Q&A with Winston Groom: ‘You’ve got one good book in you if you’re lucky'

It was while facing daily deadlines at the Washington Star that he realized he didn't want to become a career newspaperman.

“I guarantee you that if you looked in the desk of one of the old guys, you’d find a bottle of Seagram’s V&O, a pack of Lucky Strikes and a weathered copy of a half-written manuscript,” Groom told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “So one day I walked into my boss’s office and I quit, knowing full well that I couldn’t look back.”

He didn’t, and the Alabama native has since penned 16 books, including the runaway best-seller “Forrest Gump.” Groom will be speaking and signing copies of his latest book, "Shiloh, 1862," at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum Wednesday.

Q: You served in Vietnam and write a lot about war. Who are some of your heroes?

A: My heroes were the World War II generation who had written about it, like James Jones, who wrote “The Thin Red Line” and “From Here to Eternity”; Joseph Heller, who wrote “Catch-22”; and Irwin Shaw with “The Young Lions.” Those were the books that resonated with me, and little did I know that all those guys would become my friends.

Q: You primarily write about history, both fiction and nonfiction. Which do you prefer?

A: You’ve got one good book in you if you’re lucky. If you stick with fiction and that’s all you do, you’ll go crazy. F. Scott Fitzgerald drank himself to death; Hemingway blew his brains out. You run out of good ideas. So, I thought I’d write about something I love, history. Believe me, it’s not easy to write a history book because of all the research involved, but at least you’ve got a beginning, middle and an end and the dialogue is already written for you. With fiction, you’re sitting down and you’re staring at a blank sheet of paper. Fiction is fun because you can make [it] up. You can’t do that with history. But it can be especially maddening, because halfway through, when you think you’ve got everything figured out, suddenly you realize it can’t go that way. That can be a little spooky.

Q: It sounds like you have wonderful memories of D.C., New York and the Hamptons, yet you came back to your native Alabama.

A: There’s no reason to be in New York anymore. Most of my friends are dead and there’s no Elaine’s. If I’d known then what I know now, I’d make friends with younger people. Willie Morris used to say that every young man needs to do a stretch in New York, and I put myself on parole. I didn’t really get a lot of writing done in New York City. I started coming home in the winters and spending time with my father after my mother had died. I started coming back more often and staying longer and not wanting to go back to New York, especially during the winter. I’d plan on staying two weeks and that would turn into a month and soon it was six months later. So, I sold my place up there and built a house down here in Alabama. It turned out that I met a lovely young woman that I married and we had a little girl. I like it here.

Q: What can we expect from your event at the Carter Center? Will you read?

A: I’m not big on reading; that’s the cheap way out. If someone wants to read my book, they can go read it. If you’re not capable of reading, I’ll read it to you. I’ll talk about my new book and then answer questions about “Gump,” because someone always brings that up. There’s no escaping that.

Winston Groom. 7 p.m. Wednesday. Free. Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum Theater,  441 Freedom Parkway, Atlanta. 404-865-7100, www.jimmycarterlibrary.gov.

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