Thomas Harris: ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ Author Has Summered in Sag Harbor for Years

Hannibal Lecter cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

Thomas Harris, the author of The Silence of the Lambs and creator of the Hannibal Lecter character, is a summer resident of Sag Harbor. Most people do not know he is here. I didn’t even know he and his monster were here, and, because I often write about celebrities, that is surprising.

Except it is not surprising. Famous people make decisions about how they want to make use of the Hamptons. Some get a media guru and a press secretary and encamp themselves in East Hampton or Southampton and let things fly. Others just come here because they like the gorgeousness of the Hamptons and don’t want to bother themselves with the trappings.

Back in the day, there used to be two towns where you could do just that—Bridgehampton and Sag Harbor. But an inundation of media seekers bought out most of the potato farmers and built their mansions. So now it is just Sag Harbor, a place where the Thomas Harrises can enjoy this small town and sit in the park or shop at Schiavoni’s or just be at home with friends and family.

Alexandra Alter, a reporter for The New York Times, recently interviewed Harris. I think it was the first interview he’s given since 1975.

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She does write a bit about how he spends his time—he lives the rest of the year in Miami Beach with his partner, Pace Barnes, and the interview took place there. Harris took the reporter to the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station, an animal rescue outfit that he has been helping hands-on for many years. She asked Christopher Boykin, the manager there, if he knew who this man was and got told that no, he didn’t realize it was THAT Thomas Harris until just very recently. The manager had once asked him what he did for a living, was told he was a writer, and when he asked if he’d written anything he’d ever heard of, he got a shrug like, not really.

“He’s just a kind old guy from Mississippi,” Boykin said.

Fifty million copies of his books that feature Hannibal Lecter have been sold. Other than that, I can tell you he likes to cook, but honestly, anything further, well, you can Google the interview.

What the reporter was particularly interested in however, was how Harris had come to think up Hannibal Lecter, this monster who kills people and cooks and then eats them. Over the year, critics have suggested he has a crazed mind. Alter tried different ways of asking him but always got the same answer.

“I don’t think I’ve ever made up anything.   Everything has happened. Nothing’s made up.”

In that regard, Harris mentioned a particular doctor at a jail in Mexico who he said was the model for Hannibal. But it’s also true that just the prior year there was the true story of Jeffrey Dahmer, a killer who ate people. He got caught and eventually was himself killed in jail by outraged prisoners.   Although that happened only a year before Hannibal appeared, well, it wasn’t that guy.

Harris also described how he goes about writing his books. He develops a scene and then works to see how they interact with others before and after the scene. He types up what he finds out. And if it gives him trouble, he tries it longhand for awhile.

“Sometimes you really have to shove and grunt and sweat,” he told Alter. “Some days you go to your office and you’re the only one who shows up, none of the characters show up, and you sit there by yourself, feeling like an idiot. And some days everybody shows up ready to work. You have to show up at your office every day. If an idea comes by, you want to be there to get it in.”

So many great authors have found solitude in Sag Harbor and, back when it was potatoes, Bridgehampton. John Steinbeck wrote in an octagonal studio on the lawn of his home in Sag Harbor. Truman Capote wrote in a house surrounded by potatoes fields in Bridgehampton.   Currently, Bob Caro, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, writes in a woodshed turned into a writing room next to his house in the woods halfway between Sag Harbor and Bridgehampton.

The late Kurt Vonnegut used to write at the historic Colonial-era saltbox he owned in Sagaponack. Every morning he’d walk the few hundred yards to the Sagaponack General Store for his mail and the morning paper.

Oh, and Alter did ask Harris why it had been so long since he’d given interviews. He said there really was no reason, he’d always told people his books speak for themselves, except in his new book, Cari Mora, he was trying a new kind of writing—about detectives, the mob and murder, and no Hannibal Lecter, so he thought he’d give an interview, too.