Cerith Mathias talks to Peter Haag and Anuschka Roshani, who discovered Truman Capote’s previously unpublished early works.
Over three decades after his death, Truman Capote has been very much in the spotlight again this week, after the author’s ashes were sold for a whopping $45,000 by a Los Angeles auction house on Saturday. His final chapter may not yet be over after all, but what of Capote’s beginnings, his formative years spent in the small Deep South town of Monroeville, Alabama?
Last month, the paperback edition of The Early Stories of Truman Capote, a collection of 14 short tales all written before the author turned 20, was released. Discovered in 2014 amongst Capote’s papers in the New York Public Library by the Swiss publisher Peter Haag and his wife, journalist Anuschka Roshani, the stories offer readers a glimpse of an author finding his voice. Several of the stories had been published in Capote’s high school newspaper, The Green Witch, but most had never before appeared in print until the collection’s original release in October of last year.
Traces of his later masterpieces are evident, as is Capote’s empathy for those on the margins of society; his affiliation with outsiders would become the great theme in all his work. Also present is the landscape of his childhood, as the stories are rooted deeply in the red clay soil of his native Deep South.
Cerith Mathias spoke with publisher Peter Haag and journalist Anuschka Roshani, who edits Truman Capote’s work at Kein & Aber in Zurich.
Cerith Mathias: How did you discover the stories? What was your reaction when you realized you’d found his early, as yet unpublished work?
We discovered most of the stories in Truman Capote’s papers at the New York Public Library, others we got hold of at schools where Capote was a student. We were overwhelmed—not only by the discovery itself but also because we tremendously enjoyed reading these early stories. We were amazed by the fact that Truman Capote’s enormous talent already showed in his teenage texts—that is why our first reaction was above all surprise, and enthusiasm.
CM: What can we learn from the stories about Capote as a writer? Can we see the origins of his later work here?
The origins are evident—and in the most beautiful way: the passion for his characters, his clear, inspired voice, the atmosphere he creates. That shows—either someone is a writer or he’s not. Writers are born, but whether they succeed depends on more than talent. It’s down to discipline and training their skills.
CM: What do they tell us about Capote’s personality? Is his character, his affiliation for those on the margins of society evident here?
It is indeed. Already as a teenager, he focused on characters nobody else would: an elderly woman at the end of her life, a young African American who almost drowns in the intensity of her homesickness for the South (“The Moth in the Flame”). Composing these characters, young Truman Capote shows a mature psychological insight;even as a child he knew how futility and decay feel. The reason is probably that on the inside he always remained that little abandoned boy who never was sure of his parents’ love regardless of how much he sought it.
CM: The stories were written during his boyhood and teenage years in the Deep South. How much of an influence was the South on his writing?
The South comes up in many of the stories. “Swamp Terror,” “Miss Belle Rankin” or “The Moth in the Flame,” for example, take place there or it is presented as the place of desire in “Lucy” where the Capotes’ African-American maid in New York dreams of the South, her home. And the South is atmospherically recurrent in almost all short stories of his youth.
CM: Last year, there was a lot of controversy when Capote’s childhood friend Harper Lee released Go Set a Watchman, with many people questioning whether she wanted the book to be published. Do you think Capote would have wanted his early work published?
Capote’s ashes were just sold for $ 45,000 at an auction—the head of the auction house pointed out that with anybody else this could have been disrespectful but not with Capote! Not long before his death, he said to his friend Joanne Carson that he would not want to rest on a shelf, but to continue his adventurous journey. Would he not have wanted for his beginnings, his very first stories, which he wrote when his adventure as a writer just had started, to be carried out in the world and lead their own life? One thing is for sure, there is nothing about the stories to be ashamed of, they are just too brilliant —and that they all breathe this childlike misery is nothing he would have been ashamed of either. Beyond his books he never kept his loneliness as the child who was abandoned by his mother and father a secret.
This interview is part of our celebration of Truman Capote’s life and work in conjunction with his birthday September 30 and the 50th anniversary of the publication of In Cold Blood this year. Click here for more Capote stories and interviews.