In the late fall of last year, I very gently broke my left thumb by catching it in a screen door handle. The door, yanked open by the Kansas wind, took my thumb with it. Too embarrassed to provide yet another anecdote proving my characteristic accident-proneness, I didn’t confess what had happened until weeks later when, at a routine physical, I realized it was probably pretty bad that I still couldn’t bend my thumb. The physician immediately referred me to a specialist for x-rays, so I found myself one gray November morning in a Wichita orthopedist’s office, discussing literature before breakfast.
“What is your profession,” the doctor, Jean-Louise, asked me as he manipulated my injured thumb, maybe attempting to assess what line of work would enable a woman to break a bone in a screen door.
“I’m a writer,” I said.
“Ah,” he said, nodding. He was a gentle man with a French accent and certificates attesting to his education in several European countries. ”What brings you to Kansas?”
“My partner lives here,” I said, “and I’m researching my third novel.”
“Love and work, good reasons,” said the doctor. “So you are going to be the first important novelist to come from Kansas?”
“No,” I said, a little indignantly. “There are lots of great writers from Kansas.”
The doctor looked up at me, light glinting off his glasses. ”Oui?” he said. “Who?”
“Well,” I said. “Frank L. Baum.” Then I remembered that the author of THE WIZARD OF OZ, practically a Pavlovian reaction whenever you mention Kansas, was born in Chittenango, NY.
“Um, Willa Cather?” I said.
In fact, Cather was born in Virginia, and I wasn’t all that sure she had written much about Kansas in the first place. I left the doctor’s office with an official diagnosis of broken thumb, a prescription for steroidal-level Tylenol, and an ongoing argument.
Which I continued with the doctor in my head, the way you do. Of course, once in my Jeep, I recalled a whole list of favorite novelists from Kansas. Laura Moriarty, whose debut novel THE CENTER OF EVERYTHING grabbed me and didn’t let me go, whose second and third novels I greeted and devoured with joy, whose fourth novel THE CHAPERONE I was lucky enough to read in ARC form (and which will be out June 5 of this year). Scott Heim, whose MYSTERIOUS SKIN had been made into a movie and whose WE DISAPPEAR is one of my favorite books. I’d had the pleasure of meeting Scott at Grub Street Writers when we were both teaching there. And NYT bestseller Sara Paretsky, whose novel BLEEDING KANSAS I listened to on audio when, on the East Coast, I was lonesome for the Sunflower State’s panoramic skies… The list continued, and I reeled names and titles off in my head as I drove.
But, I realized, many novelists came to Kansas, wrote about Kansas, and left again. It’s one of the things I love about my new adopted state: it’s the American Istanbul, the crossroads between East & West. I thought of the pioneers coming here in their wagon trains, loading supplies at Independence, KS, then sealing their geographic fates and those of generations to follow by deciding to go north, on the Oregon Trail, or south, on the Santa Fe. I thought of the Ingalls family, whose most famous daughter Laura chronicled her family’s stint in Kansas in a book called LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE that inspired thousands of girls, myself included, to run around in sunbonnets and call their parents “Ma” and “Pa” even if they happened to come of age in 1970s New Jersey.
And I thought of perhaps the most famous novelist of all to come to Kansas for a story: Truman Capote.
You couldn’t grow up in my family and not love Truman Capote. My dad always said when he met my mom she was a dead ringer for Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” My sister and I both went through our Holly GoLightly phases (my sister with her dark glossy hair being more successful, though I was the first to break in the long black cigarette holder). We argued over which was the better book, MUSIC FOR CHAMELEONS or OTHER VOICES, OTHER ROOMS. My favorite, though, was:
I loved–and love–IN COLD BLOOD. It’s the only work of nonfiction I read for pleasure. It’s the only nonfiction I reread every other year. It’s the book whose writing is almost as mythic as the story it contains: Truman Capote leaving the glitterati in New York City and coming out to tiny Holcomb, KS, dragging Harper Lee to play Ethel to his Lucy, charming his way into the ranks of Kansas law-enforcement who very likely had never seen the likes of a tiny fur-wearing man before–and eventually into the jail cells of the men who had murdered the Clutter family on their ranch, for a monetary prize that didn’t even turn out to be there, in cold blood.
Maybe Truman hadn’t come from Kansas, but like many writers before him, he had come to Kansas for inspirational succor. And he’d left with a tale so apocryphal and chillingly reported that it not only changed his life but invented a new genre: creative nonfiction.
How was it I had never been to Holcomb before?
Thanks to my alternate life, stormchasing (which I did to research my second novel, THE STORMCHASERS, but really, in that chicken-and-egg game familiar to many writers, I’d written a novel featuring stormchasing because I loved big weather in the first place), I knew the geography of Kansas better than I did Massachusetts. Back at the house, I looked up Holcomb on Google Maps.
It actually exists, this place Capote describes, in the opening lines of IN COLD BLOOD, this way: “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’
It shouldn’t have surprised me that Holcomb is real, given that IN COLD BLOOD is, famously, a true story. But in the way you imagine things you love in books can’t be real simply because you’ve given them life in your own mind, I was surprised. And a little awed. And amazed that, as much and as often as I’d chased severe storms near Holcomb, I’d never been there. I’d skirted it on several occasions, and I knew that in clement weather, the land around Holcomb looks like this:
and in less clement weather, like this:
But I had never been to the town itself.
What better place to visit for Writer On The Road?
I would make a pilgrimage to Truman Capote. I would go to the town he had gone to. Stay where he’d stayed with Harper Lee. Visit the Clutter ranch. And write about what it was like 47 years later.
Thrilled by the prospect, I did my due diligence. I set aside days on the calendar. I charted the drive to Holcomb and back. I looked up hotels and discovered that, disappointingly, there were no longer any accomodations in Holcomb, so I’d have to stay in the nearest town, Garden City, whose motel reviews said things like, “Pretty good except for the smell of the meat0packing plant across the road.” I made reservations at the hotel farthest from the meat-packing plant. I reread IN COLD BLOOD. I watched the movie versions: “In Cold Blood,” “Capote” and “Infamous” (liking the latter Truman bio the best). I tried to convince my partner to be my Harper Lee, to no avail (he had to work).
I was all set to go–and then.
I remembered I have a deadline.
Not for this column, which after all I intended to write on the road. But for the screenplay based on my first novel, THOSE WHO SAVE US.I’d told the producer I’d hand the screenplay to her around the end of February. Which we both knew really meant the end of March and maybe a little bit into April–since I’ve never written a screenplay before, and it’s a kindness on my producer’s part that I’m being allowed to take a crack at this one, and the process is something like singing country western your whole life and waking up one morning to be told you have to sing an opera. It’s all music, but the forms and skills required are very different.
Running off to Holcomb to visit with the ghosts of Truman and the Clutters seemed a much easier prospect.
Once I realized this, I shelved my copy of IN COLD BLOOD, broke off winning my mental argument with Dr. Jean-Louise, and returned to the decidedly unglamorous work of hammering out architecture. I felt sure Truman would understand. After all, he had sacrificed many a gala and gossip session over Manhattan martinis to stay in a Holcomb hotel room and create things that looked like this:
–although Truman’s notes were written on legal pads instead of on a wall.
And he had probably relinquished many a Kansas Manhattan with Holcombites, not to mention more running around the High Plains with “foxy” Alvin Dewey, the prosecutor on the Clutter case, to stay in and file sections of IN COLD BLOOD to The New Yorker, which originally serialized the book. Truman understood sacrifice. It’s probably why he looked like this:
All writers get this: sometimes, to get the work done, we have to give up what we want to do and instead write what we have to. Because our first obligation is to the story and the people in it.
For me, for now, Holcomb would have to remain what in my head it had been for decades: an idea.
Until next time, when my deadline will have been met.
Truman fans, please stay tuned.