Life is Like a Box of Chocolates: An Interview with Winston Groom

Winston Groom’s nonfiction books include The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight and Shrouds of Glory: From Atlanta to Nashville: The Last Great Campaign of the Civil War.

American originals come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and textures. Some are flesh and blood, and walk among us. Others are the product of a vivid and boundless imagination. Bestselling author and BGES member Winston Groom is undoubtedly one of the former. His most famous character, Forrest Gump, is one of the latter. Fortunately for us, Groom is happy to talk about his life and career, and the man who helped make him famous.

A true son of the South, Groom grew up in Mobile, Alabama, at a time when baseball legends Hank Aaron and Willie Mays were maturing into stars on the city’s dusty diamonds. He would go on to attend the University of Alabama, graduating with an AB in English. A year later, Groom found himself in Vietnam, serving as a lieutenant in the First Brigade of the Fourth Infantry Division, a combat outfit in the Central Highlands. He returned home in 1967 knowing he wanted to write for a living.

Groom spent the first chapter of his career as a journalist, notably working for the Washington Star. Ultimately, he realized his calling was an author, and readers around the globe were better for it. While Groom is best known for Forrest Gump, which he published in 1994, his list of literary accomplishments stretches far beyond that. His first novel, Better Times Than These, drew on his military experiences abroad. He also has three Civil War histories to his credit: Shrouds of Glory, Vicksburg 1863and Shiloh, 1862.

To this day, Groom continues to write about topics he finds interesting and wants to learn more about. His latest book, The Founders, focuses on Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. Next up is The Explorers.

BGES Blog: As you’re proud of saying, you are a Southerner. Is that the source of your interest in the Civil War?

WG: I’m old enough that I grew up hearing about it. In fact, both my great-grandfathers fought in the Civil War. When I was a kid, there were no nice words for “Yankee.” But it was really in college, when I took an American history course that focused on this period, that my interest was truly piqued.

Writers like Shelby Foote influenced me. I appreciated that he was always fair in his treatment of the Civil War. I also liked Douglas Freeman. He may have been tilted to the Southern cause, but his books were very well done.

BGES Blog: So was it your goal to be a novelist or a historian?

WG: As a writer, if you have one successful book, you’re lucky. If you have two, it’s amazing. If you have three, that’s extraordinary. I wrote a number of novels that did well. But at some point you run out of ideas, and you lose your passion for it.

So in 2004, I called my publisher Morgan Entrican, who owed the Atlantic Monthly Press. Their offices were in New York City, but he was from Nashville. I said I wanted to do a Civil War history. He was like, “You want to do what?” Then I told him it was about the Battle of Nashville, and he said, “Sure.”

BGES Blog: What’s the difference between writing a novel and a history?

WG: When you sit down for a novel, you have a blank page of paper staring back at you. For a history book, the start, middle, and end are already there. Being a novelist helps, but writing a history is like cooking a big stew. It’s a real challenge when you start. You have to have all the right ingredients—that’s crucial. Then you have to stir it up just right.

I try to write about things I don’t know a lot about at first. And I always try to take a fresh approach. I want to entertain readers in a highly skilled way, and give them a true education.

BGES Blog: You certainly did that in Forrest Gump. How do you account for that book’s astounding success?

WG: Forrest Gump wrote itself. I did it in six weeks. I didn’t have an outline or notes. Gump was such as improbable character. He was the perfect idiot. I didn’t know where I was going with him. Come on, playing for Bear Bryant at Alabama with an IQ of 60? If readers would believe that, I found I could do almost anything with him. When I was done, I sent it to Willie Morris, who had been the Editor in Chief of Harpers, and was then writer in residence at Ole Miss. I even hesitated to send it to my agent, but I did. Then I got a call from Willie at two in the morning. “Don’t change a word,” he said. The book sold in two days. We had a move deal three or four weeks later.

It all took me by complete surprise. I thought Gumpmight be a little cult book. That’s what it was in the beginning. Kids were reading it on college campuses. And then it became something else. Stuff like that happens sometimes. I still get letters about Gump, often from people in foreign countries in languages I don’t know.

BGES Blog: What was it like seeing your work on the big screen?

WG: First, it was about eight years of production hell just getting it there. Our deal was originally with Warner Brothers, but they turned it over to Paramount. I wrote a lot of scripts. Part of the problem was that Gump was 6-6 and 240 pounds in the novel. They couldn’t find an actor big enough to play him. So they told me to rewrite him. I said, “What?” There were a lot of actors suggested for the part—Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman among them. Tom Hanks wound up being a good choice.

This wasn’t my first rodeo, but after seeing the premiere here in Alabama, I just sat there. Everyone in the theater did. It was very well done.

BGES Blog: You’ve done so much to entertain and educate people around the world. Is that part of the reason why you’re a strong supporter of BGES?

WG:There is no such thing as the last word on a subject. BGES and organizations like it are more important than ever because they focus on educating Americans on part of their history they should know thoroughly. The Civil War was the turning point in our country. It made us theUnited States. And it remains relevant to this day. In some ways, we’re still fighting it. We have to come to a proper appreciation and understanding of it.