In 1966, when America was waging a particularly unpopular war in Vietnam, the historic battlefield at Gettysburg, Pa., wasn’t exactly a fashionable tourist destination. But sightseeing there would prove epochal for Michael Shaara, then 36, and his adolescent son, Jeff, who fondly recalls ”crawling all over the cannons.” The elder Shaara, a writer of mostly short stories, found the site similarly absorbing. Fighting a weak heart, he’d send his son creeping back into the Gettysburg brush several times over the next few years to help research a novel of key Civil War characters.
The Killer Angels would go on to initially achieve a kind of virtuous but unglamorous success, winning the 1975 Pulitzer Prize and lavish praise from military personnel. Its author died in 1988, before he could see a paperback edition of his book propelled to the top of best-seller lists by a Ted Turner movie version, 1993’s Gettysburg, starring Martin Sheen, Jeff Daniels, and Tom Berenger. Soon after, director Ron Maxwell, approached Jeff Shaara, who’d given up a rare-coin business to manage his father’s estate, about finding a writer to round out the saga. It took Shaara about a week of dithering over possible candidates before he realized that a torch was being passed to him, even though he had no previous writing experience.
Now his Gods and Generals, a prequel spanning the years leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg, is carving out smash tracks of its own (No. 12 on the New York Times best-seller list), justifying Ballantine’s million-dollar like-father, like-son wager. ”Luckily, he can write,” says Shaara’s editor Doug Grad. ”If he couldn’t, we wouldn’t have wanted to do it, despite the father connection.”
Write he did — handing over a 1,200-page monolith that Grad helped trim to 500 printed pages. Shaara, now 44, chose Ballantine over several competing houses, not only for sentimental reasons (they’d published the paperback version of The Killer Angels) but also because they assured him that if it never became a film, they wouldn’t care. That aside, is a movie in the offing? ”Probably more likely a miniseries,” Shaara says. ”Gettysburg did four days in four hours. This book covers five years.”