Interviews

Shelby Foote, The Art of Fiction No. 158

Interviewed by Carter Coleman, Donald Faulkner, William Kennedy

Although best known for his monumental trilogy The Civil War: A Narrative (1958, 1963, 1974), Shelby Foote’s preferred genre is the novel. Much as his hero, friend, and fellow Mississippian William Faulkner created Yoknapatawpha, Foote imagined Jordan County. Writing five novels in five years, Foote recounted the Delta county’s history and described every strain of society—a God-haunted hardscrabble farmer, a doomed black horn player, wealthy planter families in a state of advanced moral decline—in Tournament (1949), Follow Me Down (1950), Love in a Dry Season (1951), and Jordan County: A Landscape in Narrative (1954). His fourth novel, Shiloh, (1952) dedicated to his boyhood friend Walker Percy, in which fictional characters appear beside historical figures, follows the events and recorded dialogue of the actual battle and foreshadows the epic history of the war that would take him two decades to complete. His last novel, September September (1977) is set in Memphis in 1957 when racial tension threatens the city. All the novels reflect a deep understanding of the way history shapes and warps individual lives. Overshadowed by The Civil War in the States, his novels have been best-sellers in Italy and France, where he is considered an heir to Faulkner.

Shelby Foote was born in the river town of Greenville, Mississippi in 1916, the descendent of a planter who gambled away his land and fortune. A formative influence was the Greenville resident William Alexander Percy, a planter and poet who brought young Walker Percy and his brothers to live with him after they were orphaned. Had he and Walker Percy not become friends, Foote has said, it’s likely that he might never have become interested in literature. Foote followed Percy to the University of North Carolina, where he spent most of his time in the library, devising his own curriculum of history and literature. He left after two years. He worked for Hodding Carter’s Delta Star before joining the Mississippi National Guard in 1940. He served as an artillery captain in Northern Ireland but was court-martialed and dismissed after driving a jeep over the fifty-mile limit to visit his Irish fiancée. Back in the States, he worked in New York for the Associated Press and served briefly in the U.S. Marines in California. In 1945, he returned to Greenville, worked at a radio station, then quit to write full-time after selling a story to The Saturday Evening Post. In 1954, he moved to Memphis, which he calls “the capital of the Mississippi Delta.”

For the last thirty-three years Shelby Foote and his third wife, Gwyn Rainer Foote, have lived in a rambling brick Tudor house shaded by magnolias and poplars on a street of grand homes built during the glory days of cotton trading at the turn of the century. Dressed in his regular writing attire (pajamas and bathrobe) Foote opened the door, a rambunctious chocolate Lab retriever named Bird barking and leaping behind him. With his trim gray beard and mustache and thick gray hair parted in the middle, Foote resembles a Confederate general. He has an aristocratic drawl reminiscent of Southern orators: “Jordan,” he pronounced “Jurden.” Gwyn Foote, a slender Memphis native wearing slacks and a blouse, can be found most anytime at her chair in a large living room reading stacks of contemporary fiction. The interview was conducted in his office at the far end of the house, a large room with an oriental rug, a double bed, a fireplace, and pictures of his children on the mantle; bookshelves line portions of the room. There are a replica of Picasso’s Guernica with a WWII rifle mounted in its center, his helmet from the war on a shelf, and a wooden model of a German Stuka hanging from the ceiling on a string in the attitude of a dive bomber. A poster of Proust looks down on a small desk with a typewriter. Pinned to a board over his main desk are quotations, a picture of Elvis and the outline of his long unfinished novel of the Delta, “Two Gates to the City.” During the interview, Foote sat at his desk or paced to and fro in his slippers, frequently refilling his pipe from a humidor with a mixture of Half & Half and Edward G. Robinson tobacco.

In 1997, Donald Faulkner and William Kennedy interviewed Foote for the New York State Writers Institute in Albany, New York.

 

INTERVIEWER

With what instrument do you write? A word processor?  

SHELBY FOOTE

I use a dip pen. Everybody on earth used to have one. They were in every post office in the land. I like the feel that a pen or pencil gives you, being in close touch with the paper and with nothing mechanical between you and it. The very notion of a word processor horrifies me. When I’ve finished a draft, I make changes in the margin. Then I make a fair copy. I also edit the fair copy somewhat when I type it on big yellow sheets so I can see it in print for the first time. I correct those outsized yellow sheets, then retype them on regular eight and a half by eleven pages for the printer. I’ve had poet friends tell me they never type a poem until they are really satisfied with it. Once they see it in print it is very different from what it was in longhand. It freezes the poem for them.  

INTERVIEWER

I’ve heard that during the middle of writing The Civil War you bought all the dip pens left in the United States.  

FOOTE

My favorite pen-point manufacturer had all but gone out of business—Esterbrook. I was running out and fairly desperate. On Forty-fourth Street just east of the Algonquin Hotel, on the other side of the street, there used to be an old stationery shop, all dusty and everything, and I went in there on the chance he might have some. He looked in a drawer. He had what I wanted—Probate 313. I bought several gross of those things, so I’ve got enough pen points to last me out my life and more. Another problem is blotters. When I was a kid and when I was writing back in the forties on into the fifties, you could go into any insurance office and they had stacks of giveaway blotters for advertising.  

INTERVIEWER

What precisely is a blotter?  

FOOTE

This is a blotter [pointing] and if you haven’t got one you’re up the creek. You use the blotter to keep the ink from being wet on the page. You put the blotter on top and blot the page. I was talking about blotters in an interview, what a hard time I had finding them, and I got a letter from a woman in Mississippi. She said, I have quite a lot of blotters I’ll be glad to send you. So I got blotters galore. Ink is another problem. I got a phone call from a man in Richmond, Virginia who had a good supply of ink in quart bottles. I got three quarts from him, so I’m in good shape on that.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you reckon you’re the last writer to be using dip pens in the United States?  

FOOTE

There’s probably some other nut somewhere out there doing it.  

INTERVIEWER

Is it true that you spend the whole day in pajamas?  

FOOTE

I live in pajamas. Sometimes I don’t have anything on but pajamas three or four days in a row. If I’m not going out, why get dressed?  

INTERVIEWER

So, you spent twenty years in pajamas writing The Civil War?  

FOOTE

Spent much of it. I’m also very fond of nightshirts—old-fashioned, long-sleeved nightshirts. I’m recreating Balzac.  

INTERVIEWER

Did you suffer from postpartum depression after you finished The Civil War?  

FOOTE

Gibbon talks about finishing The Decline and Fall, saying how he had mixed emotions—liberated and very happy to have brought it to a close and to have lived long enough to wind it up. Then he became very sad, as if he’d lost an old friend. I felt all those things. It was a strange feeling. But I knew the last line from the time I started the book.  

INTERVIEWER

What was the last line?  

FOOTE

“ ‘Tell the world that I only loved America,’ he said.” He was Jefferson Davis.  

INTERVIEWER

When you were writing The Civil War, which is some million and a half words long, did you type the whole manuscript up yourself?  

FOOTE

Twice. I’ve never had anything resembling a secretary or a research assistant. I don’t want those. Each time I type, it gives me another shot at it, another look at it. As for research, I can’t begin to tell you the things I discovered while I was looking for something else. A research assistant couldn’t have done that. Not being a trained historian, I had botherations that led to good things. For instance, I didn’t take careful notes while reading. Then I’d get to something and I’d say, By golly, there’s something John Rawlins said at that time that’s real important. Where did I see it? Then I would remember that it was in a book with a red cover, close to the middle of the book, on the right-hand side and one third from the top of the page. So I’d spend an hour combing through all my red-bound books. I’d find it eventually, but I’d also find a great many other things in the course of the search.  

INTERVIEWER

Where was the searching done? Libraries?  

FOOTE

No. Mostly books right there at hand, a couple of hundred of those.  

INTERVIEWER

How about revision?  

FOOTE

I don’t have to revise at the end; I revise as I go along. I might change commas around or something, but very little is left to do. Revision is heartbreaking. I just don’t like it. Walker Percy was the exact opposite. He said if he knew how a story was going to turn out he wouldn’t be interested in writing the book. Of course, this was sort of a joke, but he really meant it partway. For everyone a book is a search and, hopefully, a discovery.  

INTERVIEWER

I’ve heard that when the third Civil War volume was finished and you turned it in, it went straight to typesetting without being copyedited.  

INTERVIEWER

So did volume two. I had a funny experience with copy readers back at the outset. They worship reference books and dictionaries and all that ticky kind of thing. We had a sure-enough expert for volume one. He complained that I was using the phrase “by ordinary” instead of ordinarily. He said, That’s incorrect. You shouldn’t do that. I said, No, I’ve heard that and used it all my life. He said, That doesn’t keep it from being wrong. I said, “Well, let’s look.” I opened the Webster’s unabridged and went to ordinary. Under it, it said, “By ordinary—Shelby Foote.” That convinced him.  

INTERVIEWER

So he didn’t try to change anything after that?  

FOOTE

No. Random House stopped using him after that.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you consider yourself a novelist or a historian?  

FOOTE

I think of myself as a novelist who wrote a three-volume history of the Civil War. I don’t think it’s a novel, but I think it’s certainly by a novelist. The novels are not novels written by a historian. My book falls between two stools—academic historians are upset because there are no footnotes and novel readers don’t want to study history. It doesn’t matter who’s a professional historian and who’s not; Herodotus, Thucydides, and Tacitus weren’t professionals—they were literary men. They considered history a branch of literature; so do I, to this day.

I am what is called a narrative historian. Narrative history is getting more popular all the time, but it’s not a question of twisting the facts into a narrative. I maintain that anything you can learn by writing novels—by putting words together in a narrative form—is especially valuable to you when writing history. There is no great difference between writing novels and writing histories other than this: if you have a character named Lincoln in a novel who’s not Abraham Lincoln, you can give him any color eyes you want. But if you want to describe the color of Abraham Lincoln’s, President Lincoln’s, eyes, you have to know what color they were. They were gray. So you’re working with facts that came out of documents, just as in a novel you are working with facts that come out of your head or most likely out of your memory. Once you have control of those facts, once you possess them, you can handle them exactly as a novelist handles his facts. No good novelist would be false to his facts, and certainly no historian is allowed to be false to his facts under any circumstances. I’ve never known, in at least a modern historical instance, where the truth wasn’t superior to distortion in every way.

Everything I have to say about the writing of history was summoned up by John Keats in ten words in a letter, more or less like a telegram put on the wire nearly two hundred years ago. He said, “A fact is not a truth until you love it.” You have to become attached to the thing you’re writing about—in other words, “love it”—for it to have any real meaning. It is absolutely true that no list of facts ever gives you a valid account of what happened. The bare-bone facts are what you use to shape your description of what happened. There are those historians who, I’m afraid, all too often think that good writing gets in the way of the history. In other words, you hide the facts behind blankets of prose. I believe the exact opposite. I believe that the facts told with some art are true narrative, which you then absorb into your being and understanding as well as you do a great novel, whether it’s a short one like Gatsby or a long one like Remembrance of Things Past. That’s the way I feel about writing history. Now it sounds as if I’m making an all-out attack against academic historians. I am making some attack on them for their lack of concern about learning how to write. It is as if they thought it an onerous waste of time, which they might better spend doing research rather than learning how to write. The result sometimes is a prose that’s so dismal that the footnotes are not an interruption but just a welcome relief. And we’ve all run across that.

I recently had a nightmare experience of being one of three judges of what’s called the Parkman Prize. Parkman happens to be my favorite American historian because he fits the description I have given as to what a historian ought to be. I received two hundred and eight books, all in their shiny jackets, published the past year. I found all but two of them barely readable. That’s a shocking thing. It was because of the writing. It’s also because of me. As I get older, I care less and less what happens in a book. What I care about is the writing—how it’s told. I read words and I don’t see a scene going on as if I were at a movie; I want to see how these words are shaped and how they intertwine and what the sounds are next to each other, how they rub up against each other, along with the distribution of commas and semicolons. If it sounds like I’m making an attack on academic historians, the real truth of the matter is that these historians, whom I’m excoriating to some extent, have very little use for me. In fact I could not do a thing without them. I’m enormously indebted to these fact-gatherers, these perceivers of scenes, these perpetrators of scenes. They do a good job of that. I just wish more of them spent a bit more time learning how to write, learning how to develop a character, manage a plot.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any historians whom you consider good writers?  

FOOTE

I mentioned Parkman. He’s a really good writer. There are a number of good historians with whom I don’t agree but who are good writers. One was an historian at the University of Wisconsin named William Appleman Williams, more or less a Marxist, but a good writer. I always enjoyed reading him.

I don’t mean to downscore everybody in the field, but some of the best historians with regard to communicating facts are dreadful writers. I find them close to unreadable except in the way of research. I’m also worried about something going on now—the use of word processors and computers to gather information. It might be mighty nice to push a button, get all the facts about the casualties in Fredericksburg or whatever, but it’s been my experience that you are skipping two very valuable things. One of them is that it’s been my experience that the more trouble I have learning something, the longer it stays with me; and the easier time I have learning it, the faster it leaves me. So if the information comes flashing across the screen, it goes in this ear and flies out the other by the time I’ve punched the button. That worries me. I worry about the authenticity of the material under this new thing where you’re punching up information. It’s as if you have more use for an index finger than you have for a brain. Somebody told me what great fun it is to be in a chatroom. It seems to me an inordinate waste of time, not to mention a bore.  

INTERVIEWER

How did you start as a writer and how did you start to write novels?  

FOOTE

I edited my high-school newspaper—I did poetry and editorials and everything else on it. I must have done a good job because it won the national championship for the best high-school newspaper in the United States. That came as a big surprise, right there in Greenville, Mississippi, population fifteen thousand.

I think a large part of what made me whatever I am is the fact that I’m an only child. My father died just before I turned six years old, so I’ve been to a considerable degree on my own. I was a latchkey kid before there were any latchkey kids, and I liked it. Cast on my own resources, I began to read very early and with great pleasure. I read pretty good stuff in addition to terrible stuff. The most illuminating thing that ever happened to me in those early days was winning as a Sunday-school prize a copy of David Copperfield. Now, I’d read Tom Swift and earlier Bunny Brown and his sister Sue, then moved on to the Rover Boys and Tarzan. But here came David Copperfield. I was dismayed that it was about six hundred pages long. But when I began to read I got so caught up in it—when I finished it, I realized that I’d been in the presence of something realer than real. I knew David better than I knew myself or anyone else. The way Dickens told that story caught me right then and there.  

INTERVIEWER

Was reading David Copperfield an early catalyst for making you a writer and not just a reader?  

FOOTE

I absolutely think so. I didn’t react immediately, but eventually it made me want to do what Dickens had done—make a world that’s somehow better in focus than real life, which goes rushing past you. He showed me how to do it too.  

INTERVIEWER

Could you have learned that in a creative-writing course?  

FOOTE

I think creative-writing courses are a dismal waste of time. In the first place I don’t think creative writing can be taught. I think it’s very good if it makes you work; that’s the only virtue I see in it. But I think to correct a writer’s mistakes in a schoolmasterly way is to short-circuit the process. Writers have to discover their own mistakes and correct them for it to have real meaning. But the David Copperfield experience is with me to this day.  

INTERVIEWER

How would you define that . . .  

FOOTE

It’s this ability to move inside people the way you can’t move inside them in real life. You can’t even examine yourself as well as Dickens examines David—David’s life—by selecting certain parts of it to stress. Another master of what I’m talking about is Marcel Proust, who looks like he’s just fooling around, when in fact he knows exactly what he’s doing. Through digression after digression he’s moving that story forward, nonstop, start to finish. That fascinated me.  

INTERVIEWER

Were you writing short stories in college?  

FOOTE

I went to school in September of 1935. By September of the following year things were heating up in Europe. Absolutely no doubt that there was fixing to be a war in Europe. It was obvious to me that it was coming and I knew too that we were going to get into it, so I went home. During the two years I was in college I had a story in almost every issue of the literary magazine. At home, during that waiting period—waiting at first for the war to start, and then for us to get into it too—I wrote the first draft of my first novel, Tournament. When Hitler went into Poland I joined the Mississippi National Guard, which mobilized a year later. I spent the next five years in the service, reading almost nothing except army materials, learning how to be a soldier. It was an interesting time.  

INTERVIEWER

When you were in the army did you do any writing at all?  

FOOTE

I did some reading. I carried Freeman’s Lee with me and Henderson’s Jackson all over the country. I was in the field artillery and you’re no good without your gun, and if you don’t have a truck with you, you can’t haul your gun—so you had plenty of room to carry these things around, and I did.

I liked the army. It was so different from any life I’d lived up till then. That was before I ran into all kinds of trouble from not being able to take authority from anyone anywhere. I got into constant trouble. I finally worked up to sergeant and got busted back to private. Then I went off to officer candidate school, came out a second lieutenant, made first lieutenant, made captain, then had a run-in with a staff officer in Northern Ireland. I got crossways with a lieutenant colonel on staff for making him apologize to a soldier for cursing him. He laid for me and finally court-martialed me and I got sent back to the States and dismissed from the army. They didn’t call it “dishonorable” then; they called it “other than honorable.” I got back to the States and I worked on a local desk at AP for four or five months, and the war was heating up all the time. I couldn’t stand it any longer, so I went down and joined the Marine Corps.

The marines had a great time with me. They said, We understand you used to be a captain in the army. You might make a pretty good marine private if you work at it. I was in the Marine Corps a little less than a year so I didn’t have enough time to get in any trouble. I would have gotten into trouble there eventually, although it’s not easy to get into trouble in the marines; they take that kind of thing in stride and they don’t have any objection at all to someone being somewhat crazy. Marines are mostly that way; they seem to prefer it.

Something kept me from getting my head blown off. Maybe the trouble in Northern Ireland kept me from being killed during Normandy. I was sent to combat intelligence school at Camp Lejeune and we were trained in all kinds of things. The rumor was, and I believe it was true, that we were going in on rubber boats at D-2 in Formosa, which means I most certainly would have gotten my head blown off. But they dropped the atomic bomb and put an end to the war. There’s a lot of talk now about a guilt trip over dropping that bomb. Anybody who was in the army or the Marine Corps when they dropped that bomb never heard such hurrahs in his life.  

INTERVIEWER

You have a reputation, across your biography, of being a bit hotheaded at times.  

FOOTE

I always had trouble with authority. I never wanted anybody to tell me what I can and can’t do. Imagine feeling that way in the army.  

INTERVIEWER

Was army service valuable to you?  

FOOTE

Absolutely. All types and conditions of men. A certain hilarity of the night life—get drunk, have fights, all that stuff. Hunting was important to me at one time in my life. I haven’t been hunting in twenty years. The last time I went I couldn’t hit anything, so it’s just as well. You really have to do that pretty steady to be any good at it—like Billy the Kid practicing. He’d get on his horse and ride along a road between fences with birds on them, and as the birds got up he’d shoot. I don’t know how many of them he hit, but that was his practicing. One time Faulkner asked Howard Hawks, Am I a better bird-shot than Hemingway? Hawks said, No, you’re not, but my wife Slim’s better than either of you.

You’ve heard that thing about Faulkner and Clark Gable haven’t you? Howard Hawks was taking Faulkner out on a quail shoot and came by to pick him up a little before dawn to get to where they were going by first light. Clark Gable was in the car, and Faulkner in the backseat. As they rode along, Gable and Hawks got to talking. Gable said, You know, you’re a well-read man, Howard. I’ve always been meaning to do some reading. I never have really done it. What do you think I ought to read? And Hawks said, Why don’t you ask Bill back there. He’s a writer, and he’ll be able to tell you. Gable said, Do you write, Mr. Faulkner? Faulkner said, Yes, Mr. Gable. What do you do?  

INTERVIEWER

When you came out of the service did you go back to Tournament?  

FOOTE

Before we mobilized I put the manuscript of Tournament up in my mother’s linen closet, and I got it out after the war. I saw something in there that I thought would make a good story—it’s about a Confederate veteran major who dies during a Mississippi flood and they don’t know how to bury him. In any case, I took that section and I sent it to The Saturday Evening Post. They took it—boom—like that. It was twenty-two pages long and they paid me seven hundred and fifty dollars for it. That was a lot of money in those days for a beginning writer. I thought, If I write one forty-four pages long maybe they’ll give me fifteen hundred dollars for it. So I wrote a story forty-four pages long—it’s now in Jordan County and it’s called “Ride Out.” I sent it to them and almost by return mail the fiction editor, a man by the name of Stuart Rose, wrote me and said, I don’t know whether this is a long short story or a short novelette and I don’t care. I got a check for fifteen hundred dollars for it. I was pleased with that, God knows. But I got to thinking, It’s not supposed to be like this; this is not the way you learn how to be a writer. So I wrote one sixty-six pages long to see if I could keep this thing going—it was a story that became half of the novel Love in a Dry Season. I sent it to the Post and there was no answer for about two weeks. The letter from the editor said, We regret to inform you that The Saturday Evening Post doesn’t publish stories about incest. That was the end of my relationship with the Post. I was sort of relieved. I had a strong feeling that it was not supposed to go on like this.  

INTERVIEWER

You would have gone on to eighty-eight pages?  

FOOTE

Right. But I knew all along it wasn’t supposed to be this way. These checks were coming in the mail and I wasn’t experiencing any of the trials and tribulations that were supposed to teach you something. So I was greatly relieved that they finally turned something down. Then I buckled down and wrote the novel Shiloh. By then I had an agent. He took it to Dial Press and they liked it very much but said it wouldn’t sell. Did I have something else in mind? And I said, Yes. There’s a novel called Tournament I’m thinking about writing. I told them what it was about; they said it sounded great and they gave me a fifteen hundred dollar advance. So I went home and took it out of the linen closet again and really went through it. I had some problems with it. It’d been so loaded with influences by Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner and other people that I really had to take a lot of that out and add things. Wherever I encountered any Proust influence I enlarged it. When I saw a Faulkner influence I reduced it. The Tom Wolfe influence I took out altogether. Then I patched the whole thing back into shape. That was my first novel. My second was Follow Me Down, my third was Love in a Dry Season, and then eventually Shiloh came crippling in—finally got to where it could be published. After that came Jordan County, a collection of stories connected to each other that tried to explore a Mississippi Delta county. A present-day story starts it off and then it goes all the way back to Indian days. In other words, I tried through these stories to explore how a place became what it became—I consider it a sort of novel with place as the hero and time for the plot.  

INTERVIEWER

You never really had a dry season then as a writer?  

FOOTE

I had a dry season after I finished the Civil War narrative. I was either in a stage of exasperation or I felt there was nothing left to write. By a sort of secondary inertia I wrote September September a couple of years after I finished the war narrative. But then I intended to go back to this big novel that I had begun before I started the war.  

INTERVIEWER

That’s “Two Gates to the City”?  

FOOTE

Yes, “Two Gates to the City.” It’s about a family. It’s not a saga but it’s about a family, in much the same way as The Brothers Karamazov is about a family. Those twenty years didn’t exhaust me physically but they exhausted me from wanting to do another long work. Walker Percy said that writing a novel is like suffering from a terrible disease for a certain period of time. Then when you finish you get well again. Something like that was going on. I still may do it.

Getting old has way more virtues that it has faults, if you leave out the pain you might suffer if you have some serious injury. But I take great pleasure in being able to look back on things. I remember certain little scenes that are almost meaningless, like Thomas Wolfe coming up the library steps while I was coming down, being with William Faulkner and talking to him about his work, all kinds of things. I remember a sky without a jet trail. I remember Joan Crawford dancing. I remember Roosevelt’s fireside chats and people sitting in front of the radio, like warming their hands in front of a stove. Everyone on the face of the earth has such remembrances if he lives long enough. I’m eighty years old now, which is almost inconceivable to me. I don’t believe it for an instant.  

INTERVIEWER

Could you describe the themes of your work? I know it’s a rather broad topic to broach.  

FOOTE

I’m not sure about themes except something so large as the basic loneliness of man. That’s always there. But always, anything I write takes place at a certain time and a certain place. I think time, era, and place—geographical location—are very, very important to me and what I’m doing. I wrote a story called “Child by Fever” and the critical time is 1910. It was a hell of a time. A black man won the world championship of boxing. Halley’s Comet came along. The Russian ambassador’s wife smoked a cigarette in the White House and Taft struck the match that lit it, right there at the dinner table.  

INTERVIEWER

Mark Twain died.  

FOOTE

Right. A host of other things, and all of those are part of the story. They peg it down.  

INTERVIEWER

So time and place anchor . . .  

FOOTE

Right. So you can see why I have so little trouble transitioning to history; history was always a part of what I was doing. In any work of art, I want to know where I am and when it is; and if I don’t know, I feel uneasy. I guess I have trouble with Waiting for Godot because it doesn’t matter when or where it is.  

INTERVIEWER

Could you talk a bit about your time with Faulkner and what he told you about writing, about his own work?  

FOOTE

For one thing, I saw Faulkner actually reading a book only once in my life. I spent the night at his house, and we had dinner together and after dinner he went out by himself into the library there and sat down and was reading. I came out and spent a little time with him. He was reading Bugles in the Afternoon by Ernest Haycox. It was the only book I ever saw him actually read, although he was indeed a well-read man. He’d read a great deal and it shows in his work. Some of his denials, such as his not having read Ulysses, are utterly absurd. He had read Ulysses to the depths. Once, in an unguarded moment, he expressed a great admiration for Proust, though he would ordinarily say, I’ve never read anything like that. This is foolishness. Faulkner did not like to be questioned by people he didn’t know and who didn’t know him. His reaction was to lie to them—if you’re going to do this, I’ll simply lie to you. The first interview he ever had, so far as I know, was in a publication long gone called The Bookman. This was back in the early thirties. He was making home brew in the kitchen and he was barefoot. A reporter asked him about his family life. He said that his mother was a Negro slave and his father was an alligator. That’s an example of what he was doing in those days. But he was an outgoing, friendly man, once it was established that you were friends and understood each other and above all that you didn’t want anything from him. He didn’t want anybody to want anything from him, anything including taking his picture or anything else. He just didn’t like that. He considered it an intrusion on a privacy he valued. But he was an interesting man. He told me any number of stories. Some of it was embarrassing because he told me things he’d already written, like one from “The Bear” about the bear cub going up the tree when the train came by. So I didn’t know whether to say that yes, I read it, or to laugh politely. I wound up laughing politely.  

INTERVIEWER

He once told you about who his great influences were, did he not?  

FOOTE

No, but we talked about that. I told him flatly that, in my mind anyhow, the modern writers who influenced him most were Joseph Conrad and Sherwood Anderson. Then I made the joke that my influences were Proust and him, Faulkner, so I had every reason to be a better writer than he was because my influences were better than his influences. He laughed at that and was kind enough to refrain from pointing out that the person being influenced was also a factor in this equation.

There was a great deal of protective pretense, I call it, in Faulkner. Half the time he was in raggedy clothes. He liked them. They were comfortable. But every now and then he’d turn out just as spiffy as could be with the English tweeds. He wore his handkerchief up his sleeve like an Englishman, a feather in his hat.  

INTERVIEWER

I saw those photographs near the end of his life when he was with the horse. Unbelievable tattered clothes.  

FOOTE

That’s right. That old coat. That tweed coat.  

INTERVIEWER

When you talked to him about his work, did he ever talk to you about—apart from the influences—what he did and how he did it?  

FOOTE

He wouldn’t take it apart, but I remember I was with him just after A Fable came out and I said it gave me a great deal of trouble because in all of his books there was a tremendous amount of coincidence. Somebody would start from one end of the county, somebody from the other, and they’d meet and have a fight—meeting by accident. But in A Fable it seemed to me people were acting out roles that didn’t exactly fit their personalities. I said the suicide of that young aviator who burned his jacket in the trash can didn’t seem to me to be a necessary suicide. He was just unhappy the war was ending without his having a chance to fight in it, but it didn’t really seem to me necessary for him to kill himself for the loss. He said, Do you remember his name? I said, Yeah, his name was David. He said, Do you remember his last name? I said, No, I don’t. He said, His last name was Levine. Don’t you see? I said, No. He said, He’s one of the four Jews in A Fable. The story turns on those four men. I said, Thanks for the information, which meant nothing then and still means almost nothing. But he would go to that extent if he trusted you. He would not have begun to say that to somebody who he didn’t know was genuinely interested and who he knew was going to make explicatory use of it in a scholarly paper or something. He wanted the book to speak for itself. That’s one of the few occasions where he did any explication of his work at all. To me, I mean.  

INTERVIEWER

Could you describe the first time you met Faulkner?  

FOOTE

Walker Percy and I were driving from Greenville, Mississippi, to Sewanee, Tennessee, where we often spent one or two months in the summer. I had read Light in August and was tremendously impressed by it. It was the first modern novel I read—a hell of a first one too. From that point on, all through the thirties I was reading all the Faulkner up to then: Doctor Martino, Pylon, Absalom, The Unvanquished. So I said, We ought to stop by Oxford and see William Faulkner. Walker said, I’m not going to knock on that man’s door. I don’t know him. I said, Hell, he’s a writer. It’s all right. (A remark I’ve learned to regret when it’s applied to me in these later years.) So we drove over to where a double line of cedars ran along the brick walk to the doorway. We parked over to the side. There were about a dozen dogs there—a dalmatian, two or three hounds, some bird dogs, and three or four fox terriers. I got out of the car and waded through all those dogs and went up to the front door and knocked. The door opened and there stood Faulkner. I said, Mr. Faulkner, my name is Shelby Foote. I’m from over at Greenville and I was wondering if you could tell me where I can find a copy of The Marble Fawn. (I didn’t want a copy of The Marble Faun; that was only a cover tactic. I wanted to say hello to Mr. Faulkner.) He said, Well, I don’t have one, but my agent Leland Hayward might be able to find you one. He said, You over from the Delta, huh. I said, Yeah. He said, Come on, we’ll walk down this way.  

INTERVIEWER

Talk about Walker Percy.  

FOOTE

We met when he was fourteen and I was thirteen. We were each others’ closest friends for sixty years.  

INTERVIEWER

What did you learn from him?  

FOOTE

I had written five novels before Walker’s first came out. I was not a mentor, but I had been through an awful lot that I wanted Walker to be aware of—the dangers of the publishing world and so on. In our letters, which recently have been published, I’m constantly telling him what to do and what not to do—that’s a result of this five-book head start. Later it settled down to something else because Walker became in the next two or three decades a far better-known writer than I was. He won the National Book Award and respect all round. But that friendship meant a great deal to me. I learned a lot from Walker because he was interested in areas I had never known existed. I’d never read Kierkegaard or Marcel or Maritain or any of those. Still haven’t read them, incidentally. I poke at them, but I don’t get anywhere with them. Right up to the end, we got along fine. We knew what would make each other angry so we never mentioned those things except on purpose. We made a lot of trips together. Walker had a remarkable stubbornness that would come out sometimes. We got on an Amtrak train in Chicago, along with our wives, to go to San Francisco. You have this great plate-glass window and along the way you really do see the deer and the antelope play. We got to Ogden, Utah, which is where they drove the golden spike. It was about eleven-thirty at night. The train stopped and the engineers came through hollering, All out, all out. There’s an engineers’ strike. Buses are waiting to take you to San Francisco. I began to scurry around, to get our bags straight so they didn’t get lost in the shuffle, and Walker never moved from his bed. The conductor came around and said, You’d better get up. This bus will be leaving soon. Walker said, I’m not going anywhere. I’ve got a ticket that says you’re going to take me to San Francisco. The man says, Well, we’re going to close down the air conditioner and turn off the electricity. Walker says, If you do, I’ll sue you for every cent the U.S. government’s got. So the man said, Sorry, sorry, stay here. We stayed on the train. Everybody else got on the bus. Early the next morning we got up, and they had a minibus take us to Salt Lake City. We got on an airplane and got to San Francisco before the buses did. But this is the kind of stubbornness he had. I later found out he either had taken a powerful sleeping pill or a laxative, I’m not sure which. He was not about to get off that train onto any bus.

Walker Percy and I are very different writers. I do a strict outline, which helps me enormously. I always say if I were going to do a dance I would make sure that I had a good platform to dance on so I wouldn’t worry about the thing collapsing. I do that on the novel, always leaving room for stretching things or making it shorter, or adding this or taking this out; I like a good outline to go with it. Walker, on the other hand, not only had no outline but he said, not entirely joking, that if he knew what was going to happen next he wouldn’t be interested in writing about it. He wrote to find out what was going to happen, and then when he finished the first draft he really had to get to work because he had to go all the way back to find out how it had all started.  

INTERVIEWER

How long does it take you to do an outline before sitting down to write?  

FOOTE

Not long at all. I could do it on the back of an envelope, Lincoln-style. There is not a great deal of thought about theme and all that. It’s all mechanics. You have this information that is to be released. In the writing itself is where you really bring it off. I learned a lot about the organization of material from Henry James. James actually wrote scenarios. We’ve got the scenario for The Ambassadors, for instance—fifteen thousand words. Once he had his scenario, he flew by it.  

INTERVIEWER

Which comes first, character or plot?  

FOOTE

Character comes first. I separate the mass of novels into good and bad. A good book could be described as one about a man who, in a situation, does such and such. A bad book is about a situation in which a man does such and such. In other words, plot ought to grow out of character. You don’t have to make up a plot. You have to have a person and place him in a situation and a plot starts happening. When you take a person like Harley Drew in Dry Season and you introduce him into a Mississippi town, things are going to start happening. That’s the way it should be, it seems to me.  

INTERVIEWER

A character in fiction will take on a life of his or her own . . .  

FOOTE

Absolutely. As they do in history. They come more alive for you and, therefore, for the reader. The character will do something and you will say, Hey, I hadn’t expected him to do that. Why did he do that? And then you find out why. Some things that sound unattractive can be attractive. Ulysses S. Grant, for instance, was never willing to accept blame for anything, under any circumstances. He would let no blame attach to him. He always blamed somebody who was alongside him or under him or over him. It becomes a key to understanding the strength of his character. He just didn’t admit the possibility that anything could be his fault. That sounds unattractive, but it’s quite attractive in Grant. It’s so much a part of his character and part of his ability to be a great general.  

INTERVIEWER

What about General Robert E. Lee?  

FOOTE

The single greatest mistake of the war by any general on either side was made by Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg, when he sent Pickett’s and Pettigrew’s divisions across that open field, nearly a mile wide, against guns placed on a high ridge and troops down below them, with skirmishers out front. There was no chance it would succeed. Longstreet told him that beforehand and Lee proceeded to prove him right. Having made this greatest of all mistakes, Lee rode out on the field and met those men coming back across the field— casualties were well over fifty percent—and said, It’s all my fault. He said it then on the field; he said it afterwards, after he’d gotten across the Potomac; he said it in his official report a month later. He said, I may have asked more of my men than men should be asked to give. He’s a noble man, noble beyond comparison.  

INTERVIEWER

When researching The Civil War, you used the one-hundred-and-eight-volume—  

FOOTE

The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. It includes the field orders, battle reports, correspondence. It’s a remarkable publication, and the one for the navy is equally good—there are about forty volumes of it. They’re sometimes written under terrific pressure and you can just feel what a man was going through.  

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned historians in general. Who do you think are the greatest Civil War historians?  

FOOTE

It’s hard to say. Certainly the early ones like G. F. R Henderson, whose Stonewall Jackson came out around the turn of the century, and a biography of Nathan Bedford Forrest by John A. Wyeth, who had been a Confederate soldier. The modern historian who really started addressing the Civil War in a scholarly way is, of course, Douglas Southall Freeman, who wrote a four-volume biography of Lee and three volumes on Lee’s lieutenants. They’ve got their flaws. Freeman’s so much of a Virginian that he couldn’t see anything but Virginia. He limited himself to writing about Virginia except when he sent Longstreet out for the fight at Chickamauga, and he made pretty much of a mess of that. He was so Virginia biased and his dislike of Longstreet was so strong that it warped his work. He’s not a stylist. He writes sort of jog-trot prose, but once the reader becomes accustomed to it, it somehow seems just right.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you think there’s a bias in your history?  

FOOTE

I like to think there’s not. I’ve been complimented for an absence of bias; I’ve had people tell me that if they didn’t already know, they couldn’t tell whether I was a Northerner or a Southerner, but you can’t help noticing that my heart beats a little faster when the Confederacy is out front. Bias is an interesting thing to try to deal with. It can make you work harder to be fair. There are two generals in the Civil War I acquired an increasing dislike for. One was Joe Johnston, a Confederate general. The other was Phil Sheridan, a Union general. At every chance I praised them. They were easy to praise because they were damn fine generals, both adored by their men, so that you always had that point to make. But Joe Johnston spent his whole life backing up. If he’d been kept in command while Atlanta was coming under siege, he’d have wound up in Key West complaining that something was rounding one of his flanks. And Phil Sheridan hated Southerners so much, he used to go around punching his fist into the palm of the other hand saying, Smash ’em up. Smash ’em up. All the same, he was inspiring to his troops and a hell of a fighter.  

INTERVIEWER

Had you been alive during the Civil War, would you have fought for the Confederates?  

FOOTE

No doubt about it. What’s more, I would fight for the Confederacy today if the circumstances were similar. There’s a great deal of misunderstanding about the Confederacy, the Confederate flag, slavery, the whole thing. The political correctness of today is no way to look at the middle of the nineteenth century. The Confederates fought for some substantially good things. States rights is not just a theoretical excuse for oppressing people. You have to understand that the raggedy Confederate soldier who owned no slaves and probably couldn’t even read the Constitution, let alone understand it, when he was captured by Union soldiers and asked, What are you fighting for? replied, I’m fighting because you’re down here. So I certainly would have fought to keep people from invading my native state. There’s another good reason for fighting for the Confederacy. Life would have been intolerable if you hadn’t. The women of the South just would not allow somebody to stay home and sulk while the war was going on. It didn’t take conscription to grab him. The women made him go.  

INTERVIEWER

What about fighting to end the institution of slavery?  

FOOTE

The institution of slavery is a stain on this nation’s soul that will never be cleansed. It is just as wrong as wrong can be, a huge sin, and it is on our soul. There’s a second sin that’s almost as great and that’s emancipation. They told four million five hundred thousand people, You are free, hit the road. And we’re still suffering from that. Three quarters of them couldn’t read or write, not one tenth of them had a profession except for farming, and yet they were turned loose and told, Go your way. In 1877 the last Union troops were withdrawn after a dozen years of being in the South to assure compliance with the law. Once they were withdrawn all the Jim Crow laws and everything else came down on the blacks. Their schools were inferior in every sense. They had the Freedmen’s Bureau, which did, perhaps, some good work, but it was mostly a joke, corrupt in all kinds of ways. So they had no help. Just turned loose on the world, and they were waifs. It’s a very sad thing. There should have been a huge program for schools. There should have been all kinds of employment provided for them. Not modern welfare, you can’t expect that in the middle of the nineteenth century, but there should have been some earnest effort to prepare these people for citizenship. They were not prepared, and operated under horrible disadvantages once the army was withdrawn, and some of the consequences are very much with us today.  

INTERVIEWER

Bedford Forrest’s picture hangs on your wall. He was an ex-slave trader, responsible for the Fort Pillow massacre of captured black soldiers, and after the war deeply involved in the Ku Klux Klan.  

FOOTE

You could add that in hand-to-hand combat he killed thirty-one men, mostly in saber duels or pistol shootings, and he had thirty horses shot from under him. Forrest is one of the most attractive men who ever walked through the pages of history; he surmounted all kinds of things and you better read back again on the Fort Pillow massacre instead of some piece of propaganda about it. Fort Pillow was a beautiful operation, tactically speaking. Forrest did everything he could to stop the killing of those people who were in the act of surrendering and did stop it. Forrest himself was never a bloodthirsty sort of man who enjoyed slaughter. He also took better care of his soldiers and his black teamsters than any other general I know of. He was a man who at the age of sixteen had to raise six younger brothers and sisters after the death of his blacksmith father. He became a slave trader because that was a way of making enough money to support all those people and to get wealthy. Forrest was worth about a million dollars when the war started, an alderman for the city of Memphis. He was by no means some cracker who came out of nowhere. All writers will have great sympathy with Forrest for something he said. He did not like to write and there are very few Forrest letters. He said, I never see a pen but I think of a snake. He’s an enormously attractive, outgoing man once you get to know him and once you get to know more facts. For instance, he was probably Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, but he dissolved that Klan in 1869; said that it’s getting ugly, it’s getting rough, and he did away with it. The Klan you’re talking about rose again in this century and was particularly powerful during the 1920s. Forrest would have had no sympathy with that later Klan. Last thing in the world was he anti-Catholic or anti-Semitic, which is what that Klan was mainly in the twenties. I have a hard time defending the Klan and I don’t really intend to defend it; I would never have joined it myself, even back in its early days. But I don’t know what you expected men, having gone through four years of utterly savage war, to do—if you expected them to come home and put up quietly with the kind of occupation that happened in France after World War II. The French Maquis did far worse things than the Ku Klux Klan ever did—who never blew up trains or burnt bridges or anything else; they didn’t even have lynchings. The Klan is as nefarious as you want it to be, but you have to understand better what they did do and they did not do. And the “massacre” at Fort Pillow, so-called, truly had better be investigated more closely. When word of the massacre at Fort Pillow got up to Washington, Lincoln wrote to Grant and said, This is intolerable, I want whoever was responsible for it punished. Grant passed the word along to Sherman. If you know anything about Sherman, you know he would have jumped on Forrest like a tiger if he’d been guilty. Sherman never recommended anything along those lines. They sent a committee of Congress down to investigate Fort Pillow and they took testimony from people who were obviously lying their heads off, talking about people being buried alive, women and children shot while pleading for their lives. If you read a biography of Bedford Forrest, you’ll get some notion of what a fine man he was.  

INTERVIEWER

Is there too much focus on the military in writing about the Civil War?  

FOOTE

Well, Forrest said war means fighting, and fighting means killing. The Civil War was simply a four-year military action. The causes were so nebulous and so diverse. Lincoln said plainly: What I do about slavery I do because I want to win this war. If I could win this war by freeing all the slaves tomorrow, I’d do it. If I could win this war by keeping them all in slavery, I’d do that. I’d do anything to win this war. The emphasis was on war, “this mighty scourge.” Almost everybody realized that the various bickerings and arguments and the fire-eaters in South Carolina and the abolitionists in Massachusetts, were sort of outside of things really. All they did was cause it. The real monster of the Civil War was that it cost us God knows what all, not only in young men, blue and gray, but in the recasting of what public life was going to be like. It brought a new cynicism in to us that we’ve lived with ever since. We began to appreciate scamps in politics, which we hadn’t really done before. It was a military action and was to be studied as such—not neglecting the causes, not neglecting the arguments of what went on, but it’s always primarily combat.  

INTERVIEWER

As a Southerner, and with the benefit of hindsight, do you believe the South fought the war as well as it could?  

FOOTE

No, nobody ever fights wars as well as they should have, especially in hindsight. But I do think that the South came closer to putting everything it had into that war than any nation I know of. So many things happened to show you how deep the commitment went. About the time that war started I think roughly eighty-five or ninety percent of the teachers in this country were men. After the war was over something like eighty-five to ninety percent of teachers were women. Those women who went through that war had to live in the modern world before there was a modern world. They had to take over jobs that they later would be clamoring for, but they had the responsibility on their hands and they did a good job, mainly, of running things. Now how you could ask a woman—my great-grandmother for instance—how you could ask her to run a plantation, keep up a thirty-two-room house with half the slaves gone and her husband off somewhere shooting and getting shot at. But she did it. I think Northern women did much of that too. The South was aggravated enormously by the effects of the blockade. There were little things that could run you crazy. You couldn’t get needles to sew with; they used thorns and things. You couldn’t get nails to keep your floors from coming loose or the roof from sagging in. There were many things that tried them awfully hard, not to mention marauding armies passing through killing all your chickens and pigs. It’s been romanticized, but it’s easy to do because it is highly romantic.  

INTERVIEWER

I’m going to go back to what you said earlier about Lee. Lee had such a great track record at that particular time. Why do you think he made the choice regarding Pickett’s charge given all of his long success?  

FOOTE

This is another instance of life imitating art. Not only had he won those battles leading up to Gettysburg—Chancellorsville was only one month back—but the first day he nearly crushed the Union army. Then when that army grew and took position on that ridge he charged it on the second day and got all the way to the top. If he’d pushed further he’d have taken it. We go back to Greek tragedy now; the gods were leading him to destruction. That’s not an overstatement. He never would have made this greatest of all errors without these greatly encouraging things that were happening one after another. He was facing much shorter odds than he had at Chancellorsville, where he won a great victory. He was just being pulled along. I don’t claim that the gods made him mad in order to destroy him, but they did suck him in to committing this most grievous of all errors. It’s almost unbelievable that it can be so in tune with Greek tragedy, but it is.  

INTERVIEWER

You talk about the gods and life imitating art. Is that alive in your cosmos?  

FOOTE

Yes, I think that it prints things in your mind and clarifies them for you. It’s very useful in doing that. I think that’s one of history’s main jobs—to let men know what happened, before, so they won’t make the same mistake afterward. Also, the Romans believed history was intended to publicize, if you will, the lives of great men so that we would have something to emulate. That’ll do as one of the definitions. It’s really, really and truly, a search for truth. One of the greatest writers that ever lived is William Faulkner. And he’s praised for a great many things. But what Faulkner could really do better than any writer I know, with the exception of Shakespeare—like in music you say with the exception of Mozart—Faulkner could communicate sensations, the texture of things. He could tell you what this feels like [rubs his fingers on the tablecloth]—that particular cloth, the way it rubs on your fingertips. He could make you feel it by describing it. That’s our job. That’s what you have to do, as Conrad said so often. You have to communicate sensation, the belief in what life is, what it’s about, and you do it through learning how to handle a pen. That’s the reason why I have always felt comfortable with the pen in my hand and extremely uncomfortable having some piece of machinery between me and the paper—even a typewriter let alone a word computer, which just gives me the horrors.  

INTERVIEWER

What makes a work survive?  

FOOTE

I don’t have much trouble giving an easy answer to that, which is true excellence. Of course, you can be misled. When I was fifteen and starting out to read in earnest, everybody knew who the greatest writer in the world was—absolutely no doubt about it; he had no rival; his work was so pure, it could never perish—Anatole France, who is close to forgotten nowadays and probably deservedly so. Since the death of Tolstoy, France had been the leading writer in the world, the Western world anyhow. It’s hard to say, but it seems to me that both Hemingway and, to a lesser degree, John O’Hara, are bound to come back. I’m far less sure about O’Hara than I am about Hemingway. But I’m absolutely certain of Hemingway’s position in American literature. He’s right up there with Twain and Faulkner.  

INTERVIEWER

A great enthusiasm of American literature for a short period was Thomas Wolfe. How do you explain how everybody loved him with such passion at a certain moment in our history and then suddenly nobody can read him anymore.  

FOOTE

I’m not sure nobody can read him, because the people who read him with the greatest enthusiasm were young people. We were young when we read him, and when we read him it had a pure zest to it, larger than life. It was wonderful. He stated all the problems eloquently, or at least with verve and gusto, and he didn’t give you any solutions. When you get older or you pass the age of reason—whenever that is—you begin to be more interested in things than just exclamations about ain’t nature grand. That’s what Rebecca West said about Goethe. She said it can all be summed up as ain’t nature grand. But Rebecca West was ruled all her life by a consuming hatred of everything German, including Goethe. I like Rebecca West, though. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is one of my favorite books.  

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned John O’Hara.  

FOOTE

I’m a big O’Hara fan. He’s largely unread nowadays, alas. He wrote sixteen or seventeen novels, nearly all of them now out of print. Appointment in Samarra is in the Modern Library now, but the novel From the Terrace, which he considered his best work, is out of print along with the others, including the short-story collections. If Faulkner is our Dickens, O’Hara is our Trollope, and someday I hope he’ll be recognized as such. Moreover, he is one of the few American writers who can write about women. Mostly we’re not good at women. The biggest flaw in both Hemingway and Faulkner is that their women are scarcely women at all. Maybe we’re going to get better, now that women have asserted themselves to the degree they have. But we have tended to romanticize them. Faulkner’s very bad about it—and he’s afraid of them too.  

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever meet O’Hara?  

FOOTE

No, I never did. Always wanted to and everybody tells me I was very fortunate not to. A most objectionable man, they say, but I don’t think that would have bothered me. He had an experience I could have made him feel better about. When Faulkner was getting the Nobel Prize, Bennett Cerf had a small dinner party for him the evening before he left for Sweden. O’Hara and his wife were there. O’Hara was a very sentimental man in many ways. Philip Barry, the well-known playwright and a good friend of O’Hara, had given him an engraved cigarette lighter. O’Hara, in salute to Faulkner for winning the Nobel and for at last getting to meet and talk with him, said, I have something for you. He gave Faulkner the cigarette lighter. Faulkner put it in his pocket without even a thank you. O’Hara’s feelings were terribly hurt; he felt that Faulkner should have realized that this lighter meant a great deal to him. Well, I could have told O’Hara that of all the objects on the face of the earth Faulkner despised most, the worst was a cigarette lighter! He once said, I cannot understand how Bennett could use one of those things. To light a pipe with a cigarette lighter, you might as well be smoking gasoline! So if I’d met O’Hara, I could have told him that Faulkner was really quite considerate in not saying, Get that goddamn thing out of my sight!

Faulkner said a funny thing. He told Ben Wasson once, All these people are talking about me having genius and all that. I don’t know anything about that, but I can tell you one time I had genius and that was when I named these people Snopes. A writer is a little like a painter. You tell him that you admire his picture, and he’ll stand there looking at it, and he’ll say, Well, I like that part here, and he’ll point to some little patch of nothing in one corner.  

INTERVIEWER

In a letter to Walker Percy in 1951 you wrote, “I think the novelist’s principal task is the communication of sensation. If he does this, and does it right, he has rescued something from time and chaos.” Do you still feel that way?  

FOOTE

Yes, I do. Sensation means to communicate the tactile nature of things. What’s it like to walk out in the rain? Those things. Faulkner does it superbly.  

INTERVIEWER

What about Hemingway?  

FOOTE

There’s an interesting difference between Faulkner and Hemingway. Hemingway, in Death in the Afternoon, says that he understood his mission as a writer from attending a bullfight in which there was a young fighter, a novice, in a cheap rented suit, out there with a bull, obviously scared to death, timorous and jumpy. The bull got the tip of its horn in his thigh just above the knee and ripped it all the way up and tore up this cheap suit and laid open a wound in which you could see the white bone and the red meat. In Death in the Afternoon (I’m paraphrasing) he says, I saw what my job as a writer was—to understand the essence of the emotion I felt when I saw that white bone and red meat. Faulkner, on the other hand, believed that the essence of emotions was a very complicated thing. He has Ratliff at some point in The Hamlet saying, “You can’t tell a story and really communicate it. You’ve got to complicate it up. It ain’t complicated-up enough.” So here are two great writers with totally different notions about the basic nature of what they’re trying to do, both realists but each in a very different way. Faulkner does it by communicating this tremendously complex combination of sensations, Hemingway by honing everything down to the essential pang. Faulkner in his Nobel speech says that you have to write about the heart, otherwise you’re just writing about the glands. He said this with scorn. Yet Faulkner wrote about the glands better than anybody I know.  

INTERVIEWER

What happened after September September? There’s a long hiatus.  

FOOTE

What happened after September September was the TV Civil War. For one thing, comparatively speaking, I got rich. That makes a difference. Artie Shaw once said that what you need to write the blues is no money in the bank and nobody loving you. Maybe writing prose is the same way, at its best.  

INTERVIEWER

At one point you said that you were going to write five novels and then you were going to write five more.  

FOOTE

I was going to write another five after taking a year, or maybe two years, off. Instead, I launched into The Civil War and spent twenty years on it. I would have written another five novels or so, at least, if I hadn’t written The Civil War.  

INTERVIEWER

Has Hollywood ever beckoned?  

FOOTE

I have always been aware of certain dangers. Stanley Kubrick wanted me to do a film script for him about a Civil War incident in the Shenandoah Valley. That was right after I had begun writing about the war in 1954. But I had conditions. The main one was that I wouldn’t come to California, and the reason I wouldn’t go to California was all that weather, all those beautiful women, all that money. I was absolutely certain I would disappear as if into quicksand; I’d be gone. With those three things holding me there, I certainly wasn’t going to do any writing. So I said I’d be glad to do it, but I couldn’t come out there. He said, It’s no problem. We can meet in New York just as well. So I did the script for him. He never made the movie. He made Lolita instead and never looked back.  

INTERVIEWER

What was the script?  

FOOTE

It was called “The Down Slope” and it’s about John Mosby when Sheridan had Custer’s division hang six of his rangers. Mosby from then on, when he captured one of Custer’s men, had him taken to a schoolhouse in the backwoods until he had about fifty of them. Then he had them line up and draw slips of paper out of a hat. Six of them would be hanged in retaliation. You can imagine the relief everybody felt who got a blank slip instead of a black dot. Then they discovered that one of the black-dot unfortunates was a drummer boy about fourteen years old and Mosby said, I’m not hanging no boys. Have them draw again. So they had to draw again. That was the plot. But Kubrick never made it.  

INTERVIEWER

Have any of your books been made into a film?  

FOOTE

September September was made into a movie called Memphis. It was made for television. Cybill Shepard starred in it.  

INTERVIEWER

Was it any good?  

FOOTE

It had its points. They left out everything that was best about the book and stressed everything that was least best—instead of bad, “least best.” And I was not happy about it but I don’t take it that seriously. Anything they want to do with it is all right with me. On the screen, I mean—it’s out of my league or control.  

INTERVIEWER

You’re a movie fan of a sort?  

FOOTE

Oh yeah, all my life.  

INTERVIEWER

What about the influence of film on your writing and on writing in general?  

FOOTE

I think it’s had a large influence on writers ever since the movies began. I read a piece once about Fitzgerald. Remember how Gatsby opens. The film comes on, moves over the lawn, and up that wall. That’s a long shot—it’s a camera shot. It’s absolutely a straight camera shot. There’s a great deal of that all round. Truman Capote picked up on it in a very canny way.  

INTERVIEWER

You’re at work now?  

FOOTE

I’ve done a few things. I’ve done some introductions. I’m on the board of the Modern Library, where I’ve written an introduction to Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage. I’ve drawn up books that I hope they’ll publish. Three short novels of Dostoyevsky, a three-volume Chekhov, two-volume Maupassant, arguments about including this, not including that. So I’m doing things. Many of the things having to do with the Civil War, I decline. I had a funny experience with that. I knew there was one thing I would never write anything more about—and that was the Civil War. Not long after I finished the War and the dust sort of settled, I got a letter from National Geographic saying that they were doing a special on parks and Shiloh National Park was one of them and would I contribute fifteen hundred words? They’d pay me three thousand dollars. Well, for once in my life I wanted to make two dollars a word, writing, and besides I could write Shiloh in my sleep; I had already written a novel and a straight historical book about it. I sat down and I got interested and wound up with forty-five hundred words. I sent it to them and I said, I’m sorry part of this got away from me. And they wrote back and said, We’re just absolutely delighted, but all the other pieces are fifteen hundred words. We can stretch to three thousand words without too much trouble. I said, Well that’s no problem, send it back, I’ll just cut it down to three thousand words. So they sent it back. It’s the first time I ever tried to cut anything and I thought it would be easy. You know, just take this out and that and that. But everywhere I cut it, it would bleed. So I sent it back to them and said, I find that I can’t cut this thing but surely you have people up there who know how to do this. Next thing I knew, I got galley proofs and found their method of cutting was to take the middle out of every other sentence. They broke its back. I had to rewrite the whole thing. I never worked so hard for three thousand dollars in my life as I did with that thing.  

INTERVIEWER

But you got two dollars a word.  

FOOTE

Well, as a matter of fact I didn’t because it was three thousand words. Only one dollar a word. And all of this took me a month or so. I could’ve been parking cars and made more money than that, with far less strain on my crotchety disposition.  

INTERVIEWER

What kind of advice would you give young writers?  

FOOTE

To read, and above all to reread. When you read, you get the great pleasure of discovering what happened. When you reread, you get the great pleasure of knowing where the author’s going and seeing how he goes about getting there—and that’s learning creative writing. I would tell a young writer that. Of course I would tell him: work, work, work, sit at that desk and sweat. You don’t have to have a plot, you don’t have to have anything. Describe someone crossing a room, and try to do it in a way that won’t perish. Put it down on paper. Keep at it. Then when you finally figure out how to handle words pretty well, try to tell a story. It won’t be worth a damn; you’ll have to tear it up and throw it away. But then try to do it again, do it again, and then keep doing it, until you can do it. You may never be able to do it. That’s the gamble. You not only may not be able to make a living, you may not be able to do it at all. But that’s what you put on the line. Every artist has that. He doesn’t deserve a whole lot of credit for it. He didn’t choose it. It was visited upon him. Somebody asks, When did you decide you wanted to be a writer? I never decided I wanted to be a writer. I simply woke up a writer one morning.  

INTERVIEWER

I remember Saul Bellow once said, “You anoint yourself as a writer.”  

FOOTE

That’s right. One of the most remarkable jobs of becoming a writer I ever heard of was done by one of my favorite writers, Robert Browning. Browning decided at the age of fourteen, I think, out of the clear blue sky, to become a writer. His father had books all over the house anyway. He said, If I’m going to be a writer, there’s certainly one thing I must do, and then he proceeded to memorize Johnson’s Dictionary—both volumes, cover to cover. He has, next to Shakespeare, the largest vocabulary of any English writer. Now that’s preparation.  

INTERVIEWER

Why do you write?  

FOOTE

Freud says we write for three basic reasons: desire for fame, money, and the love of women. I don’t argue with any of those three. They’re all there. Notice he didn’t say a mumbling word about inspiration or duty or anything like that. Desire for fame, desire for money, and the love of women.  

INTERVIEWER

Is this accurate in your case?  

FOOTE

I wouldn’t deny it an iota.  

INTERVIEWER

Is there a fourth reason that Freud didn’t name?  

FOOTE

The joy of writing. To write well is a huge pleasure and you feel awfully good doing it. One of the greatest enemies of happiness, of enjoying life, is the intrusion of loneliness. When you’re most alone is in nausea; when you’re throwing up you are alone on the face of this earth. The moment of orgasm is very lonely too—a little island in the middle of nowhere. There are a lot of paradoxes involved. When you’re working very hard you’re not lonely; you are the whole damn world. I have a strong feeling that the very worst writing of all comes out of what’s called inspiration. Good writing doesn’t come from inspiration. It may spark you, set you off, but if you write under the influence of inspiration, you will write very badly—probably sentimentally, which is even worse. Inspiration certainly better not be governing the thing; you had better have learned your craft through very hard work, reading and writing, and cold observation. People say, My God, I can’t believe that you really worked that hard for twenty years. How in God’s name did you do it? Well, obviously I did it because I enjoyed it. I don’t deserve any credit for working hard. I was doing what I wanted to do. Shakespeare said it best: “The labor we delight in physics pain.” There’s no better feeling in the world than to lay your head on the pillow at night looking forward to getting up in the morning and returning to that desk. That’s real happiness.