Don Noble discusses the legacy of Winston Groom

Sep 23, 2020




Stan Ingold: Well, let's start things off here. So what was Winston Groom like? 

Don Noble: Oh, he was good company. Winston liked good food, he liked good drink, he loved to talk.  He was, especially in his last, oh, now 15 or more years, a very jolly fellow. He enjoyed socializing. But one of the things I think was true for Groom, and it's true for more writers than ever admit, is that he was a really hard worker. I mean, put in real banker’s hours in his study at his at his desk, and he was a thorough researcher. And he wrote fairly quickly, but he wrote a lot. He put in a day's work. 


SI: I understand that he was a journalist at one time, do you think that had any impact in his style of writing? 


DN: He was. After he got out of the army and came back, after he came back from Vietnam, he went to work in Washington at the Washington Star, which was the more conservative newspaper, not the Post. And Winston used to tell a story about how the whispers and rumors of the Watergate break-in came to him and came to the Star. And they decided it was nothing. And they ignored it. The Post went ahead, of course, with Woodward and Bernstein, and won the Pulitzer Prize. Yes, he was a working active journalist in Washington DC.  I don't think that it affected his writing style, Stan. I think what, what happens with journalists, whether they're Ernest Hemingway, or sometimes John Steinbeck, or, or in this case, Winston Groom, I think it makes them less prone to drama and less prone to writer's block. Journalists have to do the job. The editor is yelling at them, they have a deadline, it is four o'clock, you will turn in your copy by four o'clock or they will have you killed. So journalists tend to be more productive. In that sense, less whimsical, it's because it doesn't affect their-- I don't think it makes them less stylistic, less elegant. But it makes their attitude different. They become people at work. And every day they're supposed to to produce something. 


SI: You know, Winston Graham is known as a novelist and as a historian, where do you think his biggest impact will be in the literary world? 


DN: Well, I don't think this is a tragedy, but I think that he is going to be remembered longest and remembered best for Forrest Gump. And that is not a bad thing. I think it's a really fine book. When the 25th anniversary of Forrest Gump came out, it just occurred to me that I should have a look at it. So I read it and wrote a piece for the Mobile Press Register, which they published one Sunday. And in it I said that I thought it was it was it was really quite a good book. It held up very well. It's much more complicated than the movie. I think it's really more subtle. It's more varied. Gump is a composite true creation. I mean, Forrest Gump is a real creature. So I think he'll be most remembered for that. I also I have a theory, I can't prove this yet, but I think people are going to take another look somewhere down the road they'll take another look at that or Better Times than These, the Vietnam novel, and Gone the Sun and the and the other Mobile Alabama novels and they're overshadowed of course by Forrest Gump, but they're pretty good books. And I think one day these things happen. The wheel of fortune turns and I think one day people will look at Better Times than These and Gone the Sun and have a higher appreciation for them. The history books are a part of the permanent record. And I think people read them forever, but they're never going to make the kind of the kind of impact. Narrative history like that is informative and useful. But I think over time, it's going to be the novels especially Gump. 


SI: So do you think that Forrest Gump is the work of his that stands out the most to you? 


DN: Oh, I think so. Yeah. I mean, it is. It is funny. I mean, you-- there are sections in there that that are just hysterical. And it is also, in a way, a kind of a tour of the 20th century, or at least the second half of the 20th century. We forget that Gump gets involved with saving Mao and swimming in the Yangtze River and Gump plays ping pong and Gump is an astronaut. And I mean, most of the major events of the second half of the 20th century get covered somewhere in Gump. So yeah, I think that's, you know, that's, that's the one that's almost certainly going to last the longest. And I, years ago, I was introducing, Winston at one of the prizes, he won the Clarence Cason Award. And this is not a-- I didn't make this up. This is not a fanciful-- one of the ways that that writers get remembered, one of the things that makes them immortal, is whether they create characters who are immortal. So that, you know, the winner in this contest is Shakespeare who, you know, if you say Macbeth or you say Lear or you say Hamlet people know who you're talking about. And right there on that in that same categories is Charles Dickens. Everybody knows who Scrooge is. And everybody knows who David Copperfield or Oliver Twist is, you know. Very few novelists put a character into the popular culture. I think people are going to know Forrest Gump, if you say Forrest Gump and people are gonna know who that is, for another 50 years. Steinbeck did that kind of thing. If you say the Joad family, Tom Joad, people know you're talking about The Grapes of Wrath, or with Hemingway if you if you say Lady Brett Ashley, or of course Fitzgerald, you say Gatsby, people know who Gatsby is, those characters are forever. And I think Gump has joined them. 


SI: How would you say Groom’s writing impacted Alabama? 


DN: Well, I don't know if it's-- it's always a hard question about one's home territory. The most famous kind of relationship between the writer and his own place was surely Thomas Wolfe and Asheville. And the phrase that became famous was “you can't go home again.” After you've written about Asheville in the way that Thomas Wolfe wrote about Asheville and look homeward Angel for a while he couldn't go home again. They were, they didn't like it. Characters out in California, people out in California did not like The Grapes of Wrath. They thought it made Californians look mean. Gump doesn't do that, of course. But most writers probably may be the great exception. Most writers are not as revered in their home places they as they ought to be. Maybe it's because they're perfectly human. And they're not, they don't remain mystical or mythical or legendary. They're just a fella who's also in the grocery store. But he's, I think he sits on the top shelf of Alabama writers and I've always had a real warm spot for productivity. You cannot take away the quality of a book like Invisible Man or a book like To Kill a Mockingbird. That's fine. And they are what they are. They're first class. They're excellent. But I admire a writer who does it as a career who sits down and writes a book then writes a different book and then writes another book I forget now how many wins it had? [He] may have had 20. And I'm an admirer of productivity. 


SI: I actually got to have a conversation with him one time talking about one of his novels, El Paso


DN: Yeah.  


SI: And I asked him, you know, it took him 20 years to write that book. And I asked him, 'Why did it take 20 years?' And he kind of laughed. He said, 'Have you seen the book? Yeah, it's a very thick book.' You know, he's written all these history books in between, then.  


DN: Yes.  


SI: I just, that just it just really made me laugh that he just, that was his immediate answer was, 'Have you seen it?' 


DN: Well, you know that I'm glad you brought that book up, because I was thinking about this book, just really literally this morning. And, you know, when I think about Winston, I think about the novels. And then the ones I mentioned, and I think about the history, the narrative history. And narrative history is The AviatorsThe Generals, and so on. But you know, El Paso is, in a sense, a true blend. It is, it could very well have been a book of narrative history about the war with Mexico, but he put it put that book in the form of novel. So in the book, you have the same generals who will go off to World War One and other real characters Pancho Villa and who is a cowboy , Tom Mix,and then there’s Ambrose Bierce  the journalist. So in a way, there's a huge percentage, a huge chunk of El Paso is reliable history. And then the whole thing is, is reshaped into a very readable novel. 


SI: So how long have you known Winston Groom? 


DN: Probably, well, definitely, more than 30 years, maybe going on 40. I knew him slightly in the, in the earlier 80s. Just casually we'd run into each other at meetings and what have you. But after I started the show in 88, he was he was an early guest on a show and then was a recurring guest. I think Winston and I actually did five half hour interviews on television, from '88 until last year, we did do an interview show about El Paso

And then in between times, you know, I would write about his newest book, or I would be down in Fairhope. And we would have a drink or dinner. Jennifer and I and his wife says in the four of us had been out a couple of times, socially, and it was very pleasant. 


SI: In the time you knew him, what memory would you say is your favorite? 


DN: I was amused. Well, let me say he and a bunch of other people down there in Point Clear wanted there to be a restaurant that met their needs. So they made one and there is a restaurant down there on the main road between Fairhope and Point Clear, that is a privately owned restaurant, you have to be a member in order to eat there. If you drive in off the street, you can't enter. It's like a club. Except it looks just like a restaurant. It is a restaurant. And one night, he and his wife took me and Jennifer to this restaurant. And of course, he had his own table. And they knew exactly what he wanted to drink. And they even knew exactly what he wanted to eat. I have no idea how many people in the Fairhope/Point Clear area where the owner members of this restaurant but it was not very many. And I thought that I had never seen that before. You know, it was like a country club. But there was no tennis court and no golf course. It was a restaurant, but you had to own it in order to eat in it. I thought that was a riot. 


SI:That is really funny. So is there anything that you'd like to say just in conclusion here just talking about this, this guy that you you've worked with over the years and you knew as a friend is just like to say about him? 


DN: Well, I thought about him the last day or two. It really is about a shame, more than just your normal sense of mortality. It's really a shame that that Winston passed away at this particular moment because I had the feeling in the last few years that he was enjoying life in a more relaxed and contented way that he had ever before. His life had been tempestuous should we say, at different times. But he's been married to Susan for a while now very happily. His career was going well, in a way you know, both personally and professionally, things are going very, very well. So it is it just a darn shame that he didn't get to enjoy it all for longer.