Saturday, May 30, 2009

All That Clutters, Isn’t Just A Family Name

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?

9 comments:

  1. Nice post, John. Capote, like so many other great writers must be judged by their work, not their personal lives. There are countless stories of grand moments in time—snapshots of brilliance—that show the talent of a great artist who later succumbs to the temptations of the world and sinks into one funk or another, or worse. But we can never take away that snapshot, that shining moment in the sun, that Academy Award, #1 NYT bestseller, Nobel Prize or some other accomplishment of stature. That moment when they rose to the occasion and proved their worth. I thank that to be a great artist, one must be greatly flawed in some capacity in order to balance out the counter weight of genius.

    I was always a big fan of action-adventure novels, and somewhere between reading my third or fourth Clive Cussler thriller, I flipped the “I bet I can do that” switch. I still keep flipping it hoping that my instincts prove true.

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  2. Funny, but my switch wouldn't flip. I kept reading books with great plots and couldn't for the life of me figure out how to do it. I had, by the way, been fed the Big Lie that writing can't be taught. You either have it or you don't. After several frustrating years I figured I didn't. Then I found out the craft could be taught, and finally started to get it. (Which is the main reason I wrote my Writers Digest books, to save aspiring writers from believing the Big Lie).

    Re: Capote. I talked to a college prof recently who just finished a book on Harper Lee and TKAM, and she floated the intriguing theory (around for some time, I guess) that Harper Lee had a lot more to do with the actual writing of ICB than acknowledged, and that Capote had a lot more to do with the actual writing of TKAM than acknowledged. Now I think that's a good plot...

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  3. Interesting post, John. "In Cold Blood" was a riveting read. I wonder what great books he could have written if he'd been devoted to his writing later in life (I wonder the same about Fitzgerald.)

    Reading Agatha Christie's books when I was a teenager influenced me to write mysteries when I was older.

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  4. I read many other novels that were greater and more "inspiring," but the one that inspired me personally to become a writer was Scruples by Judith Krantz. Not because it was the best-written novel of all time -- Krantz was a popular entertainer without pretensions. I was inspired by that particular novel because as I read it, I thought, I can write this stuff. That novel was an eye-opener to me; it made the idea of my becoming a writer seem attainable. It gave me the "audacity of hope" that I too, could become a published writer someday!

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  5. Okay, for formative books, we need to go in stages for me.

    My mother was an avid reader, a devourer of books of all kinds. Thus, I remember the thrill of knowing I had joined the club when I was assigned to the highest reading group for Dick, Jane, Sally, Puff and Spot. (I was good enough that I was allowed to bring the reading primer home. This was high cotton.)

    In elementary school, the "We Were There" series took boys my age to such places as the Battle of Gettysburg and Pearl Harbor, and I believe that was the first series that I read from beginning to end. Next came "Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators," which addicted me to mysteries. I was never much of a Hardy Boys fan, but man, those three investigators were terrific.

    Let's not forget everything ever written by Alistair MacLean. NIGHT WITHOUT END really sticks out in my mind because of the level of betrayal among colleagues. (Looking back, he sort of wrote the same book over and over in different settings, but I certainly didn't see that at the time.)

    APRIL MORNING by Howard Fast introduced me to the true coming-of-age-in-the-crucible-of-violence genre. This led to JOHNNY TREMAINE and LORD OF THE FLIES, both of which completely captured me as a kid.

    As I got into high school and became serious about my own writing ambitions, it's hard to think of a more influential book than THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN by Michael Crichton. I remember reading that in 9th grade, and being inspired by the fact that the author wasn't that much older than I.

    As I recall, the very next book I read was the one that changed everything for me: THE DAY OF THE JACKAL by Frederick Forsythe. I devoured the book from beginning to end, and then turned it over and read it a second time. When I was done, I knew beyond doubt that I could be a thriller writer. For the first time, I saw how he built the tension sentence by sentence, scene by scene. Many great reads followed that, but with the exception of Stephen King's books, from which I learned a great deal about a writer's "voice", those other books only served to confirm what I thought I'd discovered through Forsythe's work.

    After that, the rest was easy: I just had to wait 20 years and slog through writing three practice-novels before becoming an overnight success as a thriller writer.

    JSB, with all respect I disagree with your assessment of the Big Lie. I think you can teach craft and technique, but I don't think that it's possible to teach the underpinnings that make the craft and technique workable. You can't teach imagination, whimsy, angst or humor. You can't teach work ethic--the drive to do two more drafts when the voice in your head is saying, "it's probably good enough as it is." For me, there's a strong writing analogy to American Idol auditions. It's clear that there are some people who have talent, but aren't quite ready yet, and then there are those who are simply delusional. For the first category, instruction can pay off if they're willing to work hard. For the second, though, I think that the Big Lie is actually the Liberating Truth.

    John Gilstrap
    http://www.johngilstrap.com

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  6. I can't pick a specific book, but at some point while I worked my way through all of Chandler's novels (not in order), I thought I'd like to do this.

    The jury is still out whether I can.

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  7. JG, I don't know that we disagree. The Big Lie I reacted to was a blanket assessment, too broad a brush. I think you'd agree that if someone has a modicum of talent and (most important) work ethic, the craft can be learned. I've taught numerous people who are now published. What I see myself doing is saving people time on the learning curve. They would have found their way eventually, but I like to hand out the tools.

    Also, you can help inspire people to try again when they've given in to the Lie. I've had many emails to that effect, and I'm gratified about that.

    I simply don't buy that you can't teach the craft and that people can benefit and become better writers through study and practice. Then they add what they have inside (which indeed can't be taught, only tickled) and they go on from there.

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  8. JSB,

    I agree completly that where there is talent, craft can be taught and honed.

    John
    http://www.johngilstrap.com

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  9. My flipped switch was actually an essay by Stephen King written as an introduction to a book of essays about Stephen King. His essay was called "The Making Of A Brand Name" and the real switch it flipped was to make me realize that writers write. That if you want to be a writer, you sit down and write, you don't wait for permission or take a class or go to school. You just do it.

    As for Harper Lee, in Stephen King's book "Bag of Bones" which is at one level a book about a novelist with pathological writer's block, he comments that Harper Lee may have found the perfect way to avoid the sophomore slump.

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