AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Winston Groom made his name with the 1986 novel "Forrest Gump." It didn't become a bestseller until the movie came out almost a decade later. And that's when Groom stopped writing fiction - until now. His first novel in nearly 20 years is out tomorrow, it's called "El Paso" and it's set during the Mexican Revolution. Tom Vitale brings us this profile of the author.
TOM VITALE, BYLINE: When Winston Groom was at the University of Alabama, he joined the ROTC. When he graduated in 1965, he ended up in the 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam.
WINSTON GROOM: It like being in a year-long car wreck, it's traumatic. And I had wanted to write but I didn't have anything to write about until I got back. And I thought well, at least I've done this. Let's see if I can make some sense of it. And I wrote my first book called "Better Times Than These." And it did well. And I was off and running.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FORREST GUMP")
HANNA HALL: (As Young Jenny Curran) Run, Forrest, run. Run, Forrest.
VITALE: Groom wrote two more books about Vietnam before he started working on the story that would make him famous, about an intellectually disabled, kind-hearted man who is witness to big events in American history. Eight years after it was published, "Forrest Gump" became a film that went on to win six Oscars, including one for its star, Tom Hanks.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FORREST GUMP")
TOM HANKS: (As Forrest Gump) Do you want a chocolate? I could eat about a million and a half of these. My mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get.
GROOM: I think that every novelist of the kind of novels that I write has in them maybe one really good book. But the trouble with so many novelists is that they keep on writing novels even when they run out of ideas. It's not that they can't write well. So I was thinking after the commercial success of "Forrest Gump," that I didn't really have any ideas that really grabbed me.
VITALE: So Groom turned to history. He wrote non-fiction books about the Civil War, the American West, the two world wars, a history of aviation and a history of Alabama football. But there was one idea for a novel that stuck in Groom's head. He says a friend and distant cousin of J.P. Morgan, Eddie Morgan, used to talk about his family's million-acre cattle ranch in northern Mexico, and how Pancho Villa attacked it in 1916.
GROOM: And he did indeed go to the Morgan ranch and strung up the ranch manager and had him sabered to death and kidnapped his children. These were stories that Eddie would regale me with at the Knickerbocker Club in New York City. And it just occurred to me that I could make something of this.
VITALE: Groom has made a sprawling 447-page novel out of it called "El Paso." It follows a railroad tycoon on a manhunt across the High Sierras to rescue his kidnapped grandchildren from Pancho Villa. And, as in "Forrest Gump," the made-up characters interact with historical figures. Lt. George S. Patton leads his troops into Mexico in pursuit of Villa. Sympathizers who show up in Villa's camp include the cowboy movie star Tom Mix, the socialist journalist John Reid and the Civil War story writer Ambrose Bierce. In this scene, Groom imagines the consequences after Bierce criticizes Villa's attack on Americans.
GROOM: (Reading) If a man is born under the wrong star, said Pancho Villa, it will shine upon his ass always, even while he is seated. Bierce was pondering this when Villa stuck the derringer between Bierce's eyes and pulled the trigger.
VITALE: Bierce actually did go to Mexico in search of Villa, and he was never heard from again. And while Groom has filled in history's blank spaces with fiction, William Giraldi, who writes about literature for the New Republic, says nothing seems phony in the novel.
WILLIAM GIRALDI: The kind of viciousness and bloodshed you see in "El Paso" is true to this time and to the kind of conflict that you see playing out when the revolutionary meets the capitalist - blood will happen.
VITALE: A lot else happens. As the characters crisscross the northern Mexico desert, they encounter a grizzly bear, witness a bloody bullfight and experience the great monarch butterfly migration. Winston Groom says the first thing he wants to do is to entertain his readers.
GROOM: I want them to go away saying that's a hell of a good story. I enjoyed reading it, I'm glad I read that and I learned something. And if nothing else, I got a lot about what was going on in northern Mexico and in the United States around the year 1916.
VITALE: Winston Groom says he doesn't consider writing work. It's what he likes to do. And the 73-year-old author certainly doesn't have to work. His novel "Forrest Gump" has sold 1.7 million copies worldwide. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.
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