What inspired Forrest Gump author Winston Groom to make his long-awaited return to fiction? The epicenter of the Mexican Revolution: El Paso, Texas
By Celeste Sepessy
Thirty years ago, Winston Groom wrote Forrest Gump. Since then, he’s pretty much stuck to histories — of the Civil War, Alabama’s Crimson Tide, early aviators and World War II generals. The move from fiction to history was mostly one of self-preservation.
“A lot of novelists keep writing fiction because they don’t know what else to do. Eventually you run out of ideas,” Groom says. “You’ll end up like Thomas Wolfe, Hemingway or Fitzgerald, and drink yourself to death. That wasn’t the path I wanted to go down.”
But Groom made an exception for his newest novel, El Paso, which combines fact and fiction. After all, ideas were plentiful, thanks to his friend Eddie Morgan — a descendant of J.P. Morgan.
At the turn of the 20th century, the industrial tycoon and financier owned a million-acre cattle ranch in Chihuahua, Mexico, as did many other notable Americans, such as the Guggenheim, Rockefeller and Hearst families. During the Mexican Revolution, Pancho Villa — the book’s villain — took note and offense, especially after President Woodrow Wilson cut off his connection to arms and ammunitions from “action-central” El Paso.
The Americans down in Chihuahua paid for it. Villa rustled cows from Morgan’s ranch to feed his army and “committed a number of acts of deprivation,” Groom says. On the (very true) list: killing copper and silver mining engineers, sabering the ranch manager to death, then kidnapping his children.
“Eddie regaled me with these stories in The Knickerbocker Club over lunch,” Groom says. “I had a lot of stories, but I didn’t have a novel.”
Decades later, Morgan family tales would indeed transform into a novel — one of Bostonian railroad barons in a foreign desert, with cameos from Ambrose Bierce, journalist John Reed and Hollywood cowboy Tom Mix.
What follows is “one big adventure story”: a manhunt through the vast Sierra Madre, filled with roaming snakes, jaguars and grizzlies, and of course, Pancho Villa.
Groom likes when the good guys win and the bad guys lose. But reader beware. “It doesn’t always work out that way.”