When fact-based works can’t be tidily tied up in a nonfiction box

When I first formed my theories concerning the nonfiction 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 a 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 in an interview conducted by George Plimpton

January 16, 1966, The New York Times

Whether accurate or not, Truman Capote claimed that in writing In Cold Blood he invented a new category of writing. A panel at Gemini Ink’s Writers Conference this weekend grappled with their own difficulties in fitting into traditional nonfiction labels and wrestling with how publishers promote them.

the train to crystal cityJan Jarboe, author of The Train to Crystal City, is meticulous about her facts, so much so she even hired a fact-checker out of her own pocket to ensure certain details were correct before her recent New York Times Bestseller (on the nonfiction list) was published. Although the book is true, she feels it blurs the traditional lines for nonfiction because she was determined not to break the flow of the narrative or drive herself crazy by “annotating every damn detail.”

Jarboe’s strict adherence to facts is part of her D.N.A. as a writer, having spent years contributing to Texas Monthly, which is noted for its team of fact-checkers. The panel moderator, John Phillip Santos, referenced John McPhee’s 2009 New Yorker article on that magazine’s fact-checkers, “Checkpoints,” chronicling the tenacity required both to perform the task and to work with the taskmasters.

berlow the lineAuthor J.R. Helton plays more loosely, valuing the format of a nonfiction novel for “not worrying about whether you jump back and forth in time.” His works are subjective, a telling of events as he recalls them. He says he was brutally honest about some of the film industry people featured in Below the Line; so much so that Sarah Hepola writes in The Austin Chronicle that “the tell-all book might more accurately be called Below the Belt.” But, in Drugs, Helton says he purposefully changed names and places to prevent himself from getting killed by some of the dangerous characters he encountered during his past drug days. While he feels The Jugheads accurately related his side of the story of his family life when he was growing up in East Texas, his publisher categorized it as “fictionalized memoir.”

manana means heavenTim Z. Hernandez categorized himself as a poet when he was assigned the huge San Joaquin Valley as his territory for mining oral histories for California Stories. While he first considered the assignment “work,” the one-on-one interviews altered his writing and made him realize “you don’t have to leave to look for good stories.”

His interest in oral history led Hernandez to knock on the door of Bea Franco, the real-life never-before-interviewed “Mexican girl” Jack Kerouac wrote about in On the Road. Convincing her to entrust him to tell the story of her life, Hernandez translated his oral history interviews with her in Manana Means Heaven.

Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Hector Tobar observed:

Hernandez combines his skills as a poet and some dogged research to imagine and re-create the couple’s brief relationship with intimate and engrossing detail. The book begins and ends with a description of Hernandez’s real-life interview with Franco, and it’s clear the novel has benefited from Franco’s own account of her life as a farmworker and young mother.

Hernandez says he based his narrative on his recordings of Franco’s story but found some pieces missing. In order to ensure his efforts at filling in the gaps rang true, he read them aloud to his elderly subject. He knew he was on target when she would nod her approval saying, “That’s not how I lived it, but that’s how I remembered it.” The publisher marketed the book as “historical fiction.” Hernandez’s upcoming book that includes dialogue is being labeled a “documentary novel.”

And did The New Yorker’s famous fact-checking survive the test of time for Capote’s In Cold Blood? In Slate, Ben Yagoda wrote of finding the original notes made by the fact-checker assigned the laborious chore:

Almost from the start, skeptics challenged the accuracy of In Cold Blood. One early revelation (acknowledged by Capote before his death in 1984) was that the last scene in the book, a graveyard conversation between a detective and the murdered girl’s best friend, was pure invention. I myself made a small contribution to the counter-narrative. While doing research for my 2000 book, About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, I found “In Cold Blood” galley proofs in the magazine’s archives. Next to a passage describing the actions of someone who was alone, and who was later killed in the “multiple murder,” New Yorker editor William Shawn had scrawled, in pencil, “How know?” There was in fact no way to know, but the passage stayed.

So who knows? In a later session of the Writers Conference led by Claiborne Smith, editor-in-chief of Kirkus Reviews and literary director of the San Antonio Book Festival, Jarboe observed, “Nonfiction is often more unbelievable than fiction.”

 signed: a writer drowning in a swamp of footnotes

Library Foundation flapping red cape for the bullish on books

"Toro Obscuro," Joel Salcido, poster artist for San Antonio Book Festival 2013,
“Toro Obscuro,” Joel Salcido, poster artist for San Antonio Book Festival 2013, http://www.joelsalcidogallery.com/

A full day of readings by recently published Texas authors is on the horizon for Saturday, April 13. No need to steel yourself for a drive up I-35 because the San Antonio Public Library Foundation is bringing a fresh edition of the Texas Book Festival here to the Central Library and the Southwest School of Art for seven hours of readings, discussions and signings.

logoThe preliminary schedule is so packed I assembled links to resolve (or attempt to resolve) conflicting pulls among the readings in advance. Definitely check the official website for updates before heading downtown:

All Day

  • Book Sales
  • Coloring Station, Painting Bookmarks; H-E-B Children’s Area
  • Latino Leadership for the Library En Nuestras Palabras: My Story Van, Stories on the Porch, Create A Story, Meet the Story Tellers, Stories are Milagros for the Future; Central Library Plaza Walk

10 a.m.

10:45 a.m.

  • Elaine Scott (Buried Alive!: How 33 Miners Survived 69 Days Deep Under the Chilean Desert); Children’s Area, Central Library
  • Storytelling with Sarah Loden; H-E-B Children’s Area

going-clear-cover11 a.m.

11:15 a.m.

  • Celebrating Small-Town Texas Souls with Liza Palmer and Lynda Rutledge; Moderator, Josie Seeligson; Southwest School of Art, Ursuline Campus

11:30 a.m.


12:15 p.m.

12:30 p.m.

  • A Sense of Birthplace: Investigating the Past: Beatriz de la Garza and Sarah Cortez; Moderator, Yvette Benavides; Southwest School of Art, Navarro Campus

oleander12:45 p.m.

1 p.m.

  • Sandra Cisneros performs from Have You Seen Marie?; Moderator, John Phillip Santos; Central Library

I always tell people that I became a writer not because I went to school but because my mother took me to the library.

Sandra Cisneros

job-cover1:45 p.m.

2 p.m.

2:15 p.m.

alicia2:30 p.m.

2:45 p.m.

  • At War Over the Environment: Two Experts on the Politics of Parks and the Natural World with George Bristol and Char Miller; Moderator, Weir Labatt; Southwest School of Art, Navarro Campus

3 p.m.

  • Esmeralda Santiago on Conquistadora; Moderator, José Rubén De León, Central Library
  • For readers of Young Adult fiction: Summer of the Mariposas with Guadalupe Garcia McCall; Moderator, Yvette Benavides; Southwest School of Art, Navarro Campus
  • Thinking caps and creativity crowns; H-E-B Children’s Area

3:15 p.m.

4 p.m.

4:15 p.m.


An incredible agenda for a first-time event (May there be many more).

Of course you will need breaks, so there will be children’s activities and music throughout the day.

And nourishing your mind makes you hungry, so some of San Antonio’s favorite food trucks will be parked nearby for refueling.

Hmm, this is San Antonio. Wonder where the beer stand is….

cafeNote to Austinites: Your turn to hit I-35.

Note to Self: Never get so excited about something you decide to post the whole schedule – with custom links – again.

And thanks to the Mister Barista for that caffe corretto blast.

April 12, 2013, Update:

Just received the schedule for the Latino Leadership for the Library area just outside the Central Library, and it adds another slew of author appearances.



Alamollywood Part I: Are the Daughters Extremely Savvy or Starstruck?

Didn’t really want to start the year off with another post about the Alamo, but several emails I received in the past 24 hours and Jan Jarboe Russell’s column on the future of the shrine of Texas liberty in today’s San Antonio Express-News compelled me to head down this blog’s wellworn path to the door of the Alamo.

This morning’s email had brought me a summary from wordpress.com listing the top five posts on my blog during 2010.  Three of the five are Alamobsessive:

In the Express, Russell shares concerns expressed by state Senator Leticia van de Putte about the contract the Daughters of the Republic of Texas have entered into with WME Entertainment:

Meanwhile, Van de Putte and others are uncomfortable with the governing board’s recent decision to hire William Morris Endeavor Entertainment at $75,000 a month for a year to promote the Alamo.   The Daughters’ own efforts to raise significant money for an endowment have failed.

“This is an agency that represents movies stars like Madonna and promotes celebrity brands like Tommy Hilfiger,” Van de Putte said.  “This would be the first time the agency promoted a historic landmark.  I don’t think it’s appropriate.”

WME Entertainment was formed by a 2009 merger that shook up Hollywood.  According to answers.com:

What do you call an aging Hollywood star trying to regain youth and vigor by marrying a much younger starlet?  Try William Morris Endeavor Entertainment (WME Entertainment), the new talent agency formed by the 2009 merger of 100-year-old William Morris Agency and Endeavor, born in 1995.  The new super-agency ranks in size (boasting more than 300 agents) and scope with the Creative Artists Agency, a leader in the talent representation industry.  WME Entertainment’s roster of stars includes Adam Sandler, Clint Eastwood, Denzel Washington, and Russell Crowe, among other A-list names.  William Morris brought its primacy in books, music, and TV to the marriage, while upstart Endeavor adds young stars and momentum.

Now add the ancient Alamo to that roster. 

Generally, the best way to quell a story and end rumors is to lay out the facts in a straightforward fashion.  But it seems the contract the Daughters signed includes a major confidentiality clause that damages their credibility in dealing with the public.  To someone unfamiliar with the high-dollar entertainment industry (as in me), the figure seems steep:

In consideration of the marketing services to be rendered by WME as set forth herein, WME shall be outlined to receive a guaranteed total of Nine Hundred Thousand Dollars ($900,000) for the term payable in equal monthly installments of Seventy Five Thousand Dollars ($75,000) for the months from November 1, 2010 until October 31, 2011.

Photo from Mail Online

Lips remain zipped over who is footing the bill to support this contract, but bets are on Phil Collins.  According to Mail Online:

He recently secretly bought a shop next to the Alamo mission ­simply so that he could dig under it in search of artifacts.  He’s also spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on memorabilia…. Collins spends weeks at a time in Texas, and his friends believe that he is preparing to buy a home there….  He’s addressed a local historical society, is thinking of writing a book, and is coming out of semi-retirement next spring in order to do a benefit gig for a restoration fund in San Antonio.

Not only does he collect everything Alamo, Collins apparently believes he was at the Alamo in 1836.  Again, according to Mail Online:

Gary Foreman, a fellow Alamo enthusiast, recalled the moment that his wife Carolyn “revealed” Phil’s former life as Texan courier John W Smith, a man who was known as El Colorado — the redhead — because of his hair.  Foreman said his wife called Collins over and shared her conviction with him.  “When she made the revelation to Phil, his face lit up. His reaction was he felt very much at home at the Alamo and now it made sense.”

If Phil Collins is the mystery philanthropist, it is great to have someone outside of San Antonio take intense interest in and demonstrate a willingness to invest in such an important landmark.  But, whoever the funder is, it takes a leap of faith to believe Hollywood marketing expertise will treat the history part of the story of the Alamo with the respect it merits.

Russell writes:

What the Alamo needs isn’t a promoter, but steady, reliable management and a staff of historians and professionals with a solid understanding of quality museum practices.

Hopefully, the Daughters will emerge from this with a new image as incredibly savvy businesswomen who have found a brilliant fundraising strategy to keep the Alamo in repair for years to come.  Or….

Update on January 5, 2011

In 2010, the byline of one Scott Huddleston, a longtime Express-News reporter, was most associated with the Alamo. And what a roller coast ride it was.

Ben Olivo briefly summarizes the year’s stories about the Alamo that dominated coverage of downtown San Antonio.

January 6 Update:  Phil Collins’ and Ricky Skaggs’ fans shouldn’t book their plane tickets to San Antonio yet.  While the DRT website still has March 5th posted as the date for the free concert on the plaza, the Convention and Visitors Bureau now lists it as happening on the Fourth of July….

And Scott Huddleston of the Express-News posted the news this evening that “Alamo concert now on hold.”

Update on January 24: One website suggests tongue-in-cheek that the Daughters pretty much just go all the way Alamollywood and chuck the real Alamo for the “reel” Alamo.