Author of 'Gods and Generals' likes to tell people things they don't know

September 15, 2012|By ALICIA NOTARIANNI |
  • New York Times bestselling author, Jeff Shaara signs copies of his books at the Antietam 150th Anniversary re-enactment site Saturday.
By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer

Jeff Shaara likes to tell people things they don’t know.

And he has found a way to make quite a lucrative living doing so.

The author of eight New York Times best-selling historical novels spoke of his passion for sharing unknown stories Saturday at the 150th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of Antietam. A crowd of about 400 people overflowed a tent at the re-enactment site off Bakersville Road.

“I like it when people read my books and say, ‘I didn’t know that.’ They’ve heard of it, but they don’t know the story,” he said. “It makes me think, ‘What can I do now that we don’t know?’”

Shaara’s “Gods and Generals” and “The Last Full Measure” are the respective prequel and sequel to his father Michael Shaara’s award-winning novel “The Killer Angels,” which tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg. Jeff Shaara’s other works document various American wars, including the Revolutionary War and World Wars I and II.

Most Americans get their history from Hollywood, Shaara said. He is appalled by people he meets who think the Red Baron, a World War I fighter pilot, was just a cartoon character.

“I want to give a German voice to that man who shot down 80 enemy planes,” he said. “I want people to see it through his eyes.”

Most people don’t know that Benjamin Franklin was a laugh-out-loud funny guy who “literally seduced King Louie into bailing us out” of the Revolutionary War, he said.

“The British Army was the finest in the world,” Shaara said. “We would have lost if not for the French.”

Shaara published his first Civil War novels in the late 1990s, focusing mainly on events that happened east of the Appalachian Mountains. After writing about other wars, he returned his focus to work on a Civil War trilogy with emphasis on the Western Theater. “A Blaze of Glory: A Novel of the Battle of Shiloh” recently was released, highlighting events in Tennessee. Stories of battles in Vicksburg, Mississippi and Sherman’s March through Georgia are slated to follow in the subsequent two years.

“I was getting letters from people in Tennessee and Mississippi saying, ‘What about us?’” Shaara said. “Vicksburg happened at the same time as Gettysburg, so you don’t hear about it.”

Richard Coppula, 60, of Lancaster, Pa., attended the lecture, then stood in line to have his Shaara books signed.

“(Shaara) writes with a style that seems to bring the battles actually to life. He brings up tidbits that are unique to those battles and the people who were in them,” he said.

Jere Broh-Kah, 79, of Bethesda, Md., said he reads numerous historical texts. The difference between traditional texts and Shaara’s more personalized accounts is “night and day,” he said.

Sarah Fredell of Stafford, Va., said the unique points of view from each main character set Shaara’s books apart.

“He gives really good voice to each of characters from that period,” she said.

Shaara said he identifies himself as a storyteller. He wants his books to have appeal because he has identified and told good, accurate stories.

“Historical fiction can be whatever you want it to be. You can put Robert E. Lee in dreadlocks if you want to,” he said. “But teachers have told me they are using my books in the classroom. That is an enormous responsibility.”

What makes his book novels, by definition, he said, is the dialogue.

“The words must be authentic to the character. They are not 100 percent the words that were said, but they could have been said,” Shaara said. “My job is to take you there with me and fill in the blanks.”

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