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If you like Shelby Foote's story, you might also like:
Stephen Ambrose,
Tom Clancy,
David Herbert Donald,
Ernest J. Gaines,
Doris Goodwin and
David McCullough

Shelby Foote's recommended reading: David Copperfield

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Shelby Foote
Shelby Foote
Profile of Shelby Foote Biography of Shelby Foote Interview with Shelby Foote Shelby Foote Photo Gallery

Shelby Foote Interview (page: 2 / 7)

Novelist and Historian

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  Shelby Foote

Were you generally a good student?

Shelby Foote: I've always been a poor student if the subject doesn't interest me much. I took French, German and Spanish, and did miserably in all three of them because I didn't enjoy memorizing vocabularies and things like that. If I got interested in a thing, I would devote my time to it and neglect the others, so that I had some bad grades alongside some good grades, and none of them mattered to me. I never cared what kind of grade I got.

I would imagine your mother cared about stuff like that.

Shelby Foote Interview Photo
Shelby Foote: All her life, whatever happened to me, including dreadful things, she took it as a natural course of events. And I can say a thing about her that's about the most complimentary thing I can say about any friend: she never hurt my feelings, even once, and she had plenty of chances to, to say things like, "You are always doing this kind of thing. You must not do that." She never did that kind of thing. She corrected me. She used to whip me when I was bad with switches, or a slipper called a mule. She'd give me a real good whipping sometimes, but I never resented it. She never did it out of cruelty, and I knew she didn't. There was none of this: "This is going to hurt me more than it does you." There wasn't any of that foolishness. I knew that what she was doing, she thought was for my own good, and it was.

Corporal punishment was extremely common at that time, wasn't it?

Shelby Foote: Absolutely. You can't do that any more. Teachers whipped you in those days. They had what we called a cedar paddle, and you'd lean over and they'd whap you something awful. Sometimes with switches. They could be savage. The cruelest creatures I ever saw in my life were the nuns who ran the classrooms of my Catholic friends. I used to visit their school. I couldn't believe how fierce those nuns were, and they got results too.

Were there particular experiences or events that inspired you as a kid?

Shelby Foote: Most of my inspiration, if that's the word, came from books themselves.

You remember discovering Joseph Conrad, or one summer -- I was 16 I think -- I heard that the three best novels of the century so far (and mind you, this is about 1932) were The Magic Mountain, Ulysses, and Remembrance of Things Past. So I read all three of those that summer, and it was a hell of a summer. It was great. The curious things is, those three titles are still probably the three best novels of the century, and they were all written before 1925.

There's a big leap from being a reader of novels and thinking you could write one yourself. When did that happen?

Shelby Foote: It's hard to say.

I began the way nearly everybody I ever heard of -- I began writing poetry. And I find that to be quite usual with writers, their trying their hand at poetry. I used to write sonnets and various things, and moved from there into writing prose, which, incidentally, is a lot more interesting than poetry, including the rhythms of prose. But I haven't known a single writer who didn't start out trying to write poetry. William Faulkner always called himself a failed poet.

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Did you see yourself as a poet first?

Shelby Foote: I don't know that I thought of myself that way. I certainly was going to become someone who wrote poetry. I think being a poet was a little farther up the ladder than I could think.

Was your mother encouraging when you first began to have these ambitions?

Shelby Foote: She would have encouraged almost anything I had chosen, and that must have been most difficult for her because she knew I was going to have a hard time making a living as a writer. But she supported me, always gave me a roof over my head, food to eat, and a bed to sleep in. Those three things are very important.

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This page last revised on Sep 21, 2010 22:39 EST
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