Friday, September 30, 2011

Author Birthday: Truman Capote

From today's Writer's Almanac:

Today is the birthday of the writer Truman Capote (books by this author), best known for the short novel Breakfast at Tiffany's and the groundbreaking work In Cold Blood, with which he single-handedly created a new literary genre — the nonfiction novel. Capote was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1924, his parents divorced when he was four, and he was sent to live a mostly lonely and solitary existence with some elderly aunts in Alabama. In his mid-teens, he went to live with his mother and her new husband in New York City but didn't adjust well to city life and ended up dropping out of school when he was 17 to take a job with The New Yorker. This was effectively the start of his professional writing life, and within a few years Capote was writing for a number of publications.

With his literary success came social celebrity, and the young writer's talents were often overshadowed by his now-famous flamboyance and eccentricities. Capote's artistic genius was well matched by his penchant for glittering high society, which lionized him in return, and he was seen at all the best parties, restaurants, clubs, and social circles.

While Capote was a society darling before the publication of In Cold Blood, it was really that book that cemented his place among society's elite. In Cold Blood was an instant success, selling out immediately, becoming one of the most talked-about books of its time and bringing its author millions of dollars and a level of fame rarely experienced by a literary author. In Capote's own words, In Cold Blood was "a solution to what had always been my greatest creative quandary. I wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry."

Capote had apparently attempted something similar as a child. In a 1957 interview with the Paris Review, he discussed his first foray into nonfiction, when he had been a member of the Mobile [Alabama] Press Register's Sunshine Club, originally lured in by the free Nehi and Coca-Cola and also by the short-story writing contest with the prize of a pony or a dog. As he said, "I had been noticing the activities of some neighbors who were up to no good, so I wrote a kind of roman à clef called 'Old Mr. Busybody' and entered it into the contest. The first installment appeared one Sunday, under my real name of Truman Streckfus Persons. Only somebody suddenly realized that I was serving up a local scandal as fiction, and the second installment never appeared. Naturally, I didn't win a thing."

When Capote was around 12, the principal at his school announced to his family that the boy was "subnormal," and that it would be only humane to send him to a special school "equipped to handle backward brats." Understandably, Capote's family took umbrage at this, and in an effort to prove the principal unequivocally wrong, they "pronto packed me off to a psychiatric study clinic at a university in the East where I had my IQ inspected. I enjoyed it thoroughly and — guess what? — came home a genius, so proclaimed by science. I don't know who was more appalled: my former teachers, who refused to believe it, or my family, who didn't want to believe it — they'd just hoped to be told I was a nice normal boy. Ha ha!" For his part, his genius scientifically proven, Capote took to staring in mirrors, sucking in his cheeks and naming himself Proust, or Chekhov, or Wolfe — whoever was his idol of the moment. It was around this time that the boy started writing in earnest. His mind "zoomed all night every night," and he felt it must have been several years before he slept properly again.

Genius or no, Capote understood the only way to improve was to do the work and keep doing it, again and again, because "Work is the only device I know of [for improving one's technique]. Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself."


  1. This is a great story! And ugh, that principal!

  2. In Cold Blood is one of my favorite books. I need to branch out and read some of his other books though!

  3. ...but what is a "nonfiction novel"? Am I the only one bothered by this concept? I've spent some text lately on the fiction-vs.-non question over at my blog recently and I'm still not satisfied. :-/ Any thoughts? Where do we draw the line? How important is it to draw a line? (I submit that it's pretty important, if we're going to believe "facts" about "history" or take them with grains of salt...)

    Thanks for covering this interesting author today. My only experience so far is In Cold Blood, and I was very impressed.

  4. Rhapsodyinbooks - I loved reading this story... practically cheered when Capote came back with the genius label!

    Reviewsbylola - One of my favorite short stories is Capote's "A Christmas Memory". I highly recommend it for the holiday season!

    Pagesofjulia - I've never liked the term 'nonfiction novel', rather prefer 'creative nonfiction'. I interpret it to describe more a writing style than giving creative license with actual facts. Maybe 'journalistic' nonfiction would be even better. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or The Devil in the White City are two examples that come to mind. I'm on my way over to your blog now...

  5. Julia - I left a comment on your blog, but it didn't go through. Not sure if you moderate comments or if it went to spam... I have a long history of problems with WordPress :-(

  6. Really interesting stuff about Capote. I've only read In Cold Blood but have always been aware that he was a tortured soul.

  7. Kathleen - The Writer's Almanac has so many interesting stories - I could post one every few days, but I try to limit it to every few weeks. One of my favorite short stories is Capote's "A Christmas Memory"... hope you can read it during the holiday season.

  8. Wonderful story! Thanks so much for sharing it, JoAnn. Beyond Breakfast at Tiffany's I have to confess most of my knowledge of Capote is cinematic--Phillip Seymour Hoffman's amazing performance in "Capote" and a long-ago televised version of the play "Tru" with Robert I-forget-his-last-name-now-but -he-was-big-on-Broadway-once-and-has-a-gap-between-his-teeth. Gah! In Cold Blood is such a classic, I really should attempt it...

  9. What a great story - and I love his thoughts on writing. Capote is one of my favourite writers.

  10. DS - The Writer's Almanac has so many great stories! I've yet to watch the movie (it keeps getting pushed down the Netflix queue), but will get to it eventually. Hope you get a chance to read Capote soon. In addition to In Cold Blood, I would heartily recommend his short story "A Christmas Memory". It's a favorite.

    Nymeth - Yes, this was such a pleasure to read. I loved In Cold Blood and many of his stories. Breakfast at Tiffany's is on my shelf...


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