Truman Capote on his writing techniques and influences

Truman Capote I adore Truman Capote, not least for his magnificent work of literary nonfiction, In Cold Blood, but also because he stands as one of the most flamboyant and acutely observational writers of the twentieth-century. I recently fell in love with Capote all over again after reading Evan Hughes’ brilliant book on the history of Brooklyn’s literary scene, Literary Brooklyn (Holt Paperbacks), in which Capote features largely – and quite rightly so – in a chapter titled, ‘The Birth of Brooklyn Cool’.

Since finishing Hughes’ book I’ve been dipping into George Plimpton’s oral biography on Capote called, Truman Capote:
In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career
(Picador). If you’ve never had the pleasure of reading this book, then I urge you to do so (it’s out of print right now, but there are cheap second-hand copies to be found).

In his book, Plimpton presents a chronology of Capote’s life, but rather than tell the story himself he uses the voices of those who knew Capote to do it. This is a book that is so full of life, so full of chatter, and so well put together using a wealth of archive material that it’s essential reading for any Capote fan. There’s also wealth of inclusions from Capote himself, and one small chapter in particular – one of a number of ‘interludes’ – sees Capote talking about his own writing techniques and influences. I was so charmed and taken by it, that I’ve felt compelled to share a portion with you. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did:

Quotation mark I am a completely horizontal author…I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon. Obsessions of this sort, and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance. Then I type a third draft on yellow paper, a very special certain kind of yellow paper. I don’t get out of bed to do this…I balance the machine on my knees. It works fine…I can manage a hundred words a minute. When the yellow draft is finished, I put the manuscript away for a while, a week, a month, sometimes longer. When I take it out again, I read it as coldly as possible, then read it aloud to a friend or two, and decide what changes I want to make and whether or not I want to publish. I’ve thrown away rather a few short stories, an entire novel, and half of another. But if all goes well, I type the final version on white paper and that’s that.

At one time I used to keep notebooks with outlines for stories. But I found doing this somehow deadened the idea in my imagination. If the notion is good enough, if it truly belongs to you, then you can’t forget it…it will haunt you until it’s written.

I’ve never been aware of direct literary influence, though several critics have informed me that my early works owe a debt to Faulkner and Welty and McCullers. Possibly. I’m a great admirer of all three; and Katherine Anne Porter too. Though I don’t think, when really examined, that they have much in common with each other, or me, except that we were all born in the South. Between thirteen and sixteen are the ideal, if not the only ages for succumbing to Thomas Wolfe, though I can’t read a line of it now. Just as other youthful flames have guttered: Poe, Dickens, Stevenson. I love them in memory, but find them unreadable. These are the enthusiams that remain constant: Flaubert, Turgenev, Chekhov, Jane Austen, Henry James, E. M. Forster, Maupassant, Rilke, Proust, Shaw, Willa Cathar…oh, the list is too long, so I’ll end with James Agee, a beautiful writer whose death was a real loss.

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books)

Comments

  1. Dickens unreadable?

    Interesting quote, though. Thanks.

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)
      says:

      Hi Shelley,
      I know, I thought the same. Maybe his junior years sickened him with regards to Dickens. The same thing happened to me with Shakespeare.
      Warmest
      Rob

  2. I enjoyed this quote. I would have loved to have met this man.