Jeff Shaara on Why the Civil War Still Resonates

Author Jeff Shaara, the author of 11 novels about the Civil War, World War II and other historical conflicts, launched a mail-order business selling rare coins and precious metals when he was only 16. It wasn't until after the 1988 death of his father, Michael, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War novel "The Killer Angels," that Jeff Shaara began writing.

In 1996, he published "Gods and Generals," a prequel to his father's work, and has been writing stories about wartime ever since. "A Blaze of Glory," published this year, tells the story of the Battle of Shiloh, fought in Tennessee in 1862.

Here are excerpts of his recent conversation with reporter Sue McAllister:

Q Do you think of yourself as a war writer?

A I don't write war books, I write people books. When people call me a novelist, I hate that word. I'm a storyteller. My father was a master storyteller, and that's the lesson I learned from him: just tell a good story. I never think about the audience; I'm just trying to go back to an era. And I'm excited about the characters, I'm excited to be there, and I tell you what I see and


Q How do you complete your research?

A The key in the research is finding who the voices are going to be. (That) involves reading a lot of letters, a lot of diaries and creating what amounts to a composite character. ... It's enormously fun to find a heroic character and bring him to life.

I do all the research first; I can't go back and forth from research to writing. I read probably 40 to 50 books for every book I write. And I make enormous use of the Internet to find this material; there are rare, out-of-print used book sites where you can find amazing stuff. (And) people will write me and say, "We have my great-great-grandfather's letters here in the attic. Would you like to see them?" Some of those are useful and some not.

The other essential part of the research is to go walk the ground. I've spent a lot of time in every field I've written about, with the exception of Libya.

Q Why do the stories of the Civil War have such enduring appeal?

A There are people in this country who have ancestry who fought in the war, so there is a familial interest in the war. I meet these people all the time. If you think about the Civil War, it was unique: It was not fought over religion or territory; it was fought over an idea, over philosophy. Civil wars are not unique; they're going on today ... but ours resonates in a way that a war for land or for booty does not.

Q You're very involved in efforts to preserve historic battlefields. Which battlefields do you personally find most significant?

A Omaha Beach and Normandy. Every American, if they have the opportunity, should go there, to the American Cemetery. It's enormously moving. Certainly Shiloh is one, and the more obvious one is Gettysburg.

Q What do you think of Civil War re-enactment buffs?

A I have enormous respect for those people. What I admire is their passion for getting it right. Some of them are walking in the footsteps of their ancestors; good for them. I admire the passion they bring to the subject matter and, believe me, they know their business.

Q Ever participated in a re-enactment yourself?

A I was in uniform during the filming of"Gods and Generals" because I was in the movie, but don't blink or you'll miss me. Generally (during re-enactment events) I am signing books.

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