I spent an hour listening to this 1994 interview with Shelby Foote, the Civil War Historian.

The interview is mostly about his life. It contains some arresting quotes and fascinating observations, particularly about writing.

  • He wrote 500 words a day longhand with a dipping pen.
  • He said the pen has a real influence on how he wrote. It’s different than a typewriter or pencil or pen.
  • When he was done, he would hang up the paper and let it dry before re-typing the words.
  • He wrote seven days a week, 3 to 4 hours each morning and another 3 to 4 in the afternoon.
  • He wrote a steady 100,000 words a year.
  • He did virtually no editing. He described revision as a “particular form of heartbreak.” 
  • He didn’t use footnotes. He found them distracting and said he kept most facts in his head. He says that “after 100 years the subject is well enough understood.”  
  • He considered himself first and foremost a novelist. He argued that artists could teach historians a fair bit about writing.
  • History has a plot. You don’t make it up. You discover it.
  • He compared it to how we view people’s lives: “When a man dies no matter at what age or by what cause his life has a beginning and middle and end. Sometimes his death explains his youth. It’s a very strange business.”
  • His book had no preface. It just started with the narrative.
  • He isn’t a romantic about the craft: “I see these Hollywood movies when a man wakes up in the middle of the night and dashes off a few thousand words. That’s all foolishness. Most of the bad writing the world has ever seen has been done under the influence of what’s called inspiration.  Writing is very hard work.” 
  • “I work seven days a week. If I stop the steam goes out of the boiler. Stopping is very bad.” 
  • To understand his subject, he visited Civil War battlefields on the same day and at the same time the battles occurred.
  • Tacitus was his favorite historian. He studied Virgil and read Thucydides.
  • “A writer is like anyone else except when he’s writing.”