by Sheri Boggs
How do you write a book for an audience that already knows how it's going to end? It's the kind of question any self-respecting writer of historical fiction needs to consider, and one that has significant ramifications for how the novel is going to unfold. A writer can write with the pomp and circumstance of hindsight. Or, a writer can take the route Jeff Shaara favors, which is to bring readers back to a specific era and put them in situations where they, and the characters themselves, have no idea what's going to happen next. In the case of his new book, Rise to Rebellion (the first of a two-part series on the American Revolution), this means taking the reader straight into the confusion of the Boston Massacre from the perspective of a cold, bored British guard. Suddenly thrust into a violent melee, the youth has no idea what greater significance this ugly street fight will have in history. In short, Shaara seeks to write history as it really happens.
"We know how it ended; we know who won, and we know all about the Declaration of Independence," says Shaara, from his home in Montana (he also has a home in New York). "But what I didn't know going into it, and what a lot of people don't know, is how much drama there is to this story, how much intrigue and suspense and pure excitement there is from a storytelling point of view. I got as excited about the Revolution as -- maybe even more so than -- the Civil War."
Shaara refers to his two novels, Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure, which both spent significant chunks of time on The New York Times Bestseller List. The two novels were written to augment his father's masterpiece Civil War novel, The Killer Angels, which, ironically, only made the bestseller list 19 years after it was first published. Although Michael Shaara won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for The Killer Angels, it was never a big success during his lifetime, and it wasn't until the 1993 film Gettysburg (based on The Killer Angels and released five years after his death) that the book gained widespread acclaim. Gettysburg did more than increase Michael Shaara's readership -- it also launched the younger Shaara's writing career. Jeff Shaara had never planned to become a writer and was in fact running a successful business when Gettysburg director Ron Maxwell approached him about continuing his father's work. With no previous experience as a writer and a healthy degree of trepidation, Shaara did just that. Critics praised both novels not only for the depth of their research but also for their display of what many have called "the Shaara gift." Jeff Shaara will be at Auntie's sharing just that next Thursday, Aug. 16.
After completing those two books and one on the Mexican-American War, Shaara felt that it was time for a change.
"I had spent enough time immersed in the Civil War and telling the stories of those characters, and I was looking for something different," he says. "Someone handed me a copy of the book of letters between John and Abigail Adams, and I started reading it and realized there's a lot more to the American Revolution than what we learn in history class. The characters fascinated me and got to me every bit as much as the characters in the Civil War."
Shaara chose four very different sets of eyes through which to view the events of the American Revolution. While three are what you would call "the usual suspects" -- George Washington, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin -- the fourth, Lieutenant General Thomas Gage, is a welcome surprise.
"I hadn't known much about Thomas Gage. I needed a British voice, and I really agonized over whose voice that would be. I thought about King George III and a few others, but the more I began to read about [Gage], the more I realized his voice was the one that needed to be heard."
Another voice that emerges in the novel is that of Abigail Adams. While her husband John would help write the Declaration of Independence and later become the second president, her powers of perception and keen appetite for knowledge would also help shape history.
"She was really about a hundred years ahead of her time," says Shaara. "She wasn't a homebody taking care of the house and kids while her husband was out changing history. She was very well educated for a woman of her day, and, in fact, Adams himself would find books for her to read. She had a voracious appetite for reading and she was not afraid to express her opinion in an age where women generally didn't express their opinions."
The book also touches on John Adams' outspoken second cousin, Samuel Adams, and his understanding of how the printing press could help the colonists win the war against Britain. "It was really the first time that someone understood the value of the written word. Samuel Adams understood the value of newspapers as a propaganda tool," he points out. "The idea of racing to London on the boats to see whose account was going to get there first was unprecedented. Even if the king's people were going to present their version, if you could beat them to the punch it would have greater impact. A lot of the American Revolution does not take place on the battlefields. It takes place in the newspaper rooms where people are writing these stories, because they have to reach the people."
Jeff Shaara reads from Rise to Rebellion at Auntie's Bookstore,
402 W. Main, on Thursday, Aug. 16, at 7:30 pm. Call: 838-0206.