Reviews > Culture

'Just the way it was'

Culture | Historical novelist JEFF SHAARA speaks with WORLD about bringing history alive-by portraying characters as they were, rather than running them through a modernist grid

Issue: "Supreme warning," July 5, 2003

Reporters talk about pounding the pavement to get a story. Novelist Jeff Shaara crawled through bushes to bring history to life.

Mr. Shaara, 51, traveled as an 18-year-old in 1970 to Gettysburg National Park with his ailing father, Michael Shaara, to research what became the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Killer Angels. The senior Shaara was "already very sick, and it was my job to do all the grunt work, to walk the fields, to crawl through the bushes," Jeff Shaara recalls. "I got to watch my father's story come to be."

Michael Shaara died in 1988, before the movie version, Gettysburg, made The Killer Angels big with the general public. Gettysburg director Ron Maxwell struck up a friendship with the younger Shaara, who was on the set through filming to ensure the movie's integrity. Mr. Maxwell slowly coaxed the son to see his own writing abilities. After two years, Jeff Shaara produced Gods and Generals, the "prequel" to his father's book. The book was recognized alongside his father's work for telling history authentically and passionately: "Masterful," Publishers Weekly stated. The movie based on the book came out early this year.

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Now, Mr. Shaara has completed a two-volume epic on the American Revolutionary War. The first volume, Rise to Rebellion, relates events and ideas leading into the six-year War for Independence. The second volume, The Glorious Cause-which tells of key events in the war-is being released in paperback this month.

As was his father's method, this down-to-earth writer invites key historical figures to become readers' fictitious escorts through the War for Independence. George Washington, Nathaniel Greene, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Gage, and William Cornwallis-all were chosen for their startling heroic or flawed lives in the battle for American Independence. "If I do my job, I will take you out of this century back to the 1780s or the 1860s," Mr. Shaara said.

"One of the things that I just despise about some modern history books is they tell everything in hindsight, and they pass judgment on the characters as though they were living today. You can't do that. You have to take yourself away from all of that."

Mr. Shaara says he learned much regarding research and historical approach from his father. Before he begins writing, he vociferously reads all original sources-letters, journals, etc., which he trusts more than many modern historical works. Modern criticism's tendency to dethrone true historical heroes saddens him. So does modern filmmakers' absurd notion that history must be made racier than reality to capture and hold an audience.

"The problem oftentimes in Hollywood is that they don't have faith that the American public will be entertained by watching the truth," he laments. He notes how TNT, a company owned by the same Ted Turner who has taken his father's and Jeff's works faithfully to the big screen, totally butchered and hyper-mythologized a recent movie about another key Revolutionary War character, Benedict Arnold. "It just made me sick," Mr. Shaara said.

He also criticized movies such as Pearl Harbor, a box-office botch. "After Pearl Harbor came out I would talk to these audiences and say that I bet many of them were originally pleased when they heard a movie on this tragic but immense piece of history came out. Then you went to see the movie and realized this was love-triangle soap-opera stuff and that the movie's story had absolutely nothing to do with the truth and drama of the reality of Pearl Harbor. If you think about what really happened that day, you don't have to jazz it up. Just tell the story!"

As his father once did while teaching writing classes at Florida State University, the younger Shaara talks out his stories after his research to audiences and his wife before ever beginning his writing: "It was just a remarkable thing to hear my father tell the story he was yet to write. He would always talk about it first, of Longstreet sitting on the fence watching that fatal charge up the hill. He would tell me his stories before he ever wrote them down. He would tell them to his students."

Jeff Shaara has also written Gone for Soldiers, a story of the Mexican War, and is now writing a book on World War I. Reading all of his novels is like entering parallel-world portals, where heroes are pregnant with the pain of human challenge. For Mr. Shaara, true heroes emerge amid such crisis, when uncommon impediments draw forth amazing actions from normal mortals who refuse to shrink in cowardice.

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