With Winston Groom, an American novelist and non-fiction writer best known for his book Forrest Gump
Forrest Gump Author, Winston Groom
Winston Groom is a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction books, best known for his unforgettable portrait of an American eccentric: Forrest Gump. One might say that Groom instantly broke the mold with the character of Forrest Gump, an honest, good-hearted, and somewhat child-like man whose life is propelled by historical currents and a romantic storyline far from his small town Southern roots. The story of a man who seems guided more by his innocence and loyalty than his intellect and ambition, whose adventures humorously revealed his steadfast love of home and country and a naive trust in the kindness of strangers, the movie Forrest Gump captured the imagination of Americans and continues to be considered a classic and a high point in actor Tom Hanks’ career.
The Origins Of Forrest Gump, An American Eccentric
Winston is here with us today to discuss the inspiration and development of the novel Forrest Gump, a life in writing and publishing, and his recent work El Paso, among other topics. Fans of the movie and novel will find insight into Winston’s creative process in his re-telling of the humble story that got him started with Forrest Gump – one he heard from a friend of his father’s while visiting in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama. If you’ve ever wondered what tapping into the muse of inspiration feels like for a writer, Winston describes how he became “an instrument” while writing Forrest Gump, channeling what he calls “the lizard brain” of almost automatic creativity. He also reminds us that this isn’t exactly like normal workaday writing and, in fact, is far closer to the exception than the rule.
Winston Groom On The New York Publishing Industry
By way of many colorful anecdotes, Winston also talks with Steve about his own journey from journalist to book author and his experiences with the maneuvering, deal-making, and the role of various personalities in the publishing and journalism worlds. Anyone with an interest in having their own work published (his advice? “Make friends in the Hamptons”) or is simply curious about how the industry operates behind-the-scenes will be fascinated by his commentary.
El Paso, A Historical Novel
The latter part of the interview delves into his most recent novel, El Paso. Similar to the hand-me-down origins of Forrest Gump, the backstory Winston provides on the genesis of El Paso is an interesting case of making use of a sort of patchwork quilt of tales borrowed from a friend and remade into a unified narrative. The story is set in New Mexico in the early 1900s, a time when the border between the US and Mexico was more fluid and in fact contested. Many rich Americans owned immense ranches and haciendas in New Mexico, and the rebel Pancho Villa was raiding locations on both sides of the border. Winston’s description of how he came to develop a cast of characters, including many based on actual historic figures, demonstrates his concern with and talent for embedding believable—if at times eccentric or larger-than-life—characters in historical situations and dramas. He zooms in and out from the personal to the political big picture and back again in a way that only master storytellers pull off with style and energy. If your only exposure to Winston’s work is through the movie version of Forrest Gump, we hope and expect that by the end of our conversation, there’s a good chance you’ll want to track down his vastly entertaining and well-written novels.
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Steve Pomeranz: Winston Groom is the author of 21 books, 3 of which have been made into movies, and one of which has become an American classic, Forrest Gump. Winston joins me today from Point Clear, Alabama. Welcome to the show, Winston.
Winston Groom: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Steve Pomeranz: There’s a lot I want to cover today, but let’s get to Forrest Gump first. That was such a landmark experience for all Americans. I was wondering how the idea came to you?
Winston Groom: It’s a little bit of a roundabout way. I was living in New York then—that was 1986, I guess, or maybe it was earlier than that, ’85— I was coming home to see my father who was getting older, mother passed away, and he was an old lawyer there in Mobile, Alabama. I’d come home in the winters to get out of the winters of New York and spend a month or so. On one of these occasions, I took him to lunch, and he began to reminisce about growing up in Mobile, Alabama. He was born in 1906 if that gives you an idea. He reminisced that there was a young man in his neighborhood who was then called retarded, and the kids in the neighborhood would tease him and throw sticks at him and so forth. One day this young man’s mother bought a piano and brought it into the house. Within a couple of days, this beautiful music came wafting up through the windows. I remembered then that 60 Minutes had recently done a story on what they called idiot savant syndrome, where you had a person who could barely tie their own shoelaces, but they could do complicated mathematical and musical things. I thought that evening, “I’m going to sit down and make some notes on this, and maybe I can use it for singing somewhere in a book.” Late that night, I had gotten the first chapter of Forrest Gump. It was weird.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah. You started writing it, was it an easy write? Or was it something that you had to really struggle with?
Winston Groom: Easiest thing I ever did. It wrote itself. I’d never had that happen before; I haven’t had it happen since. I remember that Joe Heller told me one time that Catch 22 did that. I’m not sure I believed him. This one was very strange. It was the easiest thing. I didn’t have a net; I didn’t have any kind of notes outlined. It comes from what I call lizard brain, which is down the base of the neck, then it goes right up through the regular brain onto the 10 finger onto the keys.
Steve Pomeranz: You woke up in the morning, and you said, “What’s going to happen with Forrest today?” Was that kind of the idea?
Winston Groom: Yeah. I would say, “What are we going to do with him today?” I had a little fun with it. The book is basically a farce. There’s some down moments in it. It was a lot of fun. I couldn’t get over the fact that it was carrying me along with it. I was the instrument.
Steve Pomeranz: You hear that about, let’s say Mozart or these giants of music and other areas where it just comes out of them. They’re almost like vessels to get it on the page more than they are the creators themselves.
Winston Groom: Yeah. Sometimes that’ll happen. It hasn’t happened since. I never even suspect it will, but it’d be nice.
Steve Pomeranz: One of the things that you mentioned was that you had met Gregory Peck after the movie had come out. He said to you that the character Forrest Gump was one of the few national heroes we have had in this day and age. He said, “America’s produced a lot of,”—well, you say America has produced a lot of antiheroes, but we don’t have heroes anymore. “The only thing,” Peck said, “is that Forrest Gump is an idiot.” In a sense, he’s kind of an antihero himself. Why do you think Americans are so attracted to the antihero?
Winston Groom: I think it’s a phase we’re going through. A lot of the fiction of the last 30 or 40 years has dwelled on the antihero. I don’t know we’ll ever come out of that. Fiction today is very strange to me. It’s written by people who seem to be self-absorbed; it’s personal. There’s a lot of message stuff out there. I’ve always said with my books, “Don’t go look for a message; if you want a message call Western Union or Twitter or something.” I’d just rather be an entertainer and tell tales. That was an interesting observation by Gregory Peck.
Steve Pomeranz: You talk about being an entertainer; you’ve had a number of movies. You had 3 books that were made into movies. Forrest Gump, As Summers Die, with Jamie Lee Curtis, Bettie Davis, and Scott Glenn, and then Firebirds with Nicolas Cage and Tommy Lee Jones.
Winston Groom: What was that? I don’t know that book; I didn’t write that book?
Steve Pomeranz: Really? That was on the material. Was it two books? What was that?
Winston Groom: Well, there were actually three, but the third one didn’t count because they failed to get my permission to make the movie. I had to file a big lawsuit, which was horrible. It’s like having a rocket issue for two years.
Steve Pomeranz: How did it end up?
Winston Groom: I won. They’ll try to break you, these big entertainment companies. They stonewall you and you notice you’re running up huge legal bills. Finally, when they realize they have nowhere to hide, they cave in. It’s very unpleasant. The movies I have made, I think people have been very conscientious about doing them.
Steve Pomeranz: You told the story about, with Forrest Gump, you told the story about how they wanted to go to the University of Alabama, and they had asked you if you knew anybody there, and you knew the president. Why don’t you tell that story real quick.
Winston Groom: They wanted to film up there. I said, “Send me the script.” They did, the latest script. I’d read the first couple of scripts, and they got 3 or 4 people in between. I looked at the script, and it had a number of historical inaccuracies in it that did not reflect well on the university. I told that to this producer. He said, “Don’t worry about that. Universities like to have big movie studios making shows about them, it’s good publicity.” He said, “We’re Paramount Pictures.” I said, “That’s nice, but you may not know this, but University of Alabama is bigger than Paramount Pictures. If I send this script on like it is, I think they’re going to be distressed. I’ll go ahead and send it.” So I sent it on. A couple weeks later I got a phone call and this guy says, “We don’t understand this at all.” He said, “We not only got a letter from the University, we can’t film there, we got a letter from their lawyers saying we can’t even use the name of the University of Alabama.” You know the trademark, the Crimson Tide. What it did was, it got those changes made, that was the main thing.
Steve Pomeranz: I guess in Alabama, the University of Alabama is bigger than everything. It’s more important than everything.
Winston Groom: We’re pretty big.
Steve Pomeranz: Your first book was published in 1978; it was called Better Times Than These. It was at the end of the Vietnam War; I think it reflected your experience. How did you get your first book published? You had never really written anything, as far as I know. How did you actually get it published? What did you do?
Winston Groom: I’d been a journalist for 10 years in Washington. A friend of mine at The Washington Post had left his job, and he was going to meet his father up in somewhere called the Hamptons, which I didn’t know what that was. Turned out his father was Irwin Shaw who was the guy that wrote Rich Man, Poor Man and The Young Lions and so forth. Anyway, his daddy has this big beautiful home there on the Georgica Pond in East Hampton. It was 2 houses. We stayed together that summer, and I made some friends up there. Practically every major writer in America was up there then. Everybody from James Jones to Kurt Vonnegut, George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, everybody’s out there. Capote was there. I forget who all some of these people were. Anyway, they’re all very congenial, and one of the people who was there was Willie Morris who had not too long before that been the boy wonder editor of Harper’s magazine. I had about 100 pages done and he asked to read it. He pronounced that he liked it, and he said, “I’m going to send it along to an agent friend of mine” and he did. That agent accepted that in an outline, and then within a week he had it sold to Simon and Schuster.
Steve Pomeranz: Amazing. That must have been very exciting.
Winston Groom: It was a stroke of luck. Anyway, he got me off and running. It was pretty well received. I’ve never looked back; it’s been almost 20 years now.
Steve Pomeranz: The times were different back then. Everyone can be a writer these days with self-publishing. What advice can you offer would-be writers who are trying to break through in the business and don’t have the luck that you have to have a friend in the Hamptons? How do you break in today?
Winston Groom: Make friends in the Hamptons. Wouldn’t do you any good these days because the only people out there now are hedge fund people. Finding an agent is very important. You’ve just got to keep at it. There’s no solution. I get asked this question all the time. I say, “What you do, you put your ass in a chair, your fingers on the keys, and see what happens. Don’t be discouraged if the first time nothing comes of it.” If you really want to do it, try and see what happens. You’re right, now, there’s so many different books, there are hundreds of thousands of these things actually published every year. It’s like having a hundred thousand brands of toothpaste. I don’t know how anybody knows what to buy.
Steve Pomeranz: How do you break through? You had mentioned that you had a lot of editors in your life, and one, in particular, you mentioned that was just so wonderful. You said, “Today most editors are not editors anymore, they’re book buyers.” What does that mean?
Winston Groom: They are hired on the basis of their ability to acquire valuable manuscripts. They don’t do things like—it was Maxwell Perkins, some of these old-time editors, I’ve had a few like that, who actually can shape copy. They can really help you, especially when you’re young but you’re just staring out because writing a big novel is a lot different from a newspaper story. I can tell you that for sure. A lot of times they see things that you don’t see; they’ve been doing it for a long time and everything. They don’t just pass it along and say, “Looks good, I’m going to pass it along to the copy editor.” Basically, the copy editor can just correct mistakes and put the one m’s in. More and more the publishers are going to these people because they are the ones that represent the income for the publisher. They can go out and find a writer who’s either unknown or who’s already known and dissatisfied and bring them into the house.
Steve Pomeranz: Got you. My guest is Winston Groom, he is, of course, the author of the American classic, Forrest Gump. He’s also written 21 books, 13 of which are nonfiction, the rest are fiction. I want to ask you, Winston, to talk about your most current book. By the way, to hear this segment again, and to find out more about Winston, don’t forget to join the conversation at Stevepomeranz.com. This is the Steve Pomeranz Show, and, of course, I’m Steve Pomeranz. Winston, tell us about this new book, it’s called El Paso.
Winston Groom: It started out about 20 years ago, it was a collection of stories a friend of mine would tell me about his family. His was a very wealthy family from New York; they were the Morgan family. They had a huge piece of land in Northern Mexico, well over a million acres and hundreds of thousands of cows and so forth. A lot of wealthy Americans had places down there then because the Mexican government really couldn’t handle it, they didn’t have any money for infrastructure down there, so they sold the land to the Americans. This was in 1916, which is coincidentally 100 years to the year that this is 2016. That was one of the years of the Pancho Villa revolution. He was one of the revolutionaries. There were a whole bunch of them, but he was the main one in Northern Mexico. He had basically left these Americans alone, except that in 1916, Woodrow Wilson recognized his arch enemy, General Carranza, as being the legitimate ruler of Mexico, and he forbade Villa from going to El Paso where he got his arms and his munitions and his supplies for his army. So Villa began to attack the Americans. He went onto this ranch in the state of Chihuahua that my friend’s family had, and he strung up the manager of the ranch and sabered him to death. Then he kidnapped his children. This was just one of a number of stories that my friend told me.
I was thinking all these years, there’s just something that compels me to write about this. A collection of stories like that is not a novel; it’s really just a collection of tales. I sat down a couple years ago and said, “I’m going to really get after this. I’m going to see if I can invent some interesting characters and throw them in there and grab a few historical characters and fling them in there too and see what sticks.” Some of the historical characters I just intended to have them as cameos, but they wound up being so interesting, I left them in there.
Steve Pomeranz: I know you added the movie star Tom Mix and General Pershing and the then Lieutenant Patton, who later, of course, became General Patton, and then the satirist Ambrose Bierce. I think most of us don’t really know about him. If I may, I found a couple of quotes, and I think this maybe explains his character. He said about love, “Love is a temporary insanity curable by marriage.” He said about the future, which I really relate it to, “The future is that period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true, and our happiness is assured.” He was quite a character, right?
Winston Groom: He was. Those were quotes from something he wrote called The Devil’s Dictionary where he defined words. He was a very well-known, of his day, a well-known journalist. He’d been a Union officer in the Civil War. He did, in fact, go to Mexico, I believe 1913 or ‘14, and he vanished down there. I don’t know what that what happened to him in the book happened to him. What happens to him in the book, I invented and I own it, and that’s what happened to him as far as I’m concerned. I won’t give it away. John Reed, he was down there actually covering the Pancho Villa revolution for the New York or The World, one of those papers. There are some historical people that I left in. They complemented the tale. That’s a lot of fun. I think it gives a reader a little bit of framework if you occasionally throw in a historical person, as long as you keep them in character.
Steve Pomeranz: For more inventions of the kind of writing that we’re so used to with a wonderful book like Forrest Gump, the name of the book is El Paso, my guest is Winston Groom, the author of 21 books, including, of course, the American Classic Forrest Gump. Winston is joining me today from Point Clear, Alabama. Alabama’s a great place. Thank is you so much for joining us, Winston.
Winston Groom: Hey, thanks for having me on. Appreciate it.
Steve Pomeranz: All right.