Horton Foote - On Writing and Risk
© Jef Gunn
On Writing and Risk
by Horton Foote
We have to be careful that we don’t equate success with how much money we make.
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On Writing and Risk
Keeping an unpublished manuscript in a drawer and not sharing it with an audience, even if it is a small audience of friends and acquaintances, is a mistake.When I think of the writers that I admire like Flannery O’Connor or Katherine Anne Porter or William Carlos Williams or Marianne Moore—they all lived through literary magazines and made hardly a living out of it but it certainly was a place for them to be read and to be seen. And finally they gathered an audience and perfected a style. Whereas if you kept it in a drawer and waited for a Knopf to pick it up you would never develop as a writer. I think of Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell—all the poets that I know of—they finally found publishers. But in the meantime they kept using small magazines and publishing and reading each other and disciplining each other and discussing their work.Poets have always seemed to accommodate themselves to just pursuing their craft and not worrying about the commercial aspects of it. A lot of them had to teach, and some people think that’s not a good thing. It’s very hard to evaluate. All I feel is that if you want to write you take your risks and you look around. For instance I’ve just had four plays done at the Signature Theatre Off Off Broadway. I’m the fourth playwright they’ve done, after Romulus Linney, Lee Blessing, and Edward Albey. I didn’t get rich from this, but I got rich in many intangible ways. It was an extraordinary experience. Many people found their way down to see our plays and compare them to the others. It’s the project of two young men and one in particular, Jim Houghton, who has envisioned this theatre. It’s not always easy. He has to use a ninety-nine seat house and has to be very careful with his budget. He’s attracted extraordinarily talented people, directors and actors. Each year he has a playwright who is willing to turn over four of his plays to him.You need to listen for ideas. When Jim first got the idea he knew there would be many obstacles. He persisted and not only did it work—the first season was in 1991—each year it’s grown.It is always very difficult in theatre. It always meant a lot to me to know that people like Pound and Eliot and a lot of the other writers who I consider our base really were in love with the process of writing, and they had high standards. You might not always agree with them. But they made great sacrifices for their work and the integrity of their work. In the case of Eliot he had Criterion magazine, which had a very low readership. But the influence of the magazine was profound. It touched many people and influenced many people.We have to be careful that we don’t equate success with how much money we make. I know that we all have to find a way to support ourselves. Certainly we want our work seen and read. But I have always been more comfortable with the goals of someone like Eliot who seemed to be interested in the work itself. And finding a way to bring out the highest sense of it he can.The way I got started? When I wrote my first play I was still an actor. I got a job (this was in New York) and saved my money, and I went back home to Texas and wrote the play. The first play was reviewed and had a wonderful reception but it was produced in an Off Off Broadway venue and made no money. I had to think what to do so I could write. Then I got a job running an elevator on Park Avenue. It was long hours, and the pay was not very large. But the good part of the job was that most people were home in bed by ten o’clock. I started at six and didn’t end until six the next morning—a lot of that time was just silence. So I could spend the night writing. I wrote Only the Heart there. That was 1943. The play was produced in Provincetown in 1944 and on Broadway in 1945. It had a wonderful reception off Broadway but when it got to Broadway it wasn’t well received and made no money, so I again had to figure out what to do to support myself. I worked in a bookstore, but that didn’t leave me any time for writing, so I began to teach, and ended up taking a series of teaching jobs.In the meantime I got married, and my wife and I and some friends went to Washington, D.C., where we started a theatre school and theatre. After that I came back to New York and did some teaching. But I always allowed time for writing. Everything was organized around that. My work began to sell. And so my career developed.The main thing is that you find a way to live modestly. The great problem, particularly for theatre writers and screen writers, is that they get involved in an expensive lifestyle that they feel they have to support. That’s a real trap. I’ve had a very blessed marriage. And my wife felt that an extravagant lifestyle was a thing to be avoided—both for me and for our children. So we found a way to live modestly. And whenever I made some money, I’d take time off and write.I’ve spent a great part of my life in New York, and I love it. But it never occurs to me to write about this place. My plays are set in the fictional town of Harrison, Texas. I didn’t decide on this location. It chose me.Critics write about "regional" and "local" writing in a disparaging way. I don’t think you should pay any attention to it. Some of our most distinguished writers have a great sense of place. Elizabeth Bishop, Flannery O’Connor, Reynolds Price, Eudora Welty. It doesn’t mean their writing is parochial, and it doesn’t mean it’s quaint. That’s to be avoided. What you try to find is the universal in the particular. That’s the search.
I met Horton Foote in Seattle in August 1993. He had come to town to do a benefit for the Belltown Theatre Center. The event included a screening of his filmConvicts with Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones, a reception after, and talks with small groups. Also, the following day, the theatre group performed Horton’s one-act play, The Oil Well.My wife and I arrived at the Neptune Theatre in the University District at eight. I’d never been into the Neptune before—it was known in town as the place to go, at midnight, to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show. And I was surprised to see a crowd of 300 that had come, at twenty-five dollars per head, to do honor to a good playwright and a good man.Horton Foote is known for the insight and substance of his dramas and screenplays. His play and movie A Trip to Bountiful tell the story of an elderly woman fleeing a city apartment for her old home place in the low farmland on the Texas coast. His screenplay Tender Mercies (starring Robert Duvall) is the story of a musician who travels from city to city until his life disintegrates and he finds himself living in a nondescript roadside motel—a place where he begins to anchor himself, reestablish his links to humanity, to discover, once again, his own soul. Foote’s work is deceptively simple. It is deep. And there is a lot of it. His screenplays To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies have won Oscars, he won a Pulitzer in 1995, and he is featured every year or so in the arts pages of The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. Yet comparatively few people recognize his name.After Convicts, my wife and I drove downtown to the Belltown Theatre Center where we ate delicacies, tried out the new small theatre seating, and schmoozed with the theatre crowd. Before long Horton Foote arrived. He stood in the corner, white hair, gentle smile, and sat to autograph his published plays. I introduced myself and gave him a copy of my first book. He thanked me. I mumbled a few words. What I took away was an impression of his sincerity.Horton Foote is not even slightly interested in the glitz and money we associate with Hollywood. He lives and writes to express meaning—no car chases, naked dancers, or machine gun battles in his work. And Horton Foote doesn’t hesitate to donate his time to support a pioneering theatre project. I was buoyed by the man, and even more by the audience. Three hundred people doing honor to a writer and his quiet, perceptive work? There truly is an audience for thoughtful writing: this truth is a life-ring for scriveners like me who have ideas but slight notion of how to make them pay.—Scott C. DavisBio
Place of residence: Wharton, Texas.
Birthplace: Wharton, Texas.
Family: Horton’s father was a shopkeeper in Wharton.
Education: Wharton High School. Pasadena Playhouse Theatre (1933–35). Tamara Darkarhovna Theatre School (1937–39).
Awards: Nineteen major awards. Pulitzer in drama (1995). Oscars for the screenplays To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) and Tender Mercies (1983). Theatre Hall of Fame (1996).
Plays/film scripts/television dramas/books: More than forty, including the original play and filmscript A Trip to Bountiful and the film script Tender Mercies(starring Robert Duvall).
Undiscovered stars: The Chase (1966) was a movie with a screenplay by Lillian Hellman based on Horton’s original play. It starred Marlon Brando and featured "unknown" actors Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Angie Dickinson, and Robert Duvall.
Favorite fictional locale: The town of Harrison, Texas, an old-time, rural community near the Texas coast which is the setting for all Horton’s original plays including The Traveling Lady (1954, adapted in 1964 for the screen as Baby, the Rain Must Fall starring Steve McQueen and Lee Remick).Historical note: In the 1950s Horton wrote for the prestigious "Playhouse 90" and the "Philco-Goodyear Playhouse" among other shows—serious television work from the early years of that medium. Horton has had a long association with the actor Robert Duvall—as one Hollywood insider puts it, "Horton Foote got Duvall his first job." Robert Duvall’s first film was To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), and the two worked together on Tomorrow (1972), Horton’s film adaptation of a Faulkner short story.Recent screenplay: The Man of the House (1994). To be produced by Eddie Murphy Productions.
Current project: A new play.
Favorite book: The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats (currently published as Yeats by William Butler Yeats).
Favorite food: Fried chicken.