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RANDY: Novelist and Civil War researcher Jeff Shaara is the son of Michael Shaara, who taught literature at Florida State University and won the Pulitzer Prize for his now-classic Civil War novel The Killer Angels.
JEFF SHAARA: My father was a writer for 40 years--he published four novels and 70 short stories. But even though he's best known for The Killer Angels, which is considered the classic novel of the Civil War--
RANDY: ...maybe the best Civil War novel ever written!
JEFF: Well, a lot of people say that, and a lot of people say it's the best historical novel ever wrtten. But he had no background in history(!), and that surprises people. The Killer Angels is the only historical work he ever did. And it really was not about studying war or studying history that drew him to the subject--and I'm sort of speaking for myself here as well--it really was the whole idea of telling a good story. And when he was walking the grounds at Gettysburg with me--I was a 12-year-old--and we were walking the grounds literally as tourists, something happened to hm there. He realized, "This is a story I really want to tell." He began to study the people, and that's what drew him into the story. Well, for me that's the same lesson. I mean, whether I'm doing Civil War, the American Revolution, World War I, World War II--these are not event-driven stories. I'm not interested in just "war." What I'm interested in are the characters, and how ordinary people rise to the occasion, and how someone you've never heard of rises up to become an extrordinary hero.
RANDY: The 1993 (TV) movie Gettysburg was based on The Killer Angels. And then they (TBS) asked you about continuing that story with a prequel and a sequel. And I guess first the idea was for you to get someone else to write it, but then you decided to do the writing yourself--even though had no previous writing experience! I mean, it must've been something that was in the genes in a way.
JEFF: Oh, I hope so! (Chuckles)
RANDY: The result was Jeff's first novel, Gods and Generals, the prequel to his father's novel The Killer Angels.
JEFF: The whole idea behind Gods and Generals was that it was always to be a movie first. Ted Turner wanted to make more Civil War films--Gettsyburg was an enormously successful project, it made The Killer Angels a Number One bestseller five years after my father's death! I had never written anything before. People are always asking me, "How did you know how to write a book? And weren't you afraid? Weren't you intimidated by the idea?" Well, the answer is "No!" because there were no expectations. My whole job was to put a story together that someone else would adapt for a screenplay; it was always about being a movie. Well, I'm representing my father's estate as sort of the "Business Manager" of my father's estate in New York, and I'm dealing with Random House, and they're saying, "What is this that you're doing?" And I said, "I'm writing the prequel--I'm writing a book called Gods and Generals." They said, "Send it to us! We'd like to take a look at it. Okay... I did. The phone call I got was, "We don't care if it's a movie--we like the book. We think you're a writer! Here's a contract." I mean, that changed my whole life!
RANDY: No kidding, because you got a degree in Criminology at Florida State, and for years, ever since you were a teenager, you'd run a rare-coin business!
JEFF: My father never could make a living from his writing. People ask me all the time, "Did you always want to follow in your father's footsteps?" NO! I went the polar opposite direction--I became a businessman!
RANDY: Michael Shaara had been a prominent science-fiction short-story writer in the 1950s, but that didn't pay the bills. So he taught Creative Writing at Florida State... but he always considered himself first and foremost a writer. His son Jeff didn't consider himself one--until Gods and Generals spent 15 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list! Jeff Shaara has continued writing novels based on various American wars, including WWII, and for the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War he's returning to that confluct for a new trilogy of books set in the Western Theatre. The first book, due out next spring, will deal with Shiloah. Jeff also has published one non-fiction book about ten famous Civil War battlefields.
RANDY: So what will you be talking about at the Missouri Literary Festival?
JEFF: I try to capture people with some anecdotal things, and talking primarily about the characters. One thing I don't do is bomb you with names/dates/places/facts'n'figures. NOBODY wants to hear that stuff! I like to tell stories, and I like to talk about what drew me into this--and what I hope draws the audience in.
RANDY: Jeff Shaara will speak at the Missouri Literary Festival at the Creamery Arts Center Saturday Sept.24 at 10:00am, with a book signing to follow. For a complete schedule of events, visit www.missouriliteraryfestival.org.