I received two hundred and eight books, all in their shiny jackets, published the past year. I found all but two of them barely readable. That’s a shocking thing. It was because of the writing. It’s also because of me. As I get older, I care less and less what happens in a book. What I care about is the writing—how it’s told. I read words and I don’t see a scene going on as if I were at a movie; I want to see how these words are shaped and how they intertwine and what the sounds are next to each other, how they rub up against each other, along with the distribution of commas and semicolons.
Getting old has way more virtues that it has faults, if you leave out the pain you might suffer if you have some serious injury. But I take great pleasure in being able to look back on things. I remember certain little scenes that are almost meaningless, like Thomas Wolfe coming up the library steps while I was coming down, being with William Faulkner and talking to him about his work, all kinds of things. I remember a sky without a jet trail. I remember Joan Crawford dancing. I remember Roosevelt’s fireside chats and people sitting in front of the radio, like warming their hands in front of a stove.
Ulysses S. Grant, for instance, was never willing to accept blame for anything, under any circumstances. He would let no blame attach to him. He always blamed somebody who was alongside him or under him or over him. It becomes a key to understanding the strength of his character. He just didn’t admit the possibility that anything could be his fault. That sounds unattractive, but it’s quite attractive in Grant. It’s so much a part of his character and part of his ability to be a great general.
The real monster of the Civil War was that it cost us God knows what all, not only in young men, blue and gray, but in the recasting of what public life was going to be like. It brought a new cynicism in to us that we’ve lived with ever since. We began to appreciate scamps in politics, which we hadn’t really done before.
A great enthusiasm of American literature for a short period was Thomas Wolfe. How do you explain how everybody loved him with such passion at a certain moment in our history and then suddenly nobody can read him anymore.
The people who read [Thomas Wolfe] with the greatest enthusiasm were young people. We were young when we read him, and when we read him it had a pure zest to it, larger than life.
Faulkner does it by communicating this tremendously complex combination of sensations, Hemingway by honing everything down to the essential pang. Faulkner in his Nobel speech says that you have to write about the heart, otherwise you’re just writing about the glands. He said this with scorn. Yet Faulkner wrote about the glands better than anybody I know.
Artie Shaw once said that what you need to write the blues is no money in the bank and nobody loving you. Maybe writing prose is the same way, at its best...and the reason I wouldn’t go to California was all that weather, all those beautiful women, all that money. I was absolutely certain I would disappear as if into quicksand; I’d be gone. With those three things holding me there, I certainly wasn’t going to do any writing.
But then try to do it again, do it again, and then keep doing it, until you can do it. You may never be able to do it. That’s the gamble. You not only may not be able to make a living, you may not be able to do it at all. But that’s what you put on the line. Every artist has that.
Robert Browning. Browning decided at the age of fourteen, I think, out of the clear blue sky, to become a writer. His father had books all over the house anyway. He said, If I’m going to be a writer, there’s certainly one thing I must do, and then he proceeded to memorize Johnson’s Dictionary—both volumes, cover to cover. He has, next to Shakespeare, the largest vocabulary of any English writer. Now that’s preparation.
Freud says we write for three basic reasons: desire for fame, money, and the love of women.
One of the greatest enemies of happiness, of enjoying life, is the intrusion of loneliness. When you’re most alone is in nausea; when you’re throwing up you are alone on the face of this earth. The moment of orgasm is very lonely too—a little island in the middle of nowhere. There are a lot of paradoxes involved. When you’re working very hard you’re not lonely; you are the whole damn world.
Good writing doesn’t come from inspiration. It may spark you, set you off, but if you write under the influence of inspiration, you will write very badly—probably sentimentally, which is even worse.
Well, obviously I [wrote *The Civil War*] because I enjoyed it. I don’t deserve any credit for working hard. I was doing what I wanted to do. Shakespeare said it best: “The labor we delight in physics pain.” There’s no better feeling in the world than to lay your head on the pillow at night looking forward to getting up in the morning and returning to that desk.
May 20, 2014
Shelby Foote circa 1997
From Shelby Foote 1997 interview in The Paris Review: