By John Ramsey Miller
Once a year I get a call from a local high school English teacher inviting me to come and speak to her students for 90 minutes or so, to allow them to hear an actual author talk about the life of his kind, and answer their questions. The first year I told the students that I would answer honestly any question they wanted to ask, and truthfully at the end of the session I fully expected never to be asked back, but maybe it’s the fact that I’m their only choice of a local fiction author with books in print. I am the end of the year cap on a class that includes Stephen King’s ON WRITING, and studying a few great books. This year the teacher told me her students read IN COLD BLOOD.
Some things you never forget. The book that actually made me want to become a writer was Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD. I was a sophomore in High School and I went to a bookstore in 1965 and bought the book and I paid like $6.95 for it, plus tax. The cover is frayed from being carried around for decades and being stored here and there. I know it is a first edition, but a second or third printing, I think. Presently I have it in one of my crates in the shed, but haven’t seen it in two years.
I remember, not just reading it, but reading it straight through. I didn’t put it aside for more than a few minutes at a time to go to the bathroom or eat a few bites. In those days sleep was sometimes secondary to entertainment, and that book was astounding. The first True Crime written as a novel. Who wasn’t fascinated by the author, Truman Capote, and how this odd little man could go to a small community in rural Kansas and ingratiate himself to the community in order to gather the necessary information. A tiny, lisping squeak toy of a man––a Chihuahua running between the legs of wolves.
It’s two great stories, the crime and the authoring, and how Capote finished the book, but waited for the execution so he’d have the ending he (perhaps not prayed for) needed to give the book a knockout punch. I think the two films of that era that were true to the books were IN COLD BLOOD, and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Harper Lee and Truman Capote. Close friends and brilliant writers, both. Mrs. Lee never published another novel, and vanished from publishing in the way of JD Salinger. Truman, on the other hand, was everywhere. Truman Capote was reduced from serious novelist to social butterfly gossip spreader––a court jester of the rich and bored. Truman stopped drinking long enough to write a few stories over the years, and he kept talking about his great work to come, ANSWERED PRAYERS, but what was published (in my opinion) lacked the Capote flair, energy or purpose.
I suppose Harper Lee said everything she needed to say, and had nothing else to write that she hadn’t already put on paper. Truman Capote made a millions with COLD BLOOD, became a lazy fop, in the company of shallow people, drowning in booze and prescription medications. He’s tragic cautionary tale on many levels, but you can’t take IN COLD BLOOD away from him, or diminish its impact the reading public or on thousands of aspiring authors. Capote’s career after ICB is why I have such admiration for Dan Brown, JK Rolling, John Grisham, and the other authors who have a wildly successful book and keep writing despite their success and the additional attractive distractions flooding in around them. I have been lucky and have made a good living writing since 1995, and I always figured that if I couldn’t sell books any longer, I’d open myself a nice Chrysler dealership. Now I’m having to look at new alternatives…
I bet most of us can remember what book flipped our “Man, I bet I could do that!” switch?