Author Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s start in screenwriting and directing fostered an early interest in adaptation.
“I was always interested in the art of adapting works of literature for the screen,” Greenberg-Jephcott said. She related a life-changing incident from 2006.
“I was in a villa in Provence having received a fellowship for a Tolstoy adaptation I’d written, and was inspired by authors present to try my hand at prose fiction,” Greenberg-Jephcott recalled. “I had a childhood passion for Capote and was intrigued by the women he called his Swans, who kept cropping up in the Clarke and Plimpton biographies, as well as in Truman’s work. I knew what I had in mind for their collective and individual narratives was too expansive a tale for a feature film—even a series risked not fully capturing their unique voices. I began what would become a ten year process of research and gestation.”
In 2014, Greenberg-Jephcott devoted herself to the writing process in earnest when she discovered “the collective choral voice of Capote’s literary casualties.”
“I started writing in the six month UEA/Guardian Masterclass, and completed the work three years later in the UEA prose fiction MA program,” she said.
Swan Song, the resulting novel, won the Bridport Prize for a first novel and was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, the Myriad Editions competition, and the Historical Novel Society New Novel Award.
Though they certainly did not come easily, Greenberg-Jephcott called the prepublication accolades her “passport from a world of aspiration to one of realization,” and she learned much during the journey—foremost of which is that research can be both a springboard and a crutch.
“It extended the process by years, yet gave me the authority to be able to fully inhabit my characters—crucial when writing from the perspectives of some of the most iconic figures of the 20th century,” she said.
The time she spent actually writing provided valuable insight as well.
“I’ve learned to let the narrative tell me what it wants to be,” Greenberg-Jephcott said. “I do not outline, do not ‘spreadsheet;’ most of the major conceptual decisions would not have occurred had I stuck to my original, theoretical plan.”
Greenberg-Jephcott said that she has learned that stories can take on lives of their own.
“Voices will emerge; characters will elbow their way into the text,” she explained. “It’s my job to refuse the temptation to shoehorn the material into a preconceived agenda. I’ve come to accept it’s my job to let the characters be, and simply get out of their way.”
Greenberg-Jephcott said that the fact that she comes from a tradition of Southern American colloquial storytellers made channeling Capote’s voice a natural and easy feat.
“I’m often asked if I felt a burden of responsibility to Capote when writing him,” she said. “I like to say that he in a sense wrote himself…I was almost functioning as a conduit whenever he entered a scene.”
“Where I did feel a great responsibility was to Capote’s prose, especially to his unfinished opus Answered Prayers. There’s a version of this tale that could have been written in a linear fashion in a year and a half…With Swan Song I wanted to take my time and understand on every level what Capote intended—from both a narrative and craft perspective, as well as a psychological one. Honoring those intentions and paying homage to his prose techniques were always at the forefront of my thinking. I also felt a great responsibility to honor both the shared and individual narratives of the Swans. The iconic tastemakers of their day, they’ve been very much lopped together by history, a collective casualty of both their shared status as members of the jet set elite, as well as by their shared association with Truman. Capote carefully selected these six women as his allies of twenty years and as his fictive subjects, as he appreciated each as a bold act of self-creation. He felt any one could have been the heroine of her own novel—midcentury Kareninas or Bovaries. To restore their individual voices has been the greatest of joys and honors. The story of the literary crime of the century—as I like to refer to Capote’s betrayal of his coterie—has as much resonance today as it did in 1975 when the fallout occurred. It raises timeless questions about the nature of friendship and personal ambition, as well as the artist’s responsibility to their subjects. The conundrum of art versus life and the thin line between the two never goes away.”
Greenberg-Jephcott continues to find herself inspired by unexplored histories.
“As Capote so often did, I draw inspiration from factual tales, which I can’t help but reimagine as fiction,” she said. “It fires every cylinder of my imagination. Drawing from fact I feel all the freer to experiment conceptually—with form and prose techniques. The manner of the telling becomes paramount, something I relish exploring. Of course reading great prose always inspires—be it Capote or other favourites, [including] John Fowles, Donna Tartt, Joan Didion, Jeffrey Eugenides…the list goes on.”
For Greenberg-Jephcott, the worst part of the writing process for this particular book was typesetting.
“Multiple rounds of typesets were an exercise in relinquishing control, which for a perfectionist like me was nightmarish,” she said.
Her favorite parts of the writing process were the “astonishing moments of discovery, whether uncovering an unexpected detail through research, or having one of those eureka moments experimenting with prose techniques.”
Another special moment occurred post-publication with the recording of the audiobook.
“I adored recording the audiobook, which I had the great pleasure of directing,” Greenberg-Jephcott said. “It really ‘returned’ the novel to me, as for the first time I was able to listen to every syllable without my editor-critic cap on. I was able to simply enjoy the narrative as a separate entity— something quite apart from me. It was a cathartic experience to hear that polyphonic chorus of voices interpreted by an incredible actress [Debora Weston]. It was eight days of sheer bliss. And—I’m not just saying this because I’m speaking to Spine—of course the day I saw my cover for the first time was a particular highlight. My designer Lauren Wakefield simply nailed it, capturing both the glamour and gravitas of the novel in equal measure. It was the moment the book became a real, concrete thing for me—a very special debut rite-of-passage. My husband and I printed out the initial image and took it to Harrods for oysters and champagne.”
Next for Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott is a novel with a similar midcentury timeframe—“For me, life begins around 1930 and ends around 1979,” she jokes—that deals with midcentury American architects.
“I’m finally at the stage where I’m ready to hear my new cast of voices beginning to speak, which I fear sounds hippie-dippy, but is for me crucial to discovering the narrative voice of a book,” she said. “I’ve started the research process and am excited to inhabit their aesthetic world for awhile, though hopefully not the decade-plus I lived with Truman and Swans. It’s my goal to get a bit faster with each book.”
Hiba Tahir is a YA author, a freelance journalist, and an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Arkansas.