As a Gulf Coast sunset gilds the waterscape behind him, W.E.B. Griffin, the grizzled griot of the warrior breed, sets down his glass of cabernet and begins explaining how the Nazis smuggled their World War II loot into Argentina.
With him on his cedar deck overlooking Mobile Bay are military writers Alex Baldwin, Webb Beech and Walker E. Blake, children's author Edmund O. Scholefield, romance novelists Eden Hughes and Allison Mitchell, satirist W.E. Butterworth, crime novelists Jack Dugan and John Kevin Dugan, and auto racing writer James McM. Douglas, as well as Blakely St. James, whose name adorns "Christina's Passion," a work of lesbian pornography.
Yet when they all rise to go in to dinner, only Bill Butterworth leaves his chair. He's the whole battalion -- a rapid-fire 67-year-old writing machine so popular and prolific he long ago lost track of exactly how many books he has written. A partial accounting compiled by his secretary lists 135.
In the past 15 years alone, as W.E.B. Griffin, he's simultaneously authored four separate series of novels -- "The Brotherhood of War," "The Corps," "Badge of Honor" and "Honor Bound" -- a total of 24 generally well-reviewed books that have sold more than 23 million copies, netting him by conservative estimate at least $1 million a year.
Why all the pseudonyms?
"Writing for me is a business," he growls, removing from his mouth and examining a well-chewed cigar. "I decided long ago that if a librarian has a limited amount of money to spend, she's not going to spend it all on one writer. The more names you have, the more shots your books have at being purchased."
But he has more or less settled in as W.E.B. Griffin these days, and one of the ground rules negotiated for his first-ever interview specifies that he be called Griffin from here on out.
"That's how people know my books these days. That's how I want them to know me. Besides, I don't want all these idiots sending me manuscripts to read and otherwise messing up my day."
In an era of talk show flackery and media hype, Griffin is more than a bit of a throwback. He won't do book tours and he won't do TV.
"I still don't understand the point of all this," he says, eyeing the tape recorder nervously. "My life hasn't been very interesting."
But two cigars later he warms to the conversation and begins talking about his years in Army counterintelligence in postwar Germany ("Henry Kissinger was in CIC there too, you know"). And about three never-accounted-for U-boats. And about what he's discovered in recent years about World War II German loot in Argentina. "Basically, we know one U-boat got there in the last days of the war, one was sunk trying," he says. "The third? We just don't know. You can get an awful lot of money on one submarine." The Storyteller
For the past 15 years or so, the W.E.B. Griffin books have been something of a phenomenon, particularly in Washington. To the vast numbers of military and former military readers in the Washington area, Griffin has become the troubadour of the American serviceman.
It's not that his books are paeans to combat. Though he does the occasional battle scene -- and does it well -- his books are really about the military as an institution and how its rituals, traditions and bureaucracy mold the character of its people and vice versa. His Army and Marine Corps have more than their share of cowards, sycophants and fools. But ultimately, he suggests, the services have been redeemed and driven by a core warrior culture characterized by a flinty and sometimes maverick integrity. Griffin constantly asks us with his writing to consider how and why that integrity takes form.
"There's no question the books are about values, but basically I'm a storyteller," Griffin says, tugging his beard a bit at such analysis. "I like to think I'm a competent craftsman, as writers go, but I am wholly devoid of literary ambitions or illusions. I'm just telling stories."
Unlike Tom Clancy, whose technology is usually more human than his characters, Griffin writes of a world still shaped by individual personalities -- personalities that grow and mature from book to book.
In the "Brotherhood of War" series it's the world of Craig Lowell, a spoiled blue blood who discovers a talent for leadership and innovation in an Army struggling to define its mission in the years after World War II.
In "The Corps," it's the world of Kenneth "Killer" McCoy, a wily Depression-era dropout who joins the Marines as a meal ticket out of his coal mine town and finds an outlet for his street-smart skills in the war against the Japanese.
In "Honor Bound" it's the world of Cletus Frade, a Guadalcanal veteran whose secret mission to sabotage Nazi opportunists in Argentina becomes a simultaneous search for his Argentine father and a heritage he never knew.
If the books are genre page-turners of history, adventure and suspense, they often carry as well a poignant undercurrent of loneliness and vulnerability. Familial estrangement stalks almost all of Griffin's novels. Protagonists rich and poor find a home in the military, in part because they have no other.
In a sense that's Griffin's story, too. He grew up with his mother in South Orange, N.J., the product of a broken home. He describes his father as a "charming scoundrel" with enough family money to live well as a Manhattan playboy of the 1930s and '40s, "going to nightclubs and playing golf for other people's money."
Griffin himself "got thrown out of seven of the country's best prep schools" and grew up as a bookish and rebellious loner who "never felt sorry for myself but also never felt I belonged" either in the adult world or with youngsters his age.
His parents sent him into the Army in 1946 as an enlisted man, "expecting that it would give me discipline and I would hate it." Instead he found both an education and an institutional structure he could understand. He also apparently found some father figures.
"There used to be a certain percentage of the officer corps who were really inspiring people," he says, gazing out the window of his office. "Great intelligence. Great character. Great morality. Great principles. I think we're losing that now. . . . Like any bureaucracy the armed services are getting perverted, and with this political correctness business they're promoting the wrong people. But I knew some extraordinary people in the Army, and they got a lot out of me."
He joined up in the immediate aftermath of World War II, and was trained in counterespionage and sent to college in Germany to keep an eye on ex-Nazis and budding communists. After a few years he left the Army and came home for "the worst year of my life" as a salesman for Karo syrup and Argo starch in Philadelphia. Then he was recalled during the Korean War and rejoined as an aide to several officers he'd known in Germany, working first in covert operations in Korea and later as a staff noncom and then a civilian planner helping develop the concept of armed helicopters that would play such a significant role in the Vietnam War.
"I started writing for General I.D. White in Germany. Not so much speeches as orders and reports and later staff studies. And I got pretty good at it. From him I learned the horrors of ambiguity. If an order can be misunderstood, it will be. But I always wondered if I could write books, and he encouraged me."
In 1959, he says, while a civilian employee of the Army at Fort Rucker, Ala., he wrote his first book, "Comfort Me With Love," in three weeks and sent it to a former prep school classmate then working in publishing. To his surprise it was immediately accepted as an original paperback novel. He got a check for $1,000.
"I thought this was pretty good. Here I was with a wife and a couple of kids, making $3,600 a year from the Army, and in three weeks I had increased my income by more than 25 percent. So I wrote another one and got another $1,000, and then another. And after the third one, my old classmate told me, You need an agent.' And he got me one. And my fee went from $1,000 to $3,500. And all of a sudden I was making more from my writing than I was from the Army." Making M*A*S*H'
What's difficult to remember nowadays, Griffin says, is how different the publishing business was in the 1950s. Established authors like Ernest Hemingway and Irwin Shaw wrote hardcover novels or vied for the major short-story fees paid by magazines like the Saturday Evening Post.
"Paperback publishing was considered beneath contempt. Nobody with any artistic pretensions was writing for the paperback trade. So it was wide open. And if you were a fast writer, as I am, you could make pretty good money at it."
Griffin claims he can't remember the plot of his first book, so many have rolled through his typewriters and word processors since then. Nor could his secretary, Donna Kenney, come up with a copy or find its cover among the scores of book jackets that line the stairs and hallways of his office.
But as best he can recall, it had something to do with a sensitive young soldier finding romance and adventure in postwar Europe. Similar books followed, including "No French Leave" (1959) under the name Webb Beech and "The Loved and the Lost" (1961) under the name Walker E. Blake. And in 1961 Griffin finally resigned his Army job and moved here southeast of Mobile in Alabama's pine-and-pecan belt to write full time.
But then in the 1960s, publishing changed.
"What happened was that the paperback industry, which had been small and forgotten, suddenly exploded. Everybody and his grandfather got an offset press and started putting out books, and far better known writers than I was started writing original paperbacks. And the bottom fell out of the market for me."
His agent, he said, countered the trend by getting him commissions to write books for teenagers. They poured from his typewriter -- "Fast Green Car" (1966), "The Wonders of Astronomy" (1964), "Maverick on the Mound" (1968), some under the name of W.E. Butterworth and others as Scholefield or Williams.
The books, he says, were "no particular challenge" and rarely took him more than a few weeks to write. "But I never thought of myself as a hack. Others may have, but I took a certain pride in delivering a manuscript of the specified length that required minimal editing and delivering it on time. . . . I never wrote garbage."
At the same time, he was writing other novels, one of which -- a military novel called "Article 92: Murder-Rape" -- was purchased and made into a teleplay for "Bob Hope's Chrysler Theater" in 1964. That brought him, he remembers, $35,000 -- "a lot of money in Alabama in 1964."
He became known as "the ultimate pen for hire," he says, and in between his children's book and novel production he "ghost-wrote at least a dozen autobiographies" of prominent people he declines to name.
Then in 1970 the film version of "M*A*S*H" came out, to great popular success. Eventually it would spawn the Alan Alda television series, but Pocket Books thought there was money to be made in paperback sequels to the original "M*A*S*H" book.
"The problem was the original M*A*S*H' book had been written by Dick Hornberger, a very distinguished vascular surgeon. He couldn't care less about writing a sequel, but eventually made a deal with Pocket Books that paid him a bunch of money and let him hire a writer and approve the books, and he got to keep the money even if he didn't like the books. But they couldn't get him to approve any of the writers. He's even more conservative than I am, and this is the 1970s with all the Vietnam business, and they keep sending these very Jewish, very liberal New York kids with bluejeans and long hair down to see him about writing these books about the Korean War. He won't even talk to them.
"So finally they ask me, and I call Hornberger and our first conversations are pretty starchy. We make a straight $50,000 deal for the manuscript, and I write a book I am certain he won't approve and will never get published. But much to my surprise he likes it and it's published and it sells like hell. And the next thing I know he signs over 50 percent of all future M*A*S*H' sequel royalties to me for any book I write. It was a wonderfully generous thing to do."
That first book was "M*A*S*H Goes to New Orleans" (1975), by W.E. Butterworth (with Richard Hooker -- Hornberger's pseudonym), and in the next three years Griffin would write 11 other "M*A*S*H" sequels, taking the characters everywhere from San Francisco to Moscow. Each of the books, he says, sold more than a million copies and, says secretary Kenney, who keeps track of incoming royalties, "they're still selling in England."
By 1980, Griffin had written more than 100 books ranging from "The Girl in the Black Bikini" (1963) to "Dave White and the Electric Wonder Car" (1973). Playboy Press had even contracted him to create the characters for a series of lesbian pornography under the name of Blakely St. James. He had so many pen names, he says, "that it was a joke in the publishing business. They would write blurbs for each other's books!"
One day, in a rare moment between books, he picked up a best-selling novel (he won't say which one) about the Army and "realized I had forgotten more about the Army than the writer ever knew." He sat down and "in a couple of months" wrote a book about a group of senior Army officers in Vietnam and how they were shaped by their careers.
But when he turned it in, he says, the editors at Putnam "suggested I expand it backwards. Much of it was told in flashbacks. And they said why didn't I expand the flashbacks into separate novels and make a series, so readers could follow the same characters through several books."
Griffin liked the idea. In the next two years he wrote five novels leading up to his Vietnam book. Putnam began bringing them out in 1982 as "The Brotherhood of War," a series that would eventually encompass eight volumes.
For a name this time, "I decided on Griffin because it's a mythical beast with the head of an eagle and the loins of a lion. That's the way most colonels think of themselves." He kept the W.E.B. of his real initials.
As sales of the series built, he decided to do something of the same thing with the Marine Corps, and started the series "The Corps" with "Semper Fi" (1986), setting "Killer" McCoy down among the China Marines in Peking in the years immediately preceding World War II. Six books and 10 years later, he's scarcely moved McCoy past the Battle of Guadalcanal, and readers are worried they won't live to see Killer experience V-J Day. Griffin shrugs.
"As a novelist, I'm not much interested in things after Guadalcanal," he says. "After Guadalcanal, for all the blood and butchery, it was no longer a question of who would win" the Pacific war, "just a question of when."
By 1991 the "Corps" and "Brotherhood" series were selling so well that Griffin decided to kill off author John Kevin Dugan, whose name had graced two recent crime novels he'd published, and re-release them as Griffin books in yet a third series, based on the Philadelphia police department -- "Badge of Honor."
"Honor Bound" stems from a pigeon-shooting trip he took to Argentina in 1992 with some buddies. He ended up spending several months in the country and writing a book about the German gold sent there in the waning days of World War II. The sequel to that book, "Blood and Honor," was just published this week.
Griffin, however, says he's slowing down. These days, he says, it takes him as much as six months to write a novel -- almost twice the time it took just a few years ago. He tries to be philosophical about that. After all, he says, he's never really had a writing routine. He just shows up in his office at 8 a.m. and tries to get going. Some days he never does, or gets interrupted. Other days he writes 12 hours straight, or wakes up and writes at night. "The thing is to get in the groove and keep going," he says. "I write in long spurts. And I always know when to quit. I quit when I'm empty."
Clearly he's not empty yet. But he takes time to keep up with his Army buddies, dabble in computer esoterica, indulge his lifetime love of cars and hobnob with other military writers.
In all his profusion of books, written and planned, is he toying somewhere with the Great American Novel?
"Frankly," he says, rummaging for yet another cigar, "I don't think I have the talent to write the Great American Novel." He hates and avoids rewriting, he says, and his distaste occasionally shows in his books. For all their deft characterizations, they are sometimes flecked with anachronisms, like someone referring to Kennedy Airport when it was still Idlewild, or catching the New York-Washington shuttle before there was one. In places, the background information in the later books in one series or another appears curiously clunky and disruptive of the narrative flow.
But there's a maverick kind of integrity, too, in one of the last of the journeyman wordsmiths still celebrating people and values in the age of the techno-thriller.
In 1980, while churning out four romance novels and the start of his military series, he wrote another children's book as well. "Leroy and the Old Man" is about a troubled urban black child who learns about what really counts in life from his grandfather on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The book is now in its 84th printing. CAPTION: W.E.B. Griffin, with some of the 135-plus books he's written: "I am wholly devoid of literary ambitions or illusions." CAPTION: W.E.B. Griffin with his latest military opus, "Blood and Honor." "I knew some extraordinary people in the Army, and they got a lot out of me," he says.