In her new young adult novel, Amy Brashear retells Truman Capote’s classic In Cold Blood from the perspective of a teenage girl.
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A native of Arkansas, Amy Brashear moved to Garden City, Kansas, at the age of nine. Garden City is located just six minutes from Holcomb, where the gruesome murder of the Clutter family took place in 1959. Truman Capote‘s nonfiction novel In Cold Blood made this true crime eternally famous, and movies and TV productions continue to cover the case today. More than 5o years later, Brashear has a different take.
Experiencing the story as a young girl and living in a place where the murders put a cloud over everything gave her a unique perspective. She says she wanted to tell a coming of age story in No Saints in Kansas (out November 14) about what it was like to live in Holcomb after the murders. Her protagonist is 15-year-old Carly Fleming, originally from New York City and an outsider in Kansas. She tutored Nancy Clutter and is determined to clear Nancy’s boyfriend Bobby’s name. Searching for clues at any cost, Carly ends up in trouble with the sheriff—and a suspect herself. When her father is appointed to defend the killers of the Clutter family, the entire town labels the Flemings as traitors.
“I wanted to tell a point of view that we haven’t seen in this story,” says Brashear. “In In Cold Blood, we had the point of view of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, but not someone who had to live in that town right after the murders. Someone who was frightened … I wanted to give a voice to a child.”
While Brashear’s narrator and her point of view are new, the story of the Clutter murders is not. Fans of In Cold Blood—Brashear became one in the sixth grade—will enjoy reading this reinvention of the story and rooting for Carly. Brashear says she did tons of research and felt a responsibility to get things right. In our interview below, we talk to her about what it was like to live under the shadow of In Cold Blood, how her book came to be and what she’s working on next.
EZB: You moved to Garden City at the age of 9. Did you have any idea about the murders, and how did you first hear about them?
AB: When I moved to Garden City, Kansas, a childhood friend told me about the murders. My mom remembers that was the first introduction we had to Garden City. We were at a VBS (Vacation Bible School) church event and a woman told us about the murder of four members of a family that lived in Holcomb, a small town six miles west of Garden. It wasn’t until I was in the sixth grade when I read In Cold Blood did I understand the significance. That book had a huge impact on me. Everything that Truman Capote wrote about, what I remember seeing “Out There.”
EZB: What was the atmosphere of the area like in 1991? Despite the amount of time that had passed, did the murders still haunt Holcomb and Garden City?
AB: I remember it being like a cloud. The older people remember and ever so often would mention something about the Clutter family, but they wouldn’t come right out and talk about the murders. Just little details they would mention. I remember a funeral at the Valley View cemetery, a person mentioned that the family was buried a little way from where we were at. Just little things like that. The murders have had a huge impact on Finney County. The citizens have tried to keep their memory alive. A community park in Holcomb was dedicated to the Clutter family.
EZB: When did you first read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood? You say you had a “consuming interest” after that. How did that interest eventually become this novel?
AB: I read In Cold Blood in the sixth grade. It made a huge impact on my life. There is something about that book that has stayed with me. I’ve continued to seek out everything to do with the case. I’ve watched all the movies multiple times. “In Cold Blood” staring Robert Blake and the television movie CBS made staring Sam Neill, Anthony Edwards and Eric Roberts. And of course “Infamous” and “Capote.” The story about a horrible senseless murder has made an impact not just in Southwest Kansas but on our society as well. If it happened in a small town like Holcomb, it could happen anywhere.
I’ve always been interested in true crime. I partially blame it on my mom. We have always watched crime shows and mysteries. There’s some crimes in this world that stay with you. For me, I honestly believe if I didn’t live in southwest Kansas I don’t think I would have connected with it as much. People are fascinated and search out for more information about different crimes. True crime podcasts are a huge hit for people to listen to. The armchair detective has taken off. The Clutter murders are one of those cases. Why that family? On a Saturday night, making plans to go to church and planning the upcoming week, but instead they were gunned down and were buried by Wednesday. Some things will never make sense. Even if you continue to ask the why questions. Life is cut short no matter the age.
EZB: Why did you decide to reimagine this story from a YA perspective?
AB: I’ve always loved the coming of age story. I wanted to tell the story from the point of view of someone who had to live after the fact in the town. And telling it from Carly, a fictional friend of Nancy Clutter, was the way I wanted to do it. I wanted to tell a point of view that we haven’t seen in this story. In In Cold Blood we had the point of view of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, but not someone who had to live in that town right after the murders. Someone who was frightened. Who didn’t know if they could trust their neighbors. Someone who had to lock their doors because they didn’t know if it was truly over. I wanted to give a voice to a child. Because when something happens it just doesn’t affect the adults. It has a huge impact on a child.
EZB: Capote famously claimed that every single word of In Cold Blood was true. What was your research process like and did you feel a responsibility to get the facts right when it came to the murders and real-life people in your novel?
AB: It took me a long time to write No Saints in Kansas. I did tons of research. I tried to stay away from In Cold Blood and instead stuck to newspaper articles, magazine spreads and scholarly articles. Truman Capote and the Legacy of “In Cold Blood” by Ralph F. Voss was another source material that I consulted. I looked at crime scene photos and reports that the Garden City Police Department had on their website. I felt a huge responsibility to get it right. I read everything I could about the family. The Lawrence Journal World in Lawrence, Kansas, had a series of articles on the Clutter murders back in 2005. I wanted to be respectable and at the same time give a voice to the victims. It was their story. It happened to them. It was a small town murder.
EZB: Although the murders happened and In Cold Blood was published more than 50 years ago, the story remains as compelling as it ever was and continues to pop up in the news. Why do you think that is, especially as Sundance TV’s two-night series “Cold Blooded” is set to premiere later this month?
AB: I am looking forward to watching the “Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders” documentary airing on Sundance TV on Sunday, November 18. I have high expectations, but it was made by the man who did the documentary about the West Memphis 3, which is another true crime that has stayed with people and which they continue to seek out information. I think the Clutter family murders has made a huge impact because it was a horrific act, a senseless act that happened that shouldn’t have happened in the first place. All because of a lie. Forty dollars, a pair of binoculars and a radio, and Herb Clutter, Bonnie Clutter, Nancy Clutter and Kenyon Clutter, four members of a family lost their lives. Two adults and two children didn’t get to fulfill their dreams.
EZB: Is there anything else you want readers to know about No Saints In Kansas?
AB: I would like to say to the readers I tried to remain faithful and respectful to the family. I really hope they see that and it comes across so.
EZB: What are you working on next? Do you plan to stick with the YA genre?
AB: My second YA book The Incredible True Story of the Making of Eve of Destruction is projected to come out with Soho Teen next year. It takes place in 1984 and is loosely based on the Damascus accident that occurred in 1980 in Damascus, Arkansas. The story follows the lives of several teens in Reagan-era Arkansas, when a film crew invades their small town to film a movie about a nuclear disaster.