Category Archives: immersion

Time to call ‘In Cold Blood’ fiction?

Why Truman Capote’s masterwork keeps making news.

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

Reading the excellent new writing book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, I was a tad surprised to see Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood extolled on page five for its magisterial opening. Capote’s start is gorgeous, with its plain diction, elegiac tone, and rhythmic sound and syntax:

 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 original cover, 1966.

The original cover, 1966.

But there are problems. I’ve written here before about In Cold Blood (here  and here), noting that today the book that has done so much to further narrative nonfiction storytelling would be a scandal in its genre, at least among practitioners. The two major and more or less proven examples of Capote’s fabrication are when Perry Smith, the killer he identified with, apologized on the gallows for the murders (never happened, according to credible witnesses, though apparently Capote had begged him to) and the book’s closing scene in which the crime’s chief investigator runs into one of the victim’s friends at their graves (totally invented).

Kidder is known to be a stickler for factual accuracy in his work, and his and Todd’s chapter “Beyond Accuracy” in Good Prose is a deep and nuanced discussion. They wouldn’t countenance what Capote did but maybe aren’t aware of the unending low boil concerning his book’s issues. They do weigh Janet Malcolm’s overblown indictment of journalists as confidence men, while acknowledging that Capote “appears to have lied shamelessly to his subjects,” presumably meaning the killers. Nothing about the cottage industry that’s grown up around what is or is not fictional in In Cold Blood. But then, that’s a book in itself.

Voss-Capote's Legacy

That book appears to have been published in 2011, Ralph F. Voss’s Truman Capote and the Legacy of In Cold Blood.

Part of the publisher’s description reads:

Voss also examines Capote’s artful manipulation of the story’s facts and circumstances: his masking of crucial homoerotic elements to enhance its marketability; his need for the killers to remain alive long enough to get the story, and then his need for them to die so that he could complete it; and Capote’s style, his shaping of the narrative, and his selection of details—why it served him to include this and not that, and the effects of such choices—all despite confident declarations that “every word is true.”

Though it’s been nearly 50 years since the Clutter murders and far more gruesome crimes have been documented, In Cold Blood continues to resonate deeply in popular culture. Beyond questions of artistic selection and claims of truth, beyond questions about capital punishment and Capote’s own post-publication dissolution, In Cold Blood’s ongoing relevance stems, argues Voss, from its unmatched role as a touchstone for enduring issues of truth, exploitation, victimization, and the power of narrative.

I have Voss’s book and haven’t yet read it. But I need to, I realized, after a Wall Street Journal exposé on Friday. I don’t find very compelling the article, by Kevin Helliker, which points out that Capote was given special treatment by the case’s chief investigator, Alvin Dewey, and that Capote in turn made Dewey the hero of In Cold Blood. Newly discovered files from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation purportedly show Capote’s shadings of events to make Dewey look better and reveal Dewey’s large feet of clay. My guess is that readers will care even less about this than they do about the book’s fictional ending scene.

But maybe that’s not the point, or only part of it.

Admirers of In Cold Blood, including me, have used it as an example of narrative nonfiction because it’s geniusly written. But it’s inconsistent to praise it, especially to students, who love it, while knowing or even strongly suspecting its fabrications. And a recent movie about Capote has further muddied the picture, fictionalizing as it did the book’s supposed effect on him: it killed him. In fact, it made him rich and famous. And while being two-faced surely did his soul no good, what appears to have killed him, aside from severe alcoholism, was being banished by his high-society friends for revealing their secrets in his unfinished novel, Answered Prayers.

Maybe it’s time for the nonfiction camp to give up In Cold Blood. Maybe we need to call it what it is, a great novel based on exhaustive research into a real crime. Its claim to be nonfiction is partly what made the book the sensation it was, of course, but it now endures on its literary merit. With added interest, for some of us, because of the deep and perplexing questions it raises about narrative and the role of the storyteller.

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Filed under fiction, honesty, immersion, journalism, narrative, NOTED

Noted: Gutkind on nonfiction’s truth

Does the nature of narrative complicate his 1-2-3 recipe?

The subject is there only by the grace of the author’s language.

—Joyce Carol Oates

Immersion journalist and nonfiction theorist Lee Gutkind distills his practices in an essay, “Three R’s of Narrative Nonfiction,” in the New York Times’s popular Draft column that deals with writing. Responsible narrative nonfiction writers follow a similar procedure to assure accuracy while recreating events they didn’t see and others’ mental states, asserts Gutkind. Here’s the nut of his essay:

But to reconstruct stories and scenes, nonfiction writers must conduct vigorous and responsible research. In fact, narrative requires more research than traditional reportage, for writers cannot simply tell what they learn and know; rather, they must show it. When I talk with my students, I introduce a process of work I call the three R’s: First comes research, then real world exploration and finally and perhaps most important, a fact-checking review of all that has been written.

The rest of Gutkind’s piece is an elaboration of his three stages. Pretty straightforward and old hat, though useful for students and teachers, his prescription is intended for the powerful literary technique of scenic construction. Gutkind himself is a modest figure in his work, present but impersonal, like John McPhee tends to be, though scene-by-scene construction in journalism is associated with the showy New Journalism of the 1970s.

Gutkind’s essay provoked a thoughtful response from one Hayden White, a retired English professor in California:

All narrative is fictional insofar as the “story” has to be made out of “the facts.” No set of facts adds up to or amounts to a story without the writer’s intervention as the story-teller. Secondly, the relation between factual and fictional writing is not a matter of either-or, but of some kind of mutual implicativeness having to do with the nature of stories themselves. It is impossible to avoid the use of literary devices even in historical writing, which typically aspires to deal in facts alone. Instead of reinforcing the idea that fact and fiction are opposed to one another, such that you have to be doing either one or the other, might it not be better to teach aspiring writers that even the most fact-bound writing cannot avoid “literariness”?

We all know the truth in White’s first assertion: everyone who witnesses an event sees something different and recounts it differently. The storyteller creates the story by imposing meaning and deciding emphasis. Ordinary journalism is maddening in its denial of this truth and in its societally useful but unacknowledged efforts to seek group consensus rather than individual insight. As for the commentator’s second point, that literary devices are essentially indistinguishable in fiction and nonfiction, amen.

White’s trenchant observations become perhaps too compressed and/or simply fail when he continues:

The mistake here is to think that “literature” (or literary writing) is “fictional” and to overlook the fact that not all fictional writing is “literary.” Unfortunately, it is to forget that all too little factual writing either lacks all literariness or is simply bad writing.

When he says in the first sentence that “not all fictional writing is ‘literary,’ ” I presume he’s bashing poor fiction but possibly—because of his first clause—being ironic toward some nonfiction that’s actually fiction. In his second sentence, I wonder if he means “too much” nonfiction lacks literary quality rather than “all too little.” I actually emailed White and asked him to elaborate for Narrative, but he either didn’t get my query or chose to ignore it. Manna in heaven for anyone who can decode his conclusion.

Gutkind makes a big deal of factual accuracy in his essay while emphasizing the use of scenes, the building blocks of dramatized writing, which became associated with fiction. Hence White’s interesting but peevish rejoinder. I presume that in the classroom, Gutkind, like most nonfiction teachers, notes that scenes are used not only to recreate experience but to convey point of view. Literary journalism says, I can show others’ key moments and viewpoints, not just this writer’s. This may indeed be literally impossible, despite cooperative subjects—think of the issues in recreating one’s own subjective experience—but smart readers appreciate and most readers cooperate with a necessary dollop of fiction.

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Filed under fiction, honesty, immersion, journalism, narrative, NOTED, Persona, Voice, POV, working method

Memoir, meet reportage

Brendan O’Meara on taking a reporter’s tack in memoir.

Guest Post by Brendan O’Meara

Twitter: @BrendanOMeara

Brendan O’Meara’s first book

Somebody at a book signing for Six Weeks in Saratoga asked me what I was working on next (this seems to always be a question when you’re selling your current book. What are you working on now?). I said I was writing a memoir about my father and baseball. Instead of the usual response, which is some measure of eyebrow-raising admiration, praise, and ego-stoking ovations, I got this:

“When Borders went out of business the only books left behind were Spanish books and memoirs.”

%&#!

Maybe if we were at the rim of the Grand Canyon I would have nudged her. But I thanked her for her input. I don’t think she bought a book. I felt ever-emboldened because when you feel strongly and passionately for your story, those words levitate off the page. The reader senses that energy and hopefully tells other reader friends about it. This is my hope.

So, yes, I too am writing a memoir, but I come at it from the blind side. I’m a reporter and I see memoir as no different than any other form of narrative nonfiction: the names are real, the events are verifiably true, and the writer did some—get this—reporting. The only difference is the story is closer to the marrow. The questions you pose to characters (which happen to be family/friends who acted never knowing they’d one day be told it was all on the record) ring awkward and, in some ways, judgmental.

My memoir, tentatively titled The Last Championship: A Memoir of My Father and Baseball is a hybrid of narrative journalism and memoir. It takes place at a senior slow-pitch softball tournament where I, the son, watch the father play ball. It illustrates the changing of roles as we age, how the children become caretakers of their parents, and how the young become old and the old become young again.

His team won the tournament and I thread the personal narrative around the seven-games. I’m profiling a handful of key players, ala David Halberstam, so the reader cares about the game action—narrative journalism. With the tournament as the backbone, I explore where my father comes from, who he is, what baseball means to him, and how he becomes the father I know, yet still know little about—memoir, personal exploration, the beating heart, etc.

It shows how sport, and specifically baseball, is the common tongue between fathers and sons, certainly between Dad and me. Watching those old guys play ball allowed me to reconcile the bitter end of my baseball career too. I then picked up the gear and played one more summer at age 30 to find the fun—10 years since I last played—and maybe one last championship.

Taking a reporter’s tack is best for the story and best for maintaining the readers’ trust.

Thanks, Jonah.

Thanks, Stephen.

Thanks, Jason.

Thanks, James.

Thanks, Janet.

Even when my memory is strong on an event from my childhood, I ask all the parties involved. I ask my sister if I really said what I said. I ask my Dad what he was thinking. Or I say, “Mom, what happened when you and Dad split up?” These questions are uncomfortable to ask. When it’s family, it’s hard. It avoids senseless naval gazing. You’re getting the important characters in your story to speak for themselves, not just what you thought and how you feel. A certain measure of detachment makes for a better product.

I try not to sound judgmental. I say, “What was that like? How tough was that for you?”

Or, as I told Dad at the beginning of this whole project, “I want to get to know my dad before too long. I want to know who your parents were (they died in a car accident when I was two). I want to learn where you came from.”

This puts a different tint on the lens. It softens the focus. My dad did some awful shit. I’m not going to lie. I’m not going to shy from writing about it, but that’s the mosaic. Readers will come away liking him more because of the ugly stuff. Because that’s human, dammit!

A character in the novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet said, “Memory is tricks and strangeness.”

It sure is.

It doesn’t have to be with some reporting.

Brendan O’Meara’s blog, Hash Tag for Writing, is at his website. He is the author of Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @BrendanOMeara.

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Filed under braids, threads, craft, technique, creative nonfiction, immersion, journalism, memoir

Elizabeth Browne has wrung out the gems in the fascinating NYT story about Robert Caro and his working process.

Elizabeth Browne

I’m tinkering with a nonfiction book idea. By that I mean, I have a book in mind that I’d like to write, and in fact have written bits and pieces of it and collected some research for it, but I have yet to find the right voice, tone and format to tell the story I’d like to tell. I have a long history of getting overwhelmed when attempting longer work, partly because of the sheer volume of information that one needs to research, sift through, organize, and access while writing. Then there’s the organization of the writing itself; will an outline help, or maybe chapter summaries, or should I just wing it? And then there are the technological and logistical choices: Can I store all of my research within Scrivner, and also write a draft in the same program? Will I like that method? Maybe I should use Word, and…

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Luis Urrea’s ‘The Devil’s Highway’

A horrendous story told with bitter skill, highlighting the whole sordid, greedy mess that attends illegal broader crossings.—Kirkus Reviews

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea. Little, Brown, 256 pp.

Poet, memoirist, novelist, short story writer, journalist—Luis Alberto Urrea is the best writer I’d never heard of until I read The Devil’s Highway. Urrea, creative writing professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, has published thirteen books. A 2005 Pulitzer finalist, The Devil’s Highway is about the suffering and deaths in a group of twenty-six Mexicans who tried to sneak into America through the Arizona desert in May 2001. This tragic incident is deeply and palpably researched and fully imagined.

The book begins with the Border Patrol’s discovery of the dying refugees. At least fourteen of the Mexicans, most of them from Veracruz, a leafy tropical place, died in the desert, sunbaked—as maladapted as gringos to heat over 100 degrees, no shade, their scant water scalding and then gone. This part is written from the point of view of the Border Patrol, the writer having spent much time with its agents and environs. He also met with smugglers and illegals.

One of the book’s impressive feats is that readers experience how each group thinks, jokes, sees the world—and, surprisingly for Border Patrol’s image, we see their compassion for Mexicans who risk their lives for the most modest dreams; in their rough way the agents aren’t above playing jokes on them, and call them “tonks,” for the sound a cop’s flashlight makes hitting their heads, but the macho border guards labor daily to save them, too. Rushing to help this group, Urrea reports, they sustain twenty-six flat tires, and some drive on rims.

The cops and the illegals alone know the stakes:

 Death by sunlight, hyper-thermia, was the main culprit. But illegals drowned, froze, committed suicide, were murdered, were hit by trains and trucks, were bitten by rattlesnakes, had heart attacks. . . . The deaths, however, that fill the agents with deepest rage are the deaths of illegals lured into the wasteland and then abandoned by their Coyotes.

The book’s midsection recreates the fatal trip from beginning to end. As the illegal crossing falls apart in the trackless Sonora, Urrea artfully cites official reports and interviews. He’d already earned my trust, and my pleasure here extended to his imagination. He recreates the wanderings of the delirious, splintered group, and riffs on what it feels like to be at the mercy of careless, incompetent smugglers and to die horribly of thirst and heatstroke. Forget sunburn and cracked lips: the skin blackens, the kidneys stop, organs break down internally.

In places, the prose becomes surreal and hallucinogenic:

The day tormented them. Thirst. Pain. Men crawled under creosotes, under the scant shade of scraggly mesquites. It was a dull repetition of the entire walk. As rote as factory work. Their hours clanged by like machines. They were in the dirt like animals.

Six o’clock in the morning took ten hours to become seven o’clock.

A week later, it was eight o’clock.

The temperature screamed into the nineties before nine o’clock.

They waited. They couldn’t even talk. They panted like dogs, groaned. Men put their hands to their chests, almost delicately, as if checking their own pulses. But they were barely awake. They were half in dreams and half in the day, and the day itself was a bad dream. Dry wings swished in the air around them. Voices, coughing. Far above, the icy silver chips of airplanes cut the blue. Out of reach.

Named a best book of the year by many publications and optioned by Mexican director Luis Mandoki for a film to star Antonio Banderas, The Devil’s Highway reflects Urrea’s long interest, heritage, and expertise. As a young writer for The San Diego Reader, he published pieces adapted from and shaped into his first book, Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border. In a video interview on his web site, Urrea says of the brutal city desk editors of his newspaper days: “I had not been handled indelicately like that. I’d been rejected but not insulted. But they really fixed that book for me.”

I read The Devil’s Highway against the backdrop of rage about fabrications in various nonfiction books, and Urrea’s exhaustive but imaginative work makes shortcuts or fabrications seem lazy or puerile. Urrea is not nearly as button-downed as Tracy Kidder or John McPhee—at points he clearly imagines—but even without his long note explaining to readers his multiple approaches, The Devil’s Highway teaches itself and justifies itself in every line to anyone who reads it.

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Filed under film/photography, honesty, immersion, journalism, REVIEW

Cheryl Strayed on honesty in memoir

I was an avid journaler all through my twenties and I wrote in my journal every day of my hike, sometimes twice a day. That journal was incredibly helpful to me as I wrote “Wild.” I recorded many details and snippets of dialogue that would otherwise have been lost. Having that document allowed me to correct, corroborate, or expand things I remembered. In some cases, I tracked down people I met on the trail and asked them to share their memories of the time we spent together, but most of all I relied on my memory of what happened and how it felt. Memoir is the art of subjective truth, and while I feel a strong obligation to the truth piece of that, I also firmly plant that truth within the context of my own subjectivity. I didn’t write anything that didn’t happen the way I remember it happening, and yet I’m fairly certain there are things that others would remember slightly differently. Of course there are a million instances that I brought to life by using the skills of a storyteller, as memoirists do — did the wind really blow that man’s hair across his face the moment he asked me that question? Maybe. Maybe not. But that’s how I pictured it in my mind and so I reproduced it for you on the page.

Cheryl Strayed, author of the memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, made her comments in an interview with John Williams for The New York Times. Miwa Messer also has an interesting interview for Barnes and Noble with the author of this very hot memoir.

Asked by Messer why it took her so long to write Wild, Strayed, a novelist and short story writer whose excellent essay “The Love of My Life” on her self-destructive sexuality and heroin addiction is available on line at The Sun, alluded to the memoirist’s necessity to not merely relate experience but to understand it:

I teach memoir on occasion and the question I’m always pushing my students to answer in their work is not what happened, but what it means. I think that’s why it took me more than a decade to begin writing about my hike. I had to figure out what it meant. I couldn’t do that until I’d lived a while beyond it; until I’d moved solidly out of the era of my life that I write about in Wild. At its core Wild is a story about a woman figuring out how she’s going to live in the world given the facts of her life — some which are painful. I couldn’t tell the story about how that woman figured it out until she really had.

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Filed under Author Interview, honesty, immersion, memoir

Aaron Gilbreath’s post explicates the practice of a legendary New Yorker journalist whose exhaustive immersions allowed him to write with great freedom in reconstructing his subjects’ realities. My own views of Mitchell’s practice were influenced, like Aaron’s, by William Zinsser’s endorsement in On Writing Well, considered the gold standard for mainstream magazine journalism.

Aarongilbreath's Blog

As much as I read, I don’t find myself rereading too many books. I’m no Larry McMurtry, revisiting the same book year after year. Mostly, I reread essays, and the pieces that I find myself returning to with most frequency were written by Luc Sante, Calvin Trillin and Joseph Mitchell.

In his documentary stories for the New Yorker, pioneering nonfiction writer Joseph Mitchell celebrated both eccentrics and the average Joe, and in turn, he immortalized a scruffier, working class era of New York City. He also wrote what might be the longest quotes in our genre.

When first published in 1956, Mitchell’s classic “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” contained 12,056 words; over nine thousand of them were directly attributed to Hunter as quotations. Many of the stories in Mitchell’s book The Bottom of the Harbor are like that. “Up in the Old Hotel” contains a quote that runs for over four pages…

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