Master storyteller and bestselling author Jeff Shaara signed autographs and spoke enthusiastically at the Jarrettsville library’s annual “Night Out @ The Library” event. His presentation, or “chat” as he preferred to describe his interaction with the crowd, was a mix of funny anecdotes, passionate descriptions and at times wistful remembrances of his father, Michael Shaara. Throughout the evening he held everyone’s attention, as only a skilled storyteller can, recounting tales of his father, his early writing career, and progress on his latest four-novel release for the Civil War Sesquicentennial celebrations.
With 11 bestsellers, Shaara gives the credit for his success, to his father, Michael Shaara, Pulitzer Prize winning author for fiction and New York Times bestselling author of “The Killer Angels”. Shaara points out that his father’s book was a story of the battle of Gettysburg, not the history of the battle, is was a novel. His father told the story through the points of view of four primary characters, two from the North and two from the South. The characters in the novel were not just any historical characters, according to Shaara, but the movers and shakers of the battle. His father chose to highlight Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and General John Buford. According to Shaara, his father’s novel “put you into their heads and told you the story the way they would have told it.” This was the first time this style was used and after 15 publishers turned down the original manuscript the book was published in 1974.
A year after publication his father received word that his book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In a stunning example of bad timing, Shaara explained how disappointment followed the incredible high of winning such a literary award. “He thought his ship came in” Shaara shared of his father’s expectations. He believed he would have publishers knocking on his door and smooth sailing as an author from then on into the future. None of that happened because, as Shaara points out, it was the end of the Vietnam war and no one was interested in stories about war and generals. His father never wrote another historical novel and he never saw his book become a bestseller.
Fast forward to 1993, after Ted Turner picked up the book “The Killer Angels” and made a movie about it called “Gettysburg”. Following the success of the movie the book comes out at 14 on the New York Times Best seller list then moves to number one for four weeks. Shaara points out this success came 19 years after the book came out and five years after his father died.
Until the release of Gettysburg, Jeff Shaara stayed away from writing. He had seen enough disappointment and struggling from his father’s career. He attended Florida State University, majoring in Criminology and continued a rare coin business he started as a teenager. After attending the premier of the successful film based upon his father’s work, produced by Turner Productions’ movie mogul Ted Turner, Jeff Shaara was approached about writing, or finding someone to write, a prequel and sequel to “The Killer Angels”. Ted Turner wanted to make more movies and needed more stories to continue production. After considerable thought Shaara decided to write the books himself. “After all my father was a storyteller, he had the story, the people were there, and the history was there,” Shaara said.
He didn’t approach this task lightly. Having never written a book, he told the audience how he stared at a blank screen and wondered what he had gotten himself into.
His first book “Gods and Generals” opened on the bestseller list. Shaara humbly states that he was cut slack by the critics and reached the bestseller ranking because of his father’s success. He said he felt like a usurper in that “Gods and Generals” was his father’s book to write. Anyone who has read the book, and his other novels, knows that Shaara’s work stands on its own merit.
Shaara has fun with the press comparing his father’s success, and his bestselling debut book. He gave a few examples of some of the headlines he encountered as he traveled on book tours. In deference to Ernest Hemingway one newspaper heralding his arrival boldly printed “The Son Also Rises.” In the Gettysburg Times he read the headline “Son of Killer Angels returns to Gettysburg.” One of his associates told him it sounded like a promo for a slasher movie.
Shaara discussed some of his research methods and how he followed his trilogy of the battle at Gettysburg with the sequel “The Last Full Measure” and moved on to his third novel “Gone for Soldiers”, about the Mexican-American War.
After leaving the theme and characters of the Civil War, Shaara moved onto the larger than life characters surrounding the birth of our nation, John and Abigail Adams, Ben Franklin, George Washington, British General Thomas Gage and others. He wrote two successful, and bestselling novels on this theme, “Rise to Rebellion” and “The Glorious Cause.”
He has written novels about the first and second world wars and for the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, returning to his, and his father’s familiar theme of decisive civil war battles. This time he wanted to shed light on the battles in the West that were as heroic and important as any of the battles more familiar from high school history books. His first in the four novel series, “A Blaze of Glory”, covers the Battle of Shiloh and was published in 2012. “A Chain of Thunder” covers Ulysses Grant’s campaign against Confederate General John Pemberton and the battle of Vicksburg. It is scheduled for release in May 2013.
For those attending the Harford County Public Library Foundation event it was clear that Jeff Shaara writes because he loves telling stories and is passionate about the characters he brings to life through dialogue and perspectives that were forged in his father’s writing style.