Fayetteville’s Ferrol Sams leaves it to others to decide whether he is a doctor who writes or a serious writer who doctors.
Atlanta Magazine | June 1992
The kid wore a dingy rock ’n’ roll T-shirt, and his black hair hung like a patch over one eye. When it came time for the other students to critique his short story, he swept into his chair in front of the class and flopped his feet on the teacher’s desk. In the moment of the undignifying “thud,” 69-year-old author Ferrol Sams leaned away, about the distance of one well-measured backhand, and then without comment reached up to tweak his hearing aid as the effrontery passed with understanding.
Ferrol Sams, after all, knows about coltish upstarts. The bulk of his literary career has been devoted to the creation of an irrepressible wisecracker named Porter Osborne Jr., who taunted headmasters and professors from grammar to medical school. The pattern of his career has been somewhat presumptuous, too, considering that Sams did not start writing until age 58, and has since authored three novels, a book of short stories and two works of nonfiction.
By occupation, Ferrol Sams is not even a writer. He is foremost a doctor, but one whose small town general practice, along with 150 years of family roots in Fayetteville, Ga., has given his work poignant authenticity and a loyal readership. With the completion of his fifth book since the debut bestseller Run With the Horsemen, a wry evocation of life on a Georgia farm during the Depression and the first in his Porter Osborne trilogy, the question is whether Ferrol Sams is a doctor who simply likes to write—a genteel literary curiosity—or a serious writer who also happens to be a doctor.
Reluctant as always to define his success or position himself in the world of letters, Sams says, “I don’t know where I fit in. I just write. Writing is my recreation, my golf, my poker, my drinking and womanizing, whatever you do for extracurricular fun.”
Just writing has gained him considerable attention. His work has been reviewed favorably, from the New York Review of Books to scores of small-town papers whose critics know genuine depictions of their way of life when they read them. Ferrol Sams has more than 700,000 total books in print. Last year, Longstreet Press released 80,000 copies of his latest novel, When All the World Was Young, which won the Townsend Prize for Fiction.
Sams has popular affirmation for his protagonist, Porter Osborne Jr., in a Hefty sack full of fan mail in the attic; and his book signings regularly attract more than a hundred people per stop. He is a popular after-dinner speaker with 15 engagements a year, and last June he shared the dais with Stephen King and Gloria Steinem at the American Booksellers Association convention in New York.
Colleges want his original manuscripts, the volumes of nearly indecipherable cursive written in Big Star spiral notebooks. Both of his alma maters, Mercer and Emory universities, have awarded him an honorary doctorate of letters. And Emory even persuaded him to teach.
Despite the midwinter sun slanting hopefully through the windows of room 419 in Emory’s Candler Library, the students’ stories that day were morose, experimental sketches of rape, suicide and social malaise. To the dismay of students and teacher alike, Sams was compelled to hound them with the basics of tense, possessives and sentence fragments before bestowing any praise on the avant-garde.
After class he walked across campus, frustrated that he had not yet totally connected with his students. He said, “You know, I don’t believe any of them have read a thing I’ve written.”
PEOPLE WRITE FICTION because they are afraid of death, their own or that of some person, place or idea they care about. The finished product can be long or short, facile or profound, faithful to both reality and fantasy as long as the author remembers to never, ever, let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Ten years ago Ferrol Sams was a gifted raconteur in the front-porch tradition, long afflicted with a desire to put on paper his inner landscape of borrowed yarns and family legend. “Well, I looked around and suddenly all these people I’d known for years were dropping like flies, and I said golly-martin, I could die too. You better get crackin’, Sambo, or you’ll never know.”
Sams’ first indulgence in writing is traceable to an early-morning habit that he developed while studying for medical board certification exams. He subsequently continued to rise at 5 a.m., and impulsively filled the dawn hours with hand-scratched scenes from his youth on his father’s Fayette County share-cropper’s farm. Week after week he sat at the kitchen table dredging up his own recall of basic composition—narrow your subject, be exact, write what you know—and tearing up page after page. Then one morning, he wrote a scene about plowing:
The stride of the man matched that of the mule in a one-plane dance down a cotton row. . . .
“I could again feel and hear and smell the earth. And I thought the scene would make others feel, hear and smell it,” Sams says. “Then I found out I could embroider the truth here, invent some characters there, and before long I was into it.”
Two years later, what was started as a factual chronicle of an era before tractors, indoor plumbing and supermarkets ended up a novelistic account of Sams’, and Fayetteville’s, childhoods. He showed the manuscript to his longtime neighbor, Jim Minter, former editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“Minter showed up on my front porch about four nights later. He said, ‘Sambo, you’ve got a real son of a bitch here. Where are you going to publish it?’ “
“I don’t know. Maybe I won’t,” Sams told him.
“You have to.”
“Because if you don’t, it’s just jerking off.”
“At first I didn’t understand where such quality could come from. But you take his native intellect and combine it with the time he’s spent watching humanity walk through that doctor’s office, and I’m not surprised at all.”
Peachtree Publishers bought the manuscript and published it as Run With the Horsemen, the title an Old Testament reference. Sams’ agile treatment of faith, race and place, and comic heapings of Porter Osborne’s prepubescent innocence, put Run With the Horsemen on the national best-seller list. It stayed on the local best-seller list for 18 months, providing Sams encouragement to continue writing. Outside of popular acclaim, however, how could a full-time doctor be considered a dedicated practitioner of the novel?
Sams has found that physician’s work interacts positively with his writing. “It’s a great privilege to see people at their best and their worst. And I have wonderful patients. They come to me sick but also with treasures in their hands, everyday stories that have nothing to do with pathology or illness,” Sams says, noting precedents for the doctor/writer set by Anton Chekhov, William Carlos Williams and poet John Keats.
Chuck Perry, who left Peachtree Publishers to found Longstreet Press in 1988, has edited every Sams book since Run With the Horsemen. “At first I didn’t understand where such quality could come from,” he says. “But you take his native intellect and combine it with the time he’s spent watching humanity walk through that doctor’s office, and I’m not surprised at all.”
The gems handed to Sams in bedside confidence are the colloquialisms that have given him one of the better working ears for rural Southern dialect. In the Osborne trilogy, however, his story lines are hauled straight from the well of his own experience. Fayetteville is Ferrol Sams’ Asheville, and much like the fictional Altamont in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, provides the backdrop for a young protagonist’s looming awareness of and conflict with his father.
“I was terribly intimidated by my father,” says Sams of the former Fayette County school superintendent. “Daddy was such an intense person, a guy who carried a pistol wherever he went, drank and womanized and could compose original Latin. I would not be like my father for anything in the world. But he was my hero,”
Thomas Wolfe was vilified for holding up the mirror of truth to his Asheville townsmen. When Run With the Horsemen was published, Fayetteville gave Sams a tea at the library.
AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL MATERIAL is often dismissed by critics who demand more imaginative constructions for novels. Throughout the Osborne trilogy, however, Sams’ rich personal history, from post-Reconstruction Southerner to atomic age soldier and doctor, has provided him a scale for measuring truth while learning the process of creating plausible fiction.
In the sequel, Whisper of the River, Sams sends Porter to Willingham (Mercer) University as a 15-year-old pre-med student plagued with doubts about his diminutive physique, his virginity and, most importantly, his strict Baptist faith. He overcomes the first, loses the second to a plotting co-ed, and the last to logic.
Whisper of the River is not as emotionally fecund as Run With the Horsemen, whose scenes of rural Southern life, from hog butchering to the unsettling deference of blacks to land-owning whites, support Sams’ first work as a novel of earthy passions more than one of deft structure. But the sequel did establish Sams as an accomplished novelist who could write beyond the merely episodic. He produces several totally fictional characters and successfully imparts his own formidable intellect to Porter Osborne as he moves him toward maturity with unflagging optimism, but, at last, cynicism, when America is thrust into World War II.
Sams was also learning the fine art of editing. “I think the function of an editor is to protect a writer from himself,” he says.
“He’s one of the most challenging writers to work with I’ve ever known,” says editor Perry. “He loves the editing process. I made him rewrite the first part of Whisper because I felt it needed some of the spirit of Horsemen. And he came back with that beginning, It was wood and it was white . . . , a description of a church.”
The church was not only well-drawn, it was the opening metaphor for Porter Osborne’s increasing dissatisfaction with his Baptist faith, a conundrum that even today Sams finds difficult to resolve.
“I try to be a Christian. But it’s a terrible thing to feel intellectually that the Beatitudes are the biggest bunch of garbage you ever heard of as far as a yardstick of conduct, and then to find that you still cannot deny believing in a Divinity.”
Sams is at his best when he is confronting his real life misgivings over being “raised right” in the old Southern tradition. Race consciousness and Baptist convictions are the most substantial themes in his trilogy. “My grandmother used to tell me that Abraham Lincoln and the pope were incarnations of the Devil,” he recalls.
Whisper of the River also introduces the naive protagonist to alternative perspectives on his beloved Southland, particularly those of his Yankee schoolmates who pose challenges to his Southern heritage. The challenges continue in When All the World Was Young, when Osborne deliberately flunks out of Emory University medical school to join the Army, and eventually mans a hospital in France in a rather premeditated pursuit of finding himself through duty. “What’s fascinating is what you people from the South can talk yourselves into believing, says one war buddy, and as World War II abruptly ends, Osborne finds he is more comfortable with the finality of mushroom clouds than the notion of eternally harping angels.
“I thought if I could make people laugh, they couldn’t see me hurt. Really, I think that’s true of all people.”
Sams works entirely from memory, but his potent recall of wartime service burdens the most recent book with dramatic excess. Porter Osborne’s forced march to manhood is drawn out over more than 600 pages, interrupted by often hilarious but inconsequential vignettes. While the pertinent passages are better written than ever, When All the World Was Young starts out an ambitious novel but ends up simply a third-person journal of Sams’ war experience, leaving readers to wonder if Sams has run his autobiographical tack aground, and should now forge deeper into the raconteur’s natural instinct for embroidering the truth.
The answer may be found in Sams’ 1987 book of short stories, The Widow’s Mite, which has been largely overshadowed by the scope and popularity of his Porter Osborne trilogy. The collection contains seven short stories and one factual epistle. They range from the title story about the tithing obligations of a widow who collects on a $125,000 insurance policy after her husband’s head is knocked off by a careening Buick, to the first-person tale of a scheming bisexual whose double life brings tragedy.
“The Widow’s Mite proved that Sambo could write more than autobiographical fiction,” says Perry. “We’ve tentatively agreed that he should do some more short stories.”
“I tend to be a peripatetic writer,” Sams says. “I wander around a lot before I get to a point.” The short form, however, pinned him down in such a way that makes The Widow’s Mite his most polished work of genuine fiction.
LIKE THE TRIOLOGY, The Widow’s Mite is primarily regional fiction. The appeal of Sams’ work, however, is not limited to the South. Readers all over the country send him fan mail. When All the World Was Young is currently being broadcast on more than 100 national public radio stations from Alaska to Maine. Dick Estell, who has read books on public radio from Michigan State University for 28 years, and who is reading Sams’ latest novel in 46 half-hour episodes, says, “I think it has a universal appeal, especially to those familiar with his other two books.”
The universal element in Sams’ writing is the wry humor, which he developed early as a protective crust over the insecurity of being small for his age. “They used to call me Little Ferrol, and Ferrol Boy, pronounced Fell-bo,” he remembers with a wince. “I thought if I could make people laugh, they couldn’t see me hurt. Really, I think that’s true of all people.”
Sams, like Porter Osborne, further assuaged his feelings of inferiority with voluminous reading and study. His conversations are rife with quotations from scripture and poetry.
One critic panned When All the World Was Young on the basis that young Porter Osborne could not possibly have memorized all the verse—from Edna St. Vincent Millay, Rudyard Kipling, Robert W. Service—that gives him solace in a Philistine environment and annoys the hell out of his fighting buddies. But Sams’ older sister and typist, Jimmie Kate Cole, who Sambo claims gave him his love for poetry, says, “I’ll vouch for him. Sambo could call up all of that even as a kid. He was a strange boy.”
Sams, however, is at a loss to explain his success with writing, and ultimately turns to faith in something greater than himself, using the words of his first publisher, the late Helen Elliott, who founded Peachtree Publishers and personally oversaw the publication of Run With the Horsemen. She said, “Sambo, it’s just part of a divine choreography.”
Sams insists that medicine will always provide the ultimate fulfillment in his life, even though his writing career is now at a crossroads. What he writes next will probably determine more than anything else his literary importance.
“I’m really fortunate as a writer. I don’t have to write for money or critics. The only thing I have to write for are people who like to read, and I’ve been very blessed that a lot of people like to read what I write.
“I think maybe [people] will pick up Run With the Horsemen when I’m gone. That’s a fairly definitive and authentic depiction of life on a Georgia farm in the Depression. But I don’t feel that way about the other two novels,” he says, and for purpose in his work finally turns to the simplest and best answer of all. He writes because he loves the process.
“Writing is like becoming sexually active. Once you start you never want to give it up.”
JUST SHY OF 70 years, Sams still rises dutifully at 5 a.m. to sit at the kitchen table with a black ballpoint pen, a spiral notebook, and a head full of stories. He writes what he knows, spoon-feeds his hungry paper world the elixir of invention, of lies, and then drives a mile and a half to Fayette Medical Center and a clinic full of real patients.
One day a week, he goes to the mountains with his wife of 43 years, Dr. Helen Fletcher, who also is a physician at the clinic. They have a retreat near Amicalola Falls, where every Thursday they pursue mutual interests in hiking and horticulture.
During one of their most recent outings, they were walking when Ferrol began to have chest pains, sharp reminders like edit marks in a margin that elucidate why a fictional scene reads so well, when fact often doesn’t. Helen drove him to Crawford Long Hospital, where they met one of their internist sons.
Asked what the cardiologist found, Sams says, “Nothing. I guess I’m just a happy hypochondriac. So if other things don’t start falling off, I’ve got to be prepared to live another hundred years. And I’ll have to do something. Might as well write.” ✦