A Visit with Horton Foote

June 4, 2003

During the week of March 17, American playwright Horton Foote was in residence at Baylor as visiting distinguished dramatist. He met with theater classes daily and presented a public lecture midweek on "Writing With a Sense of Place." The Wharton, Texas, native has won many national awards including an Academy Award in 1962 for his screenplay of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and another in 1983 for "Tender Mercies," a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for "The Young Man From Atlanta," an Emmy in 1997 for "The Old Man," a National Medal of Arts Award from President Bill Clinton in 2000, induction into the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1996 and the William Inge Award for Lifetime Achievement in American Theatre in 1989. This past year, Foote spent a week on campus during the fall and spring semesters, and he will be involved in Baylor's Horton Foote American Playwrights Festival, a weeklong event to be held March 3-6, 2004. The festival will feature his work in performances, an academic symposium and an award presented in his name. Invited guest for the festival is Foote's close friend, Robert Duvall, whose first acting role was as Boo Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird." 
I sat in on a theater class Foote addressed, a group of about 25 students and a few guests that met in a backstage area with chairs semicircled around him. He sat in a stuffed chair -- no doubt a stage prop -- and responded to a steady stream of questions. After the class, he visited with me about his career, his writing and his current projects.

Have you ever worked with college students in this kind of collaboration before?
I've never done it. I'm enjoying it, particularly a session like today. I just felt they were bright and asked wonderful questions. I felt there was a real rapport. That really made it for me.

You are known for being able to capture the detail in the memory, to use that detail to evoke the emotion. How are you able to do that?
I guess I've been doing it so long. I think about the past a great deal. I live in my little town now, but everyplace I go, I'm reminded of things. I don't censor that. I like to think about it and think about the past. Sometimes it's useful in my plays and sometimes I have things in my play that I never went through, that I made up.

Critics have described your work as illustrating the triumph of the human spirit. Do you see your work that way?
If I did, I wouldn't be able to write, if I sat down and said, I'm going to write about the triumph of the human spirit. I'm flattered by that and I'm grateful because I hope what I'm on the side of is the human spirit, but I don't sit down to do that.

You answered one of the students who asked about your writing process that sometimes it begins with a phrase, a piece of music, a situation.
It's just that then you get the impulse and that serves you to get started.

Do you write every day?
No, because I've learned that writing isn't always sitting down and writing. I think every day about something, when I'm by myself.

Writers say that writing really isn't a choice, that it's something they have to do. Is that true for you?
I guess so. If you had met me at 16, I would have said, 'Oh, I don't think I'm going to be a writer.' But once I started, I became just involved with it, passionately. I don't think what you write about is a choice so much. I think it chooses you. And even the style you're writing, I don't think you choose so much as it chooses you.

Do you think the ability to write is a God-given gift?
I don't know. I think one could describe it that way, but I don't know, in the sense that all gifts come from God. I certainly don't think it's something you turn on like a faucet, that you wake up one day and say, I'm going to have this. It is the great mystery, isn't it?

Some say there are two kinds of writers: those who write and those who talk about writing.
(Chuckling) I guess so. I only know writers who write, and maybe talk too much about it. Sometimes you get around them and you think, 'Oh my God, can we talk about anything else but writing?'"

You are a chronicler of human life. What have you learned in that role of observing people?
Humility. In awe, maybe, of the blessings that one has, how little one really has to do with things.

Do you think people are drawn to your work because you write about a time that extols certain values?
I'm grateful when they're drawn to it, but I just wouldn't know. It's obviously something that I explore, although I'm not sentimental about the past, as you're probably aware. I think it had plenty of difficulties and complexities. It didn't have some of the challenges that we have, but they had challenges we can't imagine. I hope I am fair to the past, that's what I try to be.

What are you working on now?
I have a play coming in, "Trip to Bountiful's" 50th anniversary is being done. My daughter (Hallie) is in it. I'm talking about doing a film which I can't talk about, but it looks like it's going to happen and the film is based on my play "The Widow Claire." And I'm working on a new play called "The Tax Assessor."

So your passion and energy for writing have not abated?
They better not. I'd be a lost soul, I tell you. Well, maybe I wouldn't be. I could read all the books I haven't been able to.

Is it hard to edit your own work?
When you've been at it as long as I have, you realize you can't be sentimental; you have to be ruthless.

Do you stay involved with your play once it goes into production?
I do. I was an actor and I do direct and I think you have to trust their instincts and talents (of the producer, director and actors) or you shouldn't be working with them. Now, if I feel they're totally wrong, then I talk about it, then try to understand what they're trying to do and see what we can arrive at.

What are your thoughts about American theater today?
I'm very hopeful about the theater because I think it's going through an evolution and continues to change. The kind of high-powered Broadway theater is on its way out, I think. There will always be a place for it and there should be, but I think we're finding ways to encourage young writers to write seriously. The quality of writing among young playwrights is much higher than when I first came into New York. I think there are some very talented young writers ... . Theaters established outside of New York have been very helpful. There's been quite a renaissance in smaller theaters.

In these times, do you see the arts and theater as a source of hope and encouragement? 
I think so. I was trying to say that today to them but I didn't quite know how to say it because I didn't want them to get into politics. It's more necessary than ever because it reaffirms a life-giving thing, not a destructive thing. I think we have to all be very careful that the arts don't get pushed aside in terms of these big budgets for guns and munitions and all that nonsense.

In the 1960s, you were disillusioned with the theater.
I wasn't disillusioned, I just didn't feel I belonged. I didn't disapprove of it because they were using four-letter words that I don't use, and you know, the naked body seemed to be very alluring to them. It was just a whole kind of theater. I went to see it, but I just stayed home and wrote plays. It was Alan Pakula who said, "There are very few second acts in the American theater, but Horton Foote had a second act."

Which award has meant the most to you?
I think the one I got from President Clinton, which was the National Medal of Arts Award. That meant a lot to me. First of all, I admire him. I thought he was very bright and a wonderful president. I was very touched. I understand that he wrote the citations himself, which to me is quite wonderful. And then, it's my government, national recognition. I was very moved by it and very humbled by it.

What has surprised you the most about the evolution of your career?
How little I had to do with it. I can look back and say yes, I can see why this happened, but at the time, I wasn't aware of the gifts that were given me by different people. I just thought of a lecture I'd like to give. I'd call it "Gratitude" and be able to thank the ones and to really think clearly about some of the gifts that have been given me that I took so casually at the time. That's a lecture I might like to do when I come back to Baylor next.

There are so many stories to be told. Do you feel a great desire to get them written?
When you reach my age, my time of life, you begin to worry a little bit. You think, 'Oh, I want to get this done.' And then that's really being unfair to yourself. I don't think you can really write under that kind of pressure, so I tell that voice to shut up.