Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Kate Garrett reads excerpts from the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote.
This is the first book-turned-movie someone has recorded for us, and a delightful pick at that. (I have reoccurring nightmares of someone submitting a recording of 50 Shades of Grey or Twilight.) How true to the book is the movie?
Kate Garrett: 50 Shades or Twilight? Ha! No thank you, I’d share your nightmares… but as for Breakfast at Tiffany’s: the book and the movie are different pieces of art, in all the important aspects, anyway. I read the book well before I’d seen the film, and felt so disappointed by the Hollywood ending, especially since it’s a classic movie and everyone speaks highly of it. And I do love it now; it took years. But they took a beautiful piece of art about alienation and anxiety (or angst, but we’ll get to that later), and made it into a decent romcom. But – if I look at literary Breakfast at Tiffany’s and cinematic Breakfast at Tiffany’s separately, then I can appreciate both. I can also appreciate what the film did for women, because Holly is a strong, complex character for the time, even on film. Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard have, over time, become my favourite leading film couple, but only since I convinced myself they are not the same Holly and narrator (Paul Varjack is not named in the novella, though Holly calls him “Fred” from time to time, after her brother) as the ones in the book. The Holly in the book is a sex worker (the film shows this, but it’s more ambiguous) as well as a society girl, and the narrator is a gay male writer who has inexplicably fallen in love with her. The film does interesting things, like making Paul Varjack a sex worker as well, to an older rich woman, but it’s all a bit watered down for my liking. And that ending… changes everything.
Sundress: You’ve peaked my interest about the original ending, but we won’t spoil that. The romcom romance is such an iconic pairing. What is the dynamic like between “Fred” the gay male writer and Holly the sex worker as compared to Paul and Holly? What image should we have of these characters leading up to the first audio you recorded of the novella?
Kate Garrett: There is less attachment than in the romcom setting. “Fred” does show concern about Holly, but he doesn’t want to save her. She’s a fascination – there’s the impression that he would like her to be happy, and be more cautious, maybe, because she screws up a lot and gets into situations she shouldn’t, but she’s also entertaining and simply fascinating for him. And Holly sees him as a comfort; sometimes around “Fred” her mask will slip, but she’s always quick to try and pull it back on again. They are friends, but he’s infatuated with her on an emotional or metaphysical level, not necessarily a physical one. He thinks she’s intriguing. It’s as much curiosity as it is love. But it’s an addictive curiosity. I mean, if she wasn’t important to him, why would he be telling us all about her?
Sundress: When you sent this in, you titled this excerpt, “Buy Some Furniture and Give the Cat a Name” which I found really interesting. Listening, I would have titled it “The Mean Reds”—perhaps because the scene was so iconic for me—but instead of titling it after Holly’s problem, angst, you titled it after Holly’s what if. Who is Holly Golightly to you?
Kate Garrett: Holly Golightly is someone I’ve identified with at various points in my life, but she’s so much more than that. And we’re talking literary Holly, not cinematic Holly. Holly Golightly is possibility and “what if”s. So I focused on the furniture and the cat having a name because she is always chasing that, as so many people do. But particularly at the time of writing, Capote was bucking against the idea that everyone finds it easy to buy furniture and give the cat a name. Of course it isn’t easy, but it’s “normal” to assume that’s how human beings find fulfilment in our society. And maybe Holly won’t find it there, maybe she’ll find it somewhere else. Any of us could find it somewhere else, I mean seriously, what is furniture? Holly just feels like potential. For all of her moments of hopelessness, she feels like a promise. She represents that to the narrator, and to Mr. Bell the bartender, even to Doc Golightly, to most of the characters in the book – apart from the ones who she actually feels will bring her that furniture-fulfilment, that Tiffany’s life, those are the ones who let her down – but everyone who falls in unrequited love with Holly does so because she reminds them to keep looking, that there is more. She unsettles them, but they love her. She breezes in, and breezes back out again. But she has a heavy heart under all that lightness. That’s the mean reds, the angst. And when I was younger, that mean reds description would have been all I talked about today – it described anxiety, which I’ve suffered severely with since I was a very small child, in such a way that made me feel comforted. And literary Holly has all this awful trauma, and I found that comforting too, because so did I. But now I question the furniture and the cat, and what that means, all the time. I used to run around looking for it like Holly – geographically, from person to person, to drink, to whatever. But is it possible to even get to that place? Maybe. I still don’t know. Maybe we get the mean reds because we’re chasing something flimsy. But in my life, that’s where the poetry comes from – I still get my own mean reds and if I never name my metaphorical cat (my actual cat does have a name, I just don’t think she cares) and never have breakfast at Tiffany’s, what I do get is the writing that comes out of the push and pull. Good things come out of it.
Sundress: This second clip, “Never Love a Wild Thing,” also mentions, in passing, that that iconic euphemism for angst. It’s been years since I’ve seen the film, but I can only really remember ‘the mean reds’ making one, spectacular appearance: the one you recorded above. How often does Holly talk about her mental health, her angst, her inability to settle down? Capote’s “Golightly” seems less light—although surly as flitty—than the film. Is this a valid take-away?
Kate Garrett: She is less light than the Holly in the film, but she still covers up her depth with a substantial layer of bullshit. (Am I allowed to say bullshit?) She talks and talks at length, to everyone, about unimportant things, she claims one aspiration is to marry rich and have children, and we know she doesn’t really want that – we know what she wants is a place like Tiffany’s, but isn’t sure where she’ll find it. One of the minor, passing characters calls her a phony, but he says she knows she’s a phony. This is true. She does. I don’t think we are supposed to ever believe she’s just this lighthearted pixie. We get a glimpse of what she’s been through, and of her angst, trauma, and sadness, but it’s very rarely put into words. But we see what the narrator sees, and therefore why he cares about her so much. Her rants and rambles and knowing tones when she speaks about socialites and cafe society are hiding her insecurities.
Sundress: “It is better to look at the sky than live there…” Do you agree? Is it better to be a wild thing?
Kate Garrett: I don’t believe in being tame if it doesn’t suit you, even if you become a little more domesticated, a person can still be a wild thing. It’s fine for some and not fine for others. But for me, it’s better. Being wild doesn’t necessarily mean to use Holly as an influence – like, flitting around the world sleeping with hundreds of people along the way, forever and ever, amen, isn’t the only way to do it (but if someone wants that, they should go out and get it, obviously). Freedom can be the freedom to think and feel and do as you please. I’ll always be a wild thing, even though I’m married and a mother, because my thoughts and feelings and actions are my own, and yes, I have my own mean reds that make it impossible to be calm and settled, even though I’m happy. But living in the sky – it might be scary, but it’s open and spacious and liberating.
Sundress: How has Truman Capote influenced your own work?
Kate Garrett: His use of simple language to say complex things – making connections between disparate concepts/places/objects, or just surprising the reader with what’s said next. Capote’s prose is so straightforward, but still stunning in every sense of the word. There’s no reason why these things shouldn’t also be applied to poetry if that’s what the writer feels comfortable doing – and I like the depth of my poem to be accessible to others (even if I do say strange things in my poems sometimes), otherwise what’s the point. And Capote’s writing really gets under the skin of his characters, of people in general, whether he’s writing fiction or non-fiction, even though it looks like he’s writing in this slick and superficial way. I don’t know if I ever manage to pull off his tricks, but I admire them.
Kate Garrett writes poetry and flash fiction, and edits other people’s poetry and flash fiction. She is a senior editor at the independent writers collective Pankhearst (Slim Volume & Fresh) and founding editor of Three Drops Press, home of the fairytales, folklore & mythology themed webzine Three Drops from a Cauldron. Her work is widely published online and in print, and her most recent poetry pamphlet, The Density of Salt, is forthcoming in 2016 from Indigo Dreams Publishing. She lives in Sheffield with her husband, a cat, and three clever trolls who call her ‘Mum’.