The Authentic Electic
Fiction Research: How Far is Too Far?
Some novelists have, in the course of their careers, reached a terrifying and occasionally impassible point when they realise they have nothing left to say. I’m not talking about writer’s block. I’m talking about the inability to write or even get fired up about any future project.
Truman Capote is a particularly stark example of someone who reached the end of himself in this respect. The book that provoked this horrifying state of affairs was his masterpiece In Cold Blood, published in 1966. Why after penning such a seminal text was Capote unable to write another full-length book? There were short stories that followed, the odd television screenplay, and attempts at longer works (with one early novel published posthumously), but it is true to say that he was never the same man after In Cold Blood. The question is why?
In Cold Blood details the appalling true story of how the Kansas Clutter family were murdered and the killers subsequently tried and executed. The events are known to the reader from the outset, so what keeps the reader interested is the rather ghoulish knowledge that at some stage the killers, mainly Perry Smith, will spill the gory details of their senseless massacre. It’s a riveting text, superbly written, often taught in schools (I studied it in English Literature). In Cold Blood had a seismic pioneering impact, setting the template for many “true crime” books (as well as TV series and films) that fictionalised real cases. There is also an outstanding 1967 film adaptation; a visually arresting monochrome gem directed by Richard Brooks.
Capote considered his interaction with the killers, particularly with Perry Smith, essential research for the book he was writing. A great book ensued. But what was the cost to him personally? Capote became increasingly obsessed with Perry. Furthermore, he emotionally exploited Perry to get him to talk. As a homosexual, it is possible Capote felt an attraction, and used that to draw out the details he desired. Yet despite his feelings for Perry, Capote also knew the only thing that could bring closure to the story was the eventual execution of the killers — an event he felt compelled to…