Of himself Capote once said:
“I am a homosexual. I am a drug addict. I am a genius.”
It’s tempting to add to that list ‘I am a spectacularly good self-publicist’ because he certainly was! It’s fifty years this month since In Cold Blood by Truman Capote was published. A book that was merited with introducing a new form to the literary world the non-fiction novel and the basis perhaps for any assessment of him as a genius. The story was of the murder of the Clutter family in Holcombe, Kansas by Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. Capote went there before the murderers were apprehended, later got to know them in prison and researched the murders for six years. The emotional effects of writing the book were depicted in the film Capote (2005) for which Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar and also Infamous (2006) a film covering almost exactly the same ground but with Toby Jones in the title role. Both films are excellent but Toby Jones is much more realistic casting than Seymour Hoffman.
I thought it might be interesting to see what Capote had to say himself about the book towards the end of his life when he was interviewed by Lawrence Grobel.
“I became so totally involved in it personally that it just took over and consumed my life. All the trials, the appeals, the endless research I had to do – something like 8,000 pages of pure research – and my involvement with the two boys who had committed the crime. Everything. it was a matter of living with something day in day out.”
On being asked about the experience of writing it:
“Well, I certainly wouldn’t do it again. If I knew or had known when I started it what was going to be involved. I never would have started it, regardless of what the end result would be.”
Not surprisingly he was completely disgusted by Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song written about the murderer Gary Gilmour, which was published thirteen years later. His main criticism was that Mailer had hired two researchers and had then written the book on the basis of their research. Capote did not like that one bit.
“I have no respect for Norman Mailer’s book The Executioner’s Song which as far as I’m concerned is a nonbook. He didn’t live through it day by day, he didn’t know Utah, he didn’t know Gary Gilmore, he never even met Gary Gilmour, he didn’t do an ounce of research on the book … he was just a rewrite man like you have over at the Daily News. I spent six years on In Cold Blood and not only knew the people I was writing about, I’ve known them better than I’ve known anybody. So Mailer’s book just really annoyed me.”
Another thing that annoyed him was that Mailer made no reference to the influence In Cold Blood must have had on him in the writing of his own book. The reason Mailer gave was as follows:
“I just thought that book [In Cold Blood]was so famous that you didn’t have to give credit to it.”
A specious argument to my mind. He probably simply didn’t want to admit that Capote’s book had influenced him.
In trying to sum up the effect of writing the book on him Capote said:
“I came to understand that death is the central factor of life. And the simple comprehension of this fact alters your entire perspective … The experience served to heighten my feelings of the tragic view of life, which I’ve always held and which accounts for the side of me that appears extremely frivolous; that part of me is always standing in a darkened hallway, mocking tragedy and death. That’s why I love champagne and stay at the Ritz.”
After all those sales he could certainly afford to.
Finally, one time Capote was asked to speak at a college to a hall of students. He turned up drunk and then rounded on them:
“Why, if you want to be writers, aren’t you home writing instead of crowding into this hall to listen to an old croc like me?”
He then passed out at the foot of the podium and three people had to lug him from the stage. Below is the link to a recent piece on In Cold Blood in the Guardian.
Have you seen the films? Have you read the book or Capote’s other novels and short stories? What did you think?