SHARPSBURG, Md. — As he researched the Pulitzer-prize winning novel “The Killer Angels,” did Michael Shaara identify with a particular central character, Brewer’s own Joshua L. Chamberlain?
His son, Jeff Shaara, thinks so.
On a sunny and warm Friday, Sept. 14, Shaara sat inside the American Civil War Wax Museum tent set up at Legacy Manor Farm in Sharpsburg, the same Potomac River town where the savage battle known as Antietam took place on Sept. 17, 1862. A guest speaker during the Antietam 150th anniversary re-enactment held at the farm, Shaara took a few minutes from his busy schedule to talk about his father, Gettysburg, “The Killer Angels,” and his own writing career.
A trip made to Gettysburg decades ago led Michael Shaara to start writing his best-selling novel about that July 1863 battle. However, he did not go there with book thoughts in mind.
“When we went to Gettysburg the first time, I was 12,” Jeff Shaara said. “We went as tourists. My father had no interest in history, [he] was not a historian, and we were up in that part of the country.
“I think what he said was, ‘Let’s take the kid to Gettysburg,’” Shaara recalled.
“As a kid, I was the one with all these little [toy] soldiers, and I would set up elaborate battle scenes on the floor of my bedroom. My mother would have to throw me out of the house,” he said.
Michael Shaara was not a historian. “He started out as a science fiction writer and wrote a great deal of straight fiction,” and “he had 70 short stories published” by “the modern magazines of the day,” Jeff Shaara said.
“But he understood a good story when he saw one, and walking the battlefield at Gettysburg, he recognized that was a good story,” he said.
“What he discussed with me [on that trip] was the story,” not a potential book, Shaara recalled. “I remember walking across the ground where Pickett’s Charge took place and him telling me all the things he had just learned, telling me about [Winfield Scott] Hancock and [Lewis] Armistead … because it was a discovery for him.
“What we didn’t realize was that [trip] started the obsession. It took him seven years to write ‘The Killer Angels,’” Shaara said. “Once he got into the book, he became obsessed with telling the story.”
Among the book’s main characters was Joshua Chamberlain in his role as the 20th Maine Infantry commander; that regiment’s epic stand at Little Round Top was key to the book and the subsequent “Gettysburg” movie produced by Ted Turner.
“I believe my father identified very much with Joshua Chamberlain,” Shaara said.
“If you think about the one-dimensional portrait of Chamberlain, here’s an academic who becomes a man of action,” he explained. “That’s exactly my father. He was a paratrooper, a prize fighter, a police officer, and he was also teaching creative writing and Shakespeare at Florida State. I think for that reason alone he very much identified with Chamberlain.
“At the end of the day, my father … would bristle at the term if you called him a ‘novelist.’ He was a storyteller, and the story of Chamberlain on Little Round Top is a fabulous story. He recognized that,” Shaara said.
Lacking the Internet in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Michael Shaara “literally had to track down every source,” his son said. “It might take him three or four months to find one thing, but he relied on the voices.
“He actually said that the most important thing was to feel as though he was visited by every character in the book. His research was always original resource material: diaries, memoirs, letters. Chamberlain’s own book, ‘The Passing of the Armies,’ is a magnificent book. It is poetry to read that; my father had a very old copy of it,” Shaara said.
“He stayed away from — and this is another lesson that I have taken to heart as well — modern biography, modern history, avoided anachronisms, avoided revisionism, stayed away from that stuff,” Shaara noted.
“Go back and ‘hear’ the voices” as revealed in original source materials, he explained. Michael Shaara “very much understood that was the way to do the research. That’s my template as well.”
Michael Shaara also taught his son to “walk in the [soldiers’] footsteps,” Jeff Shaara said. “Whether it’s on the battlefield at Gettysburg or whether it’s going to Brewer or Brunswick or Bowdoin College, that was a very important part of it.
“If I am going to describe a young soldier walking up a hill with a musket in his hand into the guns of the enemy, it’s really better if I’ve climbed that hill myself rather than seeing a picture of it in a book,” Shaara explained.
“The Killer Angels” earned a Pulitzer Prize and also renewed interest in the Gettysburg battlefield; “all you have to do is ask the tourism people” there, “and they’ll tell you,” Jeff Shaara said.
“When I wrote ‘Gods and Generals’ and went” to Gettysburg “in 1996 for the first time with my own book, that’s all I heard from the tourism people: ‘Your father changed the landscape of Gettysburg,’” with tourism exploding after “The Killer Angels” came out, he said.
“It’s not all Michael Shaara. Part of it is Ken Burns, certainly, and of course Ted Turner with the film ‘Gettysburg,’” Shaara said. “I think my father would have been very happy with ‘Gettysburg,’ because unlike what Hollywood usually does [with books], ‘Gettysburg’ is about 90 percent of ‘The Killer Angels’” plot.
After releasing “Gettysburg,” Ted Turner decided to do additional Civil War films. His staff contacted Jeff Shaara to propose a movie script tentatively titled “Gods and Generals.” The film would be the prequel to “Gettysburg.”
“It was always about being a movie,” Shaara said. “It was about me putting a story together [by] using my father’s kinds of research … a story that someone else would adapt for a screen play.”
Then, while Shaara was “representing my father’s estate in New York,” Random House representatives asked to see the movie manuscript. They informed Shaara, “We don’t care if it’s a movie. We like the book. We think you are a writer. Here’s a contract.’
“That changed my life,” he said. “Now I’m writer. Twelve books later, this is my career.”
Shaara soon wrote “The Last Full Measure,” which took the surviving characters of “The Killer Angels” (plus a few other famous personages) to the war’s end in Virginia. He realized that he was “walking in enormous footsteps. I knew that if my father was alive, these were his books … to write. Turner would have gone to him and said, ‘Let’s continue this story.’”
Years before “The Killer Angels” earned its Pulitzer Prize, the Shaaras made another trip to Gettysburg. The memory remains indelible in Jeff’s mind.
“I was 18, and he had already had his first heart attack,” Shaara said, referring to his father. “He was in miserable shape physically, so he couldn’t do things like climb Little Round Top. That was my job,” to do “the grunt work.
“I will always remember that visit to Gettysburg because that was the closest time between my father and me,” Shaara said.
At the Antietam re-enactment, Shaara autographed copies of his newest Civil War novel, “A Blaze of Glory.” Released last spring, the novel launches a trilogy based on the war’s western theater. “A Blaze of Glory” focuses on the April 1862 Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee; the series will continue with a Vicksburg book in 2013 and an Atlanta Campaign book in 2014.
“I can’t tell you how many people have written me from Mississippi and Tennessee and said, ‘You know, we’re kind of tired of hearing about Robert E. Lee and Virginia. There’s a whole lot of stuff that went on west of the mountains that nobody ever talks about,’” Shaara explained why he undertook the trilogy.
“Well, they’re right. So we’re doing a new trilogy because of the [Civil War] sesquicentennial, set more in the West,” he said. “It’s really nice getting those same people in Mississippi and Tennessee saying, ‘Thank you!’”
Among the new series’ characters are Confederates Albert Sidney Johnson (killed at Shiloh) and Nathan Bedford Forrest and Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. Shaara senses that the western theater is “a story most people don’t know.
“That’s part of the appeal to me, telling you a story that is historically accurate, but you really don’t know. You may know pieces of it,” he said. “That has guided me through everything I’ve done.”
Shaara has visited Maine, where Civil War fans appreciate what he and his father have accomplished in bringing the war to life. A little while ago, “I did a book-signing in Brunswick,” he recalled.
“I got a behind-the-scenes tour at the Joshua Chamberlain House” in Brunswick, Shaara said. “It was very nice to meet those people. They freely acknowledge that if it was not for ‘The Killer Angels,’ they would not have been able to raise the money to preserve the Chamberlain house.
“Now it’s a historic landmark that certainly Gen. Chamberlain deserves,” he said. “My father, I think he would be enormously gratified by that.”