Saturday, November 21, 2009

Making Art out of Tragedy (and Tragedy out of Art)

Last weekend marked the 50th anniversary of the brutal, senseless murder of the four members of the Clutter family in Holcolmb, Kansas. That terrible event might have been long forgotten by now, if novelist and short-story writer Truman Capote hadn't read a news story about the killings in the New York Times. The brutality and mystery of the murders piqued his literary interest—he had been searching for a true-life subject with which to test his ideas about writing a "nonfiction novel"—and he embarked on what would turn out to be five years of research, interviews and even a controversial correspondence with the two men who were eventually tried, convicted and executed for the crimes.

The result of his efforts, of course, was In Cold Blood. Even before it was serialized in The New Yorker, the project had generated enormous buzz, and in book form, it became an instant bestseller. It launched a whole sub-genre of true-crime books—few of which have even come close to the exacting literary standard that Capote set. (The opening chapter remains one of the most haunting in all of literature.)

The book
was made into a movie in 1967—one that used many of the real-life settings (and even people) to evoke a sense of authenticity and that starred Robert Blake, an actor who would gain his own infamy decades later. More recently, two immensely watchable bio pics (Capote and Infamous) offered perspectives on the making of the book and the unmaking of its author.

His long immersion in the sordid, tragic lives of his characters ultimately exacted a great emotional toll on Capote. He never wrote anything close to the quality of In Cold Blood, either in fiction or nonfiction, and descended into a boozy parody of himself on the talk show and party circuit. But 50 years after the tragedy, his book remains one of the classics of North American nonfiction writing—much admired, rarely emulated, a testament to its author's obsessive commitment to transforming the raw, bloody matter of real-life into high literature.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Adventures of Greg

I got a lovely (and unexpected) note from Greg Kolodziejzyk, who recently read Fatal Tide. Greg knows more than most people about the highs and lows of outdoor adventure, endurance races and the other themes of my book. He is a multiple Ironman finisher (and was at a fatal race I described in the book) who is now on an epic journey to try to pedal-boat across the Pacific Ocean.

He recently had a mechanical breakdown off Vancouver Island while testing his ocean-going pedal-powered kayak (that's an earlier model in the photo), but I'm sure that setback won't slow him down for long. I'm still hoping to write a profile of Greg—and try to understand what motivates someone to undertake such a daunting, expensive, physically and psychologically taxing adventure as the journey he has cooked up.

Anyway, here's what Greg had to say about his reading experience:
I just finished "Fatal Tide", and I just wanted you to know that I really enjoyed it. I kept thinking about my first Ironman which was the inaugural Ironman Utah where John Boland died in the swim due to the freak wind storm. It was pretty brutal. I see you did mention that event - you are VERY thorough! I especially appreciated your summary and background research into hypothermia, kayak safety, and risk with adventure sports. Very thought provoking stuff!
Thanks, Greg. And safe travels on your future journeys!