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On the threshold: The Early Stories by Truman Capote

A new collection offers an intriguing glimpse of Capote as a boy: precocious, provocative, spirited and strange, a “pocket Merlin” spinning tall tales.

Baby-faced, canary-haired and standing 5ft 3in in his socks, Truman Capote was the flaming youth of American letters, rising early, burning bright and crashing back to earth in spectacular disarray. In the summer of 1945, a few months shy of his 21st birthday, his short stories began to appear in Mademoiselle and Harper’s Bazaar: work so eerily accomplished that he was swiftly declared one of the most remarkable new talents of his generation. Film options for his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, sold well before he had finished it and in 1947 he was the lead exhibit, posed doe-eyed and wicked, in a Life spread on up-and-coming writers, though he was the only one yet to have published a full-length work.

His reputation for precocity was enhanced by the extraordinary youthfulness of his appearance. Gerald Clarke’s biography Capote describes a dinner party in 1947, at which a patrician guest mistook the aspiring young writer for the hostess’s seven-year-old son, exclaiming loudly: “Really! Things could not have been so bad that Phyllis had to bring her own child to the table in a dinner jacket! When I arrived, that young man was in his pyjamas.”

That young man knew precisely how advantageous this kind of thing could be: the illusion of having emerged fully formed, as mature in talent and sophisticated in wit as he was juvenile in appearance. What he hadn’t bargained for was the cost of deploying youth so tactically. When Other Voices was published that year, it was a critically acclaimed bestseller but it was also repeatedly dismissed as “a freakish accident”, its success too closely tied to the adorably dewy, twinkish person of its author, reclining provocatively on the back jacket.

Decades later, Capote was still bothered by his treatment, still keen to reveal the hard labour behind the self-created façade of effortlessness. In the preface to his 1980 collection, Music for Chameleons, he described fielding endless expressions of amazement that someone so young could write so well. “Amazing?” he snapped. “I’d only been writing day in and day out for
14 years!” He had started at the tender age of eight, out of the blue and unencouraged by his family.

It was a lot of fun – at first. It stopped being fun when I discovered the difference between good writing and bad, and then made an even more alarming discovery: the difference between very good writing and true art; it is subtle, but savage. And after that, the whip came down!

If nothing else, The Early Stories testifies to the absolute truth of this statement. The pieces were discovered in 2013 among Capote’s archived papers at the New York Public Library by a Swiss publisher hoping to find traces of his unfinished last novel, the exquisitely scandalous Answered Prayers. Instead, what he turned up was a clutch of unpublished juvenilia, written when Capote was a schoolboy, during the apprentice period in which he was figuring out how to generate effects, how to make things good and then push them on to artful.

None can be described as more than promising but all are recognisably Capote’s work, shaped by his inbuilt sense of narrative, his watchfulness and his affinity with otherness; his pull towards loners and outsiders, particularly those who handle their isolation with flamboyance as well as shame. All concern people on the threshold: hoboes, unhappy children, ageing hostesses, criminals on the run. Already, there is a knack for playing up and down the social register, for peering into a variety of rooms.

What he had to raise the whip against was his sweet tooth, his greedy taste for sentimentality and melodrama. In “Swamp Terror”, a small boy who insists on venturing into a wood in search of an escaped convict has to weather first the death of his dog and then the murder of his friend (“Then Jep saw it in a flash; it was like something he just knew – Lemmie was dead! The convict had smothered him to death!”). Endings clank portentously (“A nightmare? This time? I wonder”); twists are vigorously engineered.

The chief merit this affords is a glimpse of  Capote as a boy: spirited and strange, wielding his gift for storytelling as an antidote to being near-universally disliked for his undisguised homosexuality and his preternatural intelligence. The likes of “Swamp Terror” make visible the Capote memorialised by his childhood friend Harper Lee as Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird: the “pocket Merlin” whose tall tales hold the local children spellbound.

Fiction was an escape route, then, a compensation for the misery of being Truman Streckfus Persons, the unwanted son of a confidence trickster and a beautiful alcoholic, who spent the nights of his early childhood locked terrified in hotel rooms while his parents went carousing. Later, he was bundled off to live with an assortment of eccentric relatives in Monroeville, Alabama (an experience that provided rich material for Other Voices and The Grass Harp), before being summoned by his mother to join her and her new husband, Joe Capote, in New York for an adolescence of growing privilege and continued misery.

It was the South that shaped him and in the main these are Southern stories, in both their diction and preoccupations. An escaped lunatic is hunted through a swamp; a young girl sits waiting for her love on a porch at night, “its texture like fine blue satin”. Coolness is the hallmark of Capote’s mature style but it was hard won, to judge by a story such as “Miss Belle Rankin”, in which an ancient and impoverished woman who lives like Sleeping Beauty behind a beautiful hedge of japonicas is found dead in her yard, “little flakes of snow in her hair and one of those flowers . . . pressed close against her cheek”. Yet even this story is agitating for an expansion of value, practising the empathy with the unwanted and unlovely that later gave In Cold Blood, Capote’s masterwork, its lasting power.

It’s not the only echo. In “Parting of the Way”, two hoboes, one young and delicate and one large and threatening, bicker over their imminent separation. Tim refuses to share the ten dollars he has saved to give his mother; Jake steals it and then returns it, an occasion for another clunking final sentence: “Perhaps it was just the bright sunlight reflecting on his eyes – and then again – perhaps it really was tears.”

The lines are crude but all the same the dynamic between the two men is reminiscent of Dick and Perry, the murderers in In Cold Blood. There is the same watchful interest in how the excluded broker power, in the mixture of cruelty and need that underscores relationships between the dysfunctional and desperate. Both end with a leave-taking, with someone walking out of shot. The early story telegraphs emotion, cramming it in; the later work simply clears the space for it. “Then, starting home, he walked toward the trees, and under them, leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat.”

What made the mature Capote so remarkable as a writer was the way he combined warmth and coolness, balancing sensitivity with absolute detachment, winnowing away sentiment and telling his stories by way of a succession of dazzling and disturbing images. The strongest example here concerns a lonely woman working in a mill store. She is beguiled by a small girl with eyes like blue glass: a precursor to the eerie child in Capote’s first great story, “Miriam”. Later that sweltering afternoon, the girl is bitten by a snake and the woman, surrounded by a crowd of hysterical children, falls to her knees and sucks the poison out. Small details linger – the water running over the bright creek pebbles, the woman spitting and spitting, her ulcerated mouth.

Like this damaging good deed, the ability to look unstintingly came at a cost. Despite the success of In Cold Blood and the almost unanimous approval that followed its publication in 1966, Capote felt that writing it had taken something essential from him, that he had been lastingly harmed by his proximity to Dick and Perry, his immersion in their grim lives and deeds. He watched them hanged, knowing that his story depended on their death, and in the years that followed he leaned increasingly on alcohol, a substance inimical to the delicate mechanisms of watching and recording.

In the 1970s, the bitchy, lacquered, liquored Capote was in the ascendant, presiding drunkenly over the dance floor at Studio 54 in New York. He said he was working on Answered Prayers, that it would be the distillation of everything he had ever learned: a no-holds-barred exposé of the elevated social circles he had inhabited for so long. At last, in 1975, an extract appeared in Esquire. This time, the coolness of Capote’s recording eye was not rewarded. He was instantly cast out by his wealthy friends, the socialites and heiresses whose confidences he had harvested and sold on.

Obsessive in its scrutiny of the super-rich and super-beautiful, Answered Prayers – published posthumously in 1986 – is concerned with hustlers and marks, with people intent on elbowing their way up or engineering the downfall of others. It is full of cruelties committed and murders covered up. The same bleak humour is also displayed here, in the gleefully nasty “Kindred Spirits”, in which two elderly women, Mrs Green and Mrs Rittenhouse, discuss over tea methods by which husbands might be discreetly despatched.

Preludes and precursors aside, what is most lastingly touching and distressing about this slender book is not so much its contents as the restored vision of Capote striving, working doggedly to master his craft. What he wanted all along was to capture on paper the weird material the world had handed him and then to go one better, embellishing and rearranging until he had created reality anew, in sentences more beautiful and musical than any of his contemporaries could hope to match.

Even at the end of his life, addled with booze, miserable at the loss of his former companions, his beloved “swans”, he was still figuring out how to improve himself, how to write a book that would finally be as good as he could dream it – though in darker moments he admitted that perhaps what he wanted to achieve had long since passed beyond the realms of possibility, that “nobody can write that well”.

Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone is forthcoming from Canongate

The Early Stories by Truman Capote is published by Penguin Classics (£12.99, 208pp)

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The end of Europe

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.