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I jumped at the chance to read Capote in Kansas by Kim Powers mainly because the cover said it was “A Ghost Story,” and I love a good ghost story. When I read that it was a book about Truman Capote, author of In Cold Blood, and Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, I was intrigued. Then I was worried that I needed to have read their books in order to enjoy the story. I was wrong.

Capote in Kansas tells the story of two childhood friends, Capote and Lee, who investigated the slaughter of the Clutter family together but eventually severed all ties. It begins with Capote making a late-night call to Lee, known as Nelle, to say he is being tormented by the ghost of Nancy Clutter. He hasn’t spoken to Nelle in years. What follows is an eccentric tale of the end of Capote’s life, the ghosts that haunt both him and Nelle, and the creepy snake boxes Capote assembles and has delivered to Nelle. Nelle must determine who is sending her these odd packages and why, and the snake boxes spark memories from their childhood and their trip to Kansas to research the Clutter murders. Why have the Clutters come back to haunt them? Did Harper Lee really pen To Kill a Mockingbird? And why does she never write another book? These are just some of the questions Powers raises in Capote in Kansas.

Powers expertly created a fictional story about two very real, very famous people. The book flows seamlessly from the past to the present, and he made the characters come to life on the page. One of the most memorable characters is Myrtle, Capote’s housekeeper, who provides some comic relief as Capote’s sidekick in making the snake boxes and plotting revenge against Capote’s lover. While reading, I kept wondering how much of the story of Capote and Lee was true, and I was pleasantly surprised to find an “Author’s Note” at the end of the book explaining his inspiration and answering some of my questions. After reading the book, I can’t wait to read Capote and Lee’s books, and I was glad I didn’t let my lack of knowledge of these writers prevent myself from enjoying a good story!

Read the first chapter of Capote in Kansas here, and check out the reading group discussion questions here.

Kim Powers was kind enough to write a guest post about one of my favorite topics: writing! Thanks, Kim!

The sight and sounds of me writing: it used to look like an outtake from The Exorcist, or something from The Three Faces of Eve. Scary. I would sit in a darkened room, some weird “mood music” on (“Tubular Bells” from The Exorcist was an early favorite, then Steely Dan—go figure), pounding away on the keyboard with my eyes closed, in a sort of stream-of-consciousness fugue state. I’d start with the barest idea of a scene, and not stop until I had written down everything I “saw” in my head, and my wrists went into carpal tunnel overdrive. (John Irving has said he doesn’t begin writing until he has the whole plot worked out, and the very last sentence in his head. That’s the complete opposite of my approach. I don’t have an outline, just a few key turning points in my head before I start.) The Exorcist analogy isn’t far off: I used to think I had to “exorcise” the story, sweat the writing out of me, or it wasn’t any good. I really was convinced that writing this way brought me closest to my subconscious, so I could get to the heart and soul of something, not just graze the surface. (Really, I just didn’t have the courage, or the confidence, to look at a blank computer screen.) The next day, I’d go through what I had written (or more accurately, typed) and try to make the most basic, nouns-and-verbs sense of it. There were tons of typos, of course, and maybe half of what I had written even began to approach “usability.” Truman Capote advocated something similar: “Just start writing,” he said, “you’re bound to wind up with some meat on the bones.” Of course, a lot of this showmanship had to do with subject matter. Mine has always been pretty tortured. (More on that later.)

Earlier on, when I used a typewriter and not a computer, I was much more normal in my approach to writing. I’d craft sentences one at a time, and make them perfect before I moved on to the next, feverishly erasing and leaving a mound of little pink curlicues in my wake, or fumigating myself with White Out. I’d always written well, but don’t remember having to do a lot of it until grad school (a literary criticism/theater history program). My twin brother Tim was the writer; I was the actor. We went to the same college, and our father’s going away present to us was an electric typewriter, which we were to share. We didn’t have a lot of money, so he’d really saved for it. (This is sounding more and more like an episode of The Waltons, isn’t it? That’s me, John Boy Powers.) Hours after we unpacked on that first day of school, Tim came to my dorm room–thank God we weren’t rooming together–and said, “I need to use the typewriter.” I told him I thought he had it. He told me he thought I had it. Neither of us had it, and the last we could remember was it sitting on the ground, outside of the trunk of our (shared) car. We never told our poor Dad what had happened, just borrowed friends’ typewriters for the next four years. By the time I got out of grad school, I had finally started using a computer, and it made a world of difference. I could “think” on my fingers, not on my feet. I can’t even handwrite anymore, my hands cramp up so much. (Donna Tartt, who wrote The Secret History and The Little Cousin, has said she writes all of her novels–and those suckers are big!–in long-hand. She loves the old-fashioned sense of ink staining her fingers. My fingers shudder at the thought.)

In my early jobs out of grad school–finding and developing film and TV projects for various companies–I was having to do a lot of writing. My older brother Ed, who worked in Washington politics and did a lot of writing, always taught me: “Just get a draft. You can always rewrite. Just get some words down on a page.” It was the most valuable thing he ever taught me. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, it also helped me to see writing as a nuts and bolts thing, not just something that I could only access when “inspired.” (I would later learn if you wait for inspiration to strike, you’ll be waiting a very long time.) Another mentor told me, “A writer writes. Period.” He was that blunt about it, after too much whining on my part about wanting to be a writer, but not writing. It seems obvious, but it wasn’t. I can’t tell you how many people I know–and I was one of them–who say, “I want to be a writer,” but haven’t made the first step toward getting anything on a page. If there are any aspiring writers reading this, that’s my first “take-away”: a writer writes. Fire up your computer, and get to it. No more excuses. Perfection can come later. (Now, if only one of YOU would give me the same butt-kicking lesson about getting back to the gym!) I think that’s one of the reasons I’m so mystified about Harper Lee stopping writing. If there was ever a writer, it was her. It seems like it would be the same as being forced to stop eating, not to be able to write.

By the time I was working as a producer for Great Performances at PBS, I finally realized that thing that has launched many a writing career: I could do this as well as “they” can–the people I’m paying to write! It happened on a big miniseries called Trials we were trying to get off the ground, about a group of disparate people brought together to participate in an experimental AIDS drug trial. I wasn’t happy with the writing that was coming in, and started rewriting it myself, to match the idea I saw in my head. And I was making it a lot better. I mark my beginning as a professional writer from that.

That somewhat brings me back full circle to how I started this little post, about my “tortured” subject matter. I was so involved with that AIDS miniseries at PBS because I was living it: both of my brothers (my twin Tim, and my older brother Ed) had AIDS, and it took over my life. Tragically, they died, about a year apart from one another, and I began writing in earnest, to keep myself from going crazy. I’m not sure my approach was the healthiest, but I began writing short stories about the three year period of their illnesses, closing my eyes and making myself relive that time, to get it down truthfully on the page. Those short stories eventually formed the basis of my first book, a memoir called The History of Swimming, which also dealt with my twin brother’s disappearance one weekend, and my search for him–literally and metaphorically. (That’s my second “take-away” for the writers out there: don’t write anything that doesn’t matter to you. It’s too hard otherwise. I’m not saying everything has to be autobiographical, or tragic. I wish I could write a great comic novel. But don’t set out to write something just because you think it’s commercial and will make money. It will come off looking like an imitation of something else. Of course, what do I know? I’m living in debt, and John Grisham is laughing all the way to the bank.)

Writing got a little bit easier after that first book. (The writing that is, not the selling and marketing. That’s a whole other “skill set,” which no writing program prepares you for.) During the time I was really polishing The History of Swimming, I was also working as a writer for Good Morning America, and writing non-stop. Nowhere was my brother Ed’s adage more important: just get a draft on paper. I’d have to pump out voluminous “briefing notes” for the anchors–background on segments and interviews I had done with the guests–and there just wasn’t time to make them perfect. Seven or eight full pages a day. But even that style, so different from my book writing, developed my writing muscles. It was like going to the gym: practice might not make you perfect, but it makes you better. (Even that news writing took me back to my acting roots. People would walk by my office and see me making faces and reading my copy aloud, and ask what I was doing, and I would say I was “doing” Diane (Sawyer) or Charlie (Gibson), each of whom had very different styles and rhythms.)

Over the four or so years it took to turn out The History of Swimming, I squeezed in extra hours in the morning before work, and became a hermit on the weekends, to turn a five hundred page SINGLE SPACED mess into something resembling a coherent story. (I kept a separate computer file called “outtakes”–and that soon grew larger than the book itself.) But I loved the process of rewriting, once I got that dreaded first draft down on paper. Now the real work could begin. I’ve always thought if I weren’t a writer I’d have become a film editor, because I love the process of taking little pods and rearranging them for maximum effect. That’s what re-writing is like, constant tweaking, and I went through a lot of “tweaking”–eight or nine complete drafts–before I started trying to find an agent to sell it. (Another take away: don’t send your material off before it’s AS GOOD AS YOU CAN POSSIBLY MAKE IT. Don’t make the same mistake I have, convincing yourself, “Oh, it’s pretty good, just needs another draft or two, they can at least see what the story is and where I’m going.” Publishing doesn’t work that way anymore; agents and editors are drowning in paper, and few will take the time to really shape something, unless it shows tremendous promise.)

The first book made the second one, Capote in Kansas: A Ghost Story, easier. I knew I had done it, so I could do it again. It would take a few years, but I could do it. And even though Capote wasn’t autobiographical, it was no less tough emotionally as I tried to “see” those dark places Capote and Lee had visited, or seen in their own minds. I still closed my eyes to write the first draft, but didn’t go through those early death throe contractions. I taped pictures of Capote and Lee all around me, and drew inspiration from looking into their faces. I listened to Elmer Bernstein’s magnificent film score from the movie of To Kill a Mockingbird, and got in the mood. But I did it everyday, like a job, like going to the office. I try to reserve morning hours to write, at least when I’m in the early few drafts. Maybe it’s because I’m closer to my dreams, and the pressures of the day haven’t yet worn me out. By nighttime, after a day at work, I’m too bushed to write. But during the day, at the office, I’ll find myself thinking a lot about my project, and write down little phrases that come to me, that I’ll shoot to my home email to be waiting for me. I also used to leave a few pages to be corrected the next morning when I picked back up, just to give me a way back into the writing, without the terror of the blank white computer screen. One of the things I’ve learned is that when the writing isn’t coming, and you feel the work sliding down hill, take a break. I walk my dog, and magically, when I get back, I find I’ve broken the log jam.

I just turned in my new book to my agent–called The Movies We Watched (The Year My Father Killed My Mother)–and she’s taking it out to editors to try and sell it. It’s another semi-autobiographical story, and I wrote down every childhood memory I had–a surprisingly concise number–to get going. I’m already having some very loose ideas about my next book, and it will be the first thing I’ve written that doesn’t deal in any way autobiographically with my life–or those of famous people like Capote or Lee. It will involve a lot of research, but for now one of the exercises I’m using to get going is collecting random photographs at flea markets. I love digging through piles of old candid shots–and finding the ones that “speak” to me. I think this would be a great warm-up exercise, if I ever taught creative writing. But even writing a completely “made up” story doesn’t mean you aren’t constantly drawing on your own experiences, or at least emotions. You’d be amazed at how much of Capote in Kansas came from my own life, even though it’s about two real people I’ve never met.

Anyway, these are just a few random (and long-winded) thoughts about my writing process, and how The History of Swimming and Capote in Kansas got “born.” If any of it resonates, use it. If not, don’t blame Anna, who I know is working on some of her own writing! She graciously offered me the chance to pass on a few pointers, and I appreciate it. And whatever you do–keep reading! That’s the way to make yourself a better writer.

Thanks so much, Kim! I really enjoyed reading your writing story, and I think you provided a lot of great advice! I wish you much success!

Read Kim’s bio here, and if you want to follow him around the blogs, you’ll find the list of tour dates for Capote in Kansas here.

Kim is generously offering a copy of Capote in Kansas to one lucky reader! There are no geographical restrictions. Comment on this post and let me know why you want to read Capote in Kansas or what you found most interesting from Kim’s guest post. For an extra entry, mention the giveaway on your blog and let me know you’ve done so! Make sure I have a way to contact you if you win. Please provide your email address or blog URL! The deadline is Friday, Oct. 31, 2008.

**Please note that this giveaway is now closed**

Disclosure:  I received a copy of Capote in Kansas from the author for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2008 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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