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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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IMDb

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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: 7 / 7)

Novelist and Historian

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  Shelby Foote

You've said "facts are the bare bones of which truth is made." You're both a novelist and a historian. Is it difficult wearing both hats?


Shelby Foote: It's not different to me at all whether I made the facts up out of memory or imagination, or got them out of documents. They're all facts to me, and they're to be dealt with as a novelist would deal with them. I don't mean by that that you have any license as a historian to invent. In fact, that ruins it. You have to be entirely accurate. But a novelist feels that same way about his imagined facts; he has to be true to them. I don't find any difference really, once the research is done or the imagination is through fooling with it. They're very much the same.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity


You've also said that neither novelists nor historians should sentimentalize a subject.


Shelby Foote: Sentimentality is the greatest enemy of all, so you should never do that under any circumstances, either in a novel or history. Sentimentality is like crying without salty tears. You don't suffer from sentimentality. It's a way of avoiding suffering, pain.


Shelby Foote Interview Photo
Sentimentality hovers above the facts; it doesn't try to get among them. It almost always eases the crisis by weeping over it. That's a terrible thing to do to the truth.

How would you explain to someone who hasn't had that experience, what makes writing so rewarding?

Shelby Foote: I don't think I'd try to explain it. He'd either know or he wouldn't. It's like Louis Armstrong said, "If you don't know why you like jazz, ain't nobody going to be able to tell you." It's just something that you feel or you don't feel. Nobody can explain it to you.

What's your next project?

Shelby Foote: I always intended to finish this big novel that I began before I took on the Civil War, but I won't do it. I'm 82 years old. Nobody 82 years old got any business writing a novel. I never read a good one written by anybody that age.

You've become a celebrity fairly late in life. How has that been for you, to be recognized in the supermarket and so forth?

Shelby Foote: It's pleasant to a certain degree, but it's mostly unpleasant.


Your privacy is impinged on. People feel free to come over to your table in restaurants or stop you in airports. And I don't autograph books, and they frequently wind up furious because I won't. "I bought the damn book. The least you can do is sign it." And I don't do that. I'm glad to autograph books for friends, because then it means something. But I run into some awfully angry people about not autographing. And they send them to me in the mail, saying, "Please autograph, and a stamped envelope for return." I always send them back unsigned. Sometimes I don't even send them back. I got a stack of them in a room there. It's an intrusion. They have no claim on me because I'm a writer.


Your signature is in your handwriting, which is how you write your books, so it's very personal.

Shelby Foote Interview Photo
Shelby Foote: Yeah. People have a hard time reading my writing, and I don't see why, because no two letters are alike. You don't mistaken an "N" for "U" or an "E" for an "I." I claim it's easy to read, but they have to learn a new alphabet to read it. That's all right with me.

You must have had some patient editors.

Shelby Foote: I type it myself. I make a typed copy myself, and send it off to them. In fact, I make two of them. I make the first one on large sheets, and make the corrections, such as I want to make, not many. Then I put it on regular typewriter paper and retype it again. Every time you do it, you get another lick at it. That's good.

Do you have children? What do they do?

Shelby Foote: Yes. I've got a daughter and a son. My daughter lives in Memphis. She builds doll houses and things. She does all right. My son is quite successful as a photographer. He had a big show in Hamilton Gallery in Mayfair in London. That was a big success about three months ago. Makes me happy.

What does the American Dream mean to you?


Shelby Foote: I think it means a lot of ugly things. I think it means being absolutely certain the whole world wants to live the way you live, that the American bathroom is the answer to everybody's dream and all that kind of thing, American values. The American Dream is a nightmare sometimes. There are things that happen in this country that are just unbelievable. If the American Dream is Columbine High School, you know, I don't know what the American Dream is. By dream, I guess they usually mean good things, and there are plenty of them. No matter how you might feel about the American bathroom, as I talk about it, it is a very comfortable place. And Americans, we have less poverty and starvation than most countries have. We have better medical attention, I suppose, than most countries have. But the American thing is -- the big thing in American life appears to be money, and there are good reasons for wanting to be rich. One of them is you can get privacy. Another one is you can get good medical attention. The time to be really rich is when you're dying, so you can afford a comfortable bed and a good doctor. It's a spooky business.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream


Thanks for talking with us. It's been a pleasure.

You're welcome.

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