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Interview: November 10, 2006

November 10, 2006

Historical fiction author Jeff Shaara began his career by writing a prequel to his late father's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, THE KILLER ANGELS, and has since gone on to publish a number of books centered on major wars in history.

In this interview with's Stephen Hubbard, Shaara discusses the personal accomplishment of completing his father's work and explains why he focuses his writing on characters during wartime. He also describes the effort he put into making his latest novel, THE RISING TIDE, as historically accurate as possible and shares some surprising facts he learned while researching important figures in World War II. First thing's first --- Why war?

Jeff Shaara: It's not war that intrigues me, it's how the participants, the characters in my story, respond to that war. There is no greater challenge for anyone to face than the horror of what he must do in wartime. It's a very dramatic and effective way to measure character, define heroism and examine tragedy, all of which make for a good story. Wars are fought by ordinary people who find themselves caught up in an extraordinary situation. How they respond to that situation, how leaders emerge, how one man becomes a hero while another remains hidden, how our lives, all of our lives, have been changed by this kind of history…all of those things are ingredients for what I believe to be an interesting story.

BRC: You've written about the Civil War, the American Revolution, World War I, the Mexican War, and now, with THE RISING TIDE, World War II. Which of these conflicts holds the most interest for you?

JS: I was surprised by the drama I encountered in the American Revolution. My two books on that era are in some ways different from anything else I've done, because the characters are not simply fighting a war --- they're creating a nation. It's one thing to have a conflict of two armies, strength against strength, "may the best man win." But in the Revolution, a few American colonists chose to stand up to the most powerful army (and government) in the world --- and they won. That's a unique story.

BRC: How intimidating was it to begin completing the work your father did with THE KILLER ANGELS, especially considering it won a Pulitzer Prize?

JS: Since there were no expectations that anyone would ever read my manuscript, I had no fear about writing it. The whole idea was for me to do my father's kind of research, get into the heads of the characters, tell the story from their points of view --- so that it could be adapted for a screenplay. All the energy came from Ted Turner and his people. Turner wanted to do more Civil War films, since Gettysburg had been so successful. I understood very well that if the story I put together was lousy, it would simply end up in the trash, and no one would ever know I wrote anything.

Since I was representing my father's literary estate with the publisher in New York, and since his book THE KILLER ANGELS was now a #1 bestseller, they were naturally curious just what it was I was writing. They asked to see the manuscript of GODS AND GENERALS, and responded to that by offering me a publishing contract. That changed my whole life. There was never any thought to "competing" with him at all. My father spent 40 years of his life perfecting his craft and won a Pulitzer Prize. I knew very well that I was just getting started, and I never feel like I have to weigh my work against his.

BRC: Your father, unfortunately, never had the chance to enjoy the success THE KILLER ANGELS achieved, and he no doubt would be proud of the success you've had in following him. Do you feel that in finishing the Civil War trilogy it was more important to continue his legacy and bring that to a close for him? And since you continue to pursue writing, do you feel you do it for yourself now?

JS: I didn't attack GODS AND GENERALS as a way of finishing what my father had started; but very soon afterward, when my book was on the bestseller list, I was very clear that the work I was doing should have been his to complete, and the attention I was receiving should have gone to him. Completing the Civil War trilogy created an emotional connection between me and my father that is difficult to explain, something very personal to me. But now, since I've moved away from the Civil War, I feel very much like the work is my own, that the characters and the storylines are my own. But the lessons I learned from him are very powerful and guide me in my writing every time. I am never far from the impact and the influence of THE KILLER ANGELS.

BRC: In THE RISING TIDE, how did you determine which aspects of World War II were going to be the focal points for your story, and how did you ultimately decide the beginning point for the story?

JS: In every story I do, it's important to show how the history is being created, how major decisions are affecting everything that happens. So of course, I feel I need to bring in the "guys at the top" as primary characters. The choice of Eisenhower, and his subordinates and allies, was an easy one to make. But then, I need to get away from the leaders and put myself in the action. My last book on the First World War (TO THE LAST MAN) had been the first effort I had made at telling a story from the front line, from the "grunt's" point of view. This time, I knew I wanted to repeat that, but not just from the infantryman's eyes. Since the tank battles were so critical to the story of North Africa, it made sense to find someone in a tank. Since the paratroopers were so pivotal to the invasion of Sicily, it was logical to find a paratrooper's point of view.

Finding the beginning of the story was very difficult. There is so much history happening all over the world, so many important events --- from Pearl Harbor to the invasion of Poland, to Dunkirk, and Norway and the Philippines. I couldn't just plop the reader down in the middle of 1942 without some explanation of where we were and why, what had happened before to bring us to this point in the story. Fortunately, that's what my "Introductions" can do.

BRC: THE RISING TIDE, like your other works, features real-life combatants as well as fictional characters. How do you hone down the immensity of the World War II canvas and select just a handful of true warriors? And how do you work in the fictional characters while keeping the honesty of the history intact?

JS: It's always difficult deciding what to include and what to leave out. None of my books are "blow-by-blow" accounts of the entire war, or comprehensive histories of the event. All I'm trying to do is tell a story from a few points of view: men who were in crucial places at crucial times, men who made the decisions that changed the history of their time, the men who saw how those decisions played out in the field, the men who could take me (and the reader) into the history, getting past the dry facts. It's always about finding a good story, not explaining the entire war. But --- I feel a powerful responsibility to "get it right," to keep the facts straight, not to play games with history, with the timeline, or anyone's involvement. I am very proud of the historical accuracy of everything I've written, and, though mistakes occasionally are made, I take great pains to correct them.

Even through the creation of a fictitious character, I must stay true to the history. And so, in every case, a fictional character is the product of the accounts told by an assortment of other characters who were there, who saw and experienced and related all those things that then become part of my story. All my research comes from original source accounts: diaries, memoirs, collections of letters. I never create an event that simply didn't happen, I never put two historical figures together who never met. The dialogue, which of course has to be described as fiction, comes directly from the personalities and experiences of the actual figures who were there, and who have passed those experiences on to us.

BRC: When writing THE RISING TIDE did you ever have doubts about the work from the standpoint that World War II is so popular? Because it has been written about so extensively and had numerous films made, were you concerned that you just might be rehashing things?

JS: I was very unsure that I wanted to do a story on World War II, because it had been done so very many times before. In terms of Hollywood alone, it is the one military subject about which more films have been made than all others combined (and they're still being made today). I absolutely did not want to simply tell another story that everyone already knows, and I'm definitely not going to do a "revisionist" approach --- tearing down heroes or doing some kind of "expose" just to get a book published. I have very little respect for that kind of thing. Once I got into the research, I realized that I didn't know nearly as much as I thought I did, so I had to assume that most people were in the same boat. If I could find good characters and tell an honest story, then it was worth doing. I was very surprised by what I learned about North Africa and Sicily, and what I discovered about Eisenhower, Rommel, Patton, etc. I truly believe that this is a story that will surprise people. And, it's all true.

BRC: With the Civil War trilogy, it is nearly impossible to feel that any of the main combatants are evil people, yet THE RISING TIDE and its concentration in Word War II works from a different understanding. How were you able to write about someone like Rommel or Kesselring from a neutral position considering their participation in Hitler's Axis army, which is generally considered one of the great evils of all time?

JS: I was very nervous about using a Nazi as a primary character in my story, and then I discovered that, in fact, Rommel was not a Nazi at all. It's easy to label all German soldiers as evil, since of course they fought for a cause that was handed to them by an evil man. But Rommel is a three-dimensional character, a human being and a good soldier. To dismiss him, or to ignore his accomplishments because he was on the wrong side, is very limiting to our understanding of history. If we want to understand what happened, why it happened and how it happened, we have to know what was going on in the minds of those men on the other side. I've done that in every book I've written: take you to the other side, give you a voice you might not expect to hear. Certainly there are some people who might find my characterization of Rommel objectionable. But it's honest. The voice comes from the man himself, from his letters, his documents, his correspondence with his wife. The most important aspect of Rommel, something I was frankly relieved to learn, was that Rommel began to realize that Hitler was, in fact, mad. That made my job much easier.

BRC: When writing a book such as THE RISING TIDE, do you try to connect more with historians who love that time period, or do you ultimately hope to attract individuals who may not have had much interest before?

JS: With all due respect to historians, I'm not really interested in reaching them as a primary audience. My books are geared toward those who probably hated history in school, who were shortchanged in their understanding of history by the misery of a dry textbook. In the end, it's all about finding a good story, passing that story on to an audience who might find themselves surprised by the events and the characters that gave us our history. I love hearing from readers who are as surprised by these stories as I am, who tell me, "I had no idea…" That's the same way I feel when I'm researching.

BRC: The research for the work that you do must be an immense undertaking, and it would seem that you could spend your whole life researching instead of writing the story. How much time do you devote to the research end of things, and how do you know when it is right to stop and actually create the story?

JS: The research typically takes twice as long as the writing of the manuscript. I usually read 60-70 books for each book I write, over a period of maybe a year. Plus, I travel to as many of these historical sites as I can, the sites I will be writing about. The more modern the story, the more material there can be to research; and at some point, once I feel comfortable putting words in the mouths of these historical figures, it's time to stop reading and start writing. Obviously, with World War II, I could continue to read memoirs and letters for years to come. At some point, I realize I have a story to tell, and so it's time to tell it.

BRC: Film adaptations of THE KILLER ANGELS and GODS AND GENERALS enjoyed modest success. Are there plans at all for THE LAST FULL MEASURE being filmed to complete the Civil War trilogy, or are there any plans or discussions about any of your other works? To go with that, do you feel that the film adaptations are positives and fuel those people who typically don't read with enough drive to pick up the book?

JS: Actually the film adaptation of my father's THE KILLER ANGELS (the film Gettysburg) was enormously successful. The film adaptation of GODS AND GENERALS was a financial disaster for Ted Turner. Unfortunately, that has caused Turner to withdraw his commitment to finance a film version of THE LAST FULL MEASURE, which would have completed the Civil War trilogy. Someone else may yet finance the project, but right now there's nothing happening. I hear from time to time from Hollywood people who show some interest in my books, but there is nothing concrete in the works. I suppose films tend to reach an audience who might not be inclined to pick up a book, but so often Hollywood's efforts don't measure up to the story as it's told in the book. Obviously, if someone was serious about making a film from any of my other books, I'd be very pleased. But I don't sit by the phone waiting for that call.

BRC: With the wide range of subjects you've delved into, what one historical person who you've put on the page is the most intriguing and fascinating to you personally, and why?

JS: The one person I would like to meet and spend time with is Ben Franklin. It is no exaggeration to say that Franklin changed the history of the world, that his actions (along with George Washington's) in the American Revolution brought about our victory over the British. Beyond that, he was simply a fascinating man, a unique and brilliant mind. I despise the way Hollywood usually portrays him, as a "dirty old man." Just tell the truth about him, and you have a story far more interesting than anything a screenwriter could create.

BRC: Do you think historians generally frown upon historical fiction, or have you seen a change in the perception of historical fiction as now being a good jumping point for readers to actually invest more time in that subject from the historical perspective?

JS: I believe there has been a change among most historians in how they perceive historical fiction. I've met a great number of academics and nonfiction historical writers who express appreciation that fiction is reaching a far larger audience than nonfiction, and is bringing enormous numbers of people to historical subjects that could never be captured by a high school textbook. I meet enormous numbers of people who tell me how much they hate reading history, but they've read my father's book, or my own, and now they're taking their kids to Gettysburg. I think most historians recognize that. (There are always those diehard academics who dismiss all fiction as worthless. I don't really listen to them.)

BRC: Our world seems to be devolving into chaos. Do you think more world leaders should look back at history, especially World War II, and just remind themselves of what can come of things if they are allowed to go too far? Are there lessons they could learn from that period?

JS: It's easy to suggest that world leaders should look back at history, to see what kinds of mistakes they continue to repeat. But that has never happened before, and I doubt it will happen now.

BRC: THE RISING TIDE is just the first in a trilogy of World War II. When this series is completed, do you know what you have planned for your next project?

JS: The World War II trilogy deals with the European theater, and once it is complete, I will do a fourth book, covering the end of the war in the Pacific. There is simply too much of a story there, too much drama, too many good characters to ignore. After that, I'm not sure --- maybe Korea; take the characters from World War II forward. I don't think I will ever do a story of Vietnam or anything more modern. There is simply too much politics involved, and no story I could tell would be free of that. That's not what I do: I have no political agenda, I'm not trying to make a "point" or beat readers over the head with the lessons of history, who was right and who was wrong. It's also possible I may go back to the Civil War, tell one more story with an entirely different setting than the Shaara trilogy. As long as there are readers (and a publisher) who ask me to write something, and as long as I can find a good story, I'll keep writing.