Sunday, October 26, 2008
Booktour Stop for Capote in Kansas
I'm so pleased to be hosting Kim Powers, author of Capote in Kansas, on behalf of TLC Book Tours. In Capote in Kansas, Powers presents an alternate reality, in which a drugged and drunk Truman Capote contacts his estranged friend, recluse Harper Lee, towards the end of his life. As Capote and Lee revisit old memories of their friendship and working relationship, there exists an undercurrent of anxiety as both are haunted by the Clutter family and consider how their lives turned out.
Kim Powers was kind enough to answers a few questions I had for him and a good sport, too, as you'll see from my last question:
*One of the aspects of Capote in Kansas that I found most interesting were the snake boxes. How did you find out about those and have you ever seen one or a photograph of one?
I love the snake boxes – I’m glad you did too! Bizarrely, though, since they’re such an important part of the book, I didn't find out about them until I was some ways into it, after I had written about Capote and Lee’s childhood together, and their time in Kansas. Then I found several mentions of these art collage boxes that Truman began making, in George Plimpton’s oral biography of him called Truman Capote. Truman began working on them in the later years of his life, when (I think) he was having so much trouble writing. He had so much creativity in him, it had to find an outlet somewhere, even if it no longer could in his writing. He was such a visual writer, with such rich descriptive powers, I think it’s natural he moved toward visual art. He knew a lot about art, and supposedly tore pictures out of the coffee table books of friends! The “snake boxes,” as I call them, also had a great deal to do with his fascination with snakes. He had been bitten by one as a child, and almost died from it. After that, he was obsessed with them, almost as if focusing on the thing that scared him the most could take away its fear and power. (The snake image on the cover of Capote in Kansas is actually from a Richard Avedon photograph of a snake sculpture that Truman kept in his apartment.)
Truman would order snake bite kits by the dozens, and then decoupage these artsy clippings on to them, the same way he would make home-made kites, decorating plain white paper. He’d add on all sorts of odd bits, like photos of favorite authors like Emily Dickinson or Oscar Wilde, and then add more snake pictures, cigar bands (his stepfather manufactured the Capote brand of cigar), etc. Then he’d put the boxes down n plexi-glass shells for safekeeping. Near the end of his life, Truman went to a renowned book store owner in New York (Andreas Brown’s Gotham Book Mart, now defunct) and said he wanted to deliver a “top secret” project. Of course, Andreas thought it was the long-in-process novel Truman had been talking about forever. Instead, it was the snake boxes. There was an exhibit of them at the Gotham Book Mart. Many of them were left to various people in Truman’s will, and a number of them were recently sold at auction, and went for prices ranging from 3,000 to 10,000 (too rich for my blood!) I’ll send you photos of some of them.
Anyway, once I began reading of the boxes in Plimpton’s biography, I thought they would be a great device to add into my book, a Gothic element. I wanted the book to have a plot, not just be a series of flashback memories, and I came up with the idea of Truman sending something akin to the snake boxes to Harper, along with photographs inside them, to create a mystery Harper had to solve. So I’m not recreating the boxes literally, just using them (and dressing them up a lot) as a jumping off point for part of my plot.
*What are your favorite authors?
I really love so many writers, but there are certainly ones I’ll buy whenever they come out with a new book. I tend not to read reviews, because I don’t want anything to prejudice me. A favorite of the last few years, who makes me insanely jealous because she’s such a brilliant, imaginative writer, is Kate Atkinson, whose new book is called When Will There Be Good News? (Or something like that; I might be paraphrasing.) I also love her books Human Croquet and Case Histories. Early on, in my pretentious high school and college days, I began reading a lot of John Cheever, whose Waspy world was so different from my lower middle class Texas upbringing. Maybe that’s why I liked him so much. Then in college, I had a great Southern literature class, and started reading a lot of those writers: Eudora Welty, Carson McCullars, Flannery O’Connor. Her collection of letters called The Habit of Being is one of my favorite books, and taught me so much about what it means to be a thinking, feeling person in the world. And because I thought that I wanted to be an actor, and acted quite a bit in high school and college, the plays of Edward Albee and their exquisite language had a huge affect on me. I also love Pat Conroy, whom I once interviewed at Good Morning America. I literally started crying as I talked to him I was so moved. I also like a lot of comic writers like James Wilcox, Peter Lefcourt, Armistead Maupin. (I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve literally never read Jane Austen or Dickens…maybe when I retire!)
*What is on your nightstand right now?
Some finished books, some not so finished. I’ve developed a bad habit lately of buying books and then reading just a few pages, and no more if they don’t grab me. I jumped on the Oprah bandwagon and just read The Story of Edgar Satwalle, which is truly a work of genius. It will be one for the ages, it’s that good. Also a great new book that got a little lost in the Satwalle uproar is Hannah Tinti’s The Good Thief. Three other books are just sitting on my nightstand, which will probably head to the bookcase in my apartment basement: one is the Joseph O’Neill book Netherland that got such great reviews. I’m just a few pages into it, but I’ve already gotten so bogged down by all the writing on cricket I’m turned off. Another is the Swedish writer Peter Hoeg, who wrote the great Smilla’s Sense of Smell. But his new book that’s just come out in paperback, The Quiet Girl, is just so downright weird! And I hate to admit it, but I’ve been working away at Ann Patchett’s Run, which I know is a big book club favorite, but it’s just not enveloping me. I’ve always got to have an easy mystery or two on hand, to lull me to sleep (in a good way): right now it’s a Ruth Rendell, and the new Brad Meltzer book The Book of Lies. So my nightstand is quite crowded!
*Would you talk a bit about your physical writing process - where, when, on a computer or by hand, is it quiet or noisy, is there food involved?
It’s gotten much more relaxed over the years. When I started on my first book, a memoir about my twin brother’s disappearance called The History of Swimming, I could literally only write in the dark. This sounds like I’m making it up, but I’m not. I’d turn off the lights and do half hours of automatic, stream of consciousness writing, almost as if the material was too scary to see in the light of day. (As I said earlier, I had been an actor in college, and I think it had roots in that, “suffering” for my art and getting into character.) And I’d just hope my fingers were hitting the right keys! Then the rewrites involved copious amounts of iced coffee, with lots of cream and sugar. This was before I developed a late in life lactose intolerance – which I ignore (and pay the price of) when a bowl of coffee Haagen-Daz is staring me in the face.
When I started working on Capote in Kansas, I could look at the computer screen a little more directly. I found several photos of Truman and Harper at different points in their lives, and I taped them up on the walls around me. (That’s become a consistent thing – taping up these sensory pictures. I did it with the thing I just finished, a semi-autobiographical thing about my childhood. So I taped up lots of childhood pictures that had meaning to me.) And for Capote, I listed nonstop to the sound track of To Kill a Mockingbird, and I’d keep playing the same most emotional cuts over and over. That was somewhat deliberate, that choice of music, but I’ve found that everything I write organically develops a sort of soundtrack. During The History of Swimming, I was listening a lot to a singer named Michael Holland and his album Darkness Falls, and it became sort of Pavlovian – I got to where I couldn't write without it.
I have to be pretty focused while I’m struggling through a first draft, more or less creating on the spot, with only a few big turning points already in mind. I don’t outline. And there’s so much agony about whether I’m going in the right direction and should I keep going to the bitter end, or do I stop midstream and go back to the first and start revising. But after that first real draft, which is actually a few drafts, and can take over a year to write, I can then write anywhere and during anything. I write on a laptop computer, and I say “my lap is my office.” I often write with the TV on, because I like the white noise. I’ll try to write about two hours in the morning, before I have to go into the job that pays the bills (as a writer for ABC’s Primetime and 20/20), and then I’ll keep writing a lot on the weekends. On a full day, I can go for about three hours at a stretch before I take a break. And lots of coffee – but now with coffeemate!
*What are you working on right now?
I just finished a new novel, with the lurid – and hopefully provocative title -- The Movies We Watched (The Year My Father Killed My Mother). That title pretty much sums it up! It’s about a little boy whose mother has died, and he begins to think his father killed her, so he can be with his new girlfriend. The little boy obsessively goes to see the movies every weekend, and keeps a scrapbook with the movie ads from the local paper pasted in it. Then based on the grown-up things he sees in the movies, he begins playing detective, to try and catch his father. It’s somewhat autobiographical, a sort of prequel and sequel to The History of Swimming. My own mother died when I was seven, and there’s always been a mystery to how she died: suicide, an accidental drug overdose, a brain aneurysm, even murder. So I’m chasing those family ghosts, once again. Because of the title, I came up with a fun way for my agent to submit it to editors. Most books these days are submitted to publishers via email, but this manuscript was too big, because of all the movie ads that are scanned into it. So I bought all these old-fashioned movie canisters from a film company in Hollywood, and taped the title of the book on the lids, and we had those messengered to editors. Certainly made the book stand out ! Now I’m just hoping editors like the book itself as much as the marketing. It’s a relief to have finished the book -- I went through about ten drafts of it – but now I’m feeling a little post-partum. But already, I have some rough elements of a new book in mind, something that’s not based on real people, but will require a lot of historical research.
*Is there a chance Truman Capote or Harper Lee might be subject matter for you in the future?
No! I’ve put them to bed.
*I write about what I cook as well as what I read. Do you do any cooking at home? If you could have Truman Capote and Harper Lee over for dinner, what would you serve them?
I love cooking, and like doing it when I have an easy day at work. It’s the shopping I hate, which is such a hassle in New York. A few years ago, my partner and I bought a weekend house an hour or so outside the city, in Asbury Park, NJ – Bruce Springsteen land! We finally had a decent, big open kitchen there, unlike the cramped little galley kitchen we had in the apartment. And it was sort of the social thing to do to cook on Saturday night, and have friends over. So we really started cooking there, instead of our endless parade of Chinese takeout. I like following recipes. I wish I could bake and make cakes and pies, but I haven’t much. Now that the weather’s turning colder, we cook at home a lot. In the summer, it’s nice to sit outside at a restaurant, and we like taking our dog Frankie (a Maltese/Yorkie) with us, to sit outside and drink margaritas!
What a wonderful question about cooking for Truman and Harper! It’s the one question nobody’s ever asked me! I was in Baton Rouge a few weekends ago at the Louisiana Book Festival, talking about Capote in Kansas, and I found a book I’d never seen before, called Sook’s Cookbook – after Truman’s old cousin Sook Faulk, who is memorialized in Truman’s short story “A Christmas Memory.” I want to start cooking my way through that, but until then, I’d like to dig up the recipe for a Coca Cola cake, which I remember having as a kid in Texas, and which I have Harper make in my book. And I’d make this jazzy baked chicken I made the other night, stuffed with goat cheese and apricots and almonds – that’s as fancy as I get. And I’d love to make biscuits. And since Truman is there, I’d have to have lots to drink!
Thanks to Kim Powers for answering these questions! If you would like to check out the rest of the booktour the full list of hosts can be found here.