Posted by: Melany | October 5, 2009

Interview with Capote

I found this interview that George Plimpton conducted with Truman Capote.

Capote comments on the book, but also on his thoughts and feelings regarding literary journalism. The following is a collection of his responses to questions about creative non-fiction. I will comment on these quotes in bold.

This is the last sentence of Capote’s response to a previous questions. The most interesting part is the response triggered from the following question.

. . .

“Still, on the whole, journalism is the most underestimated, the least explored of literary mediums.”

Why should that be so?

Because few first-class creative writers have ever bothered with journalism, except as a sideline, “hackwork,” something to be done when the creative spirit is lacking, or as a means of making money quickly. Such writers say in effect: Why should we trouble with factual writing when we’re able to invent our own stories, contrive our own characters and themes?–journalism is only literary photography, and unbecoming to the serious writer’s artistic dignity…

Of course a properly done piece of narrative reporting requires imagination!–and a good deal of special technical equipment that is usually beyond the resources–and I don’t doubt the interests– of most fictional writers: an ability to transcribe verbatim long conversations, and to do so without taking notes or using tape-recordings. Also, it is necessary to have a 20/20 eye for visual detail–in this sense, it is quite true that one must be a “literary photographer,” though an exceedingly selective one. But, above all, the reporter must be able to empathize with personalities outside his usual imaginative range, mentalities unlike his own, kinds of people he would never have written about had he not been forced to by encountering them inside the journalistic situation. This last is what first attracted me to the notion of narrative reportage.

I think that this is one of the most exciting elements of literary journalism.  It allows the writer to enter a world very much outside of their usual comfort zone. To observe how other people live and discover some of their views and experiences is truly exciting. I feel that my research into the world of magic has really opened up my eyes. I have had my own experiences with this art-form, however seeing it through the eyes of somebody else – somebody who lives and breathes their passion for magic – is unlike all other forms of journalism. Typically you would collect quotes and piece them into an article that is objective as possible. However, literary journalism allows the combination of your own experiences with those of the people you are talking to. It also allows for the use of imagination in the writing and research process.

What is your opinion of the so-called New Journalism–as it is practiced particularly at The Herald Tribune?

If you mean James Breslin and Tom Wolfe, and that crowd, they have nothing to do with creative journalism–in the sense that I use the term–because neither of them, nor any of that school of reporting, have the proper fictional technical equipment. It’s useless for a writer whose talent is essentially journalistic to attempt creative reportage, because it simply won’t work. A writer like Rebecca West–always a good reporter–has never really used the form of creative reportage because the form, by necessity, demands that the writer be completely in control of fictional techniques–which means that, to be a good creative reporter, you have to be a very good fiction writer.

This quote, “It’s useless for a writer whose talent is essentially journalistic to attempt creative reportage, because it simply won’t work,” is slightly concerning. However, I do not expect to create an article that is as intense as In Cold Blood. I believe that I am developing my skills and my ability to write creatively. That is part of the reason that I selected to take this class: I wanted to challenge myself and develop skills in creative writing. I am hoping to combine my skills in journalism with my newly developing skills in writing creatively.

What other than murder might be a subject suitable for the nonfiction novel?

The other day someone suggested that the break-up of a marriage would be an interesting topic for a nonfiction novel. I disagreed. First of all, you’d have to find two people who would be willing–who’d sign a release. Second, their respective views on the subject-matter would be incoherent. And third, any couple who’d subject themselves to the scrutiny demanded would quite likely be a pair of kooks. But it’s amazing how many events would work with the theory of the nonfiction novel in mind?the Watts riots, for example. They would provide a subject that satisfied 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. The requisite would also be that you would have had to live through the riots, at least part of them, as a witness, so that a depth of perception could be acquired. That event, just three days. It would take years to do. You’d start with the family that instigated the riots without even meaning to.

This response made me both concerned and comforted at the same time. My concern came because it made me think that a general ‘topic’ such as magic would be difficult to write as a literary journalism feature because it is so large with so many different people involved. Capote’s examples have primarily had only a handful of people directly involved with additional people involved indirectly. This appears logical as literary journalism calls for extensive personal involvement in the story and dedicating a significant amount of time immersing yourself in the lives of your characters. This scared me. However, I realised that if I reduce the margins of my feature and focus on an element that I can immerse myself in and have done unwittingly for my entire life – the role of the audience member. This was like a breath of fresh air. My article can be from the perspective of an audience member, a general member of the population with commentary by my interviewees (people that are directly involved in performing and creating magic). Hooray!

In addition to this, I was comforted by Capote saying that with literary journalism it is essential that ‘there is a timeless quality about the cause and events’. Magic certainly has a timeless quality – this is evident in its continued popularity over long periods of time.

You’ve kept yourself out of the book entirely. Why was that–considering your own involvement in the case?

My feeling is that for the nonfiction-novel form to be entirely successful, the author should not appear in the work. Ideally. Once the narrator does appear, he has to appear throughout, all the way down the line, and the I-I-I intrudes when it really shouldn’t. I think the single most difficult thing in my book, technically, was to write it without ever appearing myself, and yet, at the same time, create total credibility.

From my research, a significant percentage of writers do involve themselves in their work, so Capote’s decision seems to be unlike many others. I definitely intend to include myself in my work because I feel that my story calls for it. I am undertaking a journey of understanding magic and my fascination with it. So the subject matter is personal by nature. Whereas Capote’s In Cold Blood was not (supposed to be) a personal journey of discovery – it was his experience in reporting in a colourful way. The addition to the title, “A true account of multiple murder and its consequences” could not really be included if Capote had appeared in the work. It would make the book seem less factual and would significantly detract from its impact.


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