Several years ago now I had the opportunity to deliver a few remarks about a certain writer from Monroeville, Alabama. This took place in the old Monroe County Courthouse, up in the second floor courtroom, which you’ve most likely seen before even if you’ve never set foot anywhere near Monroe County. The courtroom was replicated exactly as it was and is in that movie. You know the one, but I’ll name it: To Kill a Mockingbird.
So what follows here is a slightly edited, and hopefully entertaining, version of those remarks.
When I was about ten years old, I used to watch the Merv Griffin Show in the afternoons. We’re talking 1971 here. (Remember 1971? I do.) There was occasionally this very odd little man who would come out as a guest, and I never could figure out exactly why he was on there. He wasn’t a singer or an actor or a comedian. I didn’t know what he did. I would think to myself, Oh, no, not him again. He was a complete puzzlement to my ten-year-old eyes and ears. I didn’t know where he was from, and certainly determined no southern accent, not anywhere within that most unusual voice. As you may have guessed by now, the man was Truman Capote. I wish I’d known how to listen to him then. I’m sure he told Merv great stories.
Eventually I came to read Capote’s stories and novels and non-fiction. I’m not certain when I finally made the connection that this writer was the same little man I’d seen on Merv Griffin, but I did come to learn of course that he was from Alabama and felt proud that we could claim him. Capote’s work is so varied, but when you read stories such as “A Thanksgiving Visitor,” “A Tree of Night,” and “Children on Their Birthdays,” you know without doubt we can claim him as a Southern and Alabama writer, even if he did live in New York City and his most famous book is about a multiple murder in Kansas.
One thing that’s always drawn me to Capote’s work is his lyrical voice, his absolute genius at handling language. I know that his voice-as a writer, not the one I heard at ten-has influenced me, made me want to move into what the writer Steve Almond calls the “lyrical register” at the points in my stories where the characters most deeply reveal themselves. Capote was a master at it, and a master at manipulating the reader, and I mean that in the very best sense. Recently my wife Rhonda and I happened to see a film version of “Children on Their Birthdays,” and of course it made me remember first reading the short story. As many of you can probably recall, the opening line of that story reads: “Yesterday afternoon the six o’clock bus ran over Miss Bobbit,” who is a ten-year-old girl. What’s amazing about this story, and I heard the writer Dale Ray Phillips say this once, is that when you get to the end of the story and the girl is indeed hit by the bus, you are completely shocked-even though you knew it was going to happen from the very first line. Capote’s ability to pull this off is enviable. So how did he do it? I think it’s because he made Miss Bobbit such a fascinating and unforgettable character that you simply can’t stand the idea that a bus is going to hit her-so you forget it. All writers aspire to create such memorable characters. I know I do.
While it’s Capote’s short stories and longer fiction that have influenced me the most, I do have to say a word about that book of his set in Kansas, In Cold Blood. I actually read the book in Kansas, when I was graduate student at Wichita State University. Capote wisely withholds describing what happened in the Clutter family home in western Kansas until toward the end of the book. In my curiosity to finally read that climactic scene I kept reading until very late at night; in fact, it was midnight, in summertime, and all my windows were wide open. The scene, not to put too fine a point on it, frightened me. Before I went to sleep, I got up and closed all my windows. And what scared me wasn’t just the fact that I was in Kansas reading at midnight with my windows open, it was Capote’s ability to render violence, and evil, so strongly on the page. I have sometimes used violence in my fiction, and if I’ve done it half as well as Capote, then hopefully I’ve had at least some level of success in doing it.
In Cold Blood was, of course, a best-seller and catapulted Capote to tremendous fame. Ultimately, and sadly, his fame and celebrity and often self-destructive behavior came to overshadow his writing. He became famous for being famous, which is why at ten years old I couldn’t figure out exactly what he was doing on a talk show. I think finally now, though, as memories of his outrageous persona have begun to fade, the focus is beginning to return to the place it belongs, and that is on his work. I certainly hope so.
As a number of you Alabama people know, Capote was actually born Truman Persons (he later took his step-father’s name), and the Persons were a well-established Alabama family. Years ago I became acquainted with a member of that family, and I asked my friend, whose grandfather had been governor, if he ever meet Capote or if he’d ever heard his family talk about Capote. He smiled, said no, he’d never meet him, and said that all his grandmother would ever say about Capote was (and she said it in the most genteel, old-fashioned Southern accent): “He was very strange.”
Well, what he really was, was a great writer, even if I didn’t know it at ten years old.