We are excited to have both Jeff Shaara and Dolen Perkins-Valdez with us at our upcoming 2019 conference as guests of honor. Today, Jeff Shaara stops by our blog to answer a few questions about his books and the perspective that he brings to historical fiction set during the American Civil War. For those of you planning to attend the 2019 conference, he also has a tourist tip you don’t want to miss!
1. The story of how you ended up writing historical fiction is a fascinating one. Could you briefly share it with our readers?
I never set out to be a writer at all. For most of my adult life I was a businessman. When the enormously successful film Gettysburg was released, based on my father’s great novel The Killer Angels, the film’s producer, Ted Turner, came to me, hoping to make more films, expanding that story in both directions, before and after, using many of the same characters, etc. I had never written anything before, but I decided it was something I’d like to try. The result was Gods and Generals, a story I wrote only so it could be adapted by someone else for a screenplay. I had no expectations it would actually become a book. But since I was representing my late father’s estate with the publisher in New York, I told them that I was working on a prequel to The Killer Angels. They suggested I send them a copy of the manuscript. I did. The phone call I got back from them was: “We don’t care if it’s a movie. We like the book. Here’s a contract.” That phone call changed my life.
2. What unique perspective do you bring to American Civil War fiction?
My father basically invented the concept of telling the story through the eyes of characters who are not fictitious (as is the case with most historical fiction), but to tell the story through the eyes of some of the most significant historical figures of the time, well-known characters, whose deeds actually made this history. It’s a risky thing to put words in the mouths of, for example, men like George Washington, Robert E. Lee or Dwight Eisenhower. People know these characters very well, and if you get it wrong, the whole book will fall apart (and deserves to). For that reasons, the largest amount of work goes into the research. Not just the historical facts, but the personalities of the men themselves. Thus, whenever possible, the research comes from original source materials: diaries, letters, memoirs. It’s up to me to “hear” the voices of these characters, to feel that I’m getting to know them, before I can try to enter their thoughts, or speak for them. Thus, if you’re at Appomattox with Lee and Grant, for example (in The Last Full Measure), you’re a part of that extraordinary moment in our history through Grant’s point of view. What happened there is well recorded, including some of what was said. But what was Grant thinking? What was the conversation? How can that be included in the story? That’s my job.
3. Although the majority of your books are set during the Civil War period, you’ve also traveled to the American Revolution, World War One, World War Two, and most recently, the Korean War in your novels. What themes do you bring out in your writing that transcend these different eras? Or to put it another way, how do you make the history relevant for today?
In every case, the stories that I write are about the people, not just the event. I do not write “history books,” burying you in facts and figures, names, dates and places. Certainly there is a valuable use for that, but I’m not qualified to call myself a historian. When I dig into the primary voices in any of my stories, I find that these people are not so different from who we are today. Whether fear, heroism, determination, self-doubt, joy or terror, or any other emotion we might feel in these situations, the story is about rising to the occasion. Many of us are faced with that same challenge today. I’ve said often that these “famous” people are not just figures standing tall on some marble statue. They’re us.
4. You also have a nonfiction book on Civil War battlefields that every American should visit. If our conference attendees could extend their trip to the Maryland/D.C. area and visit just one of them, which one would you suggest? Why?
Gettysburg. In the “east”, there is no better example of a battlefield so well preserved. Even the casual tourist, who might have no idea what happened there, will learn something, will see with perfect clarity how the battle unfolded, how it spread across the ground, and, finally, will understand how such a slaughter could result, across the open ground where Pickett’s Charge took place. The Visitor Center there is incredible, with something to interest anyone who travels there, whether the die-hard Civil War “buff”, or what I call the “backseat people” (those who might have been dragged there by a family member, who had thought they had no interest at all in the place). I mention “east” because in the “west”, southern Tennessee, a comparable site would be Shiloh.
Thank you so much, Mr. Shaara, for sharing with us today! We are looking forward to hearing from you in person at the 2019 conference ((June 20-22 in Oxon Hill, Maryland near Washington D.C.).