A Fictional Take on Famous Frenemies

By Regina Marler

Originally published on Advocate.com October 07 2007 11:00 PM ET

The germ of Kim
Powers's dark and captivating first novel, Capote in
Kansas,
was "one of the most exquisite movies ever
made -- To Kill a Mockingbird." Powers saw the
film as a boy in Texas before reading the Harper Lee
novel. Not long after, he watched the movie of Truman
Capote's In Cold Blood. "I grew up with these
two things in my head," the writer recalls. "The
beauty of Mockingbird, of playing outside of
night, of being scared of the strange person in the
neighborhood and the different fear that murderers
were going to come into my house at night."

For Powers, these
potent ingredients fueled a fascination with Capote,
who died in 1984, and Lee, a fiercely private woman
still living part of the year with her older sister in
Monroeville, Ala. Capote and Lee had been
childhood friends and neighbors -- Capote was the model
for the small, imaginative boy, Dill, in Mockingbird,
and Lee went to Holcomb, Kan., to help Capote research
his groundbreaking "nonfiction novel." Soon after the
publication of In Cold Blood, though, the
writers had a major falling-out. Powers believes there was
"a degree of evil they saw in Kansas that took them the rest
of their lives to deal with." But he thinks something
else may have happened between them. Capote in
Kansas
teases out the possibilities.

"It's
speculative, of course," Powers says. Set in the early
1980s, when Capote was despondent and irrational, washing
down rainbows of pills with alcohol, the novel opens
with Capote calling Lee in the middle of the night
after years of silence. Soon ghosts -- literal and
figurative—are haunting both of them, and Lee starts
getting anonymous packages in the mail from someone
who knows a lot about her.

Powers, who was a
writer for ABC's Good Morning America and is
now at Primetime, was almost finished with his
novel when he learned about the film Capote. "It was
like a knife in the heart," he says. "I thought I was
the guardian of the greatest story ever told."

He felt better
after seeing Capote -- and its lesser-known
rival, Infamous. Capote in Kansas is more Lee's
book than Capote's. Like the movies, and like Capote's
depiction of the Clutter family in In Cold
Blood,
Powers's book bends the truth in the name of art.
These aren't inaccuracies, Powers argues, but "willful
creations." An author's note explains where he veered
from the known facts.

Capote in Kansas, not to be confused with a
2005 graphic novel of the same name by Andre Parks and Chris
Samnee, appears just three weeks before the paperback
release of Powers's gorgeous writing debut, 2006's
The History of Swimming, a memoir of his
relationship with his troubled twin brother, who died
of AIDS complications in 1991. (Powers had another
brother, who like the twins was gay, who died of AIDS
that same year.) Both Swimming and
Kansas are suspenseful, with quick-moving plots.
"This might come from my years writing for TV," Powers says.
"Or it could be that my literary influence is Nancy
Drew."