believe only makes it more believable.
I first published this review as part of a Capote in Kansas virtual book tour. As part o the tour I got to do an a interview with the author Kim Powers, part one tomorrow and part two soon after. I also re-read both In Cold Blood and TO Kill a Mockingbird as part of my preparation for the interview. Reading these three books together is an excellent idea for any book club. I’ve enjoyed looking at the three of them together and have gained from the experience.
A few weeks ago there was a discussion on many book blogs about the importance of first sentences. I think they are very important, but many other book bloggers felt otherwise. What do you think? How much effort went into “She’s back. She’s after me.”? How important is the first sentence?
The first sentence is crucial. The first few pages are crucial. I’ve gotten so precious about my time lately that if a book doesn’t grab me in the first few pages, I abandon it.
The interesting thing about my first sentence – Truman calling Harper Lee on the phone and saying, “She’s back. She’s after me.” – is that it wasn’t originally the first sentence. Originally, I had begun the book with something that now comes almost at the end, the description of their train ride from New York to Kansas: “Why they took a train instead of a plane she didn’t know…” It’s a line that just came to me, and I liked the rhyme in it, the sense of motion, and the odd little detail that comes soon afterwords, that Harper was working as an airlines reservation clerk when Truman asked her to accompany him. (That first sentence was also a bit of a play on the title, which was originally Truman in Kansas, meaning to conjure up Harry S. Truman and his whistle-stop train tours. The editor asked me to change it to Capote in Kansas, liking the alliteration of that more.
The section that starts with the ghost of Nancy Clutter (ghost or drunken hallucination?) coming back to “haunt” Truman had originally come some 60 or so pages into the book, but as I kept writing, it just seemed like a natural place to start, a way to kick off the story I really wanted to tell, of being haunted by the past, and the question are we really ever able to escape our demons?
Capote and Lee are both haunted by the Clutter family, people they never met in life but portrayed in detail In Cold Blood. After doing the same with so many people in Capote in Kansas, is there anything or anyone you are haunted by?
I’m haunted by something I wonder if Truman and Harper were haunted by – and it’s a bizarre thing, and maybe says far too much about me. I’m haunted by the idea of meeting the people I’ve written about in the afterlife, and getting their reactions to my books! That might sound like the height of arrogance, but it’s honest, what can I say. I constantly think about reuniting with my two brothers and parents in heaven – if I’m lucky enough to make it there – and getting their accolades or their condemnation for what I wrote about them in The History of Swimming.
I wonder if Truman or Harper ever wondered about that – coming face to face with the Clutters in the afterlife, and being judged for what they wrote, if they got it “right or not.”
I do believe in ghosts, by the way, but mine aren’t the type that go bump in the night. They’re the ghosts that come to us in our dreams, or the ghosts of guilt that haunt us (me, at least) during our waking hours.
It’s does not seem uncommon to fictionalize the life of someone who has died, but fictionalizing the life of someone who is still alive, as Harper Lee is, seems like a much shakier proposition. How did the possibility that Ms. Lee might read Capote in Kansas affect the writing of the book?
I know it was certainly one of – if not THE – riskiest thing I did in Capote in Kansas. However, I didn’t let the thought of Harper actually reading the book at some point influence my writing. I wasn’t attempting to discredit her in any way, or cast aspersions on her character (her mental state, her sexuality, etc.); I was just genuinely trying to create a flesh and blood character built out of what I knew about her, filling in the dots where she hadn’t filled them in herself. I deliberately called her Nelle, her real first name, to get the onus of “Harper Lee” out of my head, to make her almost a fictional character. At one point, I even thought about renaming all of the real things in the book – changing the titles of Mockingbird and In Cold Blood, giving Truman a different name, giving Boo Radley a different name, etc. (I was going to call him “Caw,” which I think is what they called the real Boo Radley.) But those real names have such iconic power, and some of my early readers said I would lose that if I changed them. Even if I had changed them, you would have been able to put two and two together to figure out who I was really writing about, which I think is sort of disingenuous and cheesy. I had printed out the definition of “roman a clef” and taped it over my desk, and kept thinking I would move towards that, but I didn’t.
In the final analysis, I didn’t feel I was saying anything libelous about Harper Lee. (I don’t think Truman would care what anyone wrote about him, as long as they WERE writing about him.) I think I actually come out on the side of defending Harper. The publisher’s lawyer read the book and felt that, while it was out there, it wasn’t libelous or slanderous. I’ll tell you something else, very honest, that probably won’t be too popular: I had a lingering feeling of anger at Harper Lee, that she had never written anything else, and had become so reclusive about her life. I think an artist – and that’s what she became with the success of Mockingbird– has a responsibility to be available, to keep producing. It’s a strange thing: so much about writing and art is private, as are so many artists. “Let the work speak for itself.” You’re exposing your innermost self., whether you’re writing autobiographically or fictionally. When I wrote my first book, a memoir called The History of Swimming, I knew my life would then become public property. You’re putting yourself out there. (Obviously, Harper Lee hasn’t suffered, nor has the success of the book, by her NOT talking about it – I just wish she had. I feel it’s your duty, once you make such a public statement.)
I also think people sometimes hide behind the idea that you can write about someone real after they’re dead – in an “inspired by” kind of fiction—and that it’s okay the minute the person has died, but NOT OKAY until they are. I think that’s an easy game people play.
I’ve definitely taken some heat for it. Some reviewers and readers think I absolutely crossed the line by writing about the famously private Lee. I don’t know if they mind WHAT I wrote, or the fact that I DID it – while she was still alive. I just know the character I wrote and called “Nelle Lee” seems to fit what I know about the real Harper Lee, and make sense of a life she’s never discussed. (I’m a very polite Southern boy most of them time; I just think “art “needs to be a little rude, and shake people up a little, to see things they hadn’t thought about before.)
Having said all of that, it’s probably hard for people to believe how much I respect her work and what she did, so many years ago. I just wish she had kept doing it.
I was hesitant to read Capote in Kansas at first because it came to my attention so soon after seeing both Capote movies on DVD. Have you seen the movies? Any preference between the two? Did you fear that they might affect your novel one way or another?
I’ve seen both movies. I was about ¾ of the way through my book when I first heard of their existence – and immediately thought I had been scooped at a great story. I almost abandoned my book , for fear the movies would steal my thunder. But then I realized I was too far along, and that my book was quite different – focusing on so much more than just their time in Kansas.
I actually think “Infamous” – the second movie – is the better one. As uncomfortably flamboyant as Toby Jones, who plays Capote, is, I feel like it’s probably a more accurate portrayal. And the movie has a strange kind of exuberance, compared to the inordinate depression “Capote” left me with. I made a point of not seeing either of them until I had finished my book and it had been turned into an editor.
You’ve written in many genres: memoir, novel, television journalism, a screenplay. Do you have favorite? What are the advantages and challenges of writing across so many genres?
I do have to say I prefer writing books, as hard as they are. At least, at the end of the day, they’re more or less yours. Of course, an editor’s hand is probably in it, but not to the degree of the dozens of people who’ve shaped what you finally see on screen, from your screenplay. I had written about half a dozen screenplays (one, an indie film called “Finding North,” actually got made), but I was ultimately so frustrated at all the levels you had to go though to get someone to say “Yes.” I decided a book would be a million times easier. I had been playing around with the material that ultimately became The History of Swimming for several years, and something came over me that just said, “You’re going to make this a book or else.” (Conversely, I’ve been thinking of turning one of the screenplays into a novel, so it could then be sold to the movies! Then I could say, “Here! I just happen to have the screenplay already done!”)
There’s one story I’ve come across that would make a great “narrative nonfiction” novel, as they’re called (like The Perfect Storm or Erik Larson’s books), but I just don’t trust myself that I could be that rigorous about researching it. Too many painful memories of grad school! At a certain point, I want characters to do what I want them to do.
My TV writing – for Good Morning America, Primetime, and 20/20 – has always been my “waitress job,” as I call it. A great waitress job, mind you, but something I do for income. Yet at the same time, that writing has completely informed my books. In TV, you always have to tease things out so that viewers come back after the commercial break, leave them with a big unanswered dangling question to be answered IF they come back. That’s what my books are like, I think. Fairly cinematic and fast moving, one scene moving into the next. The early screen writing informs that as well. Believe me, I’d love to write a big sprawling John Irving book, but I just don’t know if I have the skill to spin out something so epic.
Were you ever tempted to write a clear cut reconciliation scene between Capote and Lee? They could have had one over the phone if not in person. The reader knows that Lee has figured out what the snake boxes meant and, I believe, come to terms with Capote, but Capote never knows if the snake boxes worked.
I never thought about writing a direct or literal reconciliation scene between Harper and Truman, but a sort of “dream” reconciliation came about very organically, at the very end of the book. Harper has gone to the cemetery, pieced together the “game” Truman has been leading her through. She falls asleep on a graveyard plot that has great childhood significance to both of them, and she first dreams of their initial trip to Kansas. Then that seques to her dreaming of saying goodbye to Truman, now.
I think dreams have a sort of sixth-sense reality, and maybe protect us from things that would be too overwhelming otherwise. I’m sure I sound crazy here — but I felt as if she were saying goodbye to Truman, and he to her. I’ve had numerous goodbye dreams like this with my twin brother, of us finally getting to say the goodbye in dream land that we weren’t able to on earth. So I do feel as if they get their final moments of closure with each other.
You mention in the afterward that you saw the movies before you read the books. What was your first encounter with To Kill a Mockingbird in print? What was your reaction to the book after having been so affected by the movie? Did you have a similar experience reading In Cold Blood for the first time versus seeing the movie?
I’m embarrassed to say that it took me a relatively long time to actually read Mockingbird. For the longest time, even for someone obsessed with books, and a voracious reader as a kid, I just continued to think, “The movie IS the book.” I don’t think it was until my sophomore or junior year in high school that I actually read it. A friend of mine was giving a book report on Mockingbird for an English class, and the teacher made her say “a crime against a woman” instead of “rape” for the Tom Robinson story. That made me really want to figure out what she was talking about! I was surprised at how much humor there was in the book, that didn’t come through in the movie. Even Truman, who wrote one of the very first blurbs for the first printing, commented on the humor. That humor notwithstanding, however, I continue to think it’s one of the most perfect movie adaptations of a book ever (perhaps because it had a voice-over narration.) I was fascinated by the narrator in the movie – and thought the voice was so spot-on, it had to be Harper Lee herself narrating the movie. It was actually the actress Kim Stanley. So much of that book seemed to come directly from my life – the playing outside late at night, the neighborhood kids thinking there was a “Haunted House” in the neighborhood. (Ours’ was Mrs. Duncan’s house, a widow who wore all black and had a shrunken head hanging from the rear-view mirror in her car. We started the rumor it was her husband!) And of course, we dared each other to run up to her porch.
My experience with In Cold Blood was quite different. Again, I saw the movie long before I read the book, which I don’t think was until I was in college. The movie scared me to death – especially the murder scene when it’s finally shown: black and white, that swinging light bulb, Nancy Clutter begging for her life. When I’d visit relatives who lived on farms – and I grew up in Texas, and had lots of farmers for relatives – I was scared to stay overnight, for fear of being murdered in my sleep. Their houses were always so isolated, so far away from anybody else that no one could hear us scream.
Reading the book was the first time I really grappled with the idea of the death penalty – and the seemingly contradictory commandments of “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” The thing that the book has that’s missing from the movie is just the breadth of the wide open plains of Kansas, the geographic landscape and the huge numbers of people that Truman and Harper Lee talked to, to piece together that narrative. For years, I accepted it all as the gospel truth, and it’s really only when I began digging into research for my book that I came to sense a lot of it was somewhat dramatized – the essential truth – but “expanded” to get the drama that Truman wanted.
I remember seeing Truman Capote on the Phil Donohue show when I was probably 13 or 14 and being more than a little frightened by him. He was one of the few gay people in the public eye at that time and he was not someone a 13-year-old boy in suburban America in the mid 1970’s wanted to be like. (We had no idea that Paul Lynde and Liberace were gay in my family.) My partner had the same experience. He was actually horrified that he might end up looking and sounding like Truman Capote. I suspect that Mr. Capote frightened many gay chidren who later came to admire him as my partner and I did. What were your reactions to first seeing Mr. Capote? Did you see him before you read him like I did? (I’m presuming that we are in roughly the same age bracket based on your photo at the back of your book.)
I did have many of those same feelings. I don’t remember exactly the first time I saw Truman, but I think it might have been some of his many appearances on The Johnny Carson Show in the late 60s and early 70s. You could just hear the audience trying not to laugh at his voice, but sense Truman almost daring them to at the same time.
I think my first sense of Truman came from a wonderful TV adaptation of his short story “A Christmas Memory.” Geraldine Page was in it playing Truman’s old cousin Sook, trying to make fruitcakes at Christmas. I read autobiography into everything I saw (as I somewhat still do), and I sensed that Buddy, the little boy, was Truman. Whatever I thought of him as an over-the-top adult, then, I would think back to “A Christmas Memory,” and remember that sad, incredibly moving childhood, and his isolation and relationship with that lonely old woman. It made me feel more sympathetic toward him, and everything he had gone through.
In high school, Truman was actually in that Neil Simon movie “Murder By Death.” By then, I was old enough to make jokes about him – but at the same time think this is what I was cursed to become as a gay boy/man. To my horror, I probably even aped some of his mannerisms, just to appear “eccentric.”
You must have spent a great deal of time with the characters in Capote in Kansas. Now that a year has passed since it was first published, whom do you feel closer to? Lee or Capote?
My allegiances constantly shift, but I have to say I remain fond of both of them. (Sort of like an actor weasling out and saying they love all the roles they’ve played.) The book started out more about Truman, and then Nelle (Harper) took prominence. In some ways, it’s more her book by the end, than Truman’s. I feel great sympathy towards her, and come to love her most, in the two letters she writes to her dead older brother, Ed. They’re the only sections in the book in first person, and I really felt I “got” what she might have sounded like – if she had done something as crazy as write a letter to her dead brother, that is! (A bizarre coincidence, although you take everything you can get as a writer: I’ve lost both my brothers, my twin Tim and my older brother Ed, and the fact that her older brother was also named Ed just enabled those two letters to come pouring out of me – as if I were writing to my old, dearly missed brother.)
So I feel very close to Harper when I think about her loss, and about getting to the end of her life and wondering if she had done enough. When I was writing the book , I was going through some health issues that made me very reflective about mortality, and about the legacies we leave behind, and all of that found its way into Harper.
On the other hand, I felt great sympathy towards Truman, who had somewhat turned himself into a monster, but I think he knew it; I don’t think that’s who he really wanted to be. My twin brother was an alcoholic and I absolutely saw another person take over during his drinking jags. It’s almost like I could see the real Tim, the innocent little child, inside the drunk, saying, “It’s not me! I want to make him stop, but I can’t!” I felt that about Truman, and it was very important to me that I was able to give him peace and grace by the end of the book, by finding his way back to his childhood, and his innocence.
You didn’t mention her, but I also came to love the third main character in the book, Truman’s housekeeper Myrtle Bennett. She’s very much based on Truman’s real housekeeper in his desert home of Palm Springs. She was one of the few who stayed with him, when everyone else jumped ship. She was a Cotton Club dancer in her life, and I loved to fantasize about how she got from that, to Truman.
I read on your website that this is your first virtual book tour. How closely have you followed book blogs up to now? What do you think book reviewing and book promotion will look like five or ten years from today?
I’ll be honest – I haven’t followed book blogs that much, mainly because they’re too terrifying! I find myself getting jealous of other writers and the attention they’re getting. When I was publishing my first book, I read them very aggressively – looking for tips, angles, anything. (I did the same thing with movie magazines, when I was trying to be part of that world.) Then I found myself getting overwhelmed by them. You could spend the rest of your life just reading blogs and not ever writing if you really wanted to be thorough.
But the publishing world – and the role of blogs in them – has changed tremendously in just the four or five years since The History of Swimming first came out. Then, all the advice I got was to not bother with blogs, they were few and far between, and I’d just be writing to the choir, not the converts I wanted to make. By the time Capote came out, they were a bigger deal, but I was still told the internet didn’t really “sell” books. (I think I was getting some bad advice.) But in the year since it did come out, this year between the hardback and paperback, they’ve become the be-all and end-all, especially since so many newspapers have lost their book sections.
Blogs are a great way to reach savvy readers, and I’ve done a huge amount of outreach just on my own through the internet, trying to reach readers and book clubs. Blogs are almost the only way to get information out. (It’s like we’re all burrowing underground, like the people who still read books in Fahrenheit 451, having to hide out and memorize our favorite books, to pass on.)
I remain primarily a reader so I would like to ask if you have a third book in the works? What do we have to look forward to from Kim Powers?
There is a third book in the works. It’s actually finished, but not yet sold. I just finished up my umpteenth draft of it this weekend and delivered it to my agent. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel called The Movies We Watched (The Year My Father Killed My Mother.). How’s THAT for a title? Even scarier that it has the basic DNA of my childhood. It’s about a little boy who obsessively goes to the movies every weekend, and keeps a scrapbook with the ads of all the movies he sees. His mother has died, and bit by bit he becomes convinced – from things he sees in the movies – that his father literally killed his mother, in order to be with his new girlfriend. The little boy then begins playing detective to try and catch him. It’s sort of the prequel and the sequel to The History of Swimming – my childhood, and the time after my twin died of AIDS.
The little boy sections are somewhat reminiscent of the voice in that novel from a few years ago, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. My book follows the real movies I saw week after week in 1966-67, when my mother mysteriously died. And then another character starts intruding in the years 1986-87. He works in a movie house, and you think it’s the little boy grown up. But it’s not. (I mention that because I read on your blog that Pee Wee’s Big Adventure is one of your favorite movies, and it features in the book!)
My partner and I have many pets. Our dog, Dakota, is regularly featured on Ready When You Are, C.B. because she has eaten so many of my books. So, to conclude, I’d like to ask if you have any pets, and what relationship do they have with your books?
Like you, my partner and I are big dog lovers. We’re on our fourth, having raised three who’ve now gone on to “grad school,” as we call it. The current dog is a cute little Yorkie/Maltese named Frankie, after Frankie Valli. She’s a puppy, still, about a year and a half years old, but surprisingly good at not chewing things up.
Our first dog, however, a lab mutt named Franny, was the big chewer, and loved to devour my paperbacks. I remember for years the one paperback she seemed to like the most: the Edmund White nonfiction book called States of Desire: Travels in Gay America. I could track her growth by the teeth marks in that book!
Sounds like another dog with excellent taste in literature.
All of this material first ran on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. This is one of my favorite projects from the years I spent at Ready When You Are, C.B. I don’t do many author/book tours anymore, but they were lots of fun. Sometimes.