Capote, that is—not Harry.

I’m taking this opportunity to follow Truman Capote’s genre busting creation of the “nonfiction novel” with nonnovel fiction–an interview with Capote himself. To that end we recently sat down and, I believe, both enjoyed our conversation. We met in a closed small tavern (I know the owner), called The Living Room where Mr. Capote sat on a club chair upholstered in peacock blue with me across a square table on a leather couch. Both of us drank sparkling water.

Mr. Capote: “Frankly, I was expecting the Ritz. Nothing this shabby.” Capote leaned back in his chair, crossed his legs, and raised his small hand to his chin.

Me: “I wanted a place where we could talk without being interrupted, Mr. Capote. Plus, I don’t know the owner of the Ritz.”

Mr. Capote: “Just call me Tru. It’s always so interesting to discover who one knows and doesn’t. And I do so much enjoy interruptions. It gives me a chance to observe. And of course, it would mean people haven’t forgotten me.”

 ME: “There’s no chance of anyone who reads forgetting you. Anyone who ever saw you on television either.”

Capote’s hand dropped to his lap, as he leaned forward with a half smile.

Mr. Capote: “I was famous, wasn’t I?”

ME: “Very much so. In fact, so much so that many people believed it was your driving motivation to write.”

Capote chuckled and shook his head.

 Mr. Capote: “I began writing out of loneliness and desperation. I’d been abandoned by my parents and was quite…different than anyone else–so I wrote. And wrote, and wrote. When my mother returned and brought me to New York, nothing really changed inside. Writing was all I wanted to do. To me, the greatest pleasure in writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make. And that music kept me sane. It’s all I ever wanted to do until Perry…”

Capote’s voice dropped to a whisper and his eyes began to rapidly blink.

Me: “Before we go there I want to ask about your statement that the music of words kept you sane. I wonder whether your first novel Other Voices, Other Rooms took it a step further. An opportunity to accept yourself, your upbringing, your sexuality?”

Capote’s eyes kept blinking but he reached for his glass, took a sip and continued to lean forward.

Mr. Capote: “I’ve said many times that the central theme of Other Voices, Other Rooms was my search for who was essentially an imaginary person, that is, my father.”

Capote ran the back of his hand over his forehead.

Mr. Capote: “You do know it debuted at number nine on The New York Times Best Seller list and remained on the list for more than two months!”

Me: “I do. It also seems that the novel helped you come to terms with your homosexuality.”

Mr. Capote: “No, no, no. (Tru vigorously shook his head, almost spilling the water from the glass in his hand) Old news, darling. Frankly, I simply used that theme to make the book titillating. Looking down and back, perhaps it was my first stab at nonfiction novel.  Although I must say, Other Voices, Other Rooms was an unconscious, altogether intuitive attempt to exorcise demons for I was not aware, except for a few incidents and descriptions, of its being to any serious degree autobiographical. Rereading it now, I find such self-deception unpardonable. I did know, however, exactly what I was doing when Harold Halma took my picture for the back cover. I wasn’t completely oblivious.”

Capote put his glass down and laughed delightedly.

Me: “Since you brought up the term “nonfiction novel,” maybe we ought to begin talking about In Cold Blood?”

Mr. Capote: “Not yet, please. It’s been a while since my last interview and I must say I’m enjoying it more than I thought. Also, it would be wrong to simply bypass Breakfast At Tiffany’s.”

Me: “You’re right, Mr. Capote. Though it’s still difficult for me to shake George Peppard’s image as Paul Varjak.

Mr. Capote: “A gorgeous man, Peppard, too bad he spent so much time in the closet. Still, keep in mind I didn’t cast him for the movie. That was out of my control.”

Me: “Of course…”

Before I finished my sentence Capote placed his glass back on the table and sat at the edge of his chair.

Mr. Capote: “As badly miscast as he was, Peppard didn’t annoy me. Tiffany did. They never really appreciated the way I put them on the map. I think they simply gave me some sort of bauble.”

Me: “Do you remember what it was?”

Capote wiggled back in his chair.

Mr. Capote: “I don’t care to try.”

Me: “Not a problem. You know, of course, that after Norman Mailer read Breakfast he said, “Truman Capote I do not know well, but I like him. He is tart as a grand aunt, but in his way is a ballsy little guy, and he is the most perfect writer of my generation, he writes the best sentences word for word, rhythm upon rhythm. I would not have changed two words in Breakfast at Tiffanys which will become a small classic.””

Mr. Capote: “Small indeed. Certainly less pages than Mailer could ever write. And his remark that I’m a ballsy little guy and the most perfect writer of that generation was simply another way to insult me and my sexuality. I know George…”

Me: “George?”

Capote stared at me with rock hard eyes.

Mr. Capote: “Plimpton. George Plimpton. I might have been dead when he had the gall to say it, but I’m not blind or deaf. In an interview, he said I was at the top of the ‘second’ tier of writers and named Norman as being in the top. Now who do you imagine Norman really thought was the most ‘perfect’ writer of his generation?”

Capote raised an eyebrow but his stare remained cold as steel. But I couldn’t help myself and burst out laughing. Eventually Capote joined in as both of us contemplated Mailer’s massive ego.

Me: “Point taken.”

I glanced at the clock.

Me: “This has taken longer than I had anticipated but I’d hate to end now. Would you mind staying longer or maybe meet at another time to finish?”

Mr. Capote: “Oh dear man, I’d be happy to stay. I really don’t get out much anymore.  But there is a condition.”

Me: “Yes?”

Mr. Capote: “I simply need something, uhh, better to drink. Remember, I do live in a dry town.”

See next week’s post for the conclusion of my interview with Truman Capote. Thanks.

Gore Vidal on Truman Capote’s death: “A wise career move.”


As I approach a milestone birthday, I occasionally think about aging lawyers, especially those who have spent their careers representing poor criminal defendants.  Many of these lawyers cannot retire–some for financial reasons and some based on a compulsion to keep helping the poor.  Early in my career, I wrote about an elderly lawyer in an email to my mother.  Twenty years later, I realize that I was mean to old Abe Gray (not his real name), and what was then to me a comical situation is now an example of the resilience of experience and, yes, age.  Here is my email:

Abe Gray is a fixture in court.  A bit like the screw that holds down the tap on your faucet – he’s there but you don’t notice him until something goes wrong.  Monday, he got noticed.

Abe looks to be in his eighties and all of the old court officers say he’s been around forever.  He always wears a wrinkled suit with an old man’s obligatory dandruff.  Abe’s client was a stocky young black man charged with trespass and disorderly conduct who had to be told to remove his hat.  This admonition caused a guffaw from the young man; his guffaw only worsened the scolding from the judge who went on about decorum-this and respect-that before sending him back to his seat like a kid in the corner to wait a long time before she would have his case called again.

When the court recessed, Abe tried to explain his client’s behavior.  I may have attracted his attention because we’d made eye contact, a difficult thing given Abe’s permanent downward head bend.  About his client he said, “It was just a nervous laugh – he does that you know.”  I certainly didn’t, and was pretty sure that neither did Abe.  As our conversation continued, Abe insisted that I probably would not like being a lawyer for the poor very soon.  “But it beats sittin’ in ya office doin’ nuthin’ don’t it?” which he followed with a friendly punch in the arm, a hearty laugh, and a consequent bout of coughing that only years of smoking can cause.

When court reconvened, Abe and I ended up sitting next to each other.   A stern looking young lawyer whom I had seen run into the ladies’ room the day before to puke loudly into the sink (her stern expression was meant to mask an intense anxiety) sat on his other side. We were near the seats reserved for police officers.  Abe decided he wanted to do what court officers most often have to rebuke lawyers for – chat. And not just chat.  Abe wanted to talk about the police.

So there I am, trying to be decorous and show respect for the court, listening to Abe go on in the sort of loud voice the hard of hearing often think is a whisper, “the cops testiLIE, not testiFY” and how “THEY apparently can wear hats in the courtroom – look at that one over there – she’s got a baseball cap on just like my client’s!”  He actually pointed.  I was mortified. Some of the police were frowning in our direction.  I smiled meekly.  The stern looking puker turned a whiter shade of pale.  Mind you, women are allowed to wear hats in court; men are not, even policemen.

I crossed my leeward leg away from Abe, leaned forward, elbow on knee, chin in hand, and pretended I was fascinated by the proceedings.  He quieted.

About five minutes later, Abe’s client’s name was called.  The client approached the bar, hat in hand, eyes down.  Abe didn’t stand to address the court.  When an uncomfortable silence followed, the clerk announced the name of the defendant’s lawyer (it’s not unusual for a lawyer to be in the hallway or another courtroom – the clerk will say the lawyer’s name as a way of prompting help from the court officers in locating a lawyer).  Abe did not respond; the clerk scanned the courtroom and landed his gaze on us.  He repeated Abe’s name more loudly this time.  I couldn’t figure out why Abe still hadn’t stood. Maybe he was helping stern-face with something?  So I turned around.

Abe’s head was tilted uncharacteristically upwards.  His eyes were shut. His mouth wide open.  His arms were crossed over his chest.  Sleeping?  Dead?  God, I hoped not.  I poked his left elbow with my index finger and whispered, “Attorney Gray?”  No response.  I pressed all four fingers into his left arm twice and, a little louder said, “Attorney Gray.”  No response.  Now I was worried.  I returned his earlier punch three times to no effect other than tilting his torso towards stern-face and disrupting his dandruff.

By this time, everyone was staring at us: The judge, the clerk, the probation officers, the court officers, the police, Abe’s client, stern-face (who was leaning as far away from Abe as she could without pushing herself intimately onto the man next to her, an appalled expression on her face).  I’m not certain what inspired me, but I grabbed the middle finger of Abe’s closest hand and tugged three times as hard as I could without popping his arthritic joints and said again, “ATTORNEY GRAY!”

He snuffled awake, looked around a bit dazed, asked me, “Wha- what?”  “Your case” I said, inclining my head towards his hatless client.  He leapt to his feet with amazing agility, strode confidently to the microphone and said, “Attorney Gray for the defendant, your honor.  He then reviewed the entire case in the light most favorable to his client finishing his effective synopsis with “therefore I move to dismiss.”

Since I wrote this piece, Abe has passed away and, with his passing, I reflected on the experience.  When I was younger, I was concerned about Abe’s client and thought nothing of poking fun at what I perceived to be Abe’s decrepitude. Today, I admire that Abe demonstrated an uncanny ability to go from dreaming to eloquent advocacy, even though it took some prompting.  He fought for the poor his entire working life which deserves my respect.  I hope that by continuing to find humor in the experience I have not dishonored his memory.

Gonzo Nonfiction

In response to my last post, I received an email from a college friend who told me I had come to Madison in 1966, not 1965.  Possible, and I had a momentary thought of tracking down the “factual” date.  I didn’t, but the note got me thinking about my “Just sayin’” posts and what the hell I want them to be.  The first words that came to mind were “creative non-fiction.”  Turns out that’s already a formal term: “Creative nonfiction (also known as literary or narrative nonfiction) is a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives.”

Not what I do.  Sorry.  I’m much less interested in factual accuracy than in making a point or raising questions.

When I wrote Matt Jacob books, I started each one wanting to explore some issue, theme, or personal relationship.  Usually more than one.  During the writing process, those concerns often morphed or changed entirely—but themes, issues, and personal relationships were always my concern and always in the front of my mind.  They are the reason I’m writing again, be it posts, more Matt Jacob books, or different projects entirely.

Ironically, when I was writing “pure” fiction, an enormous number of people and critics accused me of writing fact.  That Matt Jacob was really me, despite clear knowledge they were reading fiction.  Said so right on the cover.  That alone taught me the line between nonfiction and fiction is often quite blurry.  (Particularly when a critic didn’t like what I wrote.  More about this another time.)

Well, I guess I can’t claim that my posts are straight nonfiction.  Nor are they fiction or even creative nonfiction.

That leaves Gonzo. See Hunter Thompson, known as the “creator of gonzo journalism.”

Of course, what I write has little or nothing to do with journalism.  Even in his whacky, drugged-out Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson was covering an event.  But I’m much less interested in any particular event than how it affects me and connects to other people.  Perhaps I should term these posts Ego Nonfiction but I’m gonna just stick with “gonzo.”

Which is why when my cousin’s son Scott comment about “On, Wisconsin!” pleased me.

“Wait, does this mean liberals have occasionally been made, not born? Looking at you and my old man at that time – or what I thought I knew – I could have sworn you guys were just “always that way.” Interesting to read about this turn of events.  And raises questions for the next generation on how we got where we are.”

My story had conveyed the point I was trying to make.  And more importantly, had raised questions in his mind.  Dare I say “mission accomplished?”

But I do promise, if I decide to write anything journalistic, I’ll put a warning in its title and you can count on a fact check.  Maybe.

More to come.