Must be the week for scaring myself before sleep – tonight with a piece of crime reportage by the incomparable Truman Capote, called “Handcarved Coffins”. HC was written in the late 70s and published as part of an anthology called Music for Chameleons.
Years earlier Capote had invented literary journalism, or as he called it, “the non-fiction novel”, with In Cold Blood in 1966. As he wrote in the preface to Music for Chameleons:
For several years I had been increasingly drawn toward journalism as an art form in itself. I had two reasons. First, it didn’t seem to me that anything truly innovative had occurred in prose writing, or in writing generally, since the 1920s; second, journalism as art was almost virgin terrain, for the simple reason that very few literary artists ever wrote narrative journalism, and when they did, it took the form of travel essays or autobiography.
Looking back on his body of work years later, Capote felt he could have written everything better; that he’d let himself be hemmed in by conventions when a great writer should be able to summon an entire “palette” of writing styles – prose, poetry, reportage – in any single piece.
From a technical point, the greatest difficulty I’d had in writing In Cold Blood was leaving myself completely out of it. Ordinarily, the reporter has to use himself as a character, an eyewitness observer, in order to retain credibility. But I felt that it was essential to the seemingly detached tone of that book that the author should be absent. Actually, in all my reportage, I had tried to keep myself as invisible as possible.
Now, however, I set myself centre stage, and reconstructed, in a severe, minimal manner, commonplace conversations with everyday people: the superintendent of my building, a masseur at the gym, an old school friend, my dentist. After writing hundreds of pages of this simpleminded sort of thing, I eventually developed a style. I had found a framework into which I could assimilate everything I knew about writing. Later, using a modified version of this technique, I wrote a nonfiction short novel (Handcarved Coffins) and a number of short stories.
So “Handcarved Coffins” is a pacy account of a series of murders in “a western state”, and the years-long investigation to uncover the truth. Just as Capote described above, he’s in the middle of the story – it’s written as a transcript of conversations, mostly between Capote and the detective Jake Pepper, but occasionally with other persons of interest. This style itself is interesting because legend has it that Capote never wrote a note nor recorded a second of his interviews. He claimed to have a photographic memory. Whatever the case, the dialogue of HC is taut and dramatic, ominous and gothic as any invented thriller.
The story’s name comes from the killer’s calling card – small wooden coffins delivered to the victims before they were murdered in intricate, horrible ways. Rattlesnake. Razor-wire decapitation. Poisoning. All deaths with seemingly nothing to tie them together – except the coffins. It’s a cracking, creepy story and as with everything Capote wrote, I strongly encourage you to read it!
It was just interesting to come across Capote’s own words about pretty much inventing narrative journalism – a concept that’s very popular at the moment through the great work of institutions like the Nieman Foundation. We’re coming to blows a bit at work over this, as we plan a major journalism conference for later in the year – whether narrative is the truly essential key to the continued value of journalism, or whether it’s just a bullshit word that doesn’t really mean anything.
Anyway. Need sleep. Things are afoot.