undefined

 

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.