Bestselling Author Speaks to Audience of 325 at Christopher Newport University
Article and photos by Karen L. Gill/Newport News Public Library System
NEWPORT NEWS, VA – Jeff Shaara hears the voices of historical characters such as Benjamin Franklin, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. But not, the bestselling author clarifies, in a schizophrenic way, but rather through extensive research.
Shaara, author of historical and military fiction and the descendant of Italian immigrants, made full use of the stage in the Grand Ballroom of the David Student Union at Christopher Newport University on Oct. 17 with an animated discussion of his work for an audience of 325.
Shaara said his research includes walking the grounds of historical locations and reading 40 to 60 books, memoirs, diaries and letters in order to “hear” the characters’ voices and write dialogue.
“I had better believe those words are authentic to the historical character,” he said. “I have to feel like I know them, that I’m in the room and I’m letting you know what I hear.”
The author talk and book signing was presented free to the public by the Virginia Peninsula Literary Consortium, consisting of the public libraries of Newport News, Hampton, Poquoson and York County and the academic libraries of CNU, Hampton University and Thomas Nelson Community College.
Shaara’s father, Michael Shaara, wrote the “The Killer Angels,” a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1975 that didn’t become a commercial success until the film “Gettysburg,” based upon the book, was released in 1993.
“My father took you to Gettysburg and told you that story the way the people there would have told you,” Shaara told the audience. “I have yet to hear of a kid taking a copy of a high school history textbook on spring break to Daytona Beach. But they will take ‘Killer Angels’,” he said.
“That’s the bar I’m trying to reach – being a storyteller.”
Shaara continued his deceased father’s work by writing a prequel to “The Killer Angels” in 1996. That award-winning work, “Gods and Generals,” was adapted into a film, and he wrote the sequel, “The Last Full Measure,” in 1998.
After those bestsellers, he completed another Civil War novel, two novels set during the American Revolution, a World War I novel, one nonfiction book and a number of novels about World War II. His latest book, “A Chain of Thunder,” focuses on the campaigns around Vicksburg and was released in May 2013 as the second of a four-part Civil War series.
Working on a one-year turnaround time for his books, Shaara said he usually spends about six months researching and five months writing.
“I do all of my own research, and it’s full-time,” he said. “I can’t send some kid to find out about Benjamin Franklin. I can’t rely on them telling me what he said; I have to hear it myself.”
Sharing historical anecdotes with the audience, Shaara said he loves to find quirky details that he can include in his books.
“You know the names; you know the dates,” he said, “but it makes it fun when you talk about the stories that no one knows. I get to write the scene of the first time Lee hears a musket ball whiz by his ear – to tell that story, that’s cool stuff.”
Shaara explained that when writing about historical characters, no permissions are required and older works are in the public domain because the copyrights have expired. He bases minor characters on composites of various real-life people, but doesn’t quote from the diaries of those lower-ranking soldiers, or “grunts,” he explained.
He said his next project will explore the War for Texas Independence, again focusing on lesser-known stories and people rather than the Alamo, he said, and his future plans include the Korean War.
“I will NOT be doing Vietnam, because I don’t want to get in the politics of it,” he said. “I want to get in with the grunts.”
But there are no plans for any more films based on any of his works. “I’m in the book business; I’m not in the movie business,” he said.
He described the making of “Gods and Generals” as a painful lesson. “In Hollywood, the author’s job is to stay out of the way,” he said.
But in 1999, the film “For Love of the Game” was released, based on a baseball story written by his father that he and his mother found as a typewritten manuscript following Michael Shaara’s death in 1988.
“For the second time, I sat with my mother at the premiere and saw the credits say ‘based on the novel by Michael Shaara’ that my father didn’t get to see,” he said.
“I am up here only because I am walking in enormous footsteps.”
Shaara remained on stage following his talk to answer questions from the audience and sign books for a long line of fans, including Scott Luers from Yorktown, whose father assigned his high school history students to read “The Killer Angels.”
“It was fascinating to get into his head a little and hear about his philosophy of his books,” Luers said.
The Shaara author talk and book signing was the seventh free author event sponsored by the Virginia Peninsula Literary Consortium, which presented the best-selling authors Amy Tan in 2007, Walter Mosley in 2008, David Baldacci in 2009, Orson Scott Card in 2010, Catherine Coulter in 2011 and Nikki Giovanni in 2012. The Consortium formed in 2006 to encourage the study and enjoyment of books and to foster cooperation among all types of libraries on the Peninsula.
The event also was supported by a grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and donations from library friends groups, library and educational foundations and other local businesses and organizations.
For more information, please call 757-926-1350 or visit www.thevplc.org. To keep up-to-date on Consortium author events, sign up for the emailed newsletter at www.thevplc.org or “like” the Consortium’s Facebook page.
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