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“I have the best job in the world,” says Robert Coram. “I get to write about American heroes.” His theme is particularly timely for this week of Memorial Day, May 26th.
The hardest thing for Coram is finding a man who embodies the moral element—the key that pulls him out of the pack. He seeks “men [who] exemplify the highest ideals of the military and, by extension, who we are as a people.” Coram has published biographies of three such men: John Boyd, Bud Day, and Victor Krulak.
Before I tell you about these books, however, let’s explore the man behind them. I’ve known Robert Coram since the 70s when he rented the basement apartment my then-husband and I had rehabbed while we worked on our new old home in an in-town Atlanta neighborhood. To me, Robert had the most glamorous job in the world: he was a journalist, while I, who had a degree in journalism, taught high school English.
When Robert lived with us, he worked for the Atlanta Constitution and Atlanta Magazine, and as a freelancer. Earlier he had worked for the Atlanta Journal. He likes to say that he is the only reporter fired by both the Journal and the Constitution, a feat never to be duplicated, since the papers merged in 2001. And why was he fired, despite being nominated twice for a Pulitzer Prize for his stories about drug smuggling and for his series that blocked the development of Cumberland Island? First, at the Journal, he made the mistake of trying to unionize the reporters, and at the Constitution his editor accused him of being too aggressive in his interviewing techniques.
Frankly, I’m not surprised by this turn of events. Like the men whose lives he captures in his military biographies, Robert doesn’t suffer fools—gladly or otherwise. He himself admits to being “opinionated [and] virtually devoid of patience on certain matters regarding writing…”
In an interview with long-time political columnist Bill Shipp, Coram concedes that Cumberland Island and the drug war are the two subjects for which he became more an advocate than a reporter. He had lived for a time on Cumberland, first as a house sitter, then as a park ranger, and became disturbed with a Park Service Management Plan that would have developed the island. Coram’s articles galvanized thousands of letters, resulting in the National Park Service being forced to throw out the Management Plan. Today, Cumberland is a National Seashore.
His interest in the drug war began when his brother, a military intelligence officer, commented on the drug planes piercing the US air borders. Coram went to the Caribbean, undercover, to investigate. Learning that his picture was plastered in every bar across the islands, he returned to Bimini in disguise (long hair, loud beach shirt). The federal agent he accompanied was spotting the course of cigarette boats heading north and informing agents in Florida where to intercept them. When the drug dealers caught on, they gave chase across the sea. With bullets flying, the agent told Robert to jump overboard—into shark infested waters. Instead, Robert opted to stick it out. Eventually, they escaped by hiding in a mangrove swamp. Robert labels such reporting “cowboy journalism.”
What he couldn’t verify sufficiently for hard journalism later evolved into a series of suspense novels, including Narcs and Narcs:Drug Warriors. They make highly entertaining reading, but Robert says most of them headed straight to the remaindered pile. Altogether he has written seven novels and six works of nonfiction.
The leap to military biography is not as far as it appears. On his web site, Robert explains that he is “the first-born son of a man who spent thirty years and fifteen days in the United States Army. He retired as a master sergeant and until the day he died was known in [his] hometown as ‘The Sarge.’” Coram says their every conversation ended with “Yes, sir.” His life was “an extended boot camp.” Their sometimes strained relationship might explain Robert’s own unsuccessful stint in the Air Force, which included two courts-martial for drinking and bringing women to the barracks. Later, though, Sarge’s lessons, his reverence for Old Glory and his motto ‘Never make excuses. Just do the job, no matter the obstacles,’ showed they had taken root.
Coram considers the biography to be the highest form of nonfiction writing because of its inherent challenge: no one ever completely knows another human being. He compares the research stage to a vacuum cleaner: “I absorb everything.” A biographer must look at the acts and the character, the accomplishments and the deeds. He must talk to a broad spectrum of people who know the subject, and then draw a truth.
Once past the research stage, biography becomes “more selection” than “collection.” Coram says he doesn’t detect the shape of the book until the third or fourth draft. “Then I start seeing threads of connection, and I look for stories to flesh those threads out.” He credits his failed novels with teaching him how to tell a story, for a biography is a story–the story of a man’s life–and needs scenes and dialogue, not page after page of exposition. He adds, “It doesn’t bother me to throw out whole chapters, maybe 200 pages, because they aren’t the story I’ve discovered.” Typically, he goes through eight or nine drafts before he’s ready to send the book off to his publisher.
Coram’s literary agent sold his first biography, Boyd, in one day. After 14 years, it’s still selling. American Patriot and Brute have added to his critical and popular reputation. As one fan noted,
Robert Coram is a national treasure, and the recent release of Brute confirms his position as one of America’s premier military biographers.
Part Two of this profile, which elaborates on Robert Coram’s military biographies (Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, American Patriot: The Life and Wars of Colonel Bud Day, and Brute: The Life and Times of Victor Krulak, US Marine), will publish Thursday, May 29th.
If you have a question for Robert Coram, write it in the comments box, and I’ll pass it along.