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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: 3 / 7)

Novelist and Historian

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  Shelby Foote

How did you come to join the army?

Shelby Foote: Well, I'm a Mississippian, and southerners are known for joining in whatever military action is going on, partly because they don't want anything that big going on in the world without being part of it. I had been two years at college, and I had had enough of that. There was very little anti-military feeling in the part of the country where I came from, so it was perfectly natural when Hitler went into Poland, I went into the Mississippi National Guard to show him he couldn't get away with it. And then in November of 1940, almost exactly a year after I first joined, we mobilized and went into federal service. During that year while we were waiting to be inducted into federal service, I wrote the first draft of my first novel, Tournament.

What was the influence of your experience in the military?

Shelby Foote Interview Photo
Shelby Foote: The best thing about being in the military is something that I'd had an edge of all the way along. I told you I grew up in this town of about 12,000. High school was four years, and we were segregated in those days, but for four years, every white child in that town was under one roof for six or so hours a day, nine months out of the year. And during those impressionable years you got to know each other very well. So the rest of your life is going to be spent with the knowledge of the people you live among that was acquired during these susceptible years. That was a great virtue to growing up there.

But the same thing was true in the army. You slept in a barracks with all kinds of people of every nationality, every trade, every character and quality you can imagine, and that was a good experience. The discipline of the army, which I always bucked against with all my might and main, was also a good thing to have bear down on me at that time.

Do you think it helped you as a writer? You certainly have shown great discipline as a writer.

Shelby Foote: I think that everything you do helps you to write if you're a writer. Adversity and success both contribute largely to making you what you are. If you don't experience either one of those, you're being deprived of something.

How did adversity contribute to making you what you are?

Shelby Foote: The first dreadful thing that happened to me was the death of my father before I was six years old. We were in Mobile, Alabama. My father had just been promoted to general manager of Armour and Company in that part of the country. And he had an operation for a deviated septum or something, and septicemia set in and he died in two days. The bookkeeper from Armour and Company was given the job of telling me that he had died. My mother was in no shape to tell me anything. So he took me outside the hospital, and we sat in one of these swings that's in a stand, and they had two seats, and the swings between them. And he said, "Shelby, I have some bad news for you. Your father has gone away." And I said, "Do you mean he died?" And the shock must have -- he was shocked at me talking that way. And he said, "Yes, I'm afraid that's what it is." And then I felt a huge responsibility. There I am, the survivor, five years old. And I wanted to measure up to the responsibility, so I asked him a question that nearly made him fall out of the swing. I said, "Who is going to get his money?" I thought it was a responsible thing to ask.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

That was the first big piece of adversity to hit me, but even that turned out as it did.

If my father had lived another two or three years, he was rising so fast in Armour and Company, I'm certain we would have wound up in Chicago, and I would have been raised in Oak Park or some such place, and thank God I escaped that fate, even though my daddy had to be offered up to save me from it. Adversity has a kind of way of being very much a part of anything, a very important part.

You've spoken well of being an only child, but wasn't it lonely?

Shelby Foote: Loneliness is one of the best things in the world for you. You do something about it: read, for instance, all kind of things, make friends. I noticed a strange thing about only children. They're supposed to be self-centered and stingy and standoffish. I find it to be the exact opposite. When I was at the fraternity house, if somebody dropped by and said, "I've got a big date tonight. Can I borrow that sports jacket of yours?" I would say, "Sure." If I had had a brother that I had been protecting that sports jacket from, I'd say, "Keep your hands off my sports jacket." But only children don't have that built-in thing. It's the exact opposite of what they say about only children. I suppose they are self-centered. How could they not be? But they're not stingy or standoffish in that sense.

I read that one of the fraternities did not let you in because of your family background. Can you talk about that?

Shelby Foote: I had a grandfather, my mother's father, who came here from Vienna when he was 17 years old, and he was Jewish. And I was inducted into the fraternity, and they got a letter informing them that they had inducted a person who was one-fourth Jewish. And so the Worthy Master, as the head of the fraternity was called, came to see me and said, "How do you feel about Jesus Christ?" And I said, "I'm very fond of Jesus. My whole trouble is with his father." And they about had a fit. And he said, "We have decided we can't have you in the fraternity," and I felt like I had been set free from people who felt that way about it.

You must understand, fraternities often are based on a very Christian concept. This fraternity, ATO, is very strongly Christian, and they don't want any non-Christians or even partly non-Christians around. Maybe that's changed now. I don't know.

Did that give you any insight into the whole segregation issue?

Shelby Foote: It didn't have much to do with the segregation issue. When you grow up in a totally segregated society, where everybody around you believes that segregation is proper, you have a hard time. You can't believe how much it's a part of your thinking.

Every now and then something happens that gives you pause, some act of cruelty of some sort brings you up short. But some of the things are so simple. I have to use ugly words here, but a slingshot, when I was a little boy, was called a nigger-shooter. That's just what you called it. I remember I came home from school one day, and Nellie, who worked for us for 30 years, a black woman who was a maid and cook -- Nellie was there, and I said, "Nellie, have you seen my nigger-shooter anywhere?" She said, "Yeah, I think it's back on your dresser there." The word didn't mean any more to her than it did to me, but it gave me pause there. I gave a little jump, "What did I say?" And I never said it again. And in my family I was taught never to use that word, but the slingshot thing was such a common name for a common thing, that there was no racial connection with it in my mind.

When you grow up with something that way, it doesn't seem the outrage that it should seem to you. It's all well enough to say that if you were perceptive enough it would, but I'm talking about a kid under 20. It just seems to be the way the world goes, and he subscribes to it. I'm sure there are exceptions to that. There must be people who have a heightened sense of right and wrong, but back in those days -- the 1920s and '30s -- it didn't occur to you to question the thing. Every now and then something would come along that you saw as an injustice, like police beating up a man needlessly and things like that. Those things would come home to you. But the way society ran seemed to you the way society ran. If Nellie started work for $2.50 a week, and after 20 years was making $15 a week, that's the way it was. There's something wrong with a society that does that, but as a member of it you don't realize how wrong it is. Not at an early age anyhow.

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