Monthly Archives: May 2011

Janet Malcolm, ‘Capote’ & ‘Infamous’

Everyone acknowledges that true stories can never be fully known—too many details lack corroboration, too many witnesses disagree about what really happened.—Jane Smiley, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel

  In Cold Blood created a sensation in America in 1966 hard to imagine today. From the start of the 2005 film Capote we see it is a revisionist look at Truman Capote and, to a degree, his blockbuster. Right away, there’s a character tut-tutting about the writer at work. Harper Lee, played by Catherine Keener, clearly disapproves when Capote ingratiates himself with the murdered girl’s best friend by telling her that he knows, because of his strange voice and affect, what it’s like to be misunderstood.

Audio book’s cover, from the paperback

Keener plays Lee subtly and brilliantly, but this aspect of her role got on my nerves. What Capote did there was just fine by me—you could view him as being honest and human in the service of his work. He did know what it was like to be seen as strange; he did need to win over the girl in order to deepen the story. A journalist’s allegiance is to his work, if he’s any good, and the work must be worth such commitment. There’s tension, of course, because one must, or should, remember we live first as humans, not as writers.

But journalism is rather like politics and sausage: maybe you don’t want to watch it being made.

Janet Malcolm wrote The Journalist and the Murder about another case but the same issue Capote faced with his killers; she specifically indicted Joe McGinniss’s queasy relationship with Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald for Fatal Vision. McGinniss, in interviewing the doctor accused of murdering his family, concluded that MacDonald was guilty, but he pretended otherwise so that MacDonald would continue cooperating.

Malcolm, going somewhat overboard, argues famously:

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and “the public’s right to know”; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living. . . .

In the MacDonald-McGinnis case we have an instance of a journalist who apparently found out too late that the subject of his book was not up to scratch—not a member of the wonderful race of auto-fictionalizers, like . . .  Truman Capote’s Perry Smith, on whom the “non-fiction novel” depends for its life.

Malcolm tars journalists with a devoted brush, begging the question: what about every other human interaction? Do we really mean it when we say good morning or ask someone how it’s going? What about almost everyone who makes nice with a despised coworker or two for the sake of workplace harmony? What of the salesman who loathes his company’s biggest customer but doesn’t let on? The point is that all human interaction involves role playing, often complex, while everyone’s relentless private judgments are hidden. The journalist does withdraw and upon reflection publish his gossip. That’s a difference, perhaps, but if he’s compromised it is a matter of degree, not of kind, by and large, from the rest of us.

(As for McGinniss, he defends himself against Malcolm’s “skewed perception” in an afterword to his best-seller and has reprinted it on his web site.)

Nonetheless, journalism has rightly been called a moral minefield, and Capote depicts Capote wandering way too far into it. The movie’s premise is that Capote sold his soul to write In Cold Blood, and so the case is built from the start that he, already a freak and prima donna artiste, became an utter monster in order to effectuate it. This is a cautionary tale about the journalist’s, if not the writer’s, awkward role and relations, and it appeared to stun my feature writing students.

But the movie is a fictionalized work. In the service of its message, or its vision, it invents, and pushes factual aspects to the breaking point. After accusing Capote of trying to keep the killers alive only for his book, Capote advances a worse condemnation: he managed then to hasten their executions by ignoring their pleas for further legal assistance. Capote makes it appear he could have saved them but needed their deaths for a literary climax—an accusation that also arose when In Cold Blood was published. Kenneth Tynan, writing in The Observer in Britain after the book’s release there in March 1966, said, “It seems to me that the blood in which his book is written is as cold as any in recent literature.”

Biographer Gerald Clarke, from whom I got Tynan’s comment, rebuts:

Tynan’s thesis was based on a sloppy reading of the book and false assumptions about Kansas law, which would not have permitted the psychiatric defense he was suggesting. Truman set him straight in a lengthy reply, during the course of which he charged him with possessing “the morals of a baboon and the guts of a butterfly.” The victory was Truman’s, but Tynan’s accusation stung more than it otherwise might have because it hit an exposed nerve. Truman could not have saved Perry and Dick if he had spent one million dollars, or ten million, but Tynan was right when he suggested that Truman did not want to save them.

Clarke’s biography, sympathetic to the writer, says that Capote faced “an insoluble moral dilemma,” desiring their deaths for closure while opposing the death penalty and identifying deeply with Perry Smith, the wounded artistic type of the pair. The reality of Capote’s dilemma appears to be the germ from which the movie Capote grew.

Which brings me to the movie’s last contention, that Capote was destroyed by guilt, a wretched creature in the wake of In Cold Blood finished off by alcohol and drugs. Only the latter appears to be unquestionably true. He was the toast of the literary world afterward, and gave his famous black and white ball, and was set for life financially. Some years later his society friends turned against him when he began to serialize a novel that told their secrets and but thinly disguised their identities. I suppose the movie’s vision implies that his later betrayals flowed from having sold his soul for In Cold Blood.

But Clark’s 631- page biography arrives at no such reductive message about the author. Perhaps a biopic can’t be as subtle as a book, even if it wants to be, which Capote doesn’t. The writer had been an unwanted child—the mother who had him at seventeen repeatedly abandoned him; her heart’s desire was to become a New York City society lady. It’s interesting that her son picked up that dream and made it real; even more interesting is that he betrayed that world, in his serialized novel Answered Prayers, and was cast out of it. Surely he was traumatized by his research for In Cold Blood, if only because he befriended Smith. The experience, from Capote’s own statements, seems to have scraped raw deep old psychic wounds. But I don’t think personal guilt over Smith’s death was a factor—just my sense from what I’ve read and seen, and lived as a reporter.

There are many ways to look at all this, including that Capote deserved Capote. If not literally always true, the movie prosecutes its own vision—or it panders to our desire for comeuppance, take your pick—but does crystallize the ambiguities in the journalist-source relationship.

Plimpton’s sunny look influenced ‘Infamous’

A sunnier movie, and one far more sympathetic to Capote, the good but lesser-ranked Infamous, appeared a year later, in 2006. Its screenplay was based on George Plimpton’s oral history Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career. I watched Infamous again, too, and though it fictionalized as well, it tries for a balanced view of Capote, his bon vivant lifestyle, and his courage in going after the killers’ story. Less beautifully filmed, less beautifully cast, Infamous finally reaches a similar conclusion—his nonfiction book made him and it destroyed him—but places the cause more on the nature of the work itself rather than on Capote’s guilt for betraying the killers.

Both films need to show him pay in the end for titillating readers with story derived from murder and from consorting with murderers. By going to the dark side. And finally they ask, Have you, would you, sell your soul for success?  

In Cold Blood opened the eyes of journalists to what immersion, scenes, dialogue, structure, plot, and characterization could do, and it impressed other novelists with what journalism could do. But one of the things that makes the book difficult to teach today, in journalism and creative nonfiction classes anyway, are Capote’s inventions. Apparently he created from whole cloth Smith’s apology on the gallows—others didn’t hear Smith say a thing. But Capote wanted others to see Smith sympathetically, hence, Smith’s rather well crafted contrition in In Cold Blood.

The director-screenwriter of Infamous said that Capote proclaimed so often that “every word was true” in the book that he knew the statement must be a lie. Most obviously, Capote invented the book’s ending scene, an elegiac denouement in which investigator Alvin Dewey visits the Clutters’ graves. Long established as a classic and a masterpiece, In Cold Blood would be a scandal for that closing scene alone if published today in the genre it did so much to expand. A genius Capote surely was, but he hadn’t learned old newspapering tricks: he could have called Dewey to the cemetery, had him gaze at the graves, chatted with him. Maybe that would have got Capote off the hook, technically at least. Except he not only put Dewey in the graveyard, he had him run into Nancy Clutter’s best friend there. He gilded the lilly, journalistically, for that coda.

I suppose Capote might tell Oprah, if he could be summoned to her couch for expiation, “If something seems too good to be true, it is too good to be true. Dummy—who could possibly believe such a scene was literally true?”


Filed under film/photography, honesty, journalism, teaching, education

Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ revisited

The original cover, 1966.

Here’s the evocative, elegiac opening to Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood:

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveller reaches them.

This paragraph bears a resemblance to the first paragraph of Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, published almost twenty years before, when he was in his early twenties:

Now a traveler must make his way to Noon City by the best means he can, for there are no buses or trains heading in that direction, though six days a week a truck from the Chuberry Turpentine Company collects mail and supplies in the next-door town of Paradise Chapel: occasionally a person bound for Noon City can catch a ride with the driver of the truck, Sam Radclif. It’s a rough trip no matter how you come, for these washboard roads will loosen up even brandnew cars pretty fast; and hitchhikers always find the going bad. Also, this is lonesome country; and here in the swamplike hollows where tiger lilies bloom the size of a man’s head, there are luminous green logs that shine under the dark marsh water like drowned corpses; often the only movement on the landscape is winter smoke winding out the chimney of some sorry-looking farmhouse, or a wing-stiffened bird, silent and arrow-eyed, circling over the black deserted pinewoods.

Whew, three long, flowing, gorgeous sentences. I was rereading Other Voices, Other Rooms even before I assigned my feature writing class this quarter to read the first section of In Cold Blood, still available to anyone on the web site of The New Yorker, which serialized the book in the fall of 1965 (it was published in January 1966).

Like Noon City, Holcomb isn’t only hard to get to and emotionally affecting, it isn’t much to look at: “an aimless congregation of buildings”; “a haphazard hamlet” with “streets, unnamed, unshaded, unpaved” that “turn from the thickest dust into the direst mud”; a town where “dancing has ceased.” And Holcomb Bank, which “failed in 1933” has been turned into apartments; it doesn’t have any money in its safe, one of my students pointed out, just like the doomed Herbert Clutter, whose throat was cut and his family likewise slaughtered over a rumor of a hidden safe at his farmhouse. All that melancholy setting—those quotes from the second paragraph alone—to also make the point that Holcomb isn’t what it appears: many of its wheat farmers are, like Herb Clutter, wealthy. They are hard-working, sober, law abiding, and into their midst come avatars of another America: down at the heels, broken, and mean.

I didn’t realize, when I uploaded the book’s first act to Blackboard and assigned my students to read it, that it’s about seventy pages. Nor, not having read In Cold Blood for several years, did I remember—if I’d ever noticed—that it is divided into four acts of equal length. The book, which took Capote about six years to write and report, is built. It still creeps me out to read it; I have both my mother’s original hardback and a newer paperback. The latter has a cover tied in to the 2005 movie Capote, for which Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar. I’d seen the movie at least once before, but when I showed it in class, having just read the first act of the book, I was alarmed by the movie’s inventions.

What shot me bolt upright, watching Capote with my students, was this: in the movie, Capote tries desperately to keep the two killers alive on death row by hiring them a good lawyer—because he hasn’t yet gotten their stories of what actually happened in the Clutter house. Then, alive due only to Capote’s self interest, the killer he’s closest to, Perry Smith, doesn’t want to talk about that night. Smith stalls, and Capote resorts to bullying and manipulation. Three-fourths of the way into Capote, Smith finally spills his guts—and now Capote wants him dead, so he can end his book.

As in the movie, In Cold Blood also recreates the murders exactly three-quarters into the story. Structurally it’s a great emphasis point; and it fulfills the writer’s implicit promise, made in the first section when the murders were summarized, to give readers the crime’s gory, harrowing details. But the confession in the book appears to be based solely upon what Smith told investigators, the lead one of whom, Alvin Dewey, had become Capote’s friend.

The bio consulted for the movie 'Capote'

There’s no indication whatsoever that Capote lacked for the killers’ statements. He may have sweetened his third-act climax with details from them, but he had a powerful climax already from their confessions to lawmen alone. And he recreates the crime only in the context of Smith’s formal admission of guilt. The book that the movie flows from, Capote: A Biography, by Gerald Clarke, doesn’t mention this as an issue. It acknowledges the writer’s moral dilemmas in reporting In Cold Blood, while being sympathetic.

Capote prosecutes its own vision; it isn’t a documentary. Maybe I’m the one straining at gnats. But, just maybe, Capote wasn’t tormented to death by In Cold Blood, as Capote has it. Maybe we need to make meanings like that, for sins to be paid, but his decline may simply have been from alcoholism and drugs, self medications for a mortal wound suffered in a sad childhood.

Next: The writer’s moral dilemmas and whether Capote deserves Capote.


Filed under film/photography, honesty, journalism, syntax, teaching, education

Bill Roorbach’s tasty syntax

I read Bill Roorbach’s memoir Temple Stream: A Rural Odyssey a couple times last summer. I’d been impressed with his review of my memoir for a prospective publisher, and hired him to line-edit a draft of it. Bill is a novelist, an award-winning short story writer, an essayist, the author of a popular how-to book, Writing Life Stories, the editor of a creative nonfiction anthology, and most recently a blogger.

On my first readings of Temple Stream, I don’t remember consciously noticing what really jumped out at me on my recent third reading, probably because not long ago I’d noticed he does it on his blog: an unusual sentence construction, sometimes technically ungrammatical, that’s wonderfully visual, poetic, and colloquial. I may steal it, if I can, to enliven my own prose.

“Leaves blew down the road, forlorn.”

On the one hand, this is just hanging a strong adjective off the end: “He fell back, wounded” is an example. But Bill tweaks it. This literally says leaves (the subject) were forlorn, but placed next to “road” the word implies the road was forlorn, too—achieving the effect of typing the entire scene: the effect of the leaves blowing down the empty road was forlorn. That elaboration is perfectly clear, but twice the words and half the poetry of Bill’s sentence.

It was strange as I wrote this post to stumble across, in the New York Times Book Review of March 27, a criticism of this same “syntactical short cut” in Ward Just’s new novel Rodin’s Debutante. The reviewer called Just’s move “presumably a side effect of his laudable economy of style but one that creates grammatical ambiguities.” Just’s sentence: ‘She began to describe her studies, utterly fascinating.’”

Very Bill Roorbach-like, that. The construction has an offhand quality, emphasized here in another of Bill’s Temple Stream sentences:

“This dour presence and I gazed at each other through the bubbly old windows until I pointed at the porch door, where I met him, holding Desi and Wally by their collars as they clamored sniffing and snorting, Desi with his back up, theatrical growling.”

Grammatically that would be theatrically growling. But again, it’s a flash of imagery, auditory in this case, in the emphasis spot. It hovers over the whole hectic scene and captures it. Bill’s usages eliminate words, often while implying much more with a dying fall:

“And he described again the dense woods he’d found there, days gone.”

And with a dying punch:

“I say, ‘Okay, boys,’ and the dogs leap out, investigate every hump and knob of snow, piss amply on a pair of spectral snowmen—the ghosts of millers no doubt—while I retrieve my skis from the back of the truck, get them attached to my boots in a rush of bare fingers, painful.”

Again, this allows him to end on a strong word, but also to employ an odd, interesting pattern. And I feel the cold pinch keenly. At least one reviewer of Temple Stream on Amazon noted the book’s delightful wordplay—especially the occasional funny unusual word—and this is part of that, higher order stuff.

Here’s two in a row, perfectly grammatical, and again putting the emphasis on the strong ending words:

“She must have walked down to the stream sometimes to think, grief-struck. Her parents’ house burned down about the same time, more sorrow.”

In the first sentence I might reverse it, except the adjectival modifiers placed where they are seem to surmount the fact they’re otherwise inescapably ordinary, and the paired rhythm is nice. Overall I like this emphasis placement better than poet Mary Karr’s striking construction that appears occasionally in her recent memoir Lit: “Freaked, he was,” to make up a likely example; anyway, hers often stopped me. But Bill doesn’t over-use his pet—not much more in the 300-page Temple Stream than I’ve culled here for the blog—and his construction probably devolved from poetry, too, come to think of it. Even the writer of prose had better be after poetry.

Here’s a Roorbach variation with implied words and also what amounts to a comma splice because of the missing words:

“The day had grown balmy, nice breeze from the west.”

As an aside, I always admire writers who use intentional comma splices well, even if I seem unable to bring myself to do it—partly out of craven conformity, no doubt, and partly because I’m so hard on students who splice unknowingly. Oddly, in that same book review noted above, in a piece on the novel Seven Years, the reviewer said that its “conscientious translations even maintain the comma splices that occur regularly in German but appear as grammatical errors in English . . .” Who knew the Germans merely spliced anything?


“The Temple entered at a turn before a stretch of real white water, entered flat and deep, a lost lagoon stained golden black with leaf tannins, strong current.”

“Outside the wind blew, frosty night.”

A variation is to use these descriptive, modifying bursts in the middle of sentences:

“Already exhausted, late morning, I drove my truck by our house four times: reconnaissance.”

“In her note back, fierce handwriting, Professor Mills declared I was the one who was obscure, and how about that?”

“He shook the fearsome ax at me, brandishing it with one hand, enormous strength, admonished me in a low rumble . . .”

Or Bill uses these visual bits to come rushing at the end, the classic additive sentence:

“The road dipped down, and down a little more to where it crossed the watercress brook, which we found flowing with authority through its galvanized pipe under the road into cattails and ice knobs on sedges, sandy bottom, gold glints of mica, hearty flow, jubilant babble of bare languages, washed rocks cased in ice.”

And here tumbling after a short declarative start and fetching up against an arresting detail on a ninety-degree Maine day:

Bill Roorbach, maestro

“He was enormous, wide beard untrimmed, two streaks of gray in it, thick mustache that fell over his mouth, flannel shirt, top button ripped, thermal-underwear shirt beneath despite the heat, massive shoulders, massive arms, massive hands black with engine grease, massive chest pressing the bib of a huge pair of Carharrt overalls, legs like tree trunks, big leather shoes that looked to be shaped by a chain saw, unlaced, heavy rawhide dangling, one pant leg rolled up showing long johns.”

I sent all the above this to a friend and he said, “Anyone who can write as well as he does can do whatever he wants to with the English language because he’s inherited the poetic license Shakespeare, Faulkner and Joyce had.”

He added, “It seems very masculine to me, authoritative. It’s a highly conversational style and these seem to me confidential asides to the reader, sort of ‘Between you and me that dog’s growling was purely theatrical.’ Or, ‘Let me tell you something, the way he shook that axe in just one hand showed he had enormous strength.’ Except he’s figured out a way to do it without the verbiage. I bet it’s a colloquial idiom wherever he came from. I’m definitely going to read the book, strong stuff.”

See, it’s catching. I’m not a grammarian or a literary critic and don’t pretend to be, but find this usage interesting and effective: visual, telegraphic, emphatic, colloquial. I plan to try it myself very soon, diligent student. 🙂


Filed under craft, technique, memoir, NOTED, style, syntax

Q&A: Jim Minick on his earthy memoir

Desiring to grow things is surely in humans’ DNA, planted at least 10,000 years ago in our genetic code, not as old as the impulse to gather wild food, but tenured. As a boy and young man haunted by the loss of our family farm, I devoured back-to-the-land literature for years; then I farmed commercially for over a decade; and I’m now up to my eyeballs in writing my own memoir of rural life. Almost burned out on the genre as a reader, and fairly post-agrarian as a recent suburbanite, I wouldn’t have looked twice at Jim Minick’s memoir The Blueberry Years if Brevity hadn’t asked me to review it. I’m so glad.

The book is interesting, well done, and was helpful to my own work. Whereas I used to read farm memoirs to fuel my farming fantasies, The Blueberry Years inspired me as a writer who is trying to tell a similar story. Minick shows a young couple throw themselves earnestly and joyfully at organic farming. Their pick-your-own blueberry farm became a thriving exemplar of eco- and human-friendly family farming. It wasn’t their fault that America has a cheap food policy. This makes “farming the system” of federal ag subsidies mandatory for almost all farms—about half of farm income in America comes indirectly from taxes through the government—but the Minicks went their own way.

Minick is honest about how almost impossible it is in farming on a small scale to do more than break even; that admission in itself struck me as rare. And admitting the financial failure of a cherished romantic dream—one successful in many ways, including as a way of life—isn’t easy. Second, he struggles manfully to address the inexplicable: then why did you do it, and why did you stop? I admired that he tried to answer these questions, even if doing so must have been vexing at some level. And even if his reasons escape logic because the impulse to farm, by anyone with other options, is seldom logical.

A teacher of writing and literature at Radford University in Virginia, Minick and his wife, Sarah, now live on another farm where they garden, hike, and work in the woods. He’s the author of a collection of essays, Finding a Clear Path, and two books of poetry, Her Secret Song and Burning Heaven. According to his web site, he’s at work on a novel about fire, healing, and Pennsylvania Dutch folklore.

As a fellow ex-farmer and a current memoirist, I emailed Jim Minick some questions, below, followed by his replies.

The structure of the book is interesting. Your story opens with the arrival of your 1,000 potted blueberry bushes, then you go back to show the hard work that had to happen— of clearing an overgrown field—before the overwhelming job of planting them. In a note you also acknowledge that you compressed about a dozen years into a round decade for the purposes of storytelling. Could you discuss the reasons for such major structural decisions?

Poet, essayist, memoirist

It took me several years of trying to write The Blueberry Years before I found the “leading edge”…that place where I wanted the reader to experience the whole story with Sarah and me as we chased this blueberry dream. That edge, I finally realized, was when the blueberry bushes arrived on April 1, 1995—a fitting day. So, I started there, then had a whole big chunk of the story that happened before this moment still to tell. I kept that part in past tense, and the rest in present, but then I still had the problem of too much time. How do you make a story that covers over a dozen years readable? For me, it was to compress these years, combine them into just a few, but to also be honest with the reader about this compression up front.

I was struck by how scenic your memoir is. You employ expository sidebars about blueberry history and culture, but the book’s heart is watching you and Sarah in action—clearing, planting, mulching, managing pickers. You’re a poet, and your love of language shows, as in your evocative prologue on the blueberry pickers. But was your dramatic, cinematic writing here natural, or a skill you had to learn or develop for this book?

One of the hardest, most important skills I learned in writing The Blueberry Years was how to make the whole of it have a strong dramatic arc. I had written three other books, one a collection of essays, and two poetry, but none of these three required me to figure out how to tell a story over a 300-400 page span. All writers are gods playing with time on many levels. As a poet, I learned to play with time (and image/metaphor) on the micro-level—with each word and sentence. And now, with this memoir (and a novel I’m currently working on), I’ve learned (and am learning) how to play with time on the macro-level…how to weave all the many scenes into a coherent, richly layered, whole.

You write frankly about your feeling of exile in the country and about your failed attempts to join a larger community in rural churches and other venues. Your relationship with your close neighbor, Joe, a know-it-all conventional farmer, is both prickly and affectionate, and one of the book’s most appealing threads, as are the picker portraits. What were some issues you faced in presenting yourself, temper and all, as a character? Did you have any concerns about portraying the customers and other civilians who walk through the book’s pages?

One of my favorite essays is Edward Hoagland’s “The Courage of Turtles.” At the end of it, he portrays himself in an unfavorable way, and by doing so, he magnifies both our human ineptitude and the turtle’s amazing courage. So, I took that as a model. Also, for me, the truly great memoirs strive to understand that individual writer’s past, the personal history as it intersects with others’ personal histories.  So for me to shy away from the issues of community and loneliness seemed dishonest to myself and the reader. I wanted to understand why I have this pull for the company of others while also having this desire for lots and lots of solitude.

In The Blueberry Years, I write about Thoreau a few times, mainly because I love his work, even if curmudgeonly, and also because he loved blueberries. But a friend had this interesting observation after reading my memoir: he said that Thoreau often wrote about solitude while he went into town for dinner every day, while I often write about searching for community, while I go for a solo hike into the woods every day. And he’s probably right. So, if any memoirist can identify these central conflicts, pull them out and analyze them in an artful way, I think the world is a better place.

Portraying other people is always tricky, even if you like them and try to capture them in a positive light. My editor suggested changing all the names, so this I did, and now I have readers asking if so-and-so in the book is so-and-so in real life. And even the neighbors or pickers who treated us poorly had redeeming qualities, if you look hard enough (sometimes it takes a flashlight and a magnifying glass!). Even your villains, in fiction or nonfiction, have to be loved, so I try to make that understanding undergird all of my work.

How long did The Blueberry Years take you to write, and what were the key writing lessons it taught you?

Roughly 8 years, off and on, with my three other books coming into existence in that time period, and years of full-time work as well.


A. Playing with time (what I said above).

B. Persistence (just keeping at this project—writing regularly for sanity’s sake).

C. And More Persistence (the book was rejected by umpteen agents. When it finally found one, it was still rejected by umpteen more editors before finally finding a home at Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s.).

D. Gratitude. None of us are here without the communities of families, friends, teachers, other writers, and readers who support us. And Sarah, my wife, put up with a helluvalot both in the field as we chased our blueberry dream, and now, in the world, as people read about her in The Blueberry Years. I’m lucky to call her my best friend.




Filed under Author Interview, memoir, NOTED, REVIEW, structure

Reading, memoir & hurt feelings

Geese in Westerville, Ohio, obviously can’t read but are enjoying the wettest spring here in about a million years. Photo by Candyce Canzioneri

The founder of Ploughshares, forty years ago this fall, DeWitt Henry is a novelist and memoirist who teaches at Emerson College in Boston. His books include Safe Suicide: Narratives, Essays, and Meditations, a collection of linked essays on his generation and on his quest for psychological and spiritual truth; and a novel, The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts, about a working-class Philadelphia woman whose life is upset by the death of her father and by her younger sister’s takeover of the family home, which won the 2000 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.

His most recent book is Sweet Dreams: a Family History.

A publisher’s synopsis:

A masterful memoir of a young boy’s passage from childhood to adulthood in a family of privilege torn by dark secrets: alcoholism, mental illness, dysfunction. As a complicated coming of age story, Sweet Dreams charts the journey of DeWitt Henry, well-known author, editor, publisher and educator, in his earliest struggles to find and achieve his own creative destiny. It is what Richard Hoffman calls “…a remarkable feat of memory delivered in extraordinary prose.”

 In a review, wrote:

While his older siblings escape into unhappy marriages, Henry seeks a refuge in literature. By fourth grade, he’s printing a newspaper (the Swiftset Rotary News) for his classmates. He ships off to Amherst, studies with Eudora Welty, writes a novella, and dreams of being a published author. At the Iowa Writers Workshop, the novelist Richard Yates mentors him. He eventually finishes a doctorate at Harvard and settles in Cambridge where, besides teaching and writing, he helps launch the venerable literary magazine Ploughshares.

Recently he sat down with Rusty Barnes for a wide-ranging interview for Night Train. Some excerpts:

Recognizable “real people” in art tend to assume that the art is about them, when it’s not. Strangers don’t care about them. They aren’t newsworthy entities. Nor is good memoir about the memoirist. The character and life of the memoirist is only an occasion for writing about the reader: the reader’s heart; the reader’s need for clarity and meaning. There is always the risk of failed art, of course, when literalness fails to serve figurativeness.

With my brother the problem wasn’t so much hurting his feelings as it was in challenging his own necessary fiction about our past. He objected to early drafts of my memoir supposedly on the basis of facts. His version was a whitewash, of course, and it was contradicted by the witness of my mother and other siblings as well as by all sorts of documentary evidence. He had his own reasons—or needs—to see our parents’ marriage as “happy” and our upbringing as positive. Yet oddly enough he was proud when “Distant Thunder” (the early childhood section in my memoir) was reprinted in The Pushcart Prize, and apparently handed it around to his colleagues, friends, and patients. . . .

As we worshipped Mom, Dad was the heavy, the family millstone. Chuck was the only one who wanted to see Dad differently, and who later in life, even though he himself was a surgeon, imitated Dad’s materialism. He was also the only one of us to succumb to alcoholism himself. In writing the book, I honestly believed that truth would set us free, all of us, including our children in their lives.

Initially, the richest and most inspiring memoir I knew was Stop Time by Frank Conroy, at least if you don’t count Wordsworth’s The Prelude. As I wrote more, and at different stages in the years of revising, along with Conroy, I loved Maxim Gorki’s autobiographies, especially Chidhood. Once I started teaching memoir writing, in addition to these two, I studied Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood (besides her humor and her lyrical prose, I loved her optimism), the Conroy-influenced This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff , and the Wolff-influenced The Liars Club by Mary Karr. I respect but was never smitten by Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. I liked Russell Baker’s Growing Up and Maureen Howard’s Facts of Life. More recently, I have learned from Jim McPherson’s A Place Not Home, James Brown’s The Los Angeles Diaries, Philip Roth’s Patrimony, Kathyrn Harrison’s The Kiss, Richard Hoffman’s Half the House, Andre Dubus’s Broken Vessels, Jamaica Kincaid’s My Brother, and Jerald Walker’s Street Shadows.

I think of literature as a conversation between the dead, the living, and the unborn. I read to join in and talk back. I reread (and teach) favorites in this spirit, from all of Shakespeare (and writing about Shakespeare) to the American Short Story, with a focus on Anderson, Hemingway, Welty, Yates, McPherson, and Munro. Outside the classroom, I reread for different needs: to sharpen my idea of the novel, for instance (Ford’s Sportswriter, Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Yates’s Revolutionary Road). In college, I saturated myself in all things D.H. Lawrence, but haven’t felt the urge to revisit Women In Love for years. I do reread Elizabeth Bowen’s Death of the Heart and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.


Filed under memoir, reading

Agent Betsy Lerner on editing, structure

The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner. Riverhead, 304 pages

I suggest you stalk your demons. The more popular culture and the media fail to present the real pathos of our human struggle, the more opportunity there is for writers. If you have been unable to make your work count or stick, you must grab them by the neck and face them down. And whatever you do, don’t censor yourself. There’s always time and editors for that.—Betsy Lerner

Before she was a high-powered literary agent and a funny, earthy blogger, Betsy Lerner was an MFA student (poetry) who made herself a career as an acquisitions editor for several big New York publishing houses. Her entertaining The Forest for the Trees is about the psyche of writers—their peculiarities, hangups, and self-destructive practices—and about the publishing process: especially how editors see things and how they work.

Some excerpts from Lerner’s insights on the editing stage:

Only the writer knows if his editor edits. The best editor is a sensitive reader who is thinking with a pencil in her hand, questioning word choice, syntax, and tense. An editor is someone who probes the writer with insightful questions, who smooths transitions or suggests them where none exist. A good editor knows when the three pages at the beginning of a chapter are throat-clearing. Start here, she’ll mark in the margin. This is where your book begins. And she’ll know when you should stop, spare your reader being hit over the head as if your point were a two-by-four.

Before an editor can cut a paragraph or a page, she must establish trust. This is best accomplished by showing the writer what works, taking time to pepper the manuscripts with appreciation: lovely phrase, great word, nice transition. An editor builds trust with an author through careful attention to his pages. Suggesting that a writer delete his words is excruciating for some, and the excision must be made with delicacy. Sometimes this means the use of lightly penciled queries in the margins: awk? right word? believable? trans? rep? Or course, what the editor really means is: totally awkward, terrible word, completely unbelievable, how the hell do you expect the reader to make a transition when you haven’t, and this is so damn repetitive I feel like killing myself.

The best editors call attention to those parts of the book that have been bothering the writer, if only on an unconscious level. Almost every book I have ever worked on needed help with the pacing and structure. The challenge of sustaining a certain pace and rhythm throughout an entire book can be staggering, and most writers are too involved with the details to see where the story flags.

Not all writers have an innate sense of structure. As a young editor, I used to think that those who couldn’t structure their books were somehow inferior to “real” writers or people with “natural” ability. I imagined that skill in the handling of time was akin to having an innate sense of rhythm in music, and that you either had it or you didn’t. I’ve since revised that notion, having worked with brilliant authors over the years who committed all kinds of time crimes and didn’t see the structure their own sentences and paragraphs suggested. I have also worked with writers who were flummoxed when it came to connecting two scenes or collapsing a week’s events into a day to advance the narrative more swiftly. . . .

A good editor—whether for fiction or nonfiction—crouches like a coach on the edge of the track, his stopwatch grasped tightly in hand, clocking a writer’s progress as each sentence strides toward the finish. Sometimes merely breaking a long paragraph in two can take a few seconds off a writer’s time. Sometimes breaking apart a long chapter can give a feeling of movement and breadth. A writer can use paragraphs and space breaks the way a poet uses stanzas, each one setting forth a new beginning, signaling to the reader that we are going through another door. . . .

Any writer doing work of real interest is by necessity going out on a limb, taking chances with either the content or the style of his material. Does the limb hold? Will the writer wish, months or years from now, that someone had stayed his hand?


Filed under editing, narrative, NOTED, structure

Q&A: Lisa Davis on a Mormon tragedy

The Sins of Brother Curtis: A Story of Betrayal, Conviction, and the Mormon Church by Lisa Davis. Scribner, 368 pages.

I met Lisa Davis six years ago, in a creative nonfiction workshop at Goucher College, and I read her recently published The Sins of Brother Curtis first out of loyalty to a friend and then with increasing admiration for her work. Davis, a San Francisco journalist and a teacher at Santa Clara University, has painstakingly crafted a gripping narrative about a serial pedophile within the Mormon church. Publishers Weekly called it an “insightful examination of hard-won justice.”

It’s really two stories: one about what Frank Curtis did, how he got away with it, and what the abuse did to his victims; and a David-and-Goliath story of a plucky legal team that took on a phalanx of legal talent funded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS).

This is a disturbing story. Various LDS leaders knew Curtis was a pedophile but kept giving him access to children—especially to boys, his preferred prey. In Davis’s telling, this is connected to the church’s policy on serious transgressions: excommunication but with opportunity for repentance, re-baptism, and readmission. Curtis was disciplined at least three times and excommunicated twice. Usually he shifted locations, and although he was known as someone with a problem, under church policy and belief he had wiped the slate clean.

Davis, trying to be fair, points out another way a miscreant can take advantage of LDS ecclesiastical idealism since, in the church, bishops come from the ranks of the male laity:

The truth was that most of these men had no idea that one of their brethren had molested children. They were untrained in professional counseling and could barely keep up with their gargantuan responsibilities. They all had full-time jobs and large families of their own, on top of which they’d been called into a volunteer position leading hundreds of people. One day they might be helping someone who faced eviction and the next they faced a dying mother or a child who needed special help. Given the insular nature of the Mormon community, most bishops didn’t know anything about sex crimes, certainly not enough to understand a serial pedophile.

But, frankly, the LDS church as it emerges in The Sins of Brother Curtis seems, as an entity, uncaring—more eager to avoid revealing its considerable assets than in atonement or in helping victims heal. Its tactics were to stall, to pressure, and to buy off people as cheaply as possible.

Lisa Davis, immersion journalist

In researching the book, Davis learned there are about twenty survivors of this one pedophile’s abuse, which stretched over decades and into multiple states. The secrecy began to unravel when two Seattle attorneys took the case of Jeremiah Scott, then eighteen, in 1997. Scott had been abused repeatedly when he was twelve by Curtis, then a Mormon elder in Portland. Curtis had since died. Scott and his mother  decided to sue when they learned that bishops had known about Curtis’s past abuse of boys.

Scott eventually settled for $3 million, at that time the largest individual settlement ever reported in a church sex abuse case. Other lawsuits against the Mormon church followed, including one in which two women, abused as girls by their Mormon stepfather, won $4.5 million; the amount was later reduced on appeal, but still included the first penalty for inflicting “intentional emotional distress” against a church in the U.S. And Scott’s lead attorney, Tim Kosnoff, having become an expert in this area, in 2006 helped win $46 million from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Spokane for many victims of abuse by priests.

More recently, Davis told me, Kosnoff helped represent native American survivors in Alaska, Washington, and Montana in an historic $166 million settlement, reached in March, with the Pacific Northwest chapter of the Roman Catholic Church’s Jesuit order. A Reuters story reported, “The victims, most of them Native Americans from remote Alaska Native villages or Indian reservations in the Pacific Northwest, were sexually or psychologically abused as children by Jesuit missionaries in those states in the 1940s through the 1990s, the plaintiffs’ attorneys said.”

Lisa Davis answered some questions about the book and her working method.

Q. Did you gain any insight into why churches seem vulnerable to perpetuating or concealing abuse?

Certainly, sex abuse is not a problem exclusive to the LDS Church, the Catholic Church or any other. That said, there are some things that were unique about the case I wrote about. The Mormon faith places a great deal of emphasis on the idea of personal worthiness. Essentially, members have agreed to live by a certain moral code. It’s what binds the community together, this idea of a shared belief that everyone lives by. Unfortunately, it also can create a sense of false trust. People within the ward regard one another in a trusting way that they don’t view the outside world. That made the community more vulnerable to a serial manipulator like Frank Curtis.

Q. You didn’t appear to have had any cooperation from the LDS church or its attorneys. Is that accurate, and how did it affect your reporting and writing?

I contacted the defense lawyers and key church leaders involved in the Scott case, and sought to to interview them. I also spoke several times with the LDS Church’s public information office.  In the end, the Church offered only to speak about the case in a way that was unacceptable to me.  I wanted to keep my interviews on the record.

Q. You created, through skillful interviewing, a sequence of events—a story—from events you didn’t witness. I was struck by how vulnerable such a project must be, how contingent. Your relationship with attorney Kosnoff seemed crucial. But then, so did your ability to get some of the victims to open up. How and when did you know this could be a book, that you had enough to build a story even if some sources fell through?

In all, I worked on the book for about eight years. Mostly that was because I wasn’t able to work on it full time until near the end. I saw that it could be a book fairly early, after my first trip to Portland, because there were just so many layers.  But I didn’t fully commit to the idea of writing the book until I was in the MFA program at Goucher College.

The long time span was problematic because there were often many months between my interviews with Tim Kosnoff, Joel Salmi and some others involved in the case.  So, I had to re-establish a rhythm and get them back into thinking about the Scott case every time we met.  Everyone’s life had moved forward and the lawyers were involved with other cases. I learned early on that it all worked much better if I met them somewhere outside the office.

I also benefitted tremendously from my time with the survivors, and I am extremely grateful for their bravery. Stanley Saban walked through his old neighborhood with me and we went to some of the places where Frank Curtis lived.  He was able to point at this or that and tell me stories about what happened there when he was growing up.  I interviewed other of the survivors in prison.  And while that brought logistical challenges, the men were tremendously helpful in piecing together the puzzle. Jim Goodall was older and had a pretty clear memory of neighborhood details. Bob Goodall was amazingly reflective and willing to share what he’d experienced.

Mothers, sisters and other family members were able to put things in time and context, and provide some background to various events.

Other folks who had known Frank Curtis drove me around Grand Rapids, Michigan and shared with me what they remembered. The court clerks in Racine, Wisconsin led me around the court building where that part of the story unfolded. Really, a lot of people were willing to help me tell this story.

And eventually, you get used to asking things like “what color was the car?” I learned that people tend to have a soundtrack to certain memories. So, it helped if they could remember what songs they were listening to during a certain time.

Q. While working, did you focus your reading on immersion journalism as you worked? What books or authors were models for you and why?

I’m very fortunate to have learned the power of the details in storytelling from two masters: Jon Franklin and Tom French. I studied Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action because he did such a great job of structuring the tale of a lawsuit. Also, Tulia, by Nate Blakeslee, because it grew out of his reporting on the court cases in Texas. I’m a big fan of Dennis Lehane, so I looked a lot at how he keeps up the pacing in his stories.

Q. You were an experienced journalist when you began your MFA in creative nonfiction. What did you learn that helped you in bringing your book to fruition?

A lot. I could find out pretty much anything, but I had to learn how to write a book. I’m still working on developing the patience to let a story unfold in front of the reader.  I love playing with language and finding which detail is going to make a scene pop.  But, quite honestly, my inner-journalist still wants to cut to the chase.


Filed under Author Interview, craft, technique, immersion, journalism, MFA, NOTED, research, REVIEW, scene, working method