October 2005

Colleen Mondor

features

Capote in Kansas: An Interview with Ande Parks

I first read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood in high school when Ted Bundy was repeatedly in the news from death row and we all were a bit true crime crazy in Florida. The only thing I really remember from the book is how shocked I was that the same person could write Breakfast at Tiffany’s. When I was 18 this was cause for disappointment, as I got older I realized that it was actually quite an impressive feat. When I heard that Oni Press had a graphic novel coming out based on Capote, I decided to reread In Cold Blood in anticipation of my review of the new book. As a much older and wiser reader all I can say is “whoa” -- and maybe also “ick”. I’ve decided that true crime is not my genre of choice, which made getting through Capote’s masterpiece a little tough at times. I can still appreciate good writing when I see it, and also the amazing literary experiment that In Cold Blood truly was.

The book’s story is basic and brutal. In November 1959, the four member Clutter family -- only two children remained living at home -- were in their Kansas house having a peaceful, normal evening when Dick Hickock and Perry Smith arrived looking for money. They were following a tip from a former employee that suggested Mr. Clutter kept a large sum in the house. They found little, but they left four bodies behind. Smith and Hickock were later caught, convicted and put to death for the crime. The murders would always have been awful, still have been brutally sad, but easily slipped into history if Truman Capote had not decided to travel to Kansas and write a book about the crime and the criminals. In Cold Blood is an acknowledged modern classic and as Ande Parks addresses in his new graphic novel, Capote in Kansas, the book is responsible for keeping the Clutter story alive and vital almost fifty years later.

Parks has been a fan of Truman Capote since he was a kid and also remembers reading him first in high school. He has always been fascinated by the idea of Capote coming from New York City to small town Kansas (which in 1959 would have seemed like traveling between distant galaxies) and yet finding a way for the locals to trust him. “I never got that out of my head,” writes Parks in a recent e-mail, “and it was something I naturally wanted to explore as I began to consider writing historical fiction graphic novels.”

What Parks has done with Capote in Kansas is craft a fictionalized biography of one period in the famous writer’s life, the time from when he decided to go to Kansas and research the Clutter killings until the book’s publication (after Smith and Hickock were executed) seven years later. While staying true to facts of that period (and even quoting verbatim from Capote interviews at times), it is still Parks’s vision of what it was like for Capote to immerse himself in the stories of the Clutters, Hickock and Smith. It’s a tricky thing that Parks has done here.

One of the people that Parks wanted to include in his book was Harper Lee, Capote’s childhood friend and the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee traveled with him and served as assistant researcher for several months. “I, like most people,” writes Parks, “was not aware of the remarkable coincidence that he [Capote] grew up with Harper Lee and she accompanied him to Kansas. That is just mindblowing -- possibly America’s two greatest writers at the time, working together on what would become a masterpiece.” Parks acknowledged in his Afterword that he shortened Lee’s contribution to the effort by only including her for a few days in the book, something he “still feels a twinge of guilt about.” But the scenes between the two writers are fascinating, as Capote struggles to find a way to connect with the locals and Lee reminds him that what he is doing is a painful thing to the people who knew and loved the Clutters, and not, as Capote later told George Plimpton in an interview, a situation where there was “nothing really exceptional about it; one reads items concerning multiple murders many times in the course of a year.” Parks wanted to explore how difficult it was for Capote to fit in with the townspeople, and to find the voice he needed to write the novel. He used Lee and her relationship with Capote to illustrate this point.

In the course of writing the story, Parks struggled to find a way to set it apart, “to make it more than just a dry re-telling of what Truman had already done so brilliantly.” Ultimately, he made the very unorthodox decision to include 16-year old Nancy Clutter in the plot as Capote’s ghostly muse. Including one of the Clutters in the storyline was a necessary component to the love triangle that Parks “wanted to create between Truman, Perry (who I felt it was obvious Truman had fallen in love with), and one of the victims.” Parks wasn’t sure that Nancy would be that victim at first, but eventually decided she was the perfect person to expose Capote’s own conflicts over humanizing men responsible for a senseless murder.

Capote’s relationship (both real and imagined) with Perry Smith has been the subject of much discussion over the years. In the current issue of Vanity Fair, James Wolcott writes, “Perry Smith and Truman Capote found in each other an orphaned soul mate even as they angled to take advantage of that spiritual kinship. Theirs was a homoerotic bond, an incestuous overlapping.” In Plimpton’s 1998 book, Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career, KBI agent Harold Nye stated that the two men actually had a physical relationship during Capote’s visits to the penitentiary. Whatever the nature of their friendship, it is obvious from In Cold Blood that Capote felt an enormous amount of sympathy and affection for Smith. Parks wanted to explore this further and determine how Capote’s feelings for Smith might have affected the author.

“I felt upon reading In Cold Blood for the first time that Truman had fallen in love with Perry as he worked on the book,” writes Parks. “I have thought about their relationship a lot, and tried to determine what the attraction was. No one can say, of course, but I felt there would have been a couple of factors. First, Perry was physically sympathetic. Truman remarked to Nelle [Harper Lee] upon first seeing Perry that he found Perry’s short legs hanging off of a chair without touching the floor, charming. Perry also had the irresistible puppy dog eyes, and the overall hound dog expression. More than that though was a kinship. I operated on the assumption that Truman might have seen in Perry, to some small extent, the man he might have been if he’d been born with a slightly different temperament and been left to less charitable care.”

Any examination of Perry Smith’s life exposes a childhood of outright neglect and serious abuse. Capote, as Parks showed in his book, suffered from the abandonment of his own father and although he found great success later in life, clearly would have been able to empathize with Smith’s background. Smith also showed a twisted sense of honor with Capote, explaining that Hickock intended to rape Nancy Clutter and Smith refused to allow that, albeit by killing her first.

Clearly, Capote felt some sort of intense connection with Smith that did not exist with Hickock. Parks shows this developing friendship through several visits between the author and murderer in his jail cell. In one of these conversations Smith points out that Capote intends to create a work of art with his novel, something that he has always dreamed of doing through pictures. The irony, which Smith feels quite keenly, is that from his crime Capote will create what Smith has never been able to do -- and without Smith’s crimes, Capote would not have succeeded either. This conversation, which reveals so much about both men, was taken from an interview between Plimpton and Capote.

For Capote, the relationship with Smith was devastating. Although he did return to Kansas to see the men die, he was unable to watch Smith hang and fled from the prison. Also, although In Cold Blood brought him enormous fame and elevated his celebrity status into the stratosphere (the famous Black and White Ball is shown in the book’s final scenes), Capote was crushed, to a certain degree, creatively. “He loved Perry,” writes Parks, “but desperately wanted to finish his book… something that could not happen until Perry was dead.” To this already complicated emotional situation, Parks added the fictional ghost of Nancy Clutter, who interacts with Capote in the graphic novel and forces him to vividly consider where his heart’s alliance should truly lie.

Parks was faced with a serious challenge in developing Nancy’s role in the book. Although he wanted her to interact with Capote, (almost becoming his sounding board), he also felt a deep responsibility to her. “It was vital to me to treat the Clutters with respect,” writes Parks. “They are the true innocents in the story and they don’t deserve to be treated carelessly… I knew that I wanted to portray Nancy as a ghost, but I also knew that there would be nothing about her that was really 'ghostly.' She would have feelings, show vulnerability, whatever someone who had suffered a terrible loss might go through. In fact, I made rules for Nancy… she would not show anger, she would not physically affect anything outside her room, etc… I tried to always write her as equal parts real ghost and mere creation of Truman’s desperate mind. If I succeeded, her dialogue should sound half like a Kansas farm girl, and half like Truman thinks a Kansas farm girl should sound.”

I found the scenes between Nancy and Capote to be exceedingly well written; I liked Nancy, and she rang very true to me as an honest portrayal of a young woman who died violently and far too soon. The conversations between her and the author, where she talks about her family and the way in which they died, show how Capote processed the crime; how he came to understand it and consider it from both the perspective of victim and criminal. It would be very easy to write about his relationship with the killers; there is ample documentation both in his own book and later interviews, but it is hard to see what Capote thought about the victims. By allowing him to speak with Nancy, to consider her thoughts and feelings, Parks creates a very sympathetic character in Truman Capote.

Honestly, In Cold Blood must have been an incredibly difficult book to write, and even harder in some ways to complete. As any writer will tell you, it is not dreams of fame and fortune that will see you through to the end; you have to want to tell the story or it will never be written. Clearly, Capote thought the lives and deaths of the Clutter family was a story worth telling and as he befriends the ghost of Nancy Clutter, Parks shows that concern for the victims quite keenly. And the ending, the final couple of pages, are a love letter to Nancy Clutter. They are beautiful on every level, simply beautiful.

Because this is a graphic novel, the illustrations by Chris Samnee are vital to the book’s success. He does a great job here, particularly when it comes to the many different facial expressions of both Capote and other main characters. Samnee gives the people in Parks’ story fear, confidence, uncertainty, arrogance and most commonly, intense sadness, with such an understated brush of his hand that one person’s overwhelming grief can stand panel to panel with another’s confusion and despair. It would have been easy to make this story look bad; there is not a lot of big action to hide behind. Just as the words had to be carefully chosen, so did the faces. Samnee has done a first class job all the way and is most certainly someone to watch for.

As for Ande Parks, well I think he has accomplished something extraordinary with Capote in Kansas. The danger in reviewing this book is to fall for reviewing the book one expects it to be, or the one you wanted to write yourself. I could have been looking for a strict biography here, or for a story that would treat Capote and the people he wrote about as others have already treated them. I could have come into this review insisting that Parks hold forth to a set of standards for journalistic integrity that even Capote would find laughable; after all, he is the man who brought the nonfiction novel into the mainstream. None of this would have served Parks well, however, or treated him with the respect that he so clearly deserves for what he has done here. I will only say that Ande Parks has created a piece of art with Capote in Kansas. I hope it brings new attention to In Cold Blood both for Truman Capote and the Clutter family. And I most certainly hope that Parks will continue to write historical fiction because he really is very very good at what he does.

Capote in Kansas by Ande Parks and Chris Samnee
Oni Press 2005
ISBN 1932664297
120 pages