Father knows best 

Jeff Shaara on father Michael, his own career, and lessons from both

The idea of following in your father’s footsteps seems rather quaint in this day and age. The notion seems to belong to a time when people stuck with one profession their entire lives and retired with a gold watch. And who was it that wrote how sons of great men tend to choose pursuits that weren’t specialties for their fathers?

Not Jeff Shaara. In 1993, having run a rare coin and precious metals business in northern Florida for 24 years, he was called upon by publishers to don the literary mantle of his father, Michael Shaara, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel had just begun to earn its way—five years after the author’s death from a heart attack. With The Killer Angels hovering posthumously on the bestseller list and a successful film adaptation in theaters, Michael Shaara’s publishers had started to wonder just how close the apple might have fallen to the tree. Actually, says Jeff, it was Gettysburg director Ron Maxwell who first floated the idea of picking up the story where his father left off.

“I had never written anything before,” Shaara explains, speaking from a hotel in Denver on the last leg of a national book tour. “But I was at a point in my life where I thought I might like to try something new. People are always asking me, ‘How did you know how to write a book?’ I really had no idea. I’m not sure I know today. The idea was to try and tell the same story my father told with The Killer Angels and just see what happened.”

What happened first was that Michael Shaara’s publishers, Ballantine, took a look at Jeff’s manuscript in progress and inked him to a contract.

“They at least wanted to see what I was doing,” Shaara explains. “I sent them the manuscript, and the call I got—in fact, I was living on Cedar Ridge Road [in Missoula] when I got it—was ‘We don’t care if it’s ever a movie or anything like that. We think it’s a good book and we think you’re a writer, and we’d like to give you a contract.’ That call changed my whole life.”

What happened next was that Gods and Generals, Jeff Shaara’s prequel of sorts to The Killer Angels, debuted on the bestseller list in 1996. No one, says Shaara, was more surprised than its author.

“I was shocked,” he admits. “I wasn’t under any illusion that I was some kind of great writer—I knew full well that fans of The Killer Angels wanted more of the story. I think having the same last name as my father made a big difference, but I thought it was simply a holdover from the success of The Killer Angels. It didn’t mean that I was a great writer. I had so little in the way of expectations. The problem, for me, was that now I had a publisher that really had expectations. You’ve heard the cliché about everyone having one good story in them—the one-hit wonder, that kind of thing. I kind of started wondering if that was me.”

Evidently not. Success followed success, with Shaara’s second novel—this time a sequel, The Last Full Measure, to bookend his father’s novel—again debuting on the bestseller list in 1998 and staying there for three months. Four more acclaimed books followed: two about the American Revolution (The Glorious Cause and Rise to Rebellion), one about the Mexican-American war (Gone for Soldiers), and, most recently, To the Last Man, a novel about American soldiers in World War I. For all that, though, and his own early diffidence notwithstanding, Shaara says he still has to contend with self-appointed stewards of his father’s literary legacy.

“When I stopped doing the Civil War and went to the American Revolution,” he recalls, “somebody actually said to me: ‘So, are you out from under your father’s shadow now?’ I never felt like it was a shadow. I was walking in some big footsteps, but it felt like a good thing. I’ve had a lot of reviewers—in fact, I had one for this last book—say, ‘Well, he’s not quite up to his father’s level yet.’ People are always going to make those comparisons, even six books later. I can’t help that.” “It was very strange for me to go through all this,” he continues, “because my father, in his lifetime, never saw that kind of attention paid to his work. He had no idea of the impact The Killer Angels would have.”

Michael Shaara spent seven years working on a manuscript for The Killer Angels—fueled, famously, by a steady diet of coffee and cigarettes. It was rejected 15 times by different publishers and sold poorly on its release in 1974. Consider the zeitgeist, his son suggests:

“Think about 1975. It’s the end of the Vietnam War. Nobody in this country wants to read a book about the battle of Gettysburg—it’s so out of fashion. Even though it won the Pulitzer Prize, it was never a successful book in his lifetime.” Jeff Shaara admits that he has never experienced that kind of rejection. He’s currently on his third contract with Ballantine.

“I don’t know if it’s valid or not, this idea that rejection makes you a stronger person or any of that. I grew up in a house with a man who suffered for his writing. I remember my mother hiding the mail so he wouldn’t see the rejection letters. He never made a living off his writing—he taught at Florida State University to pay the bills. Growing up in that environment and going into [writing] with no expectations, I don’t take [success] for granted at all. I’m well aware how rare this is, and how lucky I am, especially compared to my father. I had an enormous break in the form of my father and his career—a break that he never got in his career.”

As in his Civil War novels, Jeff Shaara uses real historical characters to tell the story in To the Last Man. Mostly real, anyway: General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, Manfred “The Red Baron” von Richthofen and American flying ace Raoul Lufbery are real and extensively biographied; the character of Roscoe Temple, an American Marine pitched into combat in France in 1917, is a composite of several personalities. The family of the veteran Temple most closely resembles cooperated with the author on condition of complete anonymity. Elsewhere, Shaara says, he avoids reading biographies of his real-life characters.

Another thing he avoids, he says, is politics. So he doesn’t have any specific comments on the zeitgeist that To the Last Man will have to contend with.

“I haven’t gone into any of the stories I’ve done with the notion of ‘there’s some kind of message in here for today,’” Shaara says. “I don’t carry that baggage into the story.”

“Here’s another lesson I learned from my father,” he continues. “He was first and foremost a good storyteller. The rest came extra. That’s what I try to do. Black Jack Pershing didn’t know anything about Iraq—it didn’t even exist in World War I. I didn’t go into the book with all these loaded messages throughout, that we should look at this today because there’s a lesson to be learned. If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s because that’s what history is. The lessons between the Civil War and the First World War weren’t learned. You don’t take your men and march them in a nice straight line across an open field against—well, in the Civil War it was the rifled musket, a gun that could shoot 300 yards. The cost in terms of human life was just staggering. In World War One, they’re fighting the same way, only now it’s the machine gun. And barbed wire. And the hand grenade. The ways of killing had changed. The ways of fighting the war had not.”

Jeff Shaara has recently moved back to Missoula. In lieu of a housewarming gift, you might think about attending his reading and book-signing for To the Last Man on Tuesday, Nov. 30, at Fact & Fiction. 7 PM.

smetanka@missoulanews.com

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