In Cold Blood…
Saturday, October 2, in Second Life, I will be reading a selection from Truman Capote’s novel In Cold Blood. This is in conjunction with the American Library Association’s Banned Books week. In Cold Blood, among many other books, has been banned from libraries and schools by people who, to give them the benefit of the doubt, have been well intentioned, albeit misguided.
I chose In Cold Blood for a number of reasons, primary among them the fact that as a freshman in college I got to interview Truman Capote.
It was spring semester 1976 at the University of Vermont. I think it was in March, but I’m not 100% certain. I knew by that time that I want to be a writer, and Truman Capote was coming to speak at the University for free at the gymnasium. I walked up to the gym, getting there early enough that I got my choice of seats, and set up a small cassette tape recorder to record his talk for my mom, who couldn’t make it.
The previous summer I had discovered the Sherlock Holmes stories and had devoured them. I was really enamored of the whole deductive reasoning thing. As I sat there and other people filtered in, I noticed pairs of individuals where one had a camera and the other had a tape recorder. I recognized a reporter for the Burlington Free Press as one member of a pair, and in my best Holmesian manner decided that all such couples must be reporters and photographers.
The young man sat down beside me bearing a camera. I glanced at him and asked, “So, what paper are you with?”
He replied, “I’m not. I’m just taking pictures.” He glanced at my tape recorder. “What paper are you with?”
“I’m not, I’m just recording this for my mom.”
Truman Capote came out to a podium set there on the basketball court. He was a rather small man and, I guess my impression was, fussy. I wasn’t sufficiently experienced in the world to leap to the conclusion that he was gay, but he did seem a little effeminate. And while he was a fun storyteller, the main story he told was a shaggy dog tale he’d made out of a fairly lousy and pretty common joke. I’m not sure if he thought that Vermonters, living in a state which at the time had more cows than human beings, would recognize the joke, or would just be overwhelmed by his presence. He really didn’t seem to care. We were a respectful and polite audience and applauded generously in addition to laughing in all the right places.
When he finished his speech, he left the podium and exited through a side door which led, I knew from experience in the gym, to a small dressing room used by referees. A large young man wearing a varsity sweater stood guard beside it. And in Capote’s wake trailed the reporter and photographer couples.
I turned to the photographer sitting next to me and said, “Want to try it?”
He nodded, and we were off.
About a dozen feet from the door, I hesitated. Good Catholic boy guilt, I think. Well, that and the self-awareness to know that, small as I was, I could easily pass for twelve.
The guard, being helpful, smiled and said, “Reporters can go right through.”
My photographer, never having lost a step, shot through the door before me. As I reached the threshold, the guard’s hand landed on my shoulder. “What paper are you with?” he asked.
My mind raced. The Burlington Free Press was out. Their reporter had already gone in. I searched for a newspaper that would be close enough to make it plausible that they might have sent a reporter, yet far enough away that this guard probably would never check. The likely candidate, the Manchester Union Leader, a well-known newspaper from New Hampshire, popped into my brain.
What popped out of my mouth however was, “Manchester News.”
To the best of my knowledge no such paper exists. I thought certain I was busted. I was thinking cops, explaining to my parents, living down humiliation of having a sidebar story in the paper about my attempted fraud. It wasn’t good.
The guard said, “Go ahead.”
I was in.
Truman Capote stood there in a circle of reporters. Photographers circulated snapping pictures as he turned to face each reporter in sequence. The reporters would ask questions and he would give them answers with the practiced air of someone who had heard all of those questions a million times before. Now, with a certain amount of perspective, I understand that he probably had heard all of those questions a million times before.
I took my place in the circle with my tape recorder ready, the microphone extended. The man had a very, very quiet voice, soft as kitten fur. I had the gain all the way up, yet his answers would barely made the needle flicker. Later, to listen to his answers, I’d have to pump the volume.
The questions he was fielding were pretty basic. The reporter from the Free Press asked, “What do you use to write with?” Capote sighed and explained that he used yellow pads and pencils. I kinda thought it was a trivial question myself but there I was eighteen-and-a-half years old in a gathering of reporters and it was my turn.
So I asked, “Writing In Cold Blood took you five years. That’s a long time. Was there ever a point you wanted to just give it up?”
Capote clasped his hands together and gave a nice long answer. He said that he had indeed want to quit but he couldn’t. The murderers in the book couldn’t quit, so he had to keep going. The expression on his face and enthusiasm in his voice was probably the first time I’d ever encountered the sort of transcendent joy writers reveal when they think about their writing process and are actually pleased with the result.
And so it continued, around and around, question after question. I was amazed, both with Capote’s answers and with the fact that the reporters were treating me like a peer. They jotted down my questions, then hastily scribbled his answers. In fact, the next morning, the Free Press’s coverage of the press conference consisted largely of replies to my questions. I gone into the room thinking that my deception certainly would be discovered, and yet here were trained observers—reporters, and Truman Capote himself—and they didn’t realize I was a fraud.
The press conference ended and Truman Capote left the room. As I tucked my tape recorder back into my backpack, my photographer shared a grin and said so long. The reporters packed up their gear and filtered out, but I barely noticed, because something utterly sinister was running through my mind.
I had stood with reporters and with a world famous writer and I had fooled them all! I had bluffed my way past the guard. I joined the reporters as if I belonged there. The knowledge of how to do that meant I could do anything. I could make a fortune. I could sell people the Brooklyn Bridge!
Day dreams of avarice and riches beyond imagining filled my mind.
And then a young woman spoke from behind me. “You’re not a reporter, are you?”
My heart sank. I’d been busted. I’d gone from euphoria to despair in less time than it had taken her to ask her question.
I turned toward her, eyes glancing downward, penitent. “No, no I’m not.”
Instead of seeing anger gather on her face, I watched relief blossom. “Oh, thank God! I was supposed to record this interview for a class. My tape recorder wouldn’t work. Do you mind if I duplicate your tape?”
Despair gave way to enlightenment. I figured, in that moment, I had a message from God. Sure, I had this wonderful ability to make people believe things that weren’t true, but I must only use it for good.
I smiled at her. “Sure,” I said, and went with her to the student radio station where we made the duplicate.
The heart and soul of being a writer is, after all, making people believe things that aren’t true. While my career has not been as lucrative as the one I might have had selling bridges I did not own, I haven’t risked jail time and I certainly sleep very well at night. And I came to realize, as Truman Capote certainly knew, that being a storyteller is the best job one could possibly ever have.