By SARAH CHAIN
Daily Record/Sunday News
Jeff Shaara had no plans to become a writer. As he watched his father, Michael, go through six agents and struggle for success, Jeff turned instead to business.
It wasn’t until 1993 — five years after Michael’s death — that Jeff saw his father’s work achieve critical acclaim. The film “Gettysburg,” based on Michael’s novel “The Killer Angels,” propelled the book to the top of the best-seller lists.
“It seems odd now looking at the success of ‘Killer Angels,’ but (my father) never saw that,” Shaara said. “The only reason his book found an audience was on the strength of ‘Gettysburg.’”
The movie studio, Turner Pictures, wanted to duplicate the film’s success. So, they asked Shaara to pick up where his father had left off.
“I had no clue how to write a book,” Shaara said. “But I was not afraid, because there were no expectations. It was always for someone to adapt for a screenplay. If whatever I come up with is no good, it’ll go in the garbage.”
Shaara followed his father’s process, researching Civil War-era diaries, memoirs and letters to recreate the voices of 19th-century soldiers and civilians. When he finished, he sent the manuscript for “Gods and Generals” — intended to serve as a prequel to “The Killer Angels” — to Random House.
“The phone call I got back was ‘We don’t care if it’s a movie, we like the book. We think you’re a writer, here’s a contract,’” Shaara said. “That changed my whole life.”
Shaara dove into a 59-city, four-month book tour in 1996 before writing “The Last Full Measure,” a sequel to his father’s novel and the final book in the trilogy.
Since then, Shaara, 61, has written 10 novels — covering the Civil War, Revolutionary War, the Mexican War, World War I and World War II — and one Civil War battlefield guide.
But it’s not the blood and guts that draw him, Shaara said.
“They’re not testosterone stories,” he said. “It’s always about the people… how do people rise to the occasion?”
Overall, Shaara said he’s been surprised by the reaction to his novels — especially his first.
“I was dazzled by it, awestruck by what was happening to me,” he said. “My father had earned this, and it’s like the award was coming to me.”
Shaara will speak about his relationship with his father in Gettysburg on Saturday, June 15, at a luncheon as part of the Gettysburg Festival.
“With the 150th anniversary (of the Battle of Gettysburg), the interest is at an all-time high,” said Randy Prasse, executive director of the Gettysburg Festival. “But what (Shaara) is doing here with us is one of a kind, talking about the influence his father had on his writing style.”
York-area readers also have a chance to hear Shaara speak as part of the York County Heritage Trust’s Distinguished Speaker Series June 27. Tickets were virtually sold out for the dinner as of late May, and the trust had begun a waiting list.
“We’re happy that the response has been so amazing,” said Melanie Hady, director of marketing and public relations.
Attendees can expect a casual feel to both his speaking engagements, Shaara said, and he aims to interest everyone from Southern males to teenage girls.
“I’m not the academic historian,” he said. “Anybody who comes to hear me speak is not going to get a lecture.”
What: “History Through Storytelling: Jeff Shaara’s Journey Through the Legacy of His Father”
When: 11:30 a.m. Saturday, June 15
Where: Adams County Ag & Natural Resource Center, 670 Old Harrisburg Road, Cumberland Township, Adams County
Details: Tickets are $40 and include lunch. To purchase, visit www.gettysburgfestival.org.
What: A dinner and reception with Jeff Shaara, part of the York County Heritage Trust Distinguished Speaker series
When: 8 p.m. June 27
Where: The Country Club of York, 1400 Country Club Road, Spring Garden Township
Details: Tickets are $125 and include dinner; a waiting list has been created. Call 717-848-1587 for details.
For students: High school and college students in the York area are invited to hear Shaara speak from 4 to 5 p.m. June 27 at the Heritage Trust Historical Society Museum, 250 E. Market St., York. The talk is free; email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 717-848-1587, ext. 301, to reserve a spot.
Everything associated with Gettysburg’s 150th anniversary — events calendar, news, photo galleries and more — is at www.ydr.com/gettysburg150. Check it out. The Gettysburg 150 iPad app is also now available, with maps, hidden gems of the battlefield, quizzes, re-enactors’ camp life, regional Civil War sites to visit and much more. Search “Gettysburg 150 facts” in the Apple app store.