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Shelby Foote

Interview: Shelby Foote
Novelist and Historian

June 18, 1999
Washington, D.C.

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Let's start at the beginning. Tell us about the place where you where born and grew up.

Shelby Foote: I was born in the Mississippi Delta. Greenville, Mississippi, a small town of about 12 or 14,000. It's now about 40,000, and much the worse for it. But I grew up under what seemed to me ideal circumstances.

The bare bones of my life are almost unbearable. I was born during the First World War. I spent my adolescence in the Depression, and when I came of age, I was involved in the Second World War. That sounds a pretty horrible series of events. They seem perfectly natural to me. I prize the Depression, for instance, because I learned the value of things in the Depression that a way people who don't have to worry about such things never learned to prize it really, I believe. And the Second World War was a wonderful thing to be with. It's now called "the Good War." We usually referred to it as "this damned war." We didn't think of it as a good war. We did believe it was fought in a good cause.

Did you have any brothers and sisters?

Shelby Foote: I'm an only child, and that's a very special thing too. It meant that I had a lot of time by myself. My father died just before I was six-years-old, and my mother never remarried. She was a secretary somewhere; when I came home from school, there was nobody there but me, so I was a latchkey kid for part of the time. That was good too in its way. It seems to me I've been singularly fortunate. It sounds unfortunate, but for my purposes I was fortunate indeed. It made me a reader for one thing

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Getting close to books, and spending time by myself, I was obliged to think about things I would never have thought about if I was busy romping around with a brother and sister. My introduction to the world of art was a kind of interesting one.

I was always a reader. First I read the Bobbsey Twins, then the Rover Boys, and Tom Swift and Tarzan. And then when I was 11 or 12, as a Sunday school prize I was given a copy of David Copperfield, which was an enormous book to my mind; it was 300, 400, 500 pages long. And I read it, and I knew then, without doing anything about it or making any resolution over it, that I had entered into a world that was in many ways better than the world I or anybody else lived in. For example, by the time I had read David Copperfield, I knew David better than anybody I'd ever known, including myself, and I realized that that was a world that was available to me. I didn't then and there settle down and read a lot of Dickens. I went back to Tarzan and Tom Swift. But about three years later I really looked into the kind of thing that David Copperfield showed me was there, and I've always prized that experience of having read David Copperfield as my first real book. It's still a good book.

Other writers have told us that the novel is the only art form that lets us know a character from the inside out. What do you think?

Shelby Foote: D.H. Lawrence calls it "the one bright book of life." He said as a novelist he considered himself superior to the saint, the poet, the politician, or anybody else you wanted to name. The death of the novel is always being predicted, but it's held on tenaciously. The verse play fell by the wayside, the narrative poem is largely gone, but the novel appears to be thriving.

How did you get started as a writer?

Shelby Foote: I was editor of the high school paper. When I got to school at Chapel Hill I had a story in almost every issue of the Carolina Magazine, so that was sort of my real beginning as a printed writer. Incidentally, I don't know what I'll ever amount to in this world, but I have one signal honor they can never take away from me. I edited the Greenville High School Pica, which was declared the best high school newspaper in the United States about 1935.

"Pica" means a size of type, but it's also a bird like a jackdaw that steals things out of nests. It was voted the best high school newspaper in the United States. From a little town in Mississippi, it's wonderful! It was largely due to a faculty member named Lillian McLaughlin. She was an adviser on the Pica and she was great.

I had that experience, that's very much a part of whatever I am or ever will be, of having some very good teachers way back there. They were mostly old maids, and they made about $125 a month. And they had three dresses that hung in one corner of a rented room, but they had the enormous respect of the community, and they could do a thing that was really remarkable. They were not really knowledgeable about the subjects they taught, but they could communicate their enthusiasm for it to you. And that's what a great teacher tries to do, no matter how well equipped they are in other ways. If you can do that -- and these old gals could do that. They were great.

Lillian McLaughlin was one of them. My favorite was Miss L.E. Hawkins. We never knew what her real name was. She was Miss Hawkins. To give you an example of how she was: at the end of one six-week period when the grades came out, she said, "Shelby, you earned a B. You should have made an A, and I'm giving you a C." And I never cared what grades were anyhow, but it's a good example of how she could motivate you.

She expected a lot of you.

Shelby Foote: She did, she did. And when she didn't get it, she punished me. Quite right.

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.

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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.

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.

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?

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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.

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.

You were friends with the wonderful novelist Walker Percy.

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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?

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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.

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.

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.

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.

How did you come to write Shiloh, your first work to deal with the Civil War?

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Shelby Foote: I had intended, at that time, to do three Civil War books, two short ones and a long one. First would be Shiloh. The long one would be the Siege of Vicksburg, and the third one was going to be Brice's Crossroads. Those were all battles fought near my home region. I did Shiloh, but before I could get around to doing the big Vicksburg novel, I was going on the non-fiction Civil War, so I never came back to them.

Shiloh was your first big success wasn't it?

Shelby Foote: My second book, Follow Me Down had some success, got good critical notices, went into a second printing and things like that, but Shiloh was by far the most successful of those first five novels.

What made that subject so captivating for you?

Shelby Foote: Shiloh is a wonderfully dramatic battle. The leader of one side is killed, and the other one is going on to glory, and it was the first great battle. It lasted two days. Now, this is somewhat unfair since it were Americans on both sides, so all the casualties on that field were American, but the Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, all three combined did not have as many casualties -- American casualties -- as fell on those two days at Shiloh. So you can see what a dramatic thing it was at the time it happened. For one thing you would think that those people would say, "24,000 casualties! My God, we'd better think this thing out and find some kind of way to settle this. It will kill all of the young men in the country." But they didn't. Each side got more determined than ever. And it's a very dramatic subject, Shiloh is, and a wonderfully preserved field. Anybody that wants to visit a battlefield, the one that comes closest to being the way it was when it was fought is Shiloh. It's not surrounded by hot dog stands the way Gettysburg is, and it's not near any big city, so there's this constant influx of tourists. It's wonderful.

Every superintendent they've had has kept it the way it was at the time of the battle. They replant the peach orchard. They dredge out Bloody Pond. They do all these things to keep it the way it was. And except for macadamizing all the roads and putting up monuments, it's very much the way it was at the time the battle was fought.

How did you go from that novel to your tremendous non-fiction work on the Civil War?

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Shelby Foote: Bennett Cerf was owner and head of Random House. I think it was Doubleday that had something called a Landmark Series, a series of one-volume things about American history. So Bennett Cerf had the notion it would be a good thing to have such a series at Random House. The centennial of the Civil War was coming up in a few years, and he thought it might be good to start with a volume about the Civil War. He had read Shiloh, and he thought I would be a good one to write that, so he got in touch with me and asked me if I'd do a one volume, short history of the Civil War, a couple hundred thousand words. It sounded like a good thing to me. I had just written five novels, and I thought I'd take a year or two off. I moved to Memphis to take some time off to settle what I was going to do with the next five novels. It sounded like a good way to spend a year and a half, doing the Civil War, which had always interested me. I had read about it a good deal as a kid, mostly source material, stuff out of the war itself.

So I said, "Yeah, that would be a good thing." I signed a contract with them to do it, and I sat down to outline it, as I always do with novels or anything else. It occurred to me that I would not be happy at all giving a summary of the war, which is what it would be. I sat down and blocked it out as a three-volume thing, and wrote to Cerf and told him I would go ahead, spread-eagle, full thing if they wanted me to, but I wouldn't be able to do the short thing. There was a little pause of about a week or so. Then I got a letter from him saying, "Good. Go ahead." So I did, for 20 years.

Did you or he have any idea how long a project that would be?

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Shelby Foote: No. But they were very patient about it. I took five years on the first volume, five years on the second volume, and ten years on the third volume. After I finished the second volume, I got a Ford Foundation grant to come up here for most of one year and be playwright-in-residence at the Arena Stage, so I got to know Washington a little bit. Then we moved down on the Alabama coast. We were going to build a house on the beach down there. I ran into Ku Klux Klan and the threat of hurricanes, and those two things made me decide not to build on the Alabama coast, so we came back to Memphis. That's where I had lived for the first two volumes, and it's also where I wrote the third one.

Had you written plays before?

Shelby Foote: Not really. I was always interested in the theater, but I hadn't written a play. When they asked me if I would accept and what I would do if I did, I particularly told them I would be interested in a production of Measure for Measure, a Shakespeare play that wasn't very often played. I never heard of it being played, and I was crazy about it. Zelda Fichandler was the head of the Arena Stage in those days. They took three of my stories from Jordan County and made them into a play and put them on as an experimental sort of thing. It was nice. I enjoyed it, but I'm not a writer for the theater. All I do is write monologues, which is what most novelists do when they try to write film scripts. I've done two or three film scripts. I did one for Stanley Kubrick, and enjoyed doing it. It was called The Down Slope. It was never made. He made Lolita instead!

For you, what are the great lessons of the Civil War?

Shelby Foote: This country has two great sins on its very soul. One is slavery, which we'll never get out of our history and our conscience and everything else, the marrow of our bones. The other one is emancipation. They told four million people, "You are free. Hit the road." Two-thirds of them couldn't read or write. Very few of them had any trade except farming, and they went back into a sharecropper system that closely resembled peonage. I'm not saying emancipation is a sin, for God's sakes, and I'm not saying there shouldn't have been emancipation, but it should have been an emancipation that brought those people into society without all these handicaps on their head. And that now, my black friends, they are tremendously protective about slavery. They don't want to hear the word. The opposite of the Jews, who are very proud of coming out of Egypt. And it was this short-circuiting, of instant emancipation, that certainly was a good thing, but it had a very bad effect on them.

I don't know whether it's a lesson or not, but I think it needs to be looked at as if you were in that time and place. A lot of things change when you move back to being a part of it, without being caught up in the emotion of the time, but to understand the emotion of the time. You hear people in the Civil War saying, "I can't believe this terrible thing is going on right here in the middle of the 19th century." They talk like it's the end of the 20th century. It's very modern to them. These weapons of destruction are almost unbelievable to them.

Go back to the time. Muzzle-loading weapons sound awful primitive. They didn't seem primitive to them. They were a new kind of infantry rifle that is deadly at 200 yards. That was a tremendous step forward. And the tactics were based on the old musket, which was accurate at about 60 feet. And they lined up shoulder to shoulder and moved against a position, and got blown down because they were using tactics with these very modern weapons. They were using the old-style tactics with very modern weapons. A few of the men realized that, Bedford Forrest for instance. He would never make a frontal attack on anything with this new weapon in their hands. But too many of them, including Robert E. Lee and U.S. Grant, followed the old tactics against these modern weapons. That's why the casualties. There were 1,095,000 casualties in the Civil War. If today you had that same ratio, you'd have something like 10 million casualties, to give you some idea of what happened.

It was far worse in the South than it was in the North. One out of four southerners of conscriptable age was a casualty in that war. In the year after the war, the state of Mississippi spent one-fifth of its income on artificial arms and legs for the veterans. Very few people today realize how devastating that war was, especially to the South, but to the North too. A lot of fine men went into graves in that thing. There's no telling how many Miltons or John Keatses got buried.

Now that we have 130 years of hindsight, did the Civil War have to be fought?

Shelby Foote: There's a lot of argument about that.

The fact that it was fought seems to me to prove it had to be fought, but even at the time, Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State, called it "an irrepressible conflict." And indeed, the differences were so sharp, especially by the extremists on both sides: the Abolitionists in the North and the Fire-eaters in the South. The differences were so sharp that there was scarcely any way to settle it except fighting. Just as two men can get so angry at each other, the only way to settle a thing is to step out in the alley and have a fistfight. People don't do that much any more. They're more apt to take some blind-side swing at somebody instead of a real fight. But I think there probably wasn't any other way to settle it. Now if we were the superior creatures we claim to be as Americans, we would not have fought that war, but we're not that superior by a long shot.

What figures out of that conflict do you most admire?

Shelby Foote: I admire an awful lot of people on both sides, but the admiration in every case has to be modified somewhat.

I'm crazy about Grant: his character, his nature, his science in fighting and everything else. But I don't like the idea that he never accepted the blame for anything, always found someone else to blame for any mistake that was ever made, including blaming Prentiss for Shiloh. And Prentiss saved him! Things like that. Robert E. Lee, I admire him enormously, but I don't like a certain sort of stuffiness and non-humor about Lee. I don't like his sanctimoniousness, which comes out all the time.

Shelby Foote Interview Photo
If I said that in Virginia, I'd get lynched next week, so I'll stay away from Virginia. I would have a hard time now saying who I liked best. I sometimes think Bedford Forrest is my favorite because of his innovative nature and his enormous courage and intelligence. But then I get to thinking about others, some minor characters that I became very fond of. There's an Arkansas general named Pat Claiborne that I like as well as anyone in the Civil War. He was probably the best division commander on either side. So you get great favorites, and you feel enormous sadness when they die, as so many of them did, in combat.

Over the course of that 20-year project, did you ever feel that you weren't up to it?

Shelby Foote: Never at any time.

I drove myself the whole time. The war had always interested me. I'm a novelist, and what novelist is going to write a book that's got Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Tecumseh Sherman, Bedford Forrest, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis? Those are people, and I felt very happy writing about them. I don't mean it wasn't hard work. That goes without saying, but the basic happiness I had. No matter how many difficulties I ran into, the basic happiness was there, even with the difficulties.

A big sustaining thing was I believed firmly that I was doing important work, and I thought it was going good, so I felt good. There's nothing that makes a writer truly as happy. Nothing anywhere makes him as truly as happy as going to bed at night, putting his head on the pillow with the idea of getting up and getting at his desk the next morning. That's a happy man, and I had that for all that time.

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.

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.

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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.

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

You're welcome.

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