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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: 4 / 7)

Novelist and Historian

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  Shelby Foote

You were friends with the wonderful novelist Walker Percy.

Shelby Foote Interview Photo
Shelby Foote: We were each other's closest friends from the time we were 13 and 14 until he died in 1990. That is not only unusual, for two people to be each other's closest friends for 60 years, but as far as I know, for two writers to be close friends for any length of time is really a phenomenon, but we were that. People ask me if I don't miss him, and I don't feel any pangs of missing Walker. I miss him all the time. It was a great thing. I'm just thankful that we had that.

Has anyone done a doctoral thesis on how you two might have influenced each other's work?

Shelby Foote: They've done plenty of doctoral theses on Walker's work, and there have been a number on mine too, but I don't think anyone has done a thesis on our relationship or comparing our work or anything like that. Doubleday brought out that volume of our letters, which is available to anybody who wants to read how two people acted over this long period of time. Some of it's very funny.

He tended to be a little bit more traditional; he converted to Catholicism for instance.

Shelby Foote: I've reproached myself with this as much as anything in my life.

When Walker told me he was thinking about going into the Catholic Church, we were in Santa Fe, New Mexico on a sort of vacation. And I couldn't believe he would do that. I knew nothing about the Catholic Church. I knew that they had an index of books that people are not supposed to read, and I certainly didn't want him belonging to anything that would do that to you. So I said, "You are a mind in full intellectual retreat," and it's a wonder he ever spoke to me again. He found exactly what he was looking for in the Church. It gave him exactly what he wanted, and it was a great comfort to him when he was dying, and it was at the wellspring of his being, the Church and its teachings, and he was truly devout. He had a lot of trouble, always called himself a bad Catholic, but he got a great deal from it.

Do you suppose he had an influence on your writing?

Shelby Foote Interview Photo
Shelby Foote: Certainly he did, and vice versa. Growing up together, and being young men and old men together, we scarcely needed to explain anything. I knew what he was thinking; he knew what I was thinking. If I said something, he knew what I meant, and I knew what he meant. And we knew how to avoid certain things because it would result in a fuss, and we'd never mention them except on purpose when we wanted a fuss. I've never had a relationship with anybody, including a wife, that was quite as close intellectually as Walker's and mine.

Did you share drafts of your novels?

Shelby Foote: He did with me. I've never shown anybody a draft of anything. But he did. I used to rage at him about it. He would send copies to Carolyn Gordon and Allen Tate, and ask them for criticisms and so forth, and I've always been opposed to that. The thing I most oppose is what's called "creative writing." I don't believe it can be taught, and I think if it can be taught, it's a bad thing because it short-circuits the process. I think making mistakes and discovering them for yourself is of great value, but to have someone else to point out your mistakes is a shortcut of the process. It's a short circuit really, and I think bad.

You wouldn't advocate a young student to go off and get an MFA in creative writing?

Shelby Foote: I not only wouldn't encourage it, I would discourage it with all my might and main.

If you want to study writing, read Dickens. That's how to study writing, or Faulkner, or D.H. Lawrence, or John Keats. They can teach you everything you need to know about writing. Now, there are good writers who do not feel that way about it. Flannery O'Connor for instance. She went to writing classes and learned a great deal from them. You can't really make rules about writers any more than -- they're as different as -- you can't talk about chairs. There are so many different kinds of chairs, and there are as many different kinds of writers as there are chairs.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Speaking of different kinds of writers, and their methods, I gather you don't write your books on a computer?

Shelby Foote: I avoid that at all costs.

I don't want anything to do with anything mechanical between me and the paper, including a typewriter, and I don't even want a fountain pen between me and the paper. I use an old-fashioned dip pen like you used to see in post offices. It makes me take my time, and I feel comfortable doing it, whereas the clatter of a typewriter or to turn the drum backward to make a correction, all that's a kind of interruption I can't stand. And I'm a slow writer: five, six hundred words is a good day. That's the reason it took me 20 years to write those million and a half words of the Civil War.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

That is discipline though. So the self-correcting aspect of word processing doesn't attract you, being able to go back and make it look pretty?

Shelby Foote: Not at all. What really alarms me about the computer is I say you no longer need a brain. You just need a finger to push for information. There's a lot wrong with that. In the first place I've learned that the harder it was for me to learn something, the longer it would stay with me. If I'm going to get all the information I want by pushing a key, I haven't learned anything.

I was never a trained historian, three by five cards and all that business. So that I would remember - -I would be writing about something like the third day at Gettysburg, and it was something I couldn't remember the exact quote of, and I of course wanted to look it up and get it accurate, but I couldn't remember except that it was in a book with a red binding, and it was on the left-hand side on the top third of the page. So I would go to the shelf and pull down every red-bound book and look through it, and I would come across things like -- I'd say, "My God, I never noticed that before," and it had nothing to do with Gettysburg or anything else, but it would go into the book later in some other way.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Well, I suppose you can do what they call surfing on a computer, but that's not looking for information the way I'm talking about. And I really do think that the difficulty of research makes it more real to you than punching a thing to find out how many men were killed at this particular action. It's a short-circuit. I keep talking about short-circuiting, but it's another short-circuiting. For all I know, it's a splendid way of writing. It's certainly not for me though, and I fear for the historians of the future, with this stuff coming so easy. Since they're not brooding over it the way you do when you're searching, I think it's going to result in some pretty glib stuff, and I don't like it.

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