Interview with Jeff Shaara

By Gene Santoro
7/14/2009 • World War II Conversations

Jeff Shaara's next novel, out this fall, is the European finale of his World War II series. (Photo by Guy Aceto)
Jeff Shaara's next novel, out this fall, is the European finale of his World War II series. (Photo by Guy Aceto)

Characters like Kesselring—what’s he really like?—get me excited as a storyteller.

With a criminology degree and a thriving rare-coins business, Jeff Shaara didn’t plan to follow in his novelist father’s footsteps—even after Michael Shaara won a Pulitzer in 1975 for The Killer Angels. But when Michael died in 1988, Jeff decided to manage his dad’s estate. One result: two movies (Gettysburg, For Love of the Game) from Michael’s books. Another: Jeff began to write a string of bestselling novels about American conflicts from the Revolution to World War I. Still, he hesitated to tackle World War II: “What can I possibly tell people that they don’t already know?” He says his research persuaded him there was a lot beyond “Hollywood history, which is unfortunately how most people learn about it.” His first two World War II novels (The Rising Tide, The Steel Wave) deal with North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. No Less Than Victory, the European finale, appears in November.

How are your novels different from other historical fiction?
Almost all historical fiction, like The Red Badge of Courage, uses fictitious characters. My books—and this originated with my father and The Killer Angels—take you to a real event with the real people who made that history. But they have to be called fiction because I take you into the minds of the characters.

How do you do that without writing “Hollywood history”?
Research. I typically read between 50 and 70 books to write each novel. I read Eisenhower’s memoirs, Harry Butcher’s memoirs, Patton’s papers, Bradley’s memoirs, Rommel’s papers, Kesselring’s memoirs, Sir Basil Liddell Hart’s history with all those interviews, countless diaries and letters, and so forth. Characters like Kesselring—what’s he really like?—get me excited as a storyteller. I always tell writers, “If the story’s not exciting to you, why would it be exciting to anyone else?”

Where does the dialogue come from?
For World War II, unlike, say, the Revolutionary War, the wealth of material includes documented dialogue. So I’m not taking complete license. That’s why the research is so important: my first job is to get into the heads of these characters so that I’m comfortable putting words in their mouths. I’ve never had a critic say, “Eisenhower wouldn’t have said that.”

What about your GI characters?
Obviously GIs in the field say and do many things that aren’t recorded. But something amazing happened with this series that really made it work. Because I was on C-SPAN talking about starting this, people contacted my Web site. “I have my father’s diary.” “My mother saved my dad’s letters.” “Would you like to see this stuff?” Holy mackerel. I got fabulous material no one’s ever seen. A woman in Norfolk, Virginia, sent me an account of her husband in the 42nd Infantry Division, one of the guys who walked up to Dachau. This is treasure. I make full use of it to understand the GIs’ points of view.

I go through the material, pick characters who are where I need them to be to advance the story, and from four or five real GIs I create composite characters who’ll do the job. Take Jack Logan in The Rising Tide. He’s a gunner in a Stuart M3 light tank. He’s a composite, but everything that happens to him happened to a real GI.

Do you visit sites?
Oh yeah. I learned that from my father. But not just sites. I had no idea what a Stuart tank looked like, so I went to Danville, Virginia, to see and sit inside one. That was a revelation. I’m six foot one; I don’t fit. And looking at that 37mm popgun, realizing guys like Logan are going off against German Mark IVs—no wonder they’re terrified. That stuff gets my juices going. Show, don’t tell—basic journalism.

Which character most surprised you?
Rommel. He’s not a Nazi. He knows, after a while, that Hitler’s insane. He’s a magnificent commander of battlefield troops. Had he been supported the way he needed to be, history might well have been very different. One of the best things readers have said to me is, “I didn’t want to like Rommel. But I couldn’t help it.” That’s exactly how I felt.

What about Ike?
I learned what he accomplished by uniting the British and Americans into one fighting force. I don’t think there’s a commander in either army who could have made it work the way he did. He was, first and foremost, an administrator. Now, from a warrior’s point of view—from George Patton’s point of view—that’s a terrible thing to call somebody. I mean, in World War I, Patton rides into battle sitting on a tank like it’s a horse. In his whole career, Eisenhower never leads troops in the field. But he understands the big picture.

How does that make him unique?
He’s very good at sublimating his ego, because he’s surrounded by egos: Churchill, Montgomery, Brooke, Patton, all the way down the list. He’s got his eye on the prize. Most of them have their eyes on their own prizes.

Like Monty?
Oh God. He takes full credit for everything that happens, or tries to. The Brits, like Arthur Tedder and Churchill, have no use for him. By the end even Brooke, his champion, is fed up.

Why doesn’t Ike discipline or fire him?
He understands the British are whipped. Their loss of frontline officers is so catastrophic they’re shrinking their army. So they need a hero, that guy in the newspaper, even though he rankles the Americans—like when he takes credit for winning the Battle of the Bulge. Eisenhower hits the ceiling; Patton wants to kill him. But Ike realizes we need the British and the British need this morale boost, so he does nothing about it. To me, that’s why Ike is the man who won the war.

How do you show, not tell, about Ike’s character?
By using the little moments in history. In the third book, Eisenhower’s sitting in his office while the surrender ceremony’s happening outside. He doesn’t even participate until it’s over and they bring Jodl in to see him. What kind of ego, or lack of ego, would allow a man to do that and not take center stage?

Why does Gen. James Gavin get such a key role?
He has very little patience for ignorance and stupidity, and he’s a pivotal character who changes history. Airborne troops are crucial from North Africa on. So we see Gavin through the eyes of a composite character, Jesse Adams, a no-nonsense NCO who screams and knocks people around to get them to do the job.

How does that work?
To Jesse, Gavin is very different from the idiot officers he has to deal with regularly. He’s on the front line as bullets whiz by and gives orders that actually get things done. The way Gavin includes Adams in big scenes, like with Ridgway or the British, lets me show you that firsthand. And Gavin embodies GI gallows humor. He’ll gripe about his superiors—you know, “The right way, the wrong way, and the Ridgway”—then hand Adams a coffee cup and say, “Last guy that drank outta that was a general, so maybe you’d better wash it out.”

Describe Patton.
He can be funny in a very profane, brutal sort of way. He hates Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe comics because they portray the GI as a slob. But when he meets Mauldin, he realizes the guy has a Purple Heart and has a real tough time busting the chops of a wounded veteran, so he has to swallow that he hates Willie and Joe. Next scene, he’s standing on a tank at Buchenwald ordering the local townspeople to be marched through the camp. Some, like the local mayor, go home and commit suicide. It’s a horrific scene, but Patton is thrilled, because he thinks it’s an appropriate response.

How do you hope readers react?
I love to hear that wonderful little phrase, “I didn’t know that.”

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