An interview with Jeff Shaara

Note: This is a guest posting from Clare O’Connor, production dramaturg and assistant director for our fall MainStage production of The Killer Angels.

Jeff Shaara is a historical novelist, having penned eight New York Times bestsellers. He is the son of Michael Shaara, and he wrote the prequel and sequel to his father’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Killer Angels, from which Lifeline’s production has been adapted by Karen Tarjan.

Q: First off, what’s the correct pronunciation of your last name?

A: Shaara rhymes with “Clara”, or, as in “share and SHAARA like”.

Q: Was American history a big part of your family, growing up?

A: History was not a part of my background, or my family. My father was a storyteller, first and foremost- when we visited Gettysburg, he knew a good story when he saw one. My own interest in the war came about as the kid who played with the toy soldiers. I read a little about Stonewall, maybe a few other things, but that was it.

Q: Your father was inspired to write “The Killer Angels” after a family vacation to Gettysburg. Were you on this vacation, and what do you remember about it?

A: The vacation to Gettysburg was in large part because of MY interest as the “Civil War kid”. We were there strictly as tourists, and I still have photographs of those days crawling all over cannons, which is what 12-year olds do. The obsession that hit my father to write that story was a surprise to him, certainly. I recall vividly making the long walk across the “Pickett’s Charge” field, and him telling me that story. I remember being on Little Round Top and hearing Chamberlain’s story–these were things he had read about prior to the visit, just to get some sense of what we were going to see. The power of that story completely changed him. But the trip was one part of a lengthy family vacation from Florida to relatives in New Jersey (we visited the 1964 World’s Fair in NY).

Q: Before you wrote the prequel and sequel to “The Killer Angels,” you had no experience as a writer. What was the transition from non-writer to bestselling author like?

A: The suggestion for me to tackle a prequel and sequel to The Killer Angels came from film director Ron Maxwell, who, speaking for Ted Turner, said that Turner was very excited by the success of the film “Gettysburg” and simply wanted to do more Civil War films. The idea was to take my father’s book and go in both directions, before and after, with many of the same characters. I would put the story together, based on the kinds of research my father had done–the actual voices of the characters. But- there was no fear on my part, because there were no expectations. We discussed that if whatever I came up with was lousy, it would go in the trash, and no one would ever know about it. It was ALWAYS about being a film, my story to be adapted to a screenplay by Maxwell. Since I was representing my father’s estate (as something of a business manager), I was dealing with Random House in NY, who now had this #1 bestseller in The Killer Angels, so in talking to them I mentioned I was writing the prequel. They suggested I send them the manuscript, which I did. Again, no expectations. The return call I got was “We don’t care if it’s a film- we like the book. We think you’re a writer. Here’s a contract.” THAT changed my life. When “Gods and Generals” came out, I was stunned that the book made its debut on the bestseller list, and throughout a 59 city book signing tour, I never could really be comfortable with the notion that G&G was MINE. It was my father’s book to write, and only by his early death was that opportunity even mine at all. It took me probably 4 books into my own career before I felt comfortable taking credit for being a writer.

Q: “Gods and Generals” is the prequel to “The Killer Angels.” What are a few of the most significant relationships or events that took place before the key players met at the Battle of Gettysburg?

A: One aspect of G&G is the “meeting” of the four principle characters when they come together on the same battlefield- Fredericksburg, in Dec. 1862. (Chamberlain, Hancock, Lee and Jackson). That was always intended, to show how each of the four, who are VERY different kinds of people, with four very different kinds of wives, how each evolves through the first two years of the war into the kinds of leaders they become. The tragedy of Stonewall Jackson’s death was by far the most difficult piece of writing I’ve had to do, because, to my surprise, I loved the man. Killing was extremely emotional for me. (I’ve had that same experience now with a few other primary characters in my other books). But the relationship between Lee and Jackson is huge to understanding the mistakes Lee makes later in the war, and the development of Hancock as a commander mirrors much of what happened throughout the Union command. Chamberlain is in many ways, my father. That made it very interesting (and fun) to explore that character.

Q: What’s a typical day for you currently? Do you have a ritual daily writing practice? What’s in the works for you now?

A: I’m a “10am to 4pm” writer. (My father was a midnight to 5am writer). It has to be very disciplined, and often, when the manuscript is underway (as my new one is right now) it’s a 7-days a week thing. I lose complete track of what day it is (I’ve actually gone to the bank, wondering why on earth they’re closed, only to realize it’s Sunday). I wouldn’t call it a “ritual”, no totems or good luck charms. But once I get going with a story, I liken it to a faucet turning on. Let it flow, don’t try to stop it, and when it DOES stop, there isn’t much you can do about it. On those occasional days when I’m just not in the mood, I’ll do something completely different- go fishing maybe. I never suffer through the process of just staring at the blank paper, the way my father did. If the words aren’t there, accept that, and come back later. I always start each day by re-reading what I wrote yesterday. I fix things, edit, make changes. It’s good to have that 24-hour separation. My new book is the 3rd of what will e a 4-book set. This one deals with Chattanooga, September thru November 1863. The primary characters include Sherman and Grant (again), plus Union General George Thomas- the Confederates are Braxton Bragg and Patrick Cleburne. The book is set to come out next May. The 4th book will deal with Sherman and Joe Johnston, from Atlanta through the end of the war in the Carolinas, a story most people (including Civil War buffs) just don’t know. I love that. After that, I’m planning on a book dealing with the War for Texas Independence- what most people think of as “The Alamo”. But that’s only a very small part of the story. Great characters.