Interview with Jeff Shaara, New York Times Bestselling Author (2011)

1. How much research do you complete before you feel confident enough to write in the voice of the historical figures in your novel?

Typically, I read 50-60 books for each book that I write, nearly all of them original sources (diaries, memoirs, collections of letters etc.).  Once I feel I have my cast of characters and that I’m comfortable speaking for them, then I’m ready to write.  I never write a little, then research a little.

2. A school of thought argues that historical fiction is beneficial to education because it encourages readers to research the back-story of characters, thus learn more about history. Is this at all a goal of your writing?

I didn’t start out with that goal, and I can’t really let that guide me even now.  I was astounded to hear from teachers who were using my books in their classrooms, and it made me see that I had a responsibility to “get it right.” Don’t mess around with the facts.   Even though I am now aware that students might be reading my stories, I still focus on telling that story as accurately and as completely as I can.  I never want to target a single audience or what marketing people would call a “demographic.”

3. You have written that readers argue that there are many other civil war stories to tell, but you do not have the time, or the backing, to dedicate to every Civil War story.  What makes a story worth telling for you? This question is particularly in reference to your focus on minor characters of history like Thomas Gage – why them.

There is some guidance that comes from my publisher, who insists that, for now anyway, I stick to large scale “epic stories” (thus, they rejected an idea for the War of 1812).  So, if I’m going to focus on a larger story I need to find the voices who will do that story justice.  Usually this starts with the people at the top, the commanders, those who are responsible for the decisions that change history.  That also includes those voices on the “other side,” the bad guys, if you will, whose decisions are equally as crucial.  But once I reached the 20th century in my stories, I realized that those guys at the top were no longer leading their troops into the fight, and so, I had to find voices much closer to the action.  Thus, now, in all my books, there have to be those characters who are often composites, who bring the reader (and me) right into the action.  I have found that it makes a good contrast to the meetings and command decisions taking place far in the rear, to have to character out front who must endure or accomplish what someone else has simply drawn on paper.

4. You recommend getting the “lay of the land” before one begins to write about a certain moment in history, much like an actor attempts to live with the family of a real life character they are going to portray.  Would you say that you take on the role of each of these characters in your process, that you’ve somehow “lived” through many American Civil Wars?

I do feel that way.  It’s critically important for me to walk the ground before I write any story (though sometimes that isn’t terrible practical, such as my first WW2 story which takes place mostly in Libya and Tunisia).  But seeing the ground, stepping through rocks, feeling the sand or the mud, all of that is important for me.  It makes sense to me that if I’m going to put you into the mind of a character who is charging up a hill into the guns of the enemy, it’s much better if I’ve walked (or run) up that same hill, rather than just looking at a photo in a book.  Once I feel comfortable with that part of the research, I do try to find those characters who I can relate to.  If I can’t get into someone’s head, it’s very hard to speak for them.  Ultimately, the characters you see in my books are people I feel very close to.

5. When you first decided to write the prequel and sequel to The Killer Angels, you had no previous experience in writing. How did you prepare for this new undertaking? Did you take any classes or consult any writers?

One of the first lessons my father would give to his creative writing students at Florida State was: “I can’t teach you creative writing.”   With all due respect to those who write “how-to” books on writing, I don’t believe those can produce a writer.  I didn’t talk to anyone about how to go about tackling this, but I knew that in the end, my father was most concerned about telling a good story.   I knew the kinds of research he had done to put The Killer Angels together, that he had relied on the personal rather than just the historical references.  I did the same.  But from that point on, I have no idea how the story flows from the mind to the written page.  Every writer is probably different in how they approach this, but in my case, I visualize the scene, I hear the dialog, and I just write it down.  That sounds a little strange, I know.  But I don’t understand it myself.

6. In writing Gods and Generals, how much was your father, Michael Shaara’s style in The Killer Angels an influence on your approach to the story?

His format was very important- carrying you through the time-line from different points of view, switching back and forth.  I’ve adopted that in every book I’ve done, but he was the first that I’m aware of to do that with a historical novel.  Beyond that, I made no attempt to mimic his writing style.  I don’t think anyone can do that for long- you run out of energy for it, or you spend so much time focusing on the style, that you lose the story-telling.  Many people have used the word “seamless” to describe the transition from my father’s work to my own, which I take as an amazing compliment (and also, I take it with a grain of salt.  I’m a long way from being compared to Michael Shaara).  But my sister made the observation that my father’s writing has probably influenced me more than anyone else, and in fact, I learned to type as a kid by re-typing his manuscripts (long before there were computers).

7. (In reference to Gods and Generals) As an author, was it difficult parting with your interpretations and leaving them to the mercy of director Ronald F. Maxwell?

Yes.  I will never allow that to happen in that way again.  I had no input at all into the script for the film version of Gods and Generals.  I understand that a director or screenwriter has his own idea of how the story should be told, but if you’re going to use my work, and my name, there should be more of my story included than the 10-15% or so that ended up in the movie.

8. After so many books, why do Civil War stories still demand your attention?

Three things:  My own interest in the subject.  My publisher’s interest in the subject.  And most importantly, the size of the audience for those stories.  It is a passionate audience, which I really appreciate.

9. Is there any historical figure, in or outside of American History that given the chance you would write about?

One that greatly appeals to me is Napoleon.  I hope that one day down the road, I can tell that story.

Fave FIVE:

1)   Favorite moment in history?

July 4, 1776

2)   Favorite place to write?

My own office – quiet and solitude

3)   Favorite childhood memory?

Going fishing in a boat by myself when I was six years old.  My father trusted me to run the motor, to know what to do.  And, I caught fish.  I doubt that sort of thing is done much these days.

4)   Favorite historical site?

Three: Gettysburg; The American cemetery at Omaha Beach, Normandy; and The Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor

5)   Favorite word?

Brenda

Shaara’s latest novel, The Final Storm, is available now.

 

Interview by Lynnette Repollet

 

Interview with Phil Korth (2011)

Phil Korth is a recent graduate of UCONN’s MFA program in Acting. He most recently appeared in Urinetown and Pride and Prejudice.

LRR: When did you start writing?

I really started writing in seventh grade and eighth grade.

LRR: Any particular reason?

Specifically, I had an assignment. We had read “Summer of  My German Soldier” and we had to write chapter 22 (there were 21 chapters). I did this assignment and didn’t think anything of it, I just did it, but my teacher loved it and had me read it in front of the class [laughs]. From there I started writing. And then in eighth grade I had the best teacher, and still the best teacher I have ever had. She really just believed in me.

LRR: When did acting come into the picture?

Acting came in about the same time. It came sort of by chance. My best friend at the time convinced me to sign up for Drama Club with him.

LRR: It always starts with Drama Club.

Right? [laughs]

And in fact it was because of Kelly Madison, who I had a crush on forever.  I wasn’t going to do it and he said “Kelly’s in it.” That made me do it. And Kelly is still acting too actually.

There was a fairly sizable group of us, all friends from junior high school through high school. And then we had a great  theater teacher in high school that really encouraged all of us (in Jenison, Michigan). So there is still a whole group of us who are all pursuing it professionally.

LRR: Do you have a specific acting method?

I like to work physically and to find, through rehearsal, how a character moves. I have a good time doing silly characters.

LRR: Do you prefer comedic over dramatic?

I don’t know about that. But I certainly do like being able to take on somebody who is not myself.

LRR: Do you have a specific role that you have enjoyed playing the most?

Probably one of my favorite ones, the one I always look back on, is Richard the Lionheart in The Lion in Winter. It’s such a good play and it’s such a good part. I would love to be able to do it again sometime. I did that in undergrad and I’ve learned a lot since then. But that’s a character that I always come back to that I just loved performing.

LRR: Did your experience in the Marines affect your creative process?

Absolutely. I don’t think there is a single creative thing that I do that isn’t influenced by that. I don’t know who I would be if I hadn’t done it. And the thing is, I didn’t come from a military family. I was the first person in two generations to go into the military since WWII and the first marine so my parents were kind of shocked when I told them that I wanted to enlist.

LRR: Is November specifically based off of those real life experiences?

Yeah. November is kind of a reflection of the day in November that I enlisted. You go to the Military Entrance Processing Station and you get a physical and you eventually sign your paperwork and take your oath. That was such a defining moment – that moment separates everything that came before and everything that came after. It was a tremendous amount of work and it was tough at times.  I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It was a great experience – even going over there twice.

It originated out of an assignment. We were given the first lines of another poem. So it just grew out of that. Usually my poems kind of fell out of me almost in finished form. I would write them in one sitting and make very few changes.

LRR: What is your dream role?

There are a lot of roles through high school and college that I would have loved to play but I’m too old for them now. But I always wanted to play Eugene in Brighton Beach Memoirs. It’s just such a funny play. I am far too old for him, he’s like 15. But I also always wanted to play Hally in Master Harold… and the Boys.  But he’s seventeen so I am beyond that now too.

We’ve been doing a lot of classical stuff here so I’m looking forward to getting back to more contemporary plays. I think eventually I’d like to get into film. I haven’t had much opportunity to get into that yet.

LRR: How did you end up at UCONN?

I graduated from Western Michigan University in 2007. And then I had a year when I wasn’t in school . We had a wonderful chairwoman of the theater department there who wanted to see me go to graduate school. By that point, because of the Marines, it had taken me seven years to graduate. It was five years of actual school because I double majored in acting and creative writing. So I was kind of done with school. But she funded the $100 registration fee for URTAs, so I ended up going to URTA’s and auditioned for a bunch of schools, and UCONN recruited me from there. Within those few weeks I went from being done with school to planning on coming here in the fall of 2008.

LRR: What’s next, what are your future plans?

I have no idea. I have my possessions down to as small a collection as possible and I plan on getting in the car and going. All nine of the graduate actors are going to NY to showcase scenes for agents and casting directors. So hopefully we’ll get jobs out of that.

I always figured that I’ll just keep on writing no matter where I am.

I have also not ruled out the possibility of going to school again for creative writing. I’ve always kind of felt that I am a writer first. I’m not terribly extroverted. I think that’s why I like writing. I can think through everything. So I certainly don’t imagine that I’ll ever stop writing.

FAVE FIVE

1) Favorite team?

Detroit Lions

2) Favorite movie?

The Life Aquatic. Right now. It’ll probably be something different tomorrow or in a couple of hours.

3) Favorite word?

The most recent one that I just wrote down is not a very good one but it’s Boche – a French derogatory word for the Germans. I’m writing my one foray into novel writing right now,  set during the French Resistance in WWII and I stumbled across that word on the internet. I wrote down, “Gotta make sure that you use boche.”

4) Best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?

I saw a show with Brian Cox and I got to meet him afterwards. He’s a really good Scottish actor whose had a very long career. He simply said, about us going into business here in a couple of weeks, that it’s very hard but to have faith. That was good to hear. I don’t know what else you can tell somebody. I don’t think anything worth doing is ever easy.

5) Taken from James Lipton’s set of interview questions (inspired by Bernard Pivot)  in Inside the Actors Studio.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

I think I’d want to know that everything was going to be okay down here. One of my favorite quotes is, (I think Martin Luther King said it), “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”  I think that is true. That our society and the world is always moving towards that way and it may take a long time for us all to reach it, and maybe we never do. But I think we are always moving closer and closer. It can be so rough hearing over and over the all of the terrible things that go on in the world but these struggles are leading somewhere. And people that are doing things for selfish reasons or out of cruelty will hopefully be changed or people will come to realize that that’s not the way that we have to behave. Kurt Vonnegut, probably my favorite writer of all time, says that we have to be nice to each other. That’s the only rule. And I really agree with that. So that’s what I’d want to know. That everything is going to be okay down here.