Sometimes when I think how good my book can be, I can hardly breathe. -Truman Capote
I’d seen Capote’s name in that purple Literature book from English 101 but had never read him. None of my teachers ever taught him. I’m embarrassed to admit I pronounced his name with a silent ‘e’ so it was something like: Ka-poht. And yes, after I heard how it was actually pronounced, I thought it had to be a different Truman and I spelled his last name with a K. Yes, I was young (and naïve).
Unbeknownst to me, I’d been exposed to Truman several years earlier when I watched a one-man play on PBS based on him, simply called Tru. It takes place at Christmas and Truman is alone in his New York apartment and reminiscing of the past while opening gifts that various people have sent to him. “Another fruitcake!” he announces throughout the show. I was enamored by the production, by the limp-wristed nasal-voiced eccentric being portrayed. I wanted to play that part some day, but a part of me felt like I already was.
All those years later, before I read anything by Truman Capote I read a book about Truman Capote, once I learned how to spell and pronounce his name right. In late 1998, George Plimpton released a book called Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career. I can honestly say it was the first biography-type book I’d ever read on my own for pleasure, and I absolutely loved it.
The book is compiled of pieces of numerous interviews from people, most of them famous (or infamous in Truman’s eyes), who actually knew Truman. Plimpton even says he formatted the book to read like you were walking around at a cocktail party and overhearing pieces of conversation all about Truman.
I was immediately smitten with him. Truman was so peculiar. He had a high-pitched voice like me, and he was openly gay. Add in the fact that he was a celebrated writer from the South, and I had a new idol. I was so fanatical about him that my first email address (from America Online 2.0) was TruCap22@aol.com. Everyone thought it meant “True Capricorn,” and I let them think that.
His childhood was troubled by his parents’ divorce. Truman had been somewhat abandoned by both of his parents and raised by his aunts instead. I had a loving aunt I enjoyed spending time with at an early age, particularly a memory of helping her decorate her Christmas tree each year. Truman honored his favorite Aunt Sook in a short story called “A Christmas Memory” in which the two of them make fruitcakes together.
And there was the sad absence of a father figure though he was later adopted by his step-father and took his last name. Truman began writing at the age of eleven and would start his professional career in his twenties by writing short stories. His first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, was published when he was twenty-four. I desperately wanted to publish my first novel by the time I was that age, but that didn’t happen until I was twenty-seven.
Like Truman, I strived to reinvent myself and create something completely different with each book or story I sat down to write. Unfortunately, like him, I have also suffered from either long streams of writer’s block or bouts where the muses weren’t talking to me. But Capote still managed to publish a short story, play, or novel almost every year of his early career until 1960. His last novel was published in 1966 and has been called his best work. It was a true crime book called In Cold Blood; Capote called it a nonfiction novel.
In 1959, one morning he read an article in the New York Times about a Kansas family, named Clutter, who’d been found brutally murdered. He was inspired to go to Kansas and write about it, interviewing locals and observing the town during the investigation. Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) was a childhood friend of his and accompanied him.
When the killers were caught, Capote was allowed to interview them, and he befriended one of them. He was even professionally photographed with them. Capote went on to pay for their defense, and he brought them gifts while they were behind bars. When he tried to distance himself from them, they would call him and ask him to visit. They were eventually sentenced to death despite Capote’s efforts, and he attended their execution, later paying for their headstones.
Capote never allowed the two men to read any of his book while he was writing it, and some say it’s because he had not yet written a single word. He struggled with his personal feelings toward them despite knowing how the book had to end, and how the real life drama was going to conclude which was beyond his control. I think he beat himself up because he wanted to stay true to the real story, but that’s not how he had wanted it to end.
And I think that’s the main reason I still admire Capote so much today. It’s not because he was gay, or also from the South, or even because I sound like him when I speak. It’s because I know what demons he must have faced while writing that book. All writers do. It’s an unspoken topic that we can all relate to and that probably few of us discuss in a personal manner. No one likes to admit when our heart gets in the way, though we are exposing it on the page in our words for everyone to read.
Like Carson McCullers, Truman was an alcoholic and addicted to prescription pills. There was a bout in my early twenties where I feared I might follow in his footsteps. I only drank when I went out, but I didn’t know my limits. I tried other recreational drugs, but thankfully I didn’t care for any of them. Being the loner that I was, I often went out by myself and at the end of the night, I frequently stumbled behind the wheel and drove myself home.
There were other times when I was fortunate enough to have a designated driver friend, but they were forced to clean up after me or care for me through the night while I slept it off. But on the nights where I was alone and still coherent, the writing flowed long after the booze didn’t. The laundry list of famous writers with addictions is a mile long. Would my name be added to it one day?
I can honestly answer that question with a proud “No.” The last time I ever got out of control from drinking was over twelve years ago, and I was completely miserable afterwards. I don’t even remember the last time I sat down to write with a glass of wine in hand; I do most of my writing with coffee these days. I didn’t make an allegiance to myself or swear off alcohol for the rest of my life. I still have an adult beverage on occasion, but two glasses is usually my limit. Drinking in excess is no longer fun as it seemed back then. These days I can’t stand the headache and dehydrated feeling that follow afterwards. And I never, absolutely never, drive if I’ve been drinking.
But the characters in my novels have not been so lucky. I frequently include a scene where a character loses control due to alcohol. I used my own personal recklessness as inspiration in my first book, where the lead character looses consciousness at a club and is cared for by a stranger out in the parking lot. The danger of the situation serves as a wake-up call for him as he watches a close friend later spiral out of control, fueled by drugs and drinking.
It was the excessive drug use and drinking that would eventually play a part in Truman’s death. You can’t help but contemplate the sadness and isolation that writers like Truman hoped to heal, or at least cope with, through their addictions. As a Southern writer myself, I’m proud of the fact I have avoided that commonality so far in life, but it definitely lingers like a ghost in the corner of my eye each time I think about it. It’s there, but when I turn to look at it, it seems so out of focus.
The most common factor that I shared with Truman that still haunts me today is that, like Carson, he did his best writing after he left home, after he moved away from the South. I left Memphis in late 2001, literally packing up and driving north to St. Louis four days after 9/11. I’d like to say that it was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made in my life, but one has to accept the day that lies in front of them no matter what path they choose to get to it.
I’d moved to St. Louis for work. And since once again, I’d find myself alone outside of work, and too afraid of rejection to try to go out and meet people, I bought a new laptop and sat at home in the evenings finishing that novel I’d started in college. I paid homage to all of my Southern literary greats in it too, especially Truman. And it had to be set in Memphis. I missed it, and that’s probably why it’s been the setting for almost all of my books, just as Truman continued to write about the South while he lived in New York or traveled abroad. In fact, the time and place was practically a character in itself in all of his short stories, a rich tapestry that comes alive on the page which I certainly have tried to mimic.
When the Gerald Clarke biography of Truman was made into a movie in 2005, simply called Capote, I took a vacation day from work just to go see it. I’d read all of Truman’s books, but I’d never seen any of the film adaptations. It seemed appropriate that this film, recounting Truman’s own story, was the first visual I’d ever see of him on the big screen. Philip Seymour Hoffman did a phenomenal job as Truman and deserved all of the accolades he won because of his portrayal, including the Oscar for best actor. I immediately started rereading In Cold Blood the next day.
The following year there was another film about Truman released called Infamous. It had Toby Jones in the lead with Sandra Bullock starring as Harper Lee. Jones was just as good as Hoffman, if not better because of his smaller stature. I ended up liking Infamous even more than Capote because it offered a wider perspective into Truman’s life rather than just focusing on what happened in Kansas. It also offered a firm glimpse into the personal relationship Truman had with the murderers and the effects it had on him. Sure, the earlier film showed that he had become friends with them, but it ignored the personal inner torment that Capote experienced because of his real feelings toward the two men.
Out of all of the Southern writers I have read and admired, Truman Capote remains my personal favorite who I have related to the most, who I have felt the strongest connection to throughout my life. Despite still living in St. Louis today, I will always consider myself a Southern writer and will continue to write about the South. But I owe my experiences in St. Louis for the discovery of my latest mentor, another Southern prodigy who I discovered was buried in St. Louis. Just when I was contemplating leaving the South on paper and focusing on writing about something else, it seemed Tennessee wasn’t done with me yet.