Editor's note: The interview that follows was originally published in Conversations with Texas Writers, a volume published by The University of Texas Press in 2005 in honor of Humanities Texas's thirtieth anniversary. It was edited by Frances Leonard and Ramona Cearley, who conducted the interview below.
The introduction to this piece was written by Dr. Marion Castleberry, professor of theatre arts at Baylor University. It is available on the website of the Horton Foote Society.
On December 20, 2000, President Bill Clinton conferred the National Medal of Arts on Texas dramatist Horton Foote (1916–2009), and noted that Foote's six-decade-long, award-winning career established him as the nation's most prolific writer for stage, film, and television.
Clinton mentioned Foote's many awards, including two Academy Awards, an Emmy, a Burkey Award and the Screen Laurel Award from the Writers Guild of America, the Lucille Lortel Award, and his induction into both the Theatre Hall of Fame and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Before placing the medal around Foote's neck, the President observed: "Believe it or not, the great writer Horton Foote got his education at Wharton—but not at the Wharton Business School. He grew up in the small town of Wharton, Texas. His work is rooted in the tales, the troubles, the heartbreak, and the hopes of all he heard and saw there. As a young man, he left Wharton to become an actor and soon discovered the easiest way to get good roles was to write the plays yourself. Among other things, he did a magnificent job of adapting Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird for the silver screen, and writing his wonderful The Trip To Bountiful and so many other tales of family, community, and the triumph of the human spirit. Today, we honor him for his lifetime of artistic achievement and excellence."
Without question, Horton Foote enriched American literature with his unique writing style and his truthful examinations of the human condition. Besides To Kill A Mockingbird and The Trip To Bountiful, Foote wrote a score of notable plays, teleplays, and films such as The Chase, The Traveling Lady, Tender Mercies, The Habitation of Dragons, Night Seasons, The Roads to Home, Tomorrow, The Orphans' Home Cycle, Talking Pictures, Dividing the Estate, Of Mice and Men, Alone, Vernon Early, Laura Dennis, and The Young Man from Atlanta (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize), to name only a few. These works represent a remarkable career.
Ramona Cearley: Much of your writing evokes a lyrical sense of place and strength of character. Where do your stories begin? How do you choose what to write about?
Horton Foote: I suppose it is oversimplification that you write about what you know. I’ve never really analyzed it. It’s a very mysterious process, this finding what you want to write about and how it appears and how it urges you to finish it and to go through all the pain. But I think essentially I’ve always known that the search will always take me back here to Wharton, Texas, at least for the place. I’ve just never had a desire to write about any place else. I’ve tried to write about New York, where I’ve spent a great deal of my time, and the work just doesn’t have the same ring of authenticity as when I write about here. Of course I call my town Harrison, not Wharton. But you know it’s based on my experiences here, things I’ve observed and grown up with.
Cearley: Is there a different sense of community between small-town Texas and places such as New York City?
Foote: That really doesn’t interest me too much. I don’t think of Wharton as a special place, because the things that happen here can happen in a big city. It’s just that the sights and sounds are different. Maybe the physical things are different, but emotional life doesn’t vary very much. Essentially, if you’re dealing with human beings, as I try to do, you have to take a close consideration of the place and the particular influences.
For instance, I’ve only recently become aware of how much life here has been affected by the use of cotton-picking machines. Now I don’t think anybody would say, “It’s affected me.” But in a peculiar way it’s affected the whole area. It’s affected the town visually because you no longer see the little houses out in the fields and people out there picking cotton. It’s affected the town socially, especially on Saturdays; there’s nobody in town anymore. It used to be so crowded. Subtle ways, they just creep up on you. All of a sudden you realize you are in a whole different era. You’ll never go back to that again. Mechanization also has its great blessings because it was probably the least rewarding work in the world to sit in the hot sun and pick cotton. But there has been a change. So things like that creep into work, and after it’s crept in, you analyze it and recognize that it is different.
You can find similar changes in a big city like New York. All of a sudden you look around and a building is gone. For instance, when I first went to New York, I often made my living running an elevator. Now, nobody runs elevators. You press a button and up you go and down you come. Those may seem far-fetched examples, but in a curious way they are examples of the kind of thing that is taking place all around, all the time.
Cearley: Is there a moment in your growing up that helped define you as a writer today?
Foote: I am working on the second volume of my memoirs. Scribner is publishing it, and I was just analyzing that very fact. In the preface I write about the time when I took a bus at seventeen to go to Pasadena to study acting. If I’d known then that I would end up being a playwright, I think that I’d have gotten off the bus and gone to college. I refused to go to college because I didn’t think that would be good for an actor. Yet I am glad I didn’t, because the unplanned things that I learned along the way before I began to write were very helpful. So it is very difficult to say.
I began writing almost casually. Agnes de Mille suggested I might think about writing a play; she had seen some improvisations I’d done. It began as casually as that. My second play—a full-length play—was written right in this living room. Then Brooks Atkinson, a well-known critic, saw it and liked it. My writing career began as simply as that. Then I had a lot of work to do, because I didn’t know much about writing. I had a lot of humbling to do.
Cearley: What did that experience involve?
Foote: Well, it’s not easy to learn in public. I had some reputation and I felt—and I think rightly so—the public was very demanding of me. It is trial and error. The key is not to get discouraged and not to let your ego get in the way. Being a theater writer is different than any other kind of writer. It is so public. Lord knows, everything funny reaches the public, but novels reach the public in a quieter way somehow. Another thing about theater writing is you need a vocabulary of the theater. As soon as you can get that, the better off you are. Therefore, I think being trained as an actor was very helpful to me.
Cearley: You chose from the beginning to write about the essence of life growing up in a small town?
Foote: I don’t know that we choose how we write. I think it somehow chooses us. It’s very mystical. At least I feel that’s true about the writers I most admire.
Cearley: Who are some of the writers you admire?
Foote: Oh, I’d be here all day; there are too many people I love and admire. I go through phases. Right now, I’m very involved with an English writer named Henry Green, who’s been dead many years. I read him long ago when I was a younger man. Recently I’ve been rediscovering him, and I am absolutely fascinated with him. I read him constantly. So in that sense, I’m an obsessive enthusiast. I get crushes, and I read and read and read. I think the writers I go back to all the time are Katherine Anne Porter and Reynolds Price and Flannery O’Connor. Eudora Welty. Willa Cather. Mark Twain. Faulkner. I suppose you might say these writers have been my influences in a sustained way. And then of course there are a number of playwrights, but I’m very eclectic. There is a writer who is not that well-known, named William Maxwell, whom I think very highly of. Peter Taylor, who is a friend of mine, is a great, great writer. I’ll get crushes on writers and just get obsessive about reading their work.
Cearley: In terms of your own writing, are there some stories that you favor above others?
Foote: I wouldn’t dare; it’s like saying who’s my favorite child. They’d jump off the shelf and hit me. I think the thing you are working on at the present time is the one that gets the most attention.
Cearley: What qualities are important for a writer to develop?
Foote: The main thing about writing is perseverance. It’s a job that you can easily be distracted from; there are a lot of temptations. When I was coming along, we didn’t have the temptation of television. You could spend the rest of your life listening to that if you weren’t careful. Writing is a lonely journey, and writers have to find their own way. That’s the most important thing: to realize that your own voice is the most important gift you have.
Cearley: Explain what encompasses writing.
Foote: When I say writing, I don’t mean taking a pencil to paper or going to the typewriter; I mean thinking about writing some part of every day. A lot of writing is thinking and meditating and not grabbing at the first idea that comes to you, but letting it take shape and form. You have to trust in your talent, and nobody can give you that. Unfortunately, the world is very anxious to destroy that thing.
Cearley: How do you mean?
Foote: The world is very anxious to destroy that faith. I wish I could say definitely this is what you do, and then you do that, and you will be a great success. I don’t think it is possible. You have to find your own way. I think you can early on look to writers that you feel compatible with and learn from. Don’t be afraid of copying because actually you take what you need, then you soon begin to find your own voice.
Cearley: In terms of your career, what makes you the most proud?
Foote: I am quite proud that President Clinton gave me the National Medal of Arts in 2000 during ceremonies in Washington, DC. I admire him. I was very happy to be there and very pleased that he selected me. There were two ceremonies at that time: the National Medal of Arts awards given to artists, writers, actors, theater people, and poets, and the National Humanities medals that were presented to scholars and writers. The reason the two events were at the same time was because of the campaign; Mrs. Clinton was running for the Senate. Having the two events together was very exciting. A lot of interesting people were there.
Cearley: That sounds wonderful. Since 1985 the National Medal of Arts has been given by the president of the United States to honor outstanding contributions in the arts. Congratulations to you, sir, as a recipient of the medal for your work as a playwright and screenwriter.
Foote: Thank you.
Cearley: What brings you the most joy?
Foote: Just writing. I really do love to write. When I say write, again I don’t mean paper and pencil. I mean thinking about writing. Reading other writers. Trying to find new projects. Then the actual process of writing, taking the pen—I don’t use a typewriter, I use a pen—and a piece of paper and going to it. I feel very blessed that I like what I do so much.
Excerpt from Beginnings: A Memoir ( New York: Scribner, 2001), 18–19.
The lady next to me called out to the lady across the aisle. "This boy," she said pointing to me, "is going to acting school. It’s costing seven hundred and fifty dollars. Isn’t that right, son?"
"Yes ma'am," I said closing my eyes, hoping she would leave me alone, when the bus driver called out: "We’re coming into Los Angeles."
I tried to look out the window again but it was pitch black outside now and I couldn’t see anything but the lights of houses and cars. Then I could see streetlights and buildings and more cars and people on the sidewalks and the lady across the aisle said, "We’re almost at the terminal now."
We rode on for another five or ten minutes and the bus pulled into the terminal, which was all lit up and seemed much larger than the Houston or Dallas bus terminals. The bus driver stopped the bus and called out, "Los Angeles!" and everyone began to get up from their seats. The lady next to me patted me on the arm as we started down the aisle and said, "Good luck to you, son," and I thanked her. I got off the bus and followed the people into the terminal. I saw Aunt Mag and Uncle Walt right away and they saw me. Aunt Mag hugged me and kissed me and Uncle Walt shook my hand as he said, "Welcome to California."