Posted by: Melany | September 24, 2009

In Cold Blood – How it changed my life

Capote’s literary masterpiece, In Cold Blood, has completely changed my views on writing. He not only opened the gate to a new style of writing, he spooked the horses so they ran far into the next town of Kansas without a single glance back. By that I mean that he has expertly woven together the factual reporting necessary in journalism with the creativity and narrative styling of literary texts.

In Cold Blood Book Cover

In Cold Blood Book Cover

Capote’s In Cold Blood is a masterpiece of literary journalism. My mind boggles when I consider that it took six years to research and write. Capote said, “I’d say 80 percent of the research I did I have never used…”

My first introduction to literary journalism was Tom Wolfe’s definition of it, “reporting that reads like fiction.”

The book cannot be divided up into sections that illustrate ‘journalism’ and sections that are considered ‘literary’ styles of writing. Capote has woven the two styles together. This creates an extremely well-research story in an appealing and amusing way. A story that could not be delivered in one style only.

Capote utilised journalism in his novel by giving the reader facts in a “straightforward newspaper fashion, but as a creative artist selecting details” and reproducing them like a painter carefully creating a fine portrait (Garson, 143).

Capote began to idealize a writing style with a unique formula. Tom Wolfe, a contemporary of Capote, defined this new style as “reporting that read like fiction.”

He identified four common narrative techniques that characterized the style: 1) detailed scene construction

2) complete dialogue from interviews instead of subjective quotes

3) point-of-view variation, and

4) details about the characters in the story (Connery, 3).

In addition to this, it was noted that “…reporting can be made as interesting as fiction, and done as artistically…”

Capote’s research took years and covered nearly every possible element. He interviewed numerous people with any involvement in the story: townspeople, the police, and the psychologists who determined the mental state of the killers. The interviews that formed the basis of the story and provided the most appeal were the interviews with Hickock and Smith. These interviews, the additional research and the presentation of facts formed the backbone of the story.

The elements of journalism are complemented by a colourful style of literary writing. Literary writing offers the freedom of observation and allows the reader to fall into the story according to the rhythms of writing.

For example, “Wells pretended not to notice; but like a horse that has heard the hum of a rattlesnake, he shied away from the betrayed man’s venomous vicinity.” (p.281)

Although this is considered ‘creative non-fiction’ it is almost impossible to present all of the facts of a story. Capote’s process of selecting which facts to include and which not to include could be deemed as crafting truth. However, one cannot include everything just as one cannot be entirely objective.

I think Capote was successful in not painting the killers as inhumane monsters. Capote’s relationship with both Hickock and Smith is obvious as he has written of their deepest, darkest thoughts that were revealed in the interviews that he conducted. I read an interesting quote from Capote, who discussed how close he got to Smith and Hickock… “I mean became very close friends, very very close intimates in every conceivably way)…” (Inge, p 71)

This immersion in their world allowed such a triumph of writing. Capote said that he considered abandoning his research because it was absorbing too much of his life. This shows the amazing dedication needed to create a book like In Cold Blood.

“About In Cold Blood: after I had worked on it for three years, I almost abandoned it. I’d become so emotionally involved that it was really a question of personal survival, and I’m not kidding.

“I just couldn’t bear the morbidity all the time. There’s just so much you can give to art. Nevertheless I didn’t abandon it…”

Capote spoke about considering abandoning his research because of the morbidity. However, he stuck it out. “I went through the whole damn thing I did everything very thoroughly, and in the end I simply reduced it down. I built an oak and reduced it to a seed.” (p 72)

A seed that, once planted in the minds of other writers, helped spark interest in literary journalism. An art form in its own right.

In the movie, Capote with Philip Seymour Hoffman the director illustrated how the story of these murders became Capote’s obsession, almost an addiction. Capote later revealed that this relationship had an enormous impact upon Smith as well:

“I have some of the personal belongings – all of Perry’s because he left me everything he owned.” (page 66)  By Truman Capote, M. Thomas Inge

Promotion for Capote the movie. Smith and Capote

Promotion for Capote the movie. Smith and Capote

Capote also noted how much material he collected that was not included in the final product.

“I suppose if I used just 20 percent of all the material I put together over those years of interviewing, I’d still have a book two thousand pages long!”

Unlike other forms of journalism, literary journalists have the freedom to include themselves in the story. However, Capote chose not to do this. The writer was not present in the story, however there were traced of Capote’s involvement towards the end of the book, particularly in this sentence:

“Hickock said, talking to a journalist with whom he corresponded and who was periodically allowed to visit him.” (pg. 331)

The sudden rain rapped the high warehouse roof. The sounds, not unlike the rat-a-tat-tat of parade drums, heralded Hickock’s arrival.” (p. 338)

Some of my favourite parts of the book that illustrate the ‘literary’ element are as follows:

“His top hat tumbled; urinating, defecating, Perry O’Parsons entered eternity.” (p. 319)

“ I’d really known them, I guess I’d feel different. I don’t think I could live with myself. But the way it was, it was like picking off targets in a shooting gallery.’ Perry talking to Cullivan. (p. 290)

“Wells pretended not to notice; but like a horse that has heard the hum of a rattlesnake, he shied away from the betrayed man’s venomous vicinity.” (p.281)

“Wearing an open-necked shirt… and blue jeans rolled up at the cuffs, he looked as lonely and inappropriate as a seagull in a wheat field.” (p.273)

The combination of these literary elements and the journalistic reporting work together to create a phenomenon of writing. In Cold Blood definitely has the first essential of the nonfiction novel: that there is a timeless quality about the cause and events. That’s important. If it’s going to date, it can’t be a work of art.

Marilyn Monroe and Truman Capote. I just like this photo.

Marilyn Monroe and Truman Capote. I just like this photo.


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