Guest Post, Dinah Lenney: One Step Forward, Two Back: On Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood

Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording and is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to impress on the sentence. It reanimates, revives, subjects everything to its needs.  


That’s Elena Ferrante, the Italian author of the much-lauded Neapolitan novels, in an interview just published in the Paris Review. And I’m sure she’s right—that is the truth about literary truth. You can’t have it, not in any genre, if, as she earlier states, “the writing is inadequate.” But say the writing is not only adequate, but exquisite! What about the actual truth—the truth-truth—in a work that claims to be nonfiction? Does it matter at all? For how long? And who gets to decide?

I’m thinking about In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Beautifully written, right? But is that what mattered when it was first published? Is it all that matters now? Why did he call it a “nonfiction novel”? Was he inventing a genre, or only wanting it both ways? And—if that’s what it was (the latter)—so what; what’s wrong with that?

Backing up—I get regular emails (A.Word.A.Day, almost daily) from wouldn’t you know the day I was scheduled to talk about Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (at the AWP Conference in Minneapolis), the word for the day was “expurgate”— and its definition: “verb tr.: to remove parts considered objectionable.” Hilarious. There I was in my hotel room putting the finishing touches on my tiny talk—this had to be a sign, a directive; for me, of course, not for Truman Capote. If you were to expurgate In Cold Blood, it’d have no blood at all. The best parts are the objectionable parts, right? But are they objectionable? Or are they only the best?

In Cold Blood, billed by the author (as noted) as the first “nonfiction novel” (although his assertion is debatable—just about everything about Capote is debatable, after all), was published half a century ago this year: hence the occasion—the AWP event—an opportunity to consider the book’s legacy and relevance today.
Truman Capote - In Cold Blood CoverBut let me back up again: it was 1969. I was 12. The Clutters had died ten years earlier; the book had been published three years before. I read on my back in a sun-filled room (mine: I had a big bay window, and a chintz bedspread pulled up over my knees); it was one of those days when your parents keep urging you to go outside, get on your bike, get some fresh air…but I was cooped up with Truman Capote. I could not get enough. I read the way we read fiction—or the way we did when we were kids, which is why we fell in love with writing in the first place, yes? I mean to say, if Capote had ruled out first person presence and point of view (a requirement, said he, of his brand-new form), I had not: I believed in what was happening in that farmhouse in Holcomb, Kansas as if I were dreaming it up all by myself. It was Nancy Clutter who got to me, of course—Nancy, who was 16 and perfect. She had a horse and a boyfriend; she was good at everything; everyone loved her. Nabokov has counseled us against identifying with characters. That isn’t our job he explains in his invaluable essay, Good Readers and Good Writers. And even so that’s how I read fiction back then, and how I still read it when I get lucky: for the duration (at the very least), I claim it as my own.

I knew, of course I did, that Capote’s book was not just “based on” a true story (that’s Hollywood parlance by the way—based on, inspired by—these are the phrases screenwriters and producers use to let us know they’ve fudged the facts): that was undoubtedly part of the lure—that this terrible thing had happened to a real girl, a girl just like me (okay, nothing like me—no horse, no boyfriend, not dead—poor Nancy… I ached for Nancy). But not only “based on,” that’s my point: According to Gerald Clarke, Capote’s biographer, the author “publicly boasted” that “In Cold Blood may have been written like a novel, but it is accurate to the smallest detail—“immaculately factual.””  Clarke goes on to say, “Although it has no footnotes, Capote could point to an obvious source for every remark uttered and every thought expressed. “One doesn’t spend almost six years on a book,” he said, “the point of which is factual accuracy, and then give way to minor distortions.”

But he did give way to distortions, that we know. And he had to have invented—because he wasn’t there! So—does it matter? Once a work is part of the canon—once it informs the culture as this book has, is it, perhaps, a waste of time to worry about the rules? In any case, I can tell you, if you’re 12 years old, and you’re death-obsessed, as very many of us 12 year olds were (for me that was also the year of A Separate Peace, Death Be Not Proud, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Roald Dahl’s macabre Kiss, Kiss) the rules (not that you knew them at the time, but say you had—Genre, wtf, who cares, you would have said then—and here’s an awful thought: were you more enlightened then?) would seem not to apply.

Flashing forward (I hope I’m not giving you whip lash): Every time I went to jot down my thoughts about the book I got stuck in just this way—as if I’d been chosen, me of all people, to come at the book from this particular angle. But of course that wasn’t why the moderator (smart, insightful Kelly Grey Carlisle) had contacted me—it couldn’t have been; she had no way of knowing how strident I’ve become about genre blur—about the responsibilities of writing nonfiction. What she did know, she must have, was that I’d written about a murder, my father’s, in a book called Bigger than Life.

And yet. I wasn’t willing, at first, to zoom in from that perspective—as if I have some particular purchase, or privilege, or prescription for writing about trauma. How long, how many times, I asked myself, can a person milk a trauma? And so, this time, for this panel—and this was an act of avoidance, I guess—I resolved I wouldn’t resort to that strategy. This time I’d change it up. Therefore I engaged in an informal survey. I emailed a bunch of my colleagues—a dozen smart, successful writers—and asked them to tell me in a line or two what they thought about In Cold Blood.

The first responder, a journalist in her mid-50s, who, like me, had read the book as an adolescent, wrote that she was (again, like me) “swallowed up in the story.” When I asked if it occurred to her that Capote had made any of it up, she answered that it was  “written with such authority that I believed in it.”

Another friend—a guy pushing 60 who pens novels and writes for television—had read much more recently, as a middle-aged man. He was “blown away,” he said, “by the prose, the storytelling, the essential invention of an entire genre.”

And another novelist, who remembers the book from high school in the 70s, told me that, having to do with the title, perhaps, she’d felt cold as she read, and “a little sick, the way you feel when you suspect yourself of prurience. The narrative distance probably also contributed to that feeling.” She added, “I believed every word.”

Two more: First, from Nathan Deuel, a young nonfiction writer (he has to be named, because I can’t take credit for his answer, though I wish I could): “It’s a beautiful book! But it’s also a big hash, right? I could imagine a great course that involved Capote, D’Agata, Dillard, etc. Details, Danger, Destiny, and Deceit.”

Last, from a New Yorker staff writer, also in her 30s, who read the book a year or two after she graduated from college: She was “thrilled” by the writing, she said, though she remembers wondering, “How is this NON-fiction?”

Good fun, my survey, though it didn’t change anything for me; it only confirmed my misgivings, which have more to do with my own way of reading, I fear, than with the book, itself. I found myself wondering over and over: Did Capote get away with something when he published In Cold Blood? Would he get away with it now? To even entertain the question makes me wonder when exactly I became so rigid in my expectations and standards? And now: face to face with In Cold Blood, do I have the courage of my relatively recently-cultivated convictions? Are my notions about genre worthless to me in the face of art? (At what point in time do we decide it is art, whatever it is? I want to know that, too.)

Here’s another quote, this from a 1957 interview in the Paris Review, two years before the Clutters were murdered. A writer called Pati Hill asked Capote if he had “definite ideas or projects for the future?” He answered:

“Well, yes, I believe so. I have always written what was easiest for me until now: I want to try something else, a kind of controlled extravagance. I want to use my mind more, use many more colors. Hemingway once said anybody can write a novel in the first person. I know now exactly what he means.”


As flattered as I’d been by the invitation to join Kelly Grey Carlisle’s AWP panel—it’s always flattering to be invited—as the months ticked by I began to suspect I had no business weighing in, not really. I’m not a journalist. Nor have I yet challenged myself to write about the experience of anyone I do not intimately know—which was the realization, in spite of my intentions, that prompted me to make a connection of sorts: because, come to think of it, back when I finally sat down and imagined murder on the page, I did, in fact, write in third person. But if it was the absence of an emotional attachment that allowed Capote to choose omniscience, it was just the opposite for me. I felt cornered. I chose third because I didn’t trust myself, not because I did.

The most frustrating thing about what happened to my father isn’t that it was unimaginable—though it was—it’s that I have to admit, first and always, before anything else (this is the problem of writing about your own dead, the ones who are real to you) I will simply never know. What was it like? Did he believe he was going to die? Did he have time to be afraid, or angry, or sad? Because I actually knew him—my father—I was unable to convince myself (as Capote had) that I could ever come close to knowing. And I judged myself harshly—still do—for pretending I could. I called the chapter “Conjecture.” And if I’m not sure what I think about In Cold Blood (not to compare myself to Capote, please don’t mistake me), neither am I sure how I feel about my own pages—about how, with the truth up for grabs (but forever out of reach), I nonetheless allowed myself to “reanimate, revive, subject” for the sake of “literary truth.” If “literary truth” is the end-goal in fiction, in nonfiction, even and especially when it’s the best we can do, it perhaps comes up short.

With all that in mind, and continuing to prep, I ran into an essay called “Ghosts in the Sunlight: The Filming of In Cold Blood,” written by Capote himself, in which he talks about his sense of disconnection on the set; how odd it was to watch actors impersonating murderers in the Clutter house—that’s where they filmed the movie!—at the actual house: “…eight years have passed,” writes Capote, “but the Venetian blinds still exist, still hang at the same windows. Thus reality, via an object, extends itself into art; and that is what is original and disturbing about this film; reality and art are intertwined to the point that there is no identifiable area of demarcation.”

Although he admits, on first viewing the movie, to experiencing a “sense of loss”: “Not,” he says, “because of what is on the screen, which is fine, but because of what isn’t.”

Ironic, no? As if the filmmakers were the ones who compromised? As if he did not?

You tell me.

Guest Post, Carrie Chema: The 8 Stages of Art Making

Chema ArtEvery artist has their own individualized workflow and some of them can be pretty strange. Truman Capote and Marcel Proust famously penned their pages while lying down while Ernest Hemingway and Albert Camus preferred to write while standing. German poet Friedrich Schiller is said to have kept a drawer full of rotting apples in his workspace because their pungent smell motivated him to continue writing. The list of the bizarre routines of creative individuals is a mile long but what about the psychological stages of creating artwork?

Here are the eight distinct stages that I have identified in my own workflow.

  1. Nausea and Terror of a Blank Canvas, Followed by Diversionary Tactics and Despair:

This is the first identifiable stage because it is the first step that involves some kind of action. Indeed, there is almost always a pre-stage where you bask in the glow of your most recent project while you put off starting a new one for days or weeks or months for fear of facing stage one. But when the fanfare (or, more often, self-congratulation) surrounding your latest work dies down, you’re left with the realization that you must start all over again…from the beginning… from scratch. Once you’ve mustered the courage, stage one sets in. Hard.

You sit down, face the blank canvas and, after a half a moment of eye squinting, decide that you should probably make a coffee. Caffeine in tow, you try again but this time the pile of dishes overflowing in the sink catches your eye and, how can you possibly produce your next great masterpiece with last night’s dinner rotting in the sink (you’re no Friedrich Schiller, after all). You complete this ritual sub-phase of stage one only when your bathroom is spotless, all bills are paid, you’ve “exercised”, showered and done the laundry.

Finally, when all known diversionary tactics have been exhausted, you return to the canvas. Panic truly sets in as you think of the wild success of your previous work, in your stage one mind it was an achievement akin to -insert your favorite master work by any dead European artist-. You feel resentful of your past self, cursing that pompous, over-achieving, genius! Overwhelmed by the enormity of the task at hand, you slither out of your chair, crawl across the living room floor and into your bed where you pull the covers tight over your head. Assuming the fetal position under your down comforter, you remain in what is rapidly becoming a sweat lodge until you fall asleep or have to pee.

  1. The Search for Inspiration.

You finally manage to drag yourself out of bed when you realize the obvious solution to the problem at hand; consult your past self! The past you became such a hero in your mind during stage one that they must have had some valuable insights that your present self can now plunder and take credit for. You consult numerous old, half used moleskine notebooks searching for the genius of your past self. You scour through pieces of poems, old shopping lists and half-hearted doodles before reaching a page with “ideas” scrawled across the top. There are two things on this list:

1) Dog phone solution for interspecies communication?

2) Ask Dad to see his list of ideas.

Instead of being disheartened by this finding, you’re oddly liberated by the realization that your past self really isn’t all they’re cracked up to be, in fact, they’re just like the present you!

Reinvigorated, you consult the Internet to see what insights StumbleUpon or Pinterest can offer. You click a Twitter link to a new show opening at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and BAM…

  1. An Idea Wallops you in the Stomach

It’s all you can think about. You’ve never been more excited in your life but unfortunately, it is now 3 o’clock in the morning and you have to be up at 8. You attempt to quiet your mind (which is doing some kind of wild, flailing interpretive dance inside your skill) telling it “Hush now. You have an idea. Everything is going to be alright.” But, of course, after days or weeks or months of struggling for a new idea, there is no way to turn your brain off now that you’ve found it. You toss and turn as your idea becomes more and more grandiose

Original idea: a life size statue of Paris Hilton dressed in rags.

Evolves to: a four times life size statue of Paris Hilton wearing rags that I will create from the discarded clothing I’ll find in a landfill.

Evolves to: I’ll live in the landfill for a month, all the while constructing clothing out of filthy, discarded rags and then I’ll walk to New York and do a performance as Paris Hilton in the middle of Times Square.

The final, impossible permutation of the idea comes at 6 am when you’re on the brink of sleep. Fortunately, you do not remember the latest version when you wake up.

  1. The Letdown of the Groundwork

After your sleepless night of imagining all the incredible possibilities presented by your new idea you’re invigorated and anxious to begin your new project. Perhaps you spent the entire day at “work” skirting your responsibilities and instead spending your time daydreaming about minute details and embellishments that you’ll add to your project

I’ll rub decaying apples all over the Paris Hilton rag ensemble to channel the late great Friedrich Schiller… how’s that for a conceptual twist?

At five o’clock, you leave a meeting with your boss in mid-sentence to race home and finally begin work on the idea. Only then do you realize that you still need to stretch and size your canvas, or format your document or mix the plaster for your Paris Hilton statue. This is a great letdown when, after hours of fantasizing about your finished project, you begin to understand that you actually have to make it when all you really want to do is rub decaying apples all over it.

  1. Hitting the Wall

After all the frustration of finding an idea, the ecstasy of fantasizing about it and the letdown of having to do the ground work, now you’re elbows deep in your project. All the prerequisite formalities of setting the stage for your masterpiece are done and now all you have to do is fill it with your amazing idea. The only problem is that a few hours in, and nothing is working the way you thought it would. The Paris Hilton mold you cast is coming out way more Wynonna Judd and the supermarket doesn’t even sell rotting apples. You start to feel completely discouraged as you begin to forget what was so compelling about your idea in the first place. After the emotional rollercoaster of the past few days or weeks or months your brain has short circuited and you fall into a trance-like-state. Staring off vacantly into the distance.

  1. The Push

This stage is, in my opinion, the most critical in the entire process and, ironically, it is the one in which you are least involved. Also, I’ll add, it is very tempting to stop at stage five and revert to stage one but DON’T! That path is an endless feedback loop of despair, misery and unrealized dreams and inexplicable miracles are about to happen here in stage six.

As your brain checks out entirely from the creative process, somehow, your hands continue to mindlessly interact with your complete failure of a project. No one knows what exactly happens here at stage six because everyone who experiences it has temporarily become a mindless drone carrying out the initiatives of the Unconscious, or God or the Alien Race of Ant-People. Eventually you snap out of your stupor and begin to see what your body has been doing for the past day or week or month.

You can’t believe your eyes when you notice that the project before you has completely transformed into something that actually has some miniscule flicker of potential. Confused, you look around the room to make sure that no one is playing a joke on you. After you look in all the closets and under the bed, you allow yourself to feel excited about your project again. This quasi-mystical experience had given you back your mojo and you do a little dance to celebrate.

  1. Flow

With the new understanding that you’re on the path laid out by your Unconscious, or God or the Alien Race of Ant-People, you resume your work with a furious sense of purpose and drive. Nothing can distract you from the task at hand.

Afraid of the fervor with which I’m working as my wide bloodshot eyes stare fixed two inches away from the computer screen, my husband says something like: “Sweetie, I made you this French inspired five course meal. Aren’t you hungry? You’ve been in that same position for three days…. Honey…?”

I chuckle and reply vaguely: “That’s funny, dear”

You gain a super human ability to work for hours on end without food, water or rest. You don’t notice the passage of time until….

  1. The Click

Suddenly, the project is finished. You can’t explain why or how you know, but you have an instant realization that if you add one more embellishment then entire thing will collapse in on itself like a dying star. With a great sense of calm you can at last tear your eyes away from your project. The first clue that something is amiss comes when you notice that a faint layer of dust has descended on every surface of your workspace. Only then do you locate a clock and calendar and, with a jolt of shock, realize that days or weeks or months have passed inside the black hole that is stage seven. You make a mental note to ask family and friends what’s been going on in their lives and in the world, but only after you fill them in on the triumph of your most recent project. Turns out, your sister had the baby, the war ended and Coke came out with a new Diet version that uses Stivia instead of Aspertame.

You do leave your workspace eventually but return every few minutes or hours to stare lovingly at your masterpiece, astonished by your naivety in stage one when you thought you’d never be able to top your previous work. That work was terrible, you think, this new piece is the pinnacle of my creativity. And with that one, small, innocent thought your project becomes the property of your genius past self and you stare, horrified, down the barrel of stage one.



Meet the Review Crew: Interview Editor Erin Caldwell

Each week we will be featuring one of our many talented interns here at Superstition Review.

Erin Caldwell is the Interview Editor at Superstition Review, an undergraduate English major, a nanny, and a barista. After her graduation form ASU in May, she plans to go on an extended whirlwind national tour playing bass guitar with her band Dogbreth. During her tour of the US, Erin hopes to complete a collection of poems and short stories that are expected to be printed by local Phoenix press, Lawn Gnome Publishing. Right now, Erin’s main career goal is to create extracurricular writing workshops and literary magazine programs for children and teens in rural and urban areas.

Living through a nomadic childhood, Erin found a sense of stability in her book collection. A lifelong fan of fiction and poetry, her favorite books as a child were The Phantom Tollbooth and Where the Sidewalk Ends. Her tastes have grown to include works by Truman Capote, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, JD Salinger, and Joyce Carol Oates. If she had to choose one book to read for the rest of her life, it would probably be To Kill a Mockingbird or Nine Stories. Drawing upon these influences, Erin writes essays, stories, and poems based on her own experiences.

Her favorite aspect of the small-press literary world is being able to read work from famous authors and emerging writers side-by-side. Ploughshares, Tin House, and The Believer are her top magazine picks. Through her time with Superstition Review, she will get to interview new and established authors printed in such publications. These conversations will give insight into the literary world by the people living in it.

Meet the Interns: Derrick Laux, Administrative Team Manager

derricklaux_0Derrick Laux is a student of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences majoring in English Literature. He is Superstition Review’s Administrative Team Manager, head of the Administrative Team. This semester he is a senior.

Superstition Review: What do you do for SR?

Derrick Laux: I manage four interns in areas of administrative duties including advertising, reading series, funding & development, and contests. My job is to create workflows, manage deadlines and be available to answer any questions and assist with the workload in each of these four areas.

SR: How did you hear about or get involved with Superstition Review?

DL: I contacted Trish Murphy, our Editor-in-Chief, with questions about a couple of specific fall and summer courses and told her that I was looking for an opportunity, like an internship, that would help prepare me with some marketable skills and resume building attributes. She said she needed some help managing the workload for Superstition Review and it seemed like a perfect fit at the perfect time. I was afraid that my schedule would not allow me the freedom to partake in an internship that required a lot of physical presence on campus, so when she informed me that the majority of the work was done online, I saw something that could potentially work.

SR: What is your favorite section of SR?

DL: Personally, I like the interviews. I love knowing background information about authors and artists and the opportunity to get to know them on a personal level. Their writing affects and influences so many people that I just think it’s really neat to humanize them for a brief instant and see what makes them tick, what they do in their everyday lives, and what inspires them.

SR: Who is your dream contributor to the journal?

DL: Most of the time, I don’t feel qualified enough to answer a question like this or make any kind of literary assessments due to the limited nature of my reading. In comparison to others, I feel like I’m very under-read, but if I could pick anyone right now, it would be a writer from the American Southwest, namely Leslie Marmon Silko. I’ve not read a lot of her work, but I’m absolutely infatuated with Ceremony and the spiritual healing that characterizes that book. It’s beautiful. Anyone that can write something like that, I’d like to see more of their work, especially something exclusive to Superstition Review. I’m falling in love with the Southwest and really feel like it’s neat if we can publish local authors representative of the region that we represent as a literary magazine. Rudolfo Anaya, Barbara Kingsolver, and other contemporary Southwestern writers would be my ideal contributors.

SR: What job, other than your own, would you like to try out in the journal?

DL: I think I’d love to be either the Web Design Editor or the Interview Coordinator. I’m infatuated with logos, graphics, and the overall visual appearance of things. I feel like you only get one chance to make a first impression, and the design of a page usually either clicks the interest switch on or off in a person’s head. Great design is an attention grabber and sets an immediate successful tone while poor design shuts people off in an instant. Their minds are already tainted with bad thoughts if the design isn’t up-to-par. I think being the interview coordinator might be just as fun and rewarding because as I stated before, I love getting to know people on a personal level to see what makes them tick and inspires them to write the things that influence and move our everyday lives.

SR: What are you most excited for in the upcoming issue?

DL: The new design of the webpage and the reading series. I feel like there’s so much potential for both to help establish Superstition Review’s name and get the word out about our publication. Never before have I had the access to deal with such established and talented writers. The chance to meet some of them and even host them at one of our readings is a big goal of mine that really excites me.

SR: What are you currently reading?

DL: I’m currently reading whatever is assigned for my classes. Luckily, the books have been interesting. Recently, I just finished Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote and Double Indemnity by James M. Cain. I thought Breakfast at Tiffany’s was a great book, far better than the film.

SR: What are some of your favorite websites to waste time on or distract you from homework?

DL: and as of late, Craigslist. I’m trying to get set-up in my new place and Craigslist is a life-saver. There’s a lot of good stuff on there whether you’re poor or not.

SR: What would be your dream class to take at ASU? What would the title be and what would it cover?

DL: It would be a class called either “NFL Football” or “American Microbrews.” Beer has become such a hobby of mine and I love spending my free time finding out more about new beers and breweries. It’s the new wine tasting in this country because there are so many good microbreweries out there. Football is self-explanatory. If you don’t like football, there’s something wrong with you; I don’t care how nice you are.

SR: What are your feelings on digital medium?

DL: I like the easy access that technology provides, but it really does leave me feeling jaded and detached at times. I can’t argue with the convenience that new developments like Kindle provide, but most times I see someone using a device like that and think, “Man, I really miss the simplicity of a paperback book.” There’s a lot of quality stuff to be said in blogs out there, but I just don’t like the feeling of sitting behind a screen all day long. It does things to people and its very dehumanizing, especially when I catch myself being mesmerized by the computer.