By Meredith Allard
Jeff Shaara is the acclaimed author of the best selling historical novels Gods and Generals, The Last Full Measure, Gone for Soldiers, and Rise to Rebellion, among others. You can visit Jeff online at www.jeffshaara.com.
Meredith Allard: A family vacation to Gettysburg inspired your father, Michael Shaara, to write The Killer Angels. A few years later you helped him research his novel. What was that experience like? How did that time prepare you to research and write your own Civil War novels, Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure?
Jeff Shaara: First, I would never take credit for making some kind of invaluable contribution to the research of The Killer Angels. By 1970, when my father and I toured the battlefield at Gettysburg for the second time, he had suffered his first heart attack. I was 18, and as such, was in much better physical condition than my father, thus it was my job to do the “grunt” work- climb the hills, crawl all over the place through the brush to try to locate troop positions, the lay of the land, etc. I look back at that time now and realize it was as close as my father and I had ever been. Soon after, he had a motorcycle accident that damaged his head severely, and affected his mental state for many years. This had a dramatic impact on his relationships with everyone in his life, including his son. The lesson I learned was clear: if you’re going to try to tell the story of these events and the characters who were such a part of the history, first and foremost, you must walk the ground. There is a magic to the experience, to seeing what they saw, to stepping in their footsteps. I could not tell any of these stories now without having that experience.
M.A.:The director of “Gettysburg,” Ron Maxwell, was instrumental in prompting your journey into writing historical fiction. What role did he play?
J.S.: I met Ron Maxwell during the filming of “Gettysburg,” the film based onThe Killer Angels. Ron wrote the screenplay and directed the film. After the film was released and received so enthusiastically, Ron called me with the idea of continuing more of the stories of these characters, both before and after July of 1863. I had never written anything before, and that’s no exaggeration. But after giving his idea some thought, I decided that continuing my father’s work was something I wanted to attempt. This is the very reason I dedicate The Last Full Measure to Ron. Without his inspiration in the first place I would never have begun to write.
M.A.: What are the joys and frustrations of writing historical fiction? Does writing about the Civil War have its own specific joys and frustrations?
J.S.: One distinct frustration of writing historical fiction is that you are dealing with real events, and thus, must stay true to the history. Many times it would be convenient if some character was in a different place, or if events occurred in different order. But I don’t dwell much on that, because the particular stories I am trying to tell are so very interesting, the characters to intriguing, that I never feel as though I should perhaps sneak something in that is pure fiction. Specific to the Civil War, of course, is the ability to bring the reader both sides of the story, from (I hope) an equal perception. One great joy in telling the story of Lee vs. Grant, for example, is getting into the minds of such opposite personalities and show how they interacted in such a chess-game kind of way. That was enormous fun. Plus, the Civil War is the most awful bloody time in our history. It is not hard to find the enthusiasm for exploring the minds of these characters, to try to understand why this happened and how it was finally ended. I have to note one distinct frustration: eventually, the story ends. All of these characters are gone, and writing their deaths is one of the hardest things I have had to do.
M.A.: Most authors of historical fiction write their stories from the perspective of fictional characters. Your style of writing historical fiction is different, however, because you write from the perspective of real-life figures who become fictionalized through your portrayal of their thoughts, actions, and dialogue. Describe your process of creating a fictionalized character from a real-life figure.
J.S.: There is an enormous risk in putting words in the mouth of, not only a real historical figure, but a figure who carries the iconic status of a Lee or Grant, Lincoln, or Washington. That adds considerably to the responsibility I feel about doing the right kind of research. If I intend to put you into the mind of one of these characters, then I must first go there myself, through whatever original sources are available. In most cases, I rely on diaries, letters, memoirs, the accounts of people who were there with these characters. I am painfully aware that some writers have no qualms about imposing modern thought processes, modern terminology, or modern interpretations of 19th century figures. I despise that kind of storytelling. Before I can ever write the first word of dialog, I have to hear those words myself, as each character might have spoken them. I have to feel I know the character personally, as though I was standing beside him or her when the words were spoken. I can never claim of course, that any one of these people actually said, word for word what I write. But, I am very comfortable that, in every case, they could have, that each of these conversations could have taken place.
M.A.: There are those who think that every fact in historical fiction should be exact, but there are also those who think that dramatic license should be allowed in works of fiction. What are your feelings on this subject?
J.S.: I am very careful about exercising any kind of dramatic license. If there is license at all, it is in the dialog and the thoughts of each character, a process I described above. I am painstaking in my research of the events. The actual situation each character finds him or herself in is real. The time line, the positioning of each person in to the events that were happening around them, all of that is as accurate as I can make it. I have had one historian suggest that he has no respect for historical fiction because the history can be so easily tampered with in the name of “license.” I object to that and would never violate the spirit of these characters by tampering with the history. I have never considered writing “alternative” history, some exploration of the “what-ifs.” It is too important to me to keep the facts straight.
M.A.: Your current project, Rise to Rebellion, centers around the American Revolution and will feature George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, among others. What inspired you to write about the American Revolution?
J.S.: I felt that I had gone as far as I could with the Civil War characters, at least for a while. (One day I would like to tell the William T. Sherman story, but that’s down the road a ways). As I began to explore other ideas for stories, the Founding Fathers were impossible to overlook. What these few men accomplished is almost miraculous. The more research I did, the more I came to appreciate not only their achievement, the birth of the United States, the creation of our government, but the wonderful uniqueness of the characters themselves.
By the nature of the kind of books I write, if the characters are not very interesting, I don’t have much of a story, regardless of what the historical events might be. I was thrilled to dig into the minds of Ben Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Gage (a man most Americans have never heard of, the British army commander who started the war). That’s the most fun for me, finding a character who is somehow overlooked by history, and bringing him to you. One example is Winfield Scott. Again, most Americans have no idea who he was. He is quite simply the man who taught Robert E Lee, and nearly the entire roster of Civil War commanders on both sides, how to be soldiers. We all know who Ben Franklin is, but do we really? I absolutely despise the latest attempts by Hollywood and television to “reveal” these characters by showing us little more than dirty laundry. It is too convenient, too lazy a way to tell a story of a man, such as Jefferson, by pointing to one aspect of the man’s life: he may (or may have not) fathered an illegitimate child with a slave girl. That kind of “history” may sell commercials in prime time, but it does a serious disservice not only to the man himself, but to Americans. Was he human? Of course. Was he perfect? Of course not. But did he not author the Declaration of Independence? That is the story I’m interested in. Most Americans don’t know that both Franklin and John Adams played a key role in helping Jefferson write that document. It was a moment that changed the history of the world forever, and that’s no exaggeration. That’s far more interesting to me than some titillating exploration of their personal scandals. It’s not to say I ignore or avoid the truth. But there is a much larger story than what Hollywood believes Americans want to see. I have more faith in my readers than that.
M.A.: Who are your favorite historical fiction authors, and what are your favorite historical fiction novels? Have these works influenced your own style in any way?
J.S.: It will sound too obvious when I say that my favorite author of historical fiction is my father, Michael Shaara. The fact is, I can’t think of anyone who has influenced my writing (or my life) more than my father. As for his influence on my style, I am asked that a great deal, if I purposely patterned my writing style after his. Absolutely not. If a writer focuses so much on mimicking someone else, they can’t focus much on the story, and the story must come first. My sister commented when she read my first manuscript that “this is being written by the ghost of our father”. I take that as a compliment. But it was never anything I set out to do. I find that I don’t read much historical fiction any more. One reason is that I have to be very careful about the possibility of picking up some bit of “information” that might find its way into my own stories. If that information is fiction, I could be accused of plagiarism. It’s ironic in one way, because I sponsor the “Michael Shaara Prize”, awarded each year by the U. S. Civil War Center, to the best work of Civil War fiction published. But I am not one of the judges (despite their continuous requests). I just can’t make a judgment like that on someone else’s work of fiction. And if I were to read something really, really good, some style or approach that caused a strong reaction in me, I can’t take the chance that some part of that might seep into my own writing.
M.A.: What is your advice to aspiring writers of historical fiction?
J.S.: I’m asked for advice a great deal. It makes me somewhat nervous, since I can’t possibly explain how I have arrived at this point where my books are best sellers and I am doing interviews and appearances all over the country. I appreciate that there are enormously talented writers out there who are doing wonderful work who are having a difficult time finding someone to read their work. It’s an unfortunate fact of the publishing business. No one can go into this believing that they will write a best seller. That can’t be your motivation. Write because you have a story you want to tell, something that is important enough for you to exercise the discipline it takes to put it on paper. If you are focusing on history, then be honest about the history. Unless, as I mentioned before, you’re writing “alternative history” (in which anything goes), above all, gets the facts straight. If you are dealing with real-life characters, then do them justice. And, please, stay away from the temptation to pass judgment based on modern standards, or modern frames of reference. That’s a lazy way to write. If you want to take the reader back to another time, you have to go there first, and leave today behind. And, by all means, if it is at all possible, walk the ground.
M.A.: What other historical periods do you think you might like to write about?
J.S.: We are very fortunate in this country to have a history that is ripe with wonderful characters. I find it humorous when Europeans dismiss American history as being too brief to be interesting. History is not a measure of years, it is a measure of deeds. In some ways, I feel I’m not ready to answer this question. Every era in our history has some great story that I would like to tell. I am considering several new stories now, including, as I mentioned before, a story about W. T. Sherman. But I can’t allow myself to get too excited about a future project. My focus right now is on completing the story on the American Revolution.
Meredith Allard is the executive editor of The Copperfield Review.