Who invented the non-fiction novel?

Richard Hitchcock and Perry Smith, the convicted murderers in Truman Capote's non-fiction novel of the crime.
Richard Hitchcock and Perry Smith, the convicted murderers in Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel of the crime.

TRUMAN CAPOTE HAD LONG harbored the idea of treating non-fiction as a novel. He spent six years tracking the story of In Cold Blood, spending an inordinate amount of time interviewing the people involved, watching hours of film footage, reading transcripts and notes, listing to recordings.

He once said that everything within the book would be true, word for word.

It was, in reality, an impossibility.

The vast majority of the work, however, was accurate and extremely detailed. He could not influence the facts with his beautiful prose, but his creative choices of words and descriptions did establish a definite tone and tenor to the book.

Capote told George Plimpton in The New York Times: “It seemed to me that journalism, reportage could be forced to yield a serious new art form, the non-fiction novel … many people with whom I discussed the matter were unsympathetic. They felt that what I proposed, a narrative form that employed all the techniques of fictional art but was nevertheless immaculately factual, was little more than literary solution for fatigued novelists suffering from ‘failure of imagination.’ Personally, I felt that this attitude represented a ‘failure of imagination on their part’ …

Truman Capote
Truman Capote

“Also, it is necessary to have a 20/20 eye for visual detail – in this sense, it is quite true that one must be a ‘literary photographer,’ though an exceedingly selective one. But above all, the reporter must be able to emphasize with personalities outside his usual imaginative range, mentalities unlike his own, kinds of people he would ever have written about had he not been forced to be encountering them inside the journalistic situation. This last is what first attracted me to the notion of narrative reportage …

“What I think is that reporting can be made as interesting as fiction, and done as artistically … I feel that creative reportage has been neglected and has great relevance to twentieth-century writing. And while it can be an artistic outlet for the creative writer, it has never been particularly explored …

“I worked for a year on the notes before I ever wrote one line. And when I wrote the first word, I had done the entire book in outline, down to the finest detail. It began, of course, with interviews – with all the different characters in the book. Let me give you two examples of how I worked from these interviews. In the first part of the book, there’s a long narration, word for word, given by the school teacher who went with the sheriff to the Clutter house and found the four bodies. Well, I simply set that into the book as a straight complete interview – though it was, in fact, done several times; each time there’d be some little things which I’d add or change. But I hardly interfered at all. A slight editing job. The school teacher tells the whole story himself – exactly what happened from the moment they got to the house, and what they found there.

“On the other hand, in that same first part, there’s a scene between the postmistress and her mother when the mother reports that the ambulances have gone to the Clutter house. That’s a straight dramatic scene – with quotes, dialogue, action, everything. But it evolved out of interviews just like the one with the school teacher. Except in this case, I took what they had told me and transposed it into straight narrative terms. Of course, elsewhere in the book, very often it’s direct observations, events I saw myself – the trial, the executions …

‘My feeling is that for the non-fiction novel form to be entirely successful, the author should not appear in the work. Once the narrator does appear, he has to appear throughout, all the way down the line, and the I, I, I, intrudes when it really shouldn’t. I think the single most difficult thing in my book, technically, was to write it without ever appearing myself, and yet, at the same time, create total credibility.

“People are so suspicious. They ask, ‘How can you reconstruct the conversation of a dead girl, Nancy Clutter, without fictionalizing?’ If they read the book carefully, they can see readily enough how it’s done. It’s a silly question. Each time Nancy appears in the narrative, there are witnesses to what she is saying and doing – phone calls, conversations, being overheard. When she walks the horse up from the river in the twilight, the hired man is a witness and talked to her then. The last time we see her, in the bedroom, Perry and Dick (the killers) themselves were the witnesses, and told me what she had said. What is reported of her, even in the narrative form, is as accurate as many hours of questioning, over and over again, can make it. All of it is reconstructed from the evidence of witnesses, which is implicit in the title of the first section of the book: The Last to See Them Alive.”

That’s how Capote did it.

In reality, that’s how it’s done.

Research. Research. Research.

Then define your characters, set your scene, write a gripping or intriguing hook, and tell the story with narration, action, and dialogue.

Stick to the truth and hope that those you interview, those who previously wrote about the subject, stuck to the same truth.

Please click the book cover image to read more about Gamble in the Devil’s Chalk, Pirtle’s narrative non-fictional account of the men who fought, feuded, and brought in one of the nation’s great oilfields.


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