Interviews

Truman Capote, The Art of Fiction No. 17

Interviewed by Pati Hill

Truman Capote lives in a big yellow house in Brooklyn Heights, which he has recently restored with the taste and elegance that is generally characteristic of his undertakings. As I entered he was head and shoulders inside a newly arrived crate containing a wooden lion.

“There!” he cried as he tugged it out to a fine birth amid a welter of sawdust and shavings. “Did you ever see anything so splendid? Well, that’s that. I saw him and I bought him. Now he’s all mine.”

“He’s large,” I said. “Where are you going to put him?”

“Why, in the fireplace, of course,” said Capote. “Now come along into the parlor while I get someone to clear away this mess.”

The parlor is Victorian in character and contains Capote’s most intimate collection of art objects and personal treasures, which, for all their orderly arrangement on polished tables and bamboo bookcases, somehow remind you of the contents of a very astute little boy’s pockets. There is, for instance, a golden Easter egg brought back from Russia, an iron dog, somewhat the worse for wear, a Fabergé pillbox, some marbles, blue ceramic fruit, paperweights, Battersea boxes, picture postcards, and old photographs. In short everything that might seem useful or handy in a day’s adventuring around the world.

Capote himself fits in very well with this impression at first glance. He is small and blond, with a forelock that persists in falling down into his eyes, and his smile is sudden and sunny. His approach to anyone new is one of open curiosity and friendliness. He might be taken in by anything and, in fact, seems only too ready to be. There is something about him, though, that makes you feel that for all his willingness it would be hard to pull any wool over his eyes and maybe it is better not to try.

There was a sound of scuffling in the hall and Capote came in, preceded by a large bulldog with a white face.

“This is Bunky,” he said.

Bunky sniffed me over and we sat down.

 

INTERVIEWER

When did you first start writing?

TRUMAN CAPOTE

When I was a child of about ten or eleven and lived near Mobile.

I had to go into town on Saturdays to the dentist and I joined the Sunshine Club that was organized by the Mobile Press Register. There was a children’s page with contests for writing and for coloring pictures, and then every Saturday afternoon they had a party with free Nehi and Coca-Cola. The prize for the short-story writing contest was either a pony or a dog, I’ve forgotten which, but I wanted it badly. I had been noticing the activities of some neighbors who were up to no good, so I wrote a kind of roman à clef called “Old Mr. Busybody” and entered it in the contest. The first installment appeared one Sunday, under my real name of Truman Streckfus Persons. Only somebody suddenly realized that I was serving up a local scandal as fiction, and the second installment never appeared. Naturally, I didn’t win a thing.

INTERVIEWER

Were you sure then that you wanted to be a writer?

CAPOTE

I realized that I wanted to be a writer. But I wasn’t sure I would be until I was fifteen or so. At that time I had immodestly started sending stories to magazines and literary quarterlies. Of course no writer ever forgets his first acceptance; but one fine day when I was seventeen, I had my first, second, and third, all in the same morning’s mail. Oh, I’m here to tell you, dizzy with excitement is no mere phrase!

INTERVIEWER

What did you first write?

CAPOTE

Short stories. And my more unswerving ambitions still revolve around this form. When seriously explored, the short story seems to me the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing extant. Whatever control and technique I may have I owe entirely to my training in this medium.

INTERVIEWER

What do you mean exactly by “control”?

CAPOTE

I mean maintaining a stylistic and emotional upper hand over your material. Call it precious and go to hell, but I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence— especially if it occurs toward the end—or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation. Henry James is the maestro of the semicolon. Hemingway is a first-rate paragrapher. From the point of view of ear, Virginia Woolf never wrote a bad sentence. I don’t mean to imply that I successfully practice what I preach. I try, that’s all.

INTERVIEWER

How does one arrive at short-story technique?

CAPOTE

Since each story presents its own technical problems, obviously one can’t generalize about them on a two-times-two-equals-four basis. Finding the right form for your story is simply to realize the most natural way of telling the story. The test of whether or not a writer has divined the natural shape of his story is just this: after reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right.

INTERVIEWER

Are there devices one can use in improving one’s technique?

CAPOTE

Work is the only device I know of. Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself. Even Joyce, our most extreme disregarder, was a superb craftsman; he could write Ulysses because he could write Dubliners. Too many writers seem to consider the writing of short stories as a kind of finger exercise. Well, in such cases, it is certainly only their fingers they are exercising.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have much encouragement in those early days, and if so, by whom?

CAPOTE

Good Lord! I’m afraid you’ve let yourself in for quite a saga. The answer is a snake’s nest of No’s and a few Yes’s. You see, not altogether but by and large, my childhood was spent in parts of the country and among people unprovided with any semblance of a cultural attitude. Which was probably not a bad thing, in the long view. It toughened me rather too soon to swim against the current—indeed, in some areas I developed the muscles of a veritable barracuda, especially in the art of dealing with one’s enemies, an art no less necessary than knowing how to appreciate one’s friends.

But to go back. Naturally, in the milieu aforesaid, I was thought somewhat eccentric, which was fair enough, and stupid, which I suitably resented. Still, I despised school—or schools, for I was always changing from one to another—and year after year failed the simplest subjects out of loathing and boredom. I played hooky at least twice a week and was always running away from home. Once I ran away with a friend who lived across the street—a girl much older than myself who in later life achieved a certain fame. Because she murdered a half-dozen people and was electrocuted at Sing Sing. Someone wrote a book about her. They called her the Lonely Hearts Killer. But there, I’m wandering again. Well, finally, I guess I was around twelve, the principal at the school I was attending paid a call on my family, and told them that in his opinion, and in the opinion of the faculty, I was “subnormal.” He thought it would be sensible, the humane action, to send me to some special school equipped to handle backward brats. Whatever they may have privately felt, my family as a whole took official umbrage, and in an effort to prove I wasn’t subnormal, pronto packed me off to a psychiatric study clinic at a university in the East where I had my I.Q. inspected. I enjoyed it thoroughly and —guess what?—came home a genius, so proclaimed by science. I don’t know who was the more appalled: my former teachers, who refused to believe it, or my family, who didn’t want to believe it— they’d just hoped to be told I was a nice normal boy. Ha ha! But as for me, I was exceedingly pleased—went around staring at myself in mirrors and sucking in my cheeks and thinking over in my mind, my lad, you and Flaubert—or Maupassant or Mansfield or Proust or Chekhov or Wolfe, whoever was the idol of the moment.

I began writing in fearful earnest—my mind zoomed all night every night, and I don’t think I really slept for several years. Not until I discovered that whisky could relax me. I was too young, fifteen, to buy it myself, but I had a few older friends who were most obliging in this respect and I soon accumulated a suitcase full of bottles, everything from blackberry brandy to bourbon. I kept the suitcase hidden in a closet. Most of my drinking was done in the late afternoon; then I’d chew a handful of Sen Sen and go down to dinner, where my behavior, my glazed silences, gradually grew into a source of general consternation. One of my relatives used to say, “Really, if I didn’t know better, I’d swear he was dead drunk.” Well, of course, this little comedy, if such it was, ended in discovery and some disaster, and it was many a moon before I touched another drop. But I seem to be off the track again. You asked about encouragement. The first person who ever really helped me was, strangely, a teacher. An English teacher I had in high school, Catherine Wood, who backed my ambitions in every way, and to whom I shall always be grateful. Later on, from the time I first began to publish, I had all the encouragement anyone could ever want, notably from Margarita Smith, fiction editor of Mademoiselle, Mary Louise Aswell of Harper’s Bazaar, and Robert Linscott of Random House. You would have to be a glutton indeed to ask for more good luck and fortune than I had at the beginning of my career.

INTERVIEWER

Did the three editors you mention encourage you simply by buying your work, or did they offer criticism, too?

CAPOTE

Well, I can’t imagine anything more encouraging than having someone buy your work. I never write—indeed, am physically incapable of writing—anything that I don’t think will be paid for. But, as a matter of fact, the persons mentioned, and some others as well, were all very generous with advice.

INTERVIEWER

Do you like anything you wrote long ago as well as what you write now?

CAPOTE

Yes. For instance, last summer I read my novel Other Voices, Other Rooms for the first time since it was published eight years ago, and it was quite as though I were reading something by a stranger. The truth is, I am a stranger to that book; the person who wrote it seems to have so little in common with my present self. Our mentalities, our interior temperatures are entirely different. Despite awkwardness, it has an amazing intensity, a real voltage. I am very pleased I was able to write the book when I did, otherwise it would never have been written. I like The Grass Harp too, and several of my short stories, though not “Miriam,” which is a good stunt but nothing more. No, I prefer “Children on Their Birthdays” and “Shut a Final Door,” and oh, some others, especially a story not too many people seemed to care for, “Master Misery,” which was in my collection A Tree of Night.

INTERVIEWER

You recently published a book about the Porgy and Bess trip to Russia. One of the most interesting things about the style was its unusual detachment, even by comparison to the reporting of journalists who have spent many years recording events in an impartial way. One had the impression that this version must have been as close to the truth as it is possible to get through another person’s eyes, which is surprising when you consider that most of your work has been characterized by its very personal quality.

CAPOTE

Actually, I don’t consider the style of this book, The Muses Are Heard, as markedly different from my fictional style. Perhaps the content, the fact that it is about real events, makes it seem so. After all, Muses is straight reporting, and in reporting one is occupied with literalness and surfaces, with implication without comment—one can’t achieve immediate depths the way one may in fiction. However, one of the reasons I’ve wanted to do reportage was to prove that I could apply my style to the realities of journalism. But I believe my fictional method is equally detached—emotionality makes me lose writing control: I have to exhaust the emotion before I feel clinical enough to analyze and project it, and as far as I’m concerned that’s one of the laws of achieving true technique. If my fiction seems more personal it is because it depends on the artist’s most personal and revealing area: his imagination.

INTERVIEWER

How do you exhaust the emotion? Is it only a matter of thinking about the story over a certain length of time, or are there other considerations?

CAPOTE

No, I don’t think it is merely a matter of time. Suppose you ate nothing but apples for a week. Unquestionably you would exhaust your appetite for apples and most certainly know what they taste like. By the time I write a story I may no longer have any hunger for it, but I feel that I thoroughly know its flavor. The Porgy and Bess articles are not relevant to this issue. That was reporting, and “emotions” were not much involved—at least not the difficult and personal territories of feeling that I mean. I seem to remember reading that Dickens, as he wrote, choked with laughter over his own humor and dripped tears all over the page when one of his characters died. My own theory is that the writer should have considered his wit and dried his tears long, long before setting out to evoke similar reactions in a reader. In other words, I believe the greatest intensity in art in all its shapes is achieved with a deliberate, hard, and cool head. For example, Flaubert’s A Simple Heart. A warm story, warmly written; but it could only be the work of an artist muchly aware of true techniques, i.e., necessities. I’m sure, at some point, Flaubert must-have felt the story very deeply—but not when he wrote it. Or, for a more contemporary example, take that marvelous short novel of Katherine Anne Porter’s, Noon Wine. It has such intensity, such a sense of happening-now, yet the writing is so controlled, the inner rhythms of the story so immaculate, that I feel fairly certain Miss Porter was at some distance from her material.

INTERVIEWER

Have your best stories or books been written at a comparatively tranquil moment in your life or do you work better because, or in spite, of emotional stress?

CAPOTE

I feel slightly as though I’ve never lived a tranquil moment, unless you count what an occasional Nembutal induces. Though, come to think of it, I spent two years in a very romantic house on top of a mountain in Sicily, and I guess this period could be called tranquil. God knows, it was quiet. That’s where I wrote The Grass Harp. But I must say an iota of stress, striving toward deadlines, does me good.

INTERVIEWER

You have lived abroad for the last eight years. Why did you decide to return to America?

CAPOTE

Because I’m an American, and never could be, and have no desire to be, anything else. Besides, I like cities, and New York is the only real city-city. Except for a two-year stretch, I came back to America every one of those eight years, and I never entertained expatriate notions. For me, Europe was a method of acquiring perspective and an education, a stepping stone toward maturity. But there is the law of diminishing returns, and about two years ago it began to set in: Europe had given me an enormous lot, but suddenly I felt as though the process were reversing itself—there seemed to be a taking away. So I came home, feeling quite grown up and able to settle down where I belong—which doesn’t mean I’ve bought a rocking chair and turned to stone. No indeed. I intend to have footloose escapades as long as frontiers stay open.

INTERVIEWER

Do you read a great deal?

CAPOTE

Too much. And anything, including labels and recipes and advertisements. I have a passion for newspapers—read all the New York dailies every day, and the Sunday editions, and several foreign magazines too. The ones I don’t buy I read standing at news stands. I average about five books a week—the normal-length novel takes me about two hours. I enjoy thrillers and would like someday to write one. Though I prefer first-rate fiction, for the last few years my reading seems to have been concentrated on letters and journals and biographies. It doesn’t bother me to read while I am writing—I mean, I don’t suddenly find another writer’s style seeping out of my pen. Though once, during a lengthy spell of James, my own sentences did get awfully long.

INTERVIEWER

What writers have influenced you the most?

CAPOTE

So far as I consciously know, I’ve never been aware of direct literary influence, though several critics have informed me that my early works owe a debt to Faulkner and Welty and McCullers. Possibly. I’m a great admirer of all three; and Katherine Anne Porter, too. Though I don’t think, when really examined, that they have much in common with each other, or me, except that we were all born in the South. Between thirteen and sixteen are the ideal if not the only ages for succumbing to Thomas Wolfe—he seemed to me a great genius then, and still does, though I can’t read a line of it now. Just as other youthful flames have guttered: Poe, Dickens, Stevenson. I love them in memory, but find them unreadable. These are the enthusiasms that remain constant: Flaubert, Turgenev, Chekhov, Jane Austen, James, E. M. Forster, Maupassant, Rilke, Proust, Shaw, Willa Cather—oh the list is too long, so I’ll end with James Agee, a beautiful writer whose death over two years ago was a real loss. Agee’s work, by the way, was much influenced by the films. I think most of the younger writers have learned and borrowed from the visual, structural side of movie technique. I have.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve written for the films, haven’t you? What was that like?

CAPOTE

A lark. At least the one picture I wrote, Beat the Devil, was tremendous fun. I worked on it with John Huston while the picture was actually being made on location in Italy. Sometimes scenes that were just about to be shot were written right on the set. The cast were completely bewildered—sometimes even Huston didn’t seem to know what was going on. Naturally the scenes had to be written out of a sequence, and there were peculiar moments when I was carrying around in my head the only real outline of the so-called plot. You never saw it? Oh, you should. It’s a marvelous joke. Though I’m afraid the producer didn’t laugh. The hell with them. Whenever there’s a revival I go to see it and have a fine time.

Seriously, though, I don’t think a writer stands much chance of imposing himself on a film unless he works in the warmest rapport with the director or is himself the director. It’s so much a director’s medium that the movies have developed only one writer who, working exclusively as a scenarist, could be called a film genius. I mean that shy, delightful little peasant, Zavattini. What a visual sense! Eighty per cent of the good Italian movies were made from Zavattini scripts—all of the De Sica pictures, for instance. De Sica is a charming man, a gifted and deeply sophisticated person; nevertheless he’s mostly a megaphone for Zavattini, his pictures are absolutely Zavattini’s creations: every nuance, mood, every bit of business is clearly indicated in Zavattini’s scripts.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of your writing habits? Do you use a desk? Do you write on a machine?

CAPOTE

I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon. Obsessions of this sort, and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance.

INTERVIEWER

You seem to make a distinction between writers who are stylists and writers who aren’t. Which writers would you call stylists and which not?

CAPOTE

What is style? And “what” as the Zen Koan asks, “is the sound of one hand?” No one really knows; yet either you know or you don’t. For myself, if you will excuse a rather cheap little image, I suppose style is the mirror of an artist’s sensibility—more so than the content of his work. To some degree all writers have style—Ronald Firbank, bless his heart, had little else, and thank God he realized it. But the possession of style, a style, is often a hindrance, a negative force, not as it should be, and as it is—with, say, E. M. Forster and Colette and Flaubert and Mark Twain and Hemingway and Isak Dinesen—a reinforcement. Dreiser, for instance, has a style—but oh, Dio buono! And Eugene O’Neill. And Faulkner, brilliant as he is. They all seem to me triumphs over strong but negative styles, styles that do not really add to the communication between writer and reader. Then there is the styleless stylist—which is very difficult, very admirable, and always very popular: Graham Greene, Maugham, Thornton Wilder, John Hersey, Willa Cather, Thurber, Sartre (remember, we’re not discussing content), J. P. Marquand, and so on. But yes, there is such an animal as a nonstylist. Only they’re not writers; they’re typists. Sweaty typists blacking up pounds of bond paper with formless, eyeless, earless messages. Well, who are some of the younger writers who seem to know that style exists? P. H. Newby, Françoise Sagan, somewhat. Bill Styron, Flannery O’Connor—she has some fine moments, that girl. James Merrill. William Goyen—if he’d stop being hysterical. J. D. Salinger—especially in the colloquial tradition. Colin Wilson? Another typist.

INTERVIEWER

You say that Ronald Firbank had little else but style. Do you think that style alone can make a writer a great one?

CAPOTE

No, I don’t think so—though, it could be argued, what happens to Proust if you separate him from his style? Style has never been a strong point with American writers. This though some of the best have been Americans. Hawthorne got us off to a fine start. For the past thirty years Hemingway, stylistically speaking, has influenced more writers on a world scale than anyone else. At the moment, I think our own Miss Porter knows as well as anyone what it’s all about.

INTERVIEWER

Can a writer learn style?

CAPOTE

No, I don’t think that style is consciously arrived at, any more than one arrives at the color of one’s eyes. After all, your style is you. At the end the personality of a writer has so much to do with the work. The personality has to be humanly there. Personality is a debased word, I know, but it’s what I mean. The writer’s individual humanity, his word or gesture toward the world, has to appear almost like a character that makes contact with the reader. If the personality is vague or confused or merely literary, ça ne va pas. Faulkner, McCullers—they project their personality at once.

INTERVIEWER

It is interesting that your work has been so widely appreciated in France. Do you think style can be translated?

CAPOTE

Why not? Provided the author and the translator are artistic twins.

INTERVIEWER

Well, I’m afraid I interrupted you with your short story still in penciled manuscript. What happens next?

CAPOTE

Let’s see, that was second draft. Then I type a third draft on yellow paper, a very special certain kind of yellow paper. No, I don’t get out of bed to do this. I balance the machine on my knees. Sure, it works fine; I can manage a hundred words a minute. Well, when the yellow draft is finished, I put the manuscript away for a while, a week, a month, sometimes longer. When I take it out again, I read it as coldly as possible, then read it aloud to a friend or two, and decide what changes I want to make and whether or not I want to publish it. I’ve thrown away rather a few short stories, an entire novel, and half of another. But if all goes well, I type the final version on white paper and that’s that.

INTERVIEWER

Is the book organized completely in your head before you begin it or does it unfold, surprising you as you go along?

CAPOTE

Both. I invariably have the illusion that the whole play of a story, its start and middle and finish, occur in my mind simultaneously—that I’m seeing it in one flash. But in the working-out, the writing-out, infinite surprises happen. Thank God, because the surprise, the twist, the phrase that comes at the right moment out of nowhere, is the unexpected dividend, that joyful little push that keeps a writer going.

At one time I used to keep notebooks with outlines for stories. But I found doing this somehow deadened the idea in my imagination. If the notion is good enough, if it truly belongs to you, then you can’t forget it—it will haunt you till it’s written.

INTERVIEWER

How much of your work is autobiographical?

CAPOTE

Very little, really. A little is suggested by real incidents or personages, although everything a writer writes is in some way autobiographical. The Grass Harp is the only true thing I ever wrote, and naturally everybody thought it all invented, and imagined Other Voices, Other Rooms to be autobiographical.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any definite ideas or projects for the future?

CAPOTE

(meditatively) Well, yes, I believe so. I have always written what was easiest for me until now: I want to try something else, a kind of controlled extravagance. I want to use my mind more, use many more colors. Hemingway once said anybody can write a novel in the first person. I know now exactly what he means.

INTERVIEWER

Were you ever tempted by any of the other arts?

CAPOTE

I don’t know if it’s art, but I was stage-struck for years and more than anything I wanted to be a tap-dancer. I used to practice my buck-and-wing until everybody in the house was ready to kill me. Later on, I longed to play the guitar and sing in night clubs. So I saved up for a guitar and took lessons for one whole winter, but in the end the only tune I could really play was a beginner’s thing called “I Wish I Were Single Again.” I got so tired of it that one day I just gave the guitar to a stranger in a bus station. I was also interested in painting, and studied for three years, but I’m afraid the fervor, la vrai chose, wasn’t there.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think criticism helps any?

CAPOTE

Before publication, and if provided by persons whose judgment you trust, yes, of course criticism helps. But after something is published, all I want to read or hear is praise. Anything less is a bore, and I’ll give you fifty dollars if you produced a writer who can honestly say he was ever helped by the prissy carpings and condescensions of reviewers. I don’t mean to say that none of the professional critics are worth paying attention to—but few of the good ones review on a regular basis. Most of all, I believe in hardening yourself against opinion. I’ve had, and continue to receive, my full share of abuse, some of it extremely personal, but it doesn’t faze me any more. I can read the most outrageous libel about myself and never skip a pulse-beat. And in this connection there is one piece of advice I strongly urge: never demean yourself by talking back to a critic, never. Write those letters to the editor in your head, but don’t put them on paper.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of your personal quirks?

CAPOTE

I suppose my superstitiousness could be termed a quirk. I have to add up all numbers: there are some people I never telephone because their number adds up to an unlucky figure. Or I won’t accept a hotel room for the same reason. I will not tolerate the presence of yellow roses—which is sad because they’re my favorite flower. I can’t allow three cigarette butts in the same ashtray. Won’t travel on a plane with two nuns. Won’t begin or end anything on a Friday. It’s endless, the things I can’t and won’t. But I derive some curious comfort from obeying these primitive concepts.

INTERVIEWER

You have been quoted as saying your preferred pastimes are “conversation, reading, travel, and writing, in that order.” Do you mean that literally?

CAPOTE

I think so. At least I’m pretty sure conversation will always come first with me. I like to listen, and I like to talk. Heavens, girl, can’t you see I like to talk?

 

Author photograph by Nancy Crampton