'Capote in Kansas: A Ghost Story'

McKinney native Kim Powers talks about imagination, broken friendships and the writing process

By TERRY MATHEWS, News-Telegram Arts Editor

Feb. 27, 2008 - Larger-than-life author Truman Capote burst onto the national scene with his 1966 best-seller, "In Cold Blood." He is credited with popularizing the true crime genre.

Although he published some short stories after its release, nothing eclipsed his account of the 1959 massacre of the Herbert Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. Some believe the psychological burden of "In Cold Blood" was just too much for the author's sensitive psyche.

Capote's childhood friend, Nelle Harper Lee, traveled with him to Kansas and served as his assistant as he spent six years interviewing locals and gathering information about the gruesome mass murder that shocked the nation.

In addition to helping Capote, Lee was working on her own masterpiece, "To Kill a Mockingbird," which was published in 1960 and instantly became one of America's favorite novels.

Rumors were rampant in the literary world that Capote actually wrote Lee's book, and he did nothing to deny them. Their friendship ended badly.

Capote died in 1984. Lee, who never married, lives with her sister, Alice, in Monroeville, Alabama. She is 82.

Native Texan Kim Powers, an Emmy- and Peabody-award winning writer, has published a fictional account of what he believes went down during Capote's last days.

Like its subject matter, "Capote in Kansas: A Ghost Story" (Carrol & Graf-September 2007) is compelling and intense. Powers's glimpse into the world of two of America's most respected writers sheds light on the burden of fame and great talent.

Powers is also the author of "The History of Swimming" (Reissue-Carrol & Graf-August 2007), a look at life with his twin brother, Tim, took time from his writing schedule to visit with us about the book, his imagination and the writing process.

News-Telegram: How did you come to write a fictional account of Truman Capote's last days?

Kim Powers: I had been fascinated by Capote since I was in high school. I couldn't believe the same person had so many different "voices" in him - from the heartbreaking delicacy of "A Christmas Memory," to the bizarreness of "Other Voices, Other Rooms,"and then the true grit of his masterwork, "In Cold Blood."

I had seen the movie of "To Kill a Mockingbird" when I was very young and at some point discovered Truman was the role model for Dill Harris, the strange little boy with buttoned-up collars and knee socks who came to visit Scout's hometown every summer.

I was fascinated that Truman and Nelle Harper Lee had grown up together. I wanted to tell that story and continue it to Truman's death.

I really just set out to tell what I thought was a great story of friendship and separation; to embroider what was known, and give life and breath to what was missing between the lines.

NT: The use of swan imagery is easy to link to Capote, as he referred to his socialite friends as "swans," but where did the snake imagery come from? Did he really build little "snake" boxes and give them to friends?

KP: Truman was bitten by a snake as a little boy and it almost killed him. From then on, he was fascinated by them and their power. He had several statues of snakes in his apartment - the picture of the snake on the cover of the book is from a photograph Richard Avedon took, of one of the Truman's snake sculptures - and incorporated them in a very gruesome way, as an instrument of death, in "Hand carved Coffins,"one of his non-fiction novellas.

As I was doing research for the book, I came across a reference in George Plimpton's oral biography of Capote to what I started calling "snake boxes."

According to Plimpton, Truman would order cardboard snakebite kits and then decoupage them with pictures and photographs he'd cut out of art books and magazines, pictures of Emily Dickinson, Oscar Wilde, Marilyn Monroe and horses, etc. He'd then plop those boxes down in plexiglass for safekeeping.

A number of the boxes were recently auctioned in New York; I only wish I had had enough money to bid on one of them.

NT: Did you attempt to interview Harper Lee, author of "To Kill a Mockingbird," one of the two key figures, for the book?

KP: No, I didn't attempt to interview Miss Lee. It never actually crossed my mind. I knew how famously reclusive she was. I decided if she wasn't talking, then I would talk for her.

I wanted the Nelle that I created to be my own; I deliberately call her Nelle throughout the book - her first name and what most of her friends and family call her - to remove the weight of writing about someone so revered.

As I say in an afterword and in a disclaimer at the front, this is a work of fiction, suggested by certain events in the lives of its two main characters.

I'm pleased with my portrait of Lee; I think it's a full--blooded, passionate character. I wanted to bring alive someone who had written one great book, and then gone silent.

NT: How has New York changed since 9/11?

KP: I've changed in New York since then. I used to be completely fearless. Now, there's always a shadow over my shoulder when I go on the subway.

On 9/11, I was living not that far from the Twin Towers, I saw it on the news and ran outside and could see it from the West Side Highway outside the apartment. I raced to work - I was a writer at "Good Morning America" - and I think we worked non-stop for the next two or three weeks. I don't think I could ever write about it. I just wouldn't know what to write or to express the hugeness of it.

NT: What are you working on now?

KP: I actually just finished my last draft of a new novel last week. It's autobiographical, but I couldn't write it head-on and go back to the story of the Powers twins. It's a bit more disguised, but its title pretty much sums it up: "The Movies I Watched (The Year My Father Killed My Mother.)"

It's about a little boy who comes to think his father murdered his mother - and it goes back to the mystery of my mother's death which I touched on in "Swimming." My agent will start sending it out to publishers soon.

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