Long before he penned more than a dozen New York Times bestselling novels, Jeff Shaara had “no incentive” to be an author.
But it was his father’s unsuccessful writing career — and posthumous fame — that laid the foundation for Shaara’s unprecedented success.
Shaara will join eight other featured authors at this year’s West Virginia Book Festival at the Charleston Civic Center. He will speak at 1 p.m. Saturday, with a book signing to follow.
His father, Michael Shaara, was known for writing “The Killer Angels,” a fictional novel about the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. While the book won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1975, it wasn’t until 1993 — five years after Michael’s death — that “Gettysburg,” its film adaptation, was released.
“It made the book a number-one bestseller,” Shaara said in a phone interview. But when the film’s executive producer approached Shaara about writing a prequel and sequel to “The Killer Angels,” he was more than a little apprehensive, having no fiction writing experience. As time passed, the prospect grew more appealing. “One lesson [from my father] that I carried into all of this was to tell a good story,” Shaara said. “A good story is someone facing the most catastrophic crisis of his life — that’s what war is.”
So he took on the challenge, first with “Gods and Generals,” the prequel to “The Killer Angels,” and “The Last Full Measure,” its sequel. Both were instant bestsellers, and Random House Publishing offered Shaara a contract to write more historical fiction novels on early America and its military conflicts.
“I began to feel more professional and confident the more I wrote ... but it didn’t start out that way,” Shaara said.
Fourteen books and nearly two decades after his career took off, he’s portrayed everyone from Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee to Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton. Despite covering some of the same characters his father did in “The Killer Angels,” Shaara did feel “bound to carbon copy” his father’s depiction of them.
“It was interesting to discover that my father had a different take on some of these [characters],” he said. In fact, the best compliment Shaara said he’s ever gotten on his first two books was how seamlessly they fit into either side of “The Killer Angels.”
When he published his first novel that steered away from the Civil War, “Gone For Soldiers,” someone told Shaara he was out from under his father’s shadow, but Shaara doesn’t see it that way,
“I never thought of it as a shadow — I thought of it as a positive thing,” he said.
Today, he’s working on his 16th novel, this one about the Korean War, though he hopes to write a book on the Vietnam War as well.
It’s no surprise then, that Shaara is the only two-time recipient of the American Library Association’s “William Young Boyd Award” for Excellence in Military Fiction.
For more information on the West Virginia Book Festival, and a complete schedule of events, visit http://www.wvbookfestival.org.
Reach Elaina Sauber at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-3051 or follow @ElainaSauber on Twitter.