A Legendary Penman

I meet Winston Groom at a Downtown Fairhope eatery on a gloomy, gray, wet and chilly day, “good writing weather, ” he calls it. Indeed, by the end of our lunch and interview, I appreciate fully just how much Groom could have better employed the hour and a half he graciously spends with me. He’s been working like a mule, with one nonfiction book titled “The Aviators” near completion; two more under consideration, a history of the University of Alabama and another about early 20th-century plumage poachers in the Everglades; an article due for Alabama Heritage magazine on Bear Bryant’s 100th birthday; and on the back burner, a “too sprawling” Pancho Villa novel that needs focus and “more time.”

Groom, left, will ever be famous as the author of the 1986 novel “Forrest Gump, ” so memorably filmed by Robert Zemeckis eight years later. “Most letters I get are ‘Forrest Gump’-related, ” he tells me. “Three or four a day.” But there are at least 15 other books and counting with his name on the title page, and any understanding of Groom’s place in Southern letters must take full account of them. They include novels, such as “Better Times Than These” (1978) and “Such a Pretty, Pretty Girl” (1999); a string of riveting historical narratives, including “Shrouds of Glory” (1995), “A Storm in Flanders” (2002), “Vicksburg, 1863” (2009) and “Kearny’s March” (2011); a young- adult biography of Ronald Reagan; and a lavishly illustrated history of the Crimson Tide. He owns a raft of awards and honors, among them a Clarence Cason Award, a Harper Lee Award and several honorary doctorates; and his 1983 book “Conversations with the Enemy, ” co-authored with Duncan Spencer about a Vietnam POW, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  

Groom came to his craft by degrees. The son of a Mobile attorney and an English teacher, he was born in Washington, D.C., in 1943, but raised on the Gulf Coast, where he attended University Military School. While a student at Alabama in the early 1960s, he worked on the college humor magazine and wanted to be an editor. “I didn’t see much of a future in writing, ” he confesses. But among his influences was the dandyish creative-writing professor Hudson Strode. “He was a pompous old bastard, ” Groom recalls. “I liked him. He was the real deal. He had published.” After Groom got shipped off to Vietnam, where he served as an infantry officer, Strode kept in touch and, anticipating his return, wrote him letters of introduction to prominent magazine editors. When Groom got home, the editors gave him short interviews, but not much else. He was yet young, and more than a year of combat duty had left him “withdrawn.” The editor of Esquire suggested that he start out at a newspaper. “I thought that was a bad idea, ” Groom says, “but I didn’t have anything else to do.”

“Most letters I get are ‘Forrest Gump’-related, ” he tells me. “Three or four a day.” But there are at least 15 other books and counting with his name on the title page, and any understanding of Groom’s place in Southern letters must take full account of them.

The opportunity came on a Mobile Bay wharf. Groom had stepped out for some fresh air after a wedding, and he saw another guest contemplating the water. “I knew he was a newspaper man because he had on a tuxedo and brown shoes, ” Groom laughs. The man turned out to be the managing editor of a storied D.C. rag, the Washington Star. Thus it was that Groom found himself back in the city of his birth, working cops and courts, and once getting caught in a riot’s midst. An independent writing career in New York City followed, where Groom ran with luminaries like Willie Morris, James Jones and Joseph Heller. He knows or has met many prominent American authors. He particularly likes to read Larry McMurtry and Thomas McGuane, but he’s less enamored of younger novelists, calling their work “self-indulgent” and the writing schools that produce them “a menace.” Groom can be peppery, but that’s part of his appeal.

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Groom’s forthcoming title, “The Aviators, ” is a triple biography of Charles Lindberg, Eddie Rickenbacker and James Doolittle and will be very much what his fans have come to expect as of late. “All three were World War I-era flyers, ” Groom explains, but “World War II was the most dangerous and interesting part of their careers.” Fortunately, research materials for this book are close at hand, with some Doolittle documents at Maxwell Air Force Base, in Montgomery, and Rickenbacker’s papers at Auburn University. “People enjoy these military history books, ” he says. While he wishes the audience was bigger, “Vicksburg, 1863” sold a respectable 30, 000 copies.

“So you’ll keep on writing, then, ” I remark at the conclusion of our interview. Groom smiles.

“If I took a break, I wouldn’t know what to do.” 

John S. Sledge is the author of “Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart.”

text by John S. Sledge • photo by Squire Fox

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