Why did you decide to write about this friendship that had gone sour?
It’s a story I knew parts of—and had wondered about even more—for a long time. I always thought it was one of the great little known stories in American letters – the strange friendship of this little elfin child—immortalized as Dill Harris in Mockingbird—and this giant tomboy, who went from the gentility of Mockingbird to the blood and guts of In Cold Blood (as Truman’s assistant.) When I started working on the book, the two recent Capote movies weren’t yet in the works, so it was a really untapped story. I was surprised at how many fans of Mockingbird didn’t know that Harper had worked on In Cold Blood with Truman.
I dove right into it after I turned my first book, a memoir called The History of Swimming, into my agent. It was that Southern Baptist work ethic I had grown up with – no idle hands! I actually started some jottings on both Capote in Kansas and something else (that has now become my third book.) Since my first book was a very personal memoir, I didn’t want to dive back into autobiographical material, so I thought I would start doodling on both books and see which one started gathering more steam. My first impulse was the title—at that point, Truman in Kansas, so you’d think of Harry S. Truman and the elections. (My editor suggested changing it to Capote.) But strangely, along the way, I found that a lot of my own life experience started pushing its way into a book about two people whom I knew only from research. A writer obviously uses what he/she knows—and soon the story of Truman and Harper and how these two once best friends had become so splintered followed the outline of my fractured relationship with my own twin brother, which The History of Swimming had been about. So, on the surface, it’s the story of Truman and Harper, but between the lines – and maybe discernible only to me—it’s the story of those wacky Powers twins!
Was it challenging to write a fictional account of two real -and quite famous- people, especially as one of them is still living? Did this ever make you nervous?
Yes and no—to both questions. I wanted to get them “right,” hew to the basic outlines of what we knew about them, but since they were essentially creations of my own imagination, I didn’t feel I had to be a slave to research. I mean, I wanted to get their “characters” right, but the plot was my own invention. A lot has been written about Capote, and by him, and there are many seemingly contradictory parts to his personality. Almost anything goes. I wanted to get the over the top, drunken quality , but also the broken inner spirit. Obviously, much less has been written about Harper. I felt as if I were filling in the gaps between the few factual things we knew about her. Most of my writing about her is in third person, except for two letters in 1st person, that she writes to her older brother – who just happens to be dead! It’s a way for all her buried thoughts to come spilling out, and the letters turned out to be two of my favorite pieces of writing in the book.
As to the nervous/fear question—once I was in to the idea of the book, I was either in or out. I had to do it and commit to it, or not at all. I tried a sort of roman a clef approach at one point, changing their names, but it fell flat. I think for something artistic to work, it needs to be a little risky, a little dangerous, and this was definitely something risky. At the end of the day, though--the end of the book?--I didn’t feel as if I had written anything libelous or disrespectful about either main character. I felt comfortable with my decision, because I did it out of such fascination with Truman and Harper.
Since Capote is deceased and Lee unapproachable, how did you go about researching their friendship? Did you use their own writing to reconstruct it?
There are two monumental bios of Capote—Gerald Clarke’s Capote and George Plimpton’s oral biography Truman Capote, which is a compilation of interviews about him. I relied heavily on both of those, which include several references to Harper Lee and especially, Truman’s experience in Kansas, writing In Cold Blood. There are quite a few other books about him – by his lover Jack Dunphy (who, with Harper Lee, shares the In Cold Blood dedication), his aunt Marie Rudisill (made famous as “The Fruitcake Lady” from her appearances on Leno), and bits and pieces elsewhere. When I started working on the book, Charles Shields’ biography Mockingbird, about Harper Lee, hadn’t yet been published, so I scavenged any newspaper or magazine article I could find about her – quite a few in the years right after the publication of Mockingbird, and then a sort of “Whatever Happened to Harper Lee?” article every few years, by writers who were convinced they were going to get the holy grail of an interview with her. The Historical Society in Monroeville, AL, where they both grew up, had published a book or two, and then I went to really obscure sources – about true crime, the Clutters, even the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. I collected auction catalogues that had sold Truman’s belongings, anything I could find. Then I absorbed it all and tried to turn it into flesh and blood characters in my head.
And – as you suggest, most importantly – I used their own writings: how Harper writes about Dill Harris in Mockingbird, how Truman wrote the character of Ida in his first published novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms. That’s his portrait of Harper, transformed into fiction.
Did you learn anything about Capote or Lee that really surprised you?
Before I started writing this, I had no clue that Harper Lee had even attempted another book, in the years after Mockingbird. There are varying reports about how far along she got; I even found a mention of a third book she was working on. Whether these were fabrications, or she read the material and thought it wasn’t up to Mockingbird, I don’t know. Why she didn’t publish more—and any publishing house would have published her shopping list after the success of Mockingbird—really is one of the greatest literary mysteries of all time. And I don’t mean that in a flippant, uninformed way. A writer writes, especially one as good as Harper Lee. You just do; it gets into your blood. I’ve read she writes incredible, almost short story like letters to her friends.
As for Truman, I don’t think I realized how much of a pariah he became late in life. Nearly all of his friends had turned on him; I saw him (often drunk and stumbling) on Johnny Carson so many times in the 70s and early 80s; I guess I just assumed he was still a man about town.
If you could ask either of them one question, what would it be?
Great question – no one’s ever asked me that before! I might ask Truman if he really wrote more to his great unfinished novel, Answered Prayers. Three or chapters were ultimately published, from the many he talked about – and supposedly even read aloud to people. If they don’t exist, I’d ask him why he kept up the pretense of saying he had written so much more.
I think I’d ask Harper the question everyone wants answered – but I’d insist on her answering it, in a concrete way: Why did you never write again? Surely someone with the skill with language and imagination could come up with another book. Did she just judge what else she had written not up to Mockingbird? She’s often said – and relatives and friends have said for her – that after such a great first act, what do you do for an encore. Is that the real reason, or is there something more specific? I try to get after that in my own book, not in an intrusive, outsider way, but really the stream of consciousness musings in her own head.
Of all of Capote's writing, what would you recommend to someone who has never read his work?
One of my favorite pieces of writing in the world is his short story “A Christmas Memory,” about his childhood being raised by some old-maid cousins, and his old cousin Sook, who would make fruitcakes every Christmas. It’s lyrical and heartbreaking, and was made into a magnificent film with Geraldine Page. On the more Gothic end of the spectrum is a novella called “Hand-Carved Coffins,” that I refer to in Capote in Kansas. It’s supposedly a “true-crime” account of a series of gruesome killings in the Midwest – by decapitation, fire, snake bite, a story he was supposedly told in the wake of In Cold Blood. It’s been pretty much discredited as “true” by now, but is an amazing look into Truman’s quite twisted little mind!
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