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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

Novelist and Historian

June 18, 1999
Washington, D.C.

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  Shelby Foote

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

Shelby Foote Interview Photo
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.

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