Editor’s note: One can reasonably argue that the two most famous and successful nonfiction writers to come out of this city in the past half-century have been Shelby Foote and Hampton Sides. Foote (1916-2005) achieved national acclaim in the 1960s and 1970s with his three-volume series, The Civil War: A Narrative, a story about the conflict told so well that readers had an eerie sense that he had actually taken part in it. Two decades later, Foote became a household name after he appeared as the narrator for documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’ legendary 1990 PBS series, The Civil War.
Resident in Memphis for virtually his entire adult life and forever protective of his privacy, he often lamented the fact the wildly popular PBS series had made him too much of a celebrity. Even before The Civil War became such a screen success, Foote rarely gave interviews, which is why it was something of a coup for Memphis when he agreed in 1986 to meet at his home with a young magazine staffer named, yes, Hampton Sides.
A generation and half younger than Foote, Sides was born in 1962, just one year before the former published the second volume of his Civil War series. After graduating from Yale in 1984, Sides’ first job was with Memphis, where he published “Sad Song From the Hills” in our December 1985 issue, a crime story that still has the distinction of being (at some 20,000 words) the longest story ever published in this magazine.
After leaving Memphis, Sides began a long and distinguished journalistic career with publications such as Vanity Fair, Washington’s City Paper, and Outside magazine. His first New York Times best-seller was Ghost Soldiers (2001), followed by other non-fiction classics, including Blood and Thunder (2006), Hellhound on His Trail (2010), and his most recent epic, In the Kingdom of Ice (2014), which traces the misadventures of a polar exploration voyage.
But this was all in Hampton Sides’ future when he sat down with Shelby Foote for this interview that appeared in our January 1986 issue.
Shelby Foote, 69, is perhaps Memphis’ best-known writer. He is the author of six novels: Tournament, Follow Me Down, Love in a Dry Season, Shiloh, Jordan County, and September, September. Foote has also written a comprehensive three-volume history of the Civil War which was the product of over twenty years of meticulous research; The Civil War: A Narrative is considered by some critics to be the definitive account of the war. “What I wanted to do was to present the look and feel of the war, not just to summarize battles and movements,” explains Foote.
Foote grew up in Greenville, Mississippi. He attended the University of North Carolina for two years, served as a captain of field artillery during World War II, and returned afterwards to the Delta to write fiction. He has lived in Memphis for over thirty years.
We spoke with Foote in the study of his East Parkway home, where he has lived with his wife Gwyn since 1966. He is currently working on his seventh novel, which will be called Two Gates to the City.
Sides: We understand you’ve spent the last few years doing nothing but reading.
Foote: That’s right, but I’m about all read out now. I did that for about three years, and practically wrote nothing. I would spend six months on Dante, then six months on Chaucer, and so on, through all my favorite writers from the past. I read them all, the whole damn gamut. Reading like that is a wonderful thing to do. From the ages of 18 to 23, I read like that, about eight hours a day or more. I just went crazy reading in those days, like a colt in clover. So it was wonderful to get back to some of that great literature.
Not many people seem to have the time or inclination to read so much these days.
I said I spent eight hours a day reading during my adolescent years. Well, I now spend about four hours a day watching television. I watch the news for an hour, I watch a movie at night, I watch As the World Turns every day.
You can get out of the habit of reading and think it’s a whole lot more trouble. But the excitement you get from reading The Brothers Karamazov for example … there ain’t nothing that can match that still. Or read Shakespeare’s plays and really absorb what he’s saying. That’s an experience you’re not going to get off the television or radio or anywhere. You read Macbeth from start to
finish, with an appreciation for the irony that’s loaded in every other line of the play, and you see that whole Macbeth universe open up. There’s nothing that’s going to replace that. But God knows, people don’t read anymore.
Do you think the reading you’ve been doing will influence your work now?
I’m not sure anything will influence my work. I’m old and set. And when you develop a style, the better you get at it, the more you’re locked in. Until finally, you can’t move except in your style. I think, “Well, I’m going to write something simple and forthright.” And you can’t do it. You get more and more skillful, but the borders shrink on you.
So you read more for pleasure than for influence?
Read for pleasure and — to use a really fancy word on you — for wisdom. I’m getting wise. But you know, in your early years, literature can be extremely influential on your style. I believe that literature is a progressive thing. All of the good writers I know came out of combining things that appealed to them enormously. William Faulkner, on the simplest terms, is a combination of Sherwood Anderson and Joseph Conrad. He absorbed what those two men had to give him and he came up with a third thing. Now, it’s a lot more complicated than that. But basically, he found a way to combine those talents.
I once told Faulkner, “I have every reason to believe that I’m going to be a better writer than you ever were … ’cause you had Anderson and Conrad, and I’ve got you and Proust, and my writers are better than your writers.” He laughed about that.
Can you tell us anything about your new novel?
I don’t ever talk about a book that I’m working on. But it’s called Two Gates to the City. It’s a big Delta novel set in a town that I call Bristol. It’s based on the life that I know, so I don’t have to do any research. The novel’s about down home, and it concerns a family.
How long have you been working on it?
Off and on for a long time. I first conceived it before I started The Civil War, over twenty years ago.
The Civil War was quite a detour for you.
If I had known it was going to take twenty years, I never would have begun it. But I’m glad I did it. I enjoyed the history thoroughly, the whole time. I was never the least bit doubtful about whether this is what I should be doing. But it was not an interruption. I found no difference in writing history and writing a novel. The narrative history is very much like a novel. Nothing pleases me more than when somebody asks me whether I made something up in that history. It pleases me greatly. I didn’t make anything up in it.
But do you think that the discipline of writing narrative history is any different from the discipline of writing fiction?
I really don’t. There are differences, obvious ones. You can’t say Lincoln’s got gray eyes, unless you know that he did. And you do. But if he’s a fictional character, I’ll give him any color eyes I want to. But once I give him those eyes, those are his eyes. A good novelist would be no more be false to a fact dug out of his head — and they are facts — than a good historian would be false to a fact dug out of documents. If you’re not true to your facts, you’ve got a trashy book. You can’t go being false to what you’ve laid down as being a man’s nature. You can’t have someone arbitrarily doing something that he just would not do.
In my fiction, I had always decided what color a man’s eyes were, what shape his fingernails were, what kind of tie he wore. Those things were always important to me. In the history, it didn’t bother me the least bit to have to look them up, instead of imagining them. So that I wound up with exactly the same approach doing the history that I had when I was doing the novels. With this added dimension: Who’s going to write a novel that’s got characters like Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and U.S. Grant in it?
Real life is richer than fiction at certain times?
Still, there must be plenty of academic historians who criticize your whole approach to writing history.
Oh, sure. Professional historians resent the hell out of the absence of footnotes, for instance. And footnotes would have totally shattered what I was doing. I didn’t want people glancing down at the bottom of the page every other sentence. The professional historians have criticized it, but what they haven’t done is point out any errors. I’m not saying there are no errors, but there are damn few, fewer than most history books that are just loaded with footnotes.
Professional historians resent it and creative writers don’t read it. So I’m falling between two stools, you see. But that doesn’t bother me. The book makes its own claims.
Has the history done well for you?
It’s done enormously well, as a matter of fact. I can live on it. And I’ve got backed-up royalties at Random House, plenty of them. So I don’t have any worries. It’s made a lot of money, and continues to.
It’s hardly one of those flashy titles that enjoys one hot summer on the best-seller list. It stays around.
Well, it now sells around 4,500 copies a year. It’s been very consistent. It’s in school libraries, and it’s used in college courses on the Civil War.
I imagine writing a work like that has made you a kind of resident expert on the Civil War.
Something like that. I got all kinds of offers from publishers to do the War of 1812, the American Revolution, and so on. I told them all, “Absolutely no, under no circumstances.” I said, “I’ve got my discharge from that war, and I’m out of it.” You see, I don’t want to be the Civil War expert. The day I finished that book I stopped having anything to do with the Civil War. And I’ve done my best to forget it.
But all the pressures of the mass media must conspire to make you the expert against your will.
They will do it. My God, they will do it. They will grab hold of you and squeeze you like a sponge. I might have ended up on television four hours a day every day of my life. And I’d be a shell after about two weeks of that. I’d be dead. If I had let them, they would have gotten me. There’s money to be made out of me, for one thing.
Hasn’t that been especially true with Southerners? The networks will say, “Let’s get some Southerner to comment on this or that problem.”
Oh, yes. Some Southerner will always pop up to explain how it really is down here. Like the man that I have been seeing who is a specialist on hurricanes down there. He’s on all the networks three times a day. They’ll wear him out like you wear out a tire on a car. Plain wear him out. People will just say, “Oh my God, here he comes again. I already know what he’s going to say.”
Like Carl Sagan?
Right. He’s ridiculous. I mean, he’s just an absurd man. They wore him out. But the problem is, they hit you where you’re very vulnerable, in your pocketbook and in your desire for fame. It’s a lovely thing to be known in every household in America. You shouldn’t feel that way, but you do. Freud said that we write for three reasons: money, fame, and love of women. And there ain’t no other. That’s it. He said, “Don’t talk to me about talent. That’s foolishness.” I think there’s a lot of truth in that.
You write for fame yourself?
Sure. I would never deny that. I don’t think any other writer would either. You want to say, “Kilroy is here.”
Ever have the urge to write a best-seller?
Urge? I’ve been practically convinced that everything I write was going to be a best-seller. But I’ve never been on any best-seller list anywhere, except in France, where Follow Me Down did pretty well. I don’t think you can deliberately sit down to write one unless you are a best-seller writer to begin with.
Someone like Erich Segal in Love Story?
Yes. I didn’t mean it can’t be done by a bad writer. It’s hard to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but it’s even harder the other way around. It’s a difficult thing to try to dope the market and anticipate a need.
In your last novel, September, September, you set the action against the backdrop of the Little Rock desegregation crisis of 1957. Why did you choose to focus on that historic episode?
It fit into the novel as a kind of demonstration of something that has been true throughout most of the South during the period of racial unrest. Somebody said once, “If you want turmoil and real bad trouble, all you have to do is let good people relax a little bit.” In Little Rock — as in other places in the South — what the good people did was turn their backs and let the trash take over. They said, “Let them handle it, let the Ku Kluxers and the White Supremacists take over.” I’m not claiming that “the good people” were integrationists. They certainly were not. But they were not rabid segregationists. They weren’t about to get out and fulminate against it. It would have been bad manners for one thing. So they just stood back and let the riffraff take over.
In September, September, you pay close attention to historical details. You weave in old headlines from the Commercial Appeal, old tv sitcoms from the Fifties, reports on Eisenhower and Sputnik. What role do you think historical accuracy should play in fiction?
I believe you owe two things: The place and the time should be accurate, absolutely accurate. And there’s no excuse for not making them so. The information is all there. But having said that, I do not think that the worth of any novel is simply in its historical accuracy. That alone won’t make a great novel. You might as well write history. Still, I would disagree with anyone who thinks that history has no place in the novel. When I was writing September, September, I kept a map of the city of Memphis 1957 on my desk at all times, so that if someone went somewhere in a car, I made them go to the right place. I think you owe that accuracy to the book. I always think that a historical error detracts badly from a book. Not just because it’s anachronistic, but because it’s wrong.
But many of the great novelists have sidestepped that issue of time and place by creating their own little worlds. Faulkner, for instance.
Faulkner was funny about that. He would not stop for an instant to look anything up. Accuracy that is achieved by research, he had no interest in. But he did try hard as hell to get into the frame of mind of those people at that time. Absalom, Absalom! is a lot better picture of what the Deep South was like around the Civil War than Gone With the Wind, which came out the same year. A lot more accurate. But not with regard to names and dates.
Names and dates are especially important to the journalist. Have you ever done any journalism?
I worked for the Associated Press in New York for about six months. I worked on the central desk there, and I really enjoyed it. But I knew not to stay there in much the same way that I knew not to stay in school.
Now, journalism has a certain value. Names and dates, like you say. And learning how to meet a deadline is very valuable. Even if you don’t meet them, you’re at least conscious of them, and you know how to work under pressure. And that’s good. And you learn to purify your style, if you’ve got a good editor. Hemingway learned an awful lot working on The Kansas City Star. It taught him how to write. It’s good experience. But if you stay with it too long, you have a journalist approach to life, which is too flashy for the use of a novel.
You were raised in Greenville, Mississippi, a place that seems to have produced a disproportionate number of good writers and journalists. What was it like to grow up in a place like that?
Most people’s boyhood seems rather ideal to them, I suppose, even if it was spent on the Lower East Side of New York. They’ll say, “The richness of that experience … why, I wouldn’t swap it for anything else in the world!” Well, I feel the same way about Greenville. When I grew up there, the population was between 15,000 and 20,000. We had two high schools, one for black and one for white. But in that one white high school I attended, all the white boys and girls between the ages of 14 and 18 were together for six hours a day. So that when you grew up, you had been to school with everybody in that town. It was a particularly rich thing, because one of your best friends might have been the son of a banker; another of your best friends might have been the son of a janitor. So Greenville was a perfect place to spend those years, because I knew every person and even every dog in town. It was a wonderful, wonderful way to know all classes of society.
Hodding Carter, Walker Percy, David Cohn, Ellen Douglas, yourself — why so many writers from Greenville?
There was something conducive going on. It was not a literary society. There was no passing of manuscripts or anything like that. But there was a thing, and the number one thing was the presence of William Alexander Percy [author Walker Percy’s uncle]. Will Percy was a writer and a cultured man. One such man in a small town is enough to kick off a lot of reaction.
Did you attend college?
Eventually, for two years. I had been editor of the high-school paper in Greenville, and I spent most of my editorship attacking the principal of the school. It came time for me to go off to school, and I made the application to [the University of North Carolina at] Chapel Hill. They wrote my high school for my record, and the principal went to the trouble of writing a letter saying, “By no means allow this dreadful person in your school.” So I got back a letter from them saying, “We are sorry to inform you that you have not been accepted into the University of North Carolina.” So I got in the car and went up to Chapel Hill on the matriculation date and got in line. I got up to the table there, and they looked in the file and said, “We told you not to come.” And I said, “I know you did, but I couldn’t believe you meant it.” So they said, “All right, since you’re here …”
Did you know by then that you wanted to write fiction?
I guess I did. I certainly never had any notion of doing anything else. As for how I was going to make a living, I was perfectly willing to weigh cotton in gins or work as a carpenter’s assistant or anything that came along. Just as long as it didn’t interfere with my work. And that’s the reason that I never wanted to teach. I think it draws on some of the same resources.
Your home is Greenville, but you’ve lived here in Memphis for a long, long time.
I’ve lived here now for 31 years. But it wasn’t a move in the sense of moving to New York or Chicago or even New Orleans. Because Memphis was always just the city for me. I felt at home in Memphis all my life. Even when I was a little boy, I used to come up here with my aunt on shopping expeditions. So Memphis was just a bigger place in the Delta.
Do you think Memphis is the social capital of the Delta anymore?
When I was a boy, there was a common saying — and it was absolutely true — that you could go in the lobby of the Peabody, and if you sat perfectly still for five minutes, you’d see at least three people that you knew from town. And you would. You see, women used to come up here and buy their shoes at Levy’s. Men came up to get guns and hunting equipment. People from the Delta came to Memphis the way Japanese go to Tokyo, the way Frenchmen go to Paris. It drew people in.
But I don’t think that’s nearly as true anymore, for all kinds of reasons. Like the lumber industry, for instance. Memphis used to be called “the hardwood capital of the world.” But so much of that Delta land is all timbered out now. And the cotton industry — it has changed so much. The government had nothing to do with cotton back in those days. Now, the price is fixed, and the brokers are not functioning the way they used to.
So somewhere along the line, the city sort of severed its ties with the outlying rural areas.
Yes, that’s true. It had something to do with the Chamber of Commerce style that first began to take hold when Crump ran the city and now has us on the road to becoming another Atlanta, another Houston. But it also has to do with a change in Greenville and all those other Delta towns. You can now get as good a pair of shoes in Greenville as you can get in Memphis. There’s no need to come here. There are shopping centers in all of those little towns. The homogenization of America has changed a lot of things like that.
Has the “homogenization of America” likewise changed the nature of writing? Critics speak of “a Southern style, a Southern voice, a Southern tradition” as if those things reflected a distinct spirit originating from a special kind of mythic locale. This Southern thing — is there anything left of it?
I don’t think that “The Thing” is dead, nor do I think that the South was a very special region. I think you’ll find that the northeast corner of Iowa would be a special region if you had a good writer there.
Now the publishing world in the East helps to perpetuate a certain view of the South. They’re looking for sultry atmospheres and that sort of stuff. But “The Thing” is still there. We just don’t have the writers. You don’t get Faulkner all that often. I think that gothic novels always were inferior works, including War and Peace. A novel that has historical characters moving through it, saying things they never said, looking ways they never looked, is by nature a bad novel. They’re not out after the truth; they’re out after something else. So then the gothic novel was bankrupt to start with. A great artist could work with it and bring it off. Faulkner brought it off in Absalom, Absalom!, which was certainly a gothic novel. But what the hell couldn’t he bring it off, except maybe the French army mutiny?
Still, the locale must make a difference.
I have always preferred writers who had a strong sense of place. That holds for Dostoyevsky in St. Petersburg, for Proust in Paris, for Faulkner in Yoknapatawpha. But it’s not that their place has made them special. It’s the other way around. They have made their place special. It’s the writers. It’s always the writers.
If a sense of place is important for a writer, what does the homogenization of the country do to that sense of place? In other words, if Memphis, for example, is becoming less and less distinctively Memphis, how will that affect the quality of the work of a writer who is living in Memphis and writing about it?
It need not affect it that much. There is always going to be a place, and there’s always going to be perceptive people to write about it. I don’t think the homogenization can ever be so great as to do away with the differences perceived by an artist.
You spent over twenty years immersed in the Civil War. What do you think are the legacies from that experience here in the South?
I used to be amazed when people would say, “Americans never lost a war.” Patton was famous for saying that, and yet his own grandfather was a colonel under Lee. If anybody ever lost a war, we lost that one. And few people have been so ground down after their defeat. Now here is the legacy: I think the Civil War gave us an enormous gift lacking in the rest of the country. It is a profound sense of the tragedy of life. Getting whipped is a hell of an experience. If you’re a kid in a fist-fight, and you really get beat up bad one time, you learn a lot from it. I’m not talking about being scared; I’m talking about what it feels like to be really defeated. And so it is with nations.
Do you really think people in the South still think about war in those terms?
Not consciously. I don’t think young Southerners today think about having lost a war; but I think the influences have been passed down through grandparents and parents in many subtle ways.
Do you find it necessary or even useful to keep in contact with a circle of literary friends?
No, I object to that as much as I do going to college. Now some writers thrive on that kind of thing, or seem to. Norman Mailer, for instance. I can’t imagine him living outside of a literary milieu. A good friend of mine practically associated his whole life with things like writer’s colonies, for God’s sake. I couldn’t get any work done that way.
I think that the death of American poetry, which is a very real thing, is a result of all the poets now being writers-in-residence on college campuses. They’re not writing. They’re bull-sessioning at night, talking about their work — what time they’re not jumping the co-eds. It’s not a good life for a writer. They’d be much better off out on the road, riding freight trains or driving taxicabs or something. Anything but that. It’s a very dangerous thing to talk about your work. And all the old writers knew that. Nowadays, people sit around and talk about their work all the time. They’ll say, “This is what I’m doing now … I’m fixing to work out this problem ….” and so on. The next thing you know, you just talk it away. It can really happen. If you solve your problems, you’re not going to write about them.
People don’t write books because they’ve got a great deal of wisdom to impart to somebody; they write books because they want to find the answers for themselves and share the search. It’s not, “I have a thing to tell you,” even if you say it is. It’s an exploration and a discovery. And once you’ve found out the answer, you’d think, “Now I can really sit down and write another book — even better — about this same thing.” But it’s not in you.
In much the same way that you don’t want to become the Civil War expert and continue to write in that vein?
That’s right. The old question won’t engage your interest.
So what will you do next, after Two Gates to the City is finished?
Die, I expect. I don’t care. I’ve got about two million words between covers now. If I don’t do anything else, it’s all right with me.