Ever since 2012, when Lee Child and Joseph Finder argued about whether or not writers should plot novels in advance, “You’re Doing It Wrong” has been one of our most popular, if most occasional, features. To help us kick off this year’s Mystery Month, Edgar Award winners Megan Abbott and Laura Lippman agreed to disagree in a wide-ranging conversation about truth, lies, true crime, and crime fiction. Read on as no sacred cow is left standing, from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood to WBEZ’s Serial podcast and HBO’s documentary series The Jinx.
The moment I am told there is a single scene
in a book that’s not factual—it’s not nonfiction.
Laura Lippman: So let’s talk about true crime, which we both love. Which we both loved, in fact, before some high-end players got in the game. I’m looking at you, NPR and HBO. And I know most people believe Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) is one of the greatest works of true crime, but I have to vote against it. Because it is fictionalized. Capote initially claimed it wasn’t, then copped to the invention of one scene. The moment I am told there is a single scene in a book that’s not factual—it’s not nonfiction. I don’t even understand why Capote, who was a terrific writer, would be so proud of inventing the term “nonfiction novel.” It’s an oxymoron that makes me want to tear my hair out. To be clear, I am OK with fiction that is based on real-life incidents, and it’s fine if novelists want to use real names. You know how much I adored Bury Me Deep (2009) and The Song Is You (2007).
Megan Abbott: Reading In Cold Blood changed my life—I know I’m among the teeming masses of crime writers who can say the same. And in some ways I consider it a personal weakness that I don’t find myself caring enough which parts are fabrications and which parts are little cheats and which parts are fantasies that convey a larger truth. Because I don’t consider it journalism, or even a nonfiction book, so I don’t hold it to the same standards. “Nonfiction novel” sounds like a cheat as a designation, but is it? Capote did himself no favors by insisting, again and again, on the pinpoint accuracy of the book, but isn’t there something that lies between journalism, or documentary, and fiction?
Lippman: Twenty years as a journalist, happy as I was to be done with it, left this old warhorse with some twitches. Because newsroom fabricators—and I worked with at least two in the pre-Jayson Blair era—were such cheaters. They cloaked their incredible stories with the defense of truth: but it really did happen. They were trying to have it both ways. I think it’s significant that Stephen Glass did not enjoy a successful career as a novelist. I don’t know a newsroom fabricator who has. Capote is cannier, I grant you that. He doesn’t avail himself of unbelievable plot twists, at least not in In Cold Blood. Answered Prayers (1987) is another story. And I think that’s what makes it even more frustrating. He could have done it right. He hadn’t gotten lazy. Yet. Why did he have to make stuff up?
There are big philosophical questions
here that hurt my head, like the difference
between facts and the truth.
Abbott: But is Capote a fabricator in the same way Glass or Blair was? I find it very difficult to put him in that category. Maybe it’s a difference primarily of motive or their respective positions—reporters versus a novelist and short story writer—or maybe it’s my own weakness for a story that moves me in ways that go beyond provable facts. There are big philosophical questions here that hurt my head, like the difference between facts and the truth. In Cold Blood’s cheats raise ethical issues to be sure, and complicated ones for those individuals directly affected by the Clutter murders. But when I read it, I am moved and feel I understand something larger and deeper about the nature of crime, family, abandonment, class. Could he have done that with stricter adherence to facts? Maybe. But I want my In Cold Blood! Would you really give it up, Laura?
Lippman: Capote is, of course, far superior to Glass and Blair, but he has some peers in the field. John Berendt, who wrote Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994), was definitely guilty of it. And, yes, I would love to read the In Cold Blood that passed muster with a great editor. Even The New Yorker fell down a bit on the job. According to a piece by Ben Yagoda, William Shawn scribbled “How know?” on a scene describing one of the Clutter family, alone, before the murders.
Abbott: People often ask me if I’d ever write a true-crime book and I always say I doubt it, because I’d be like those cops who look for evidence to suit the theory rather than letting the evidence guide the investigation. Many of your novels are far more loosely based on real-life cases. What rules do you set for yourself, and how does your history as a journalist fit in?
Lippman: I’m pretty ruthless about not considering anything off limits, with one exception: I covered a pretty dark murder story for The Baltimore Sun, one with some stunning overlaps to HBO’s The Jinx, but I felt the family of the dead woman had given me so much access that it would be a disservice to ever use it in fiction. And I had some good stuff. I interviewed the suspected killer in his home, a fancy house gone to seed, and the police were weirded out enough that they asked me to take a colleague. I felt that people who came to me as a journalist had a right not to see that end up in the fiction.
It seemed to me an imposition
to ask their blessing for my imagination
to roam around inside their tragedy.
But in 2001, defrocked, I felt that my imagination was free to go anywhere. Of the 13 novels I’ve published since then, 10 have some basis in real stories. Some are obvious, others not so much. I don’t think many people know Every Secret Thing (2003) was inspired by the murder of Jamie Bulger. The one I am asked about most often is What the Dead Know (2007). It was inspired by the disappearance of the Lyon sisters in Wheaton, Maryland, in 1975. I am asked if I got “permission” from the family to write about it. I always say: “There are two answers. One is about what a nice person I am, and the other is about what a not-nice person I am. I didn’t reach out to the family. I knew how to find them. It seemed to me an imposition to ask their blessing for my imagination to roam around inside their tragedy. But I also didn’t ask because I don’t need anyone’s permission to write about anything.” This does not always sit well with people.
But I stand by it. And I hate people who call what I do “ripped from the headlines.” First of all, most of the cases I write about are decades old. That’s not a rip. And they’re not well-known. I’m not trading on people’s fascination with a hot crime of the moment. Most readers don’t even recognize my sources of inspiration. And when I read your story, “My Heart is Either Broken,” for The Best American Mystery Stories, 2014, I have to tell you that I didn’t think about Casey Anthony. She wasn’t in my head at all. With The Fever (2014) and that story, you worked from well-known news events. With Bury Me Deep and The Song Is You, you took on two well-known real-life stories, one open-ended, one not. What are your ground rules?
Abbott: The Song Is You and Bury Me Deep taught me a lot about my limits. I didn’t change the names in the former because the real-life case was so long ago and fairly obscure. But once I learned one of the key figures was still alive, it did trouble me a bit. I had fallen so far into my own story I’d simply forgotten that I’d begun with real people with a real tragedy at the center of their lives. In Bury Me Deep, I changed the names and changed so much, it felt like a kind of freedom. One of the victim’s relatives, however, eventually reached out to me and I had a terrible moment of guilt. She turned out to be wonderful about it, and understood what I tried to do, but it was an important reminder.
What art ultimately is permitted in documentary forms?
In my more recent books, I’ve kept the book quite far from the real-life circumstances. For The Fever, even as I was directly inspired by a real-life case of a group of young women in LeRoy, New York, I stopped reading about the case the minute I began writing and wrote a narrative that veered wildly and all the characters were completely made up. It felt safer. Even more so with “My Heart is Either Broken.” For me, these books are a way of confronting some real social demons—the rigid and dangerous standards to which we uphold female suspects, and the rigidity of our views on female adolescence, on motherhood, on women who don’t follow the script. I think maybe that’s why you’re drawn to them, too.
What art ultimately is permitted in documentary forms? I think of this in particular as we have debated The Jinx in recent weeks. Is Jarecki pulling a Capote to you? In that case, and I loved the show, I do find myself wanting to write in the margin as Shawn did, asking, “What did you know and when did you know it?” Because with a great central character, a chorus of compelling victim-supporters and natural drama to burn, I still wonder why the time line in that final episode doesn’t seem to quite line up. Does the storytelling impulse—the desire to control the narrative and the reader or viewer’s experience—inevitably rub up against the density and unknowability of “truth”? I just wonder if any of these lines are as clear as we might want them to be.
Lippman: For any work that promotes itself as nonfiction or documentary, I have only one rule: everything has to be true. This means no invented scenes or characters. People may use fake names or cloak their identity in other ways if there’s a pressing reason. If a reporter was not present for a certain scene, the scene may be recreated by interviewing as many participants as possible. Where there are conflicts in the participants’ memories, this should be acknowledged, unless it can be proven, via neutral source—say, a photograph, or the time stamp on a receipt—that someone’s memory is demonstrably wrong.
I could go on, but I’m basically saying: “Be a journalist.”
The time line cannot be manipulated so it is neater and more exciting. This does not mean things cannot be presented out of chronological order, only that dates should be transparent. The Jinx definitely had problems with this. I was really enjoying it through the penultimate episode, with two caveats: there was too much Jarecki for my taste, and I hated those cheesy, cheesy recreations, especially in the title sequence. But then, all of a sudden, it was as if the documentary I had been watching disappeared and I was watching an Aaron Sorkin show about documentary filmmakers. Watching Jarecki “strategize” his interview—who cares?! I know we both admire the sublime documentary series The Staircase (2004) and one of its great strengths is that the makers are not onscreen. And then you turned me on to that Pamela Smart documentary, Captivated (2014), and I thought that was very good, with nary a gimmick in sight. I could go on, but I’m basically saying: “Be a journalist.”
Abbott: But I wonder what Capote might have done for you to have permitted him the freedom you felt once you were defrocked. Is it just what he called the book that bothers you? Is that why you give The Executioner’s Song (1979) more leeway? As you pointed out to me, it was published as a novel.
Lippman: I think about Capote and In Cold Blood with sadness. Because he could have done it. He put the time in. He had Nell Lee at his side. He had access to the central participants. Just now, I picked up my copy, a 1986 reissue. It’s compulsively readable. You can start at any passage and get lost in it for days. But then I found, toward the end, a five-page monologue by Dick Hickock “talking to a journalist with whom he corresponded and who was periodically allowed to visit him.” The New Yorker writer, Mark Singer, who wrote an introduction for this volume, praises Capote for this distancing technique. I find it a little coy, but OK, it’s honest enough.
But . . . five pages. And it’s just too good. He describes a particularly grim execution where the condemned prisoner “danced a long time.” Before his death, Capote gave Hickock a poem, which turned out to be the ninth stanza of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” Maybe I’m helplessly pedantic, but I want it all to be true, I want it to be what I believed it was. I read In Cold Blood when I was a young reporter, in my 20s. I gulped down good narrative journalism then. It helped that I was living in Texas, where Texas Monthly published some of the best. I read the article that would be adapted into the film River’s Edge (1986). But nothing was better than In Cold Blood, and I feel like something precious has been taken from me.
Memory is in fact a distortion,
as all narrative is, too.
Abbott: I wish I had your certainty, but for me the notions of invention and recreation and “neutral sources” all seem so freighted and elusive. I think there’s a tendency to call memories “facts,” when they are not the same thing. And it seems like the deeper you dig, the more surprising and hidden motives, mistakes, misrememberings you find. There has been a spate of recent studies showing just how unreliable our own memories are, how vulnerable to influence, how each time we recall a memory we change the memory itself. Elizabeth Loftus and others have shown how easy it is to embed false memories. Memory is in fact a distortion, as all narrative is, too. We alter “reality” every time we construct it for someone else. We can’t help ourselves.
I guess what I’m saying is this: there are egregious manipulations. Conscious hustles. There are fabricators and fabulists out there, to be sure. But I think we need to open up a much wider space for all the stories that may not be unimpeachable but get at some larger truth that goes beyond simple notions of provable facts. I have more confidence when the writer or documentarian foregrounds their own biases and confusion. Errol Morris is frequently a good example of this. Is it better if there’s an honesty about the writer’s own hand? We see this in Janet Malcolm’s Iphigenia in Forest Hills (2011). She foregrounds her own sympathies, admitting a “sisterly bias” toward the accused murderess. Ultimately, she finds herself saying, “She couldn’t have done it, and she must have done it.” I wonder if Capote could have managed this. I also wonder if sometimes writers get so far deep down the rabbit hole of their own story they don’t even know anymore.
Lippman: Ah, memory—you know I hold no brief for that. And Janet Malcolm is such an interesting case. In her book The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes (1994), she makes a sly brief for herself and her methods. For me, it was impossible not to read the book as a kind of defense against all the rumpus she raised when she wrote about Jeffrey MacDonald and Joe McGinniss.
Abbott: How do you place our shared love for Lifetime’s True Crime movies in this discussion? Surely they don’t meet all the journalistic standards.
Lippman: Unless a film is branded a documentary, I don’t expect it to be factual. I expect all of “my” rules to be broken. Often, I am inspired to then find out what is true. My own imperfect memory is torturing me now because I know there’s one Lifetime film in particular that upsets people close to the case. That said, the two Betty Broderick films do a pretty good job, although what could ever be as good as reading Bella Stumbo’s Until the Twelfth of Never (1993)? I don’t even expect major, “prestige” films, based on serious nonfiction books (Unbroken, 2014, for example) not to take a few liberties. I think the key, in work that presents itself as nonfiction, is transparency. Most of these films readily cop to their fictions.
What can I say—it’s like Capote is my bad boyfriend.
In his essay, Singer writes of finding this dust-jacket quote from Capote on a 1940s book of travel essays: “The actual, the unadorned, all so-called naturalistic subjects have for me small interest; neither do their opposite extreme—fantasy, that is, or pure symbolism. There is, somewhere in between, a spiritual territory, uncharted, shifting, imaginative; it is the country below the surface, and as an artist I feel less blind there.” Singer, a straight arrow, finds this “potentially” dangerous, but then writes he can embrace In Cold Blood as two books: “a work of imagination (all right, a novel) and a heroic feat of fact-gathering—and it was the latter book that dazzled me.” But I don’t know how to admire a “heroic feat of fact-gathering” when I can’t be sure of the facts. I find myself wondering, Did they drink orange-flavored vodka?
I have no joy, being the pedant in this. If Mark Singer can forgive it, why can’t I? And yet I think I’m going to take In Cold Blood to lunch with me today to read. What can I say—it’s like Capote is my bad boyfriend. And I think we can find common ground there: Capote would be a horrible boyfriend.
Abbott: Agreed. He may be my bad boyfriend too, but he knows all my weak spots and has a great line. Isn’t there’s something eminently Freudian about all of this? Discovering the lies in In Cold Blood feels like a primal scene of personal betrayal because it mattered to us so much. But I guess for me the thing I loved and love about it is not that it’s factual but that it holds larger truths, emotional ones. And, too, I’m a sucker for an unreliable narrator. And didn’t Janet Malcolm call journalists “overreliable narrators”? We don’t go into the writing part of anything without a theory. And maybe we need to see these books or documentaries as about the theory more than the case. And about the writer or filmmaker just as much as the subject.
In the end, it’s so emotional for us, these books that mattered so much for us. And I find myself wanting to believe, forever, in Nancy Clutter’s hundred hairbrush strokes. And I’ll take a thousand In Cold Bloods (or even the far more dubious “Handcarved Coffins” ) over even one hand-wringing episode of Serial.
Lippman: Well, on that we have no disagreement.
Abbott: My problems with Serial began with its storytelling. I believe Sarah Koenig has said that its model was The Staircase. But The Staircase followed a trial unfolding in real time and its “twists” it took were genuine. You can’t really simulate that; you have to get lucky. For me, it felt as though the folks behind Serial were trying to engineer twists by withholding information for future episodes—while not giving us some information at all because they simply weren’t interested. I feel strongly that, as Laura Miller has said in Salon, we’re in a Golden Age of true crime, and that’s in large part because of stellar examples such as Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls (2013) and Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness (2012). And the exceptional quality of both is the attention they give to the victims and their lives and families. But it felt to me as though Serial was really about Sarah Koenig’s personal journey through the case rather than true reportage or storytelling. I think there are good examples of true crime when the reporter or writer or filmmaker foregrounds herself for a specific purpose—to make some commentary on her own investment or biases. But Serial reflected no awareness of the long history of the genre nor the significance of various choices. Had no one involved ever read Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer (1990)?
And I guess, bottom line, as a lifelong lover of true crime, both high and low, I was bothered—maybe in that adolescent way you are when your favorite cool band breaks through—by the general feeling in the air that Serial had invented something new, just because so many people who wouldn’t deign to pick up a true crime book or admit to watching ID TV were suddenly discovering it. This, of course, is not Sarah Koenig’s fault. That said, anything that leads people to find books like Kolker’s or classics in the genre like Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1979), or Graysmith’s Zodiac (1986), or Ellroy’s My Dark Places (1996)—well, I’m glad for that!
Lippman: Is there anything more infuriating than being a serious long-time reader of a genre and then having people “discover” it and start lecturing you on the greatness of something pretty middle-of-the-road? I worry that fictional narratives sometimes favor the investigator over the victims, that horrible homicides become courses of self-improvement for troubled detectives. Yet in nonfiction, it’s much worse.
So I’ll give Capote that. As much attention as he lavished on the two killers, the book is relatively balanced, giving as much attention to the victims as possible, with Capote virtually invisible. The Clutter family lives on. It’s impossible to read the book and not be moved by them. You remember the hundred strokes of the hairbrush; I remember the pie. And that’s a testament to Capote’s writing and attention to detail. It’s funny—despite knowing about the liberties he took, I believe in that damn pie.