Father/son trilogy didn't come easily, success is sweet

June 14, 1998
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

The story of Michael and Jeff Shaara is as sad and wonderful a tale as any novelist could dream up and it's perfectly true.

Here's the short version: Michael Shaara was a writer who taught for a living. Over the course of his career he published more than 70 short stories. He was a science fiction writer like Ray Bradbury who churned stories out for sci fi magazines of the day. Then, in the early 1960s, he became intensely interested in the Civil War and wrote something completely different, a historical novel. This novel was rejected by 15 houses before it was finally published, to little notice, in 1965. The war in Vietnam was taking place and there was wasn't much interest in revisiting the Civil War.

Seven years later, Michael Shaara was riding a motorcycle in Italy. He had a history of heart disease and it's thought that maybe he had a small stroke while on the motorcycle. It was the beginning of the end for him, physically, and it came at a time when his work was beginning to receive some acclaim. His historical novel about the Civil War, "The Killer Angels," won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975.

But the next 13 years were marked by pain and illness so acute that he could barely write. He severed all connections with his son, Jeff. He died in 1988 leaving behind a career marked by one Pulitzer Prize and countless rejection slips.

Jeff graduated from Florida State University with a degree in criminology in 1974. He had no interest in becoming a writer, a career he understood to be characterized mainly by rejection. He made his living in Tampa, Fla., for many years as a dealer of rare coins. But when his father died, Jeff sold his business and went to work putting his father's literary estate in order.

This is where the Shaara luck (the Italian name was changed by a Dutch clerk when the first Shaaras came through Ellis Island) began to change. In the past decade, since the death of his father in 1988, Jeff Shaara has gone from being a rare-coin dealer to a best-seller author and movie producer with homes in two states (New York and Montana). And he has managed to both reconcile and celebrate his father's memory and work.

"I would say the real change has come in the last two years with the publication of 'Gods and Generals' and 'The Last Full Measure,' " said Shaara in a recent phone interview.

"It took me some time to think of myself as a writer, not just a son finishing his father's story," added Shaara.

What Shaara did was continue his father's work by writing a prequel to "Killer Angels." If you want to read the father/son trilogy, you would start with "Gods and Generals," then "The Killer Angels" and then the newly released "The Last Full Measure." You would learn a tremendous amount about the Civil War, for the Shaara books (all published by Ballantine) have been praised for being historically accurate while remaining novels.

OK, it's extraordinary enough that the virtually untrained Shaara could research and write to such a high standard. But now he's also a movie producer.

Film director Ron Maxwell was a longtime friend of Michael Shaara's, who worked for years to bring "Killer Angels" to the screen. That project finally resulted in the movie "Gettysburg." It was Maxwell who approached his friend's son about writing a prequel, and that led to the trilogy and, yes, now two more movies are planned.

"We are in pre-production for 'Gods and Generals,' " said Shaara. "Filming will start in 1999." He expects to have a cameo role somewhere in the movie but doesn't know if he'll be wearing blue or gray and to him it doesn't matter. Shaara is having a great time with his multi-faceted new career but he also is serious when he says he wants people today to understand more about the Civil War and the fact that there were no good guys, no bad guys.

"Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Stonewall Jackson, these characters are not myths but men just like us, ordinary men rising to the occasion. Ordinary men doing extraordinary things in terrible times with dignity and bravery. They earned our respect," he said.

Two percent of the population or 600,000 men died in the Civil War. Today 2 percent of the population would be about 6 million. And, contrary to what's being taught in high school history classes, almost none of the ordinary soldiers thought the war was about slavery or state's rights.

"Grant was a career soldier, Jackson was fighting because God told him to, Lee was fighting for state's rights for Virginia. What my father did and what I have tried to do is explore the history, the incredible events, through the eyes of the characters to put the reader right there, to experience the sights and sounds. Beyond that, I have tried to make these characters real in a way that a history textbook cannot," said Shaara. He succeeds.

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