It was the mid 1980’s and I was at a writers’ conference in St. Petersburg, Florida. Between lectures I wandered into the coffee shop. A nice looking stranger was sitting by himself at a table in the corner. I remembered him from some of the breakout groups. His demeanor drew me to him. I smiled, plopped myself down and started to chat.
His name was Michael Shaara and he turned out to be a sweet, sad man. I would discover he had won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1975. He was the author of The Killer Angels, a historical novel that tells the story of four days of the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War. It’s an incredible book told primarily from the perspectives of the commanders of the two armies. It was one of the largest battles in the history of North America. Shaara used the setting to relate the causes of the Civil War and the motivations that led brother to fight against brother.
We talked that afternoon as two friends might. Mostly, I listened and he described how painfully difficult it was to be a writer, a life of frustration and disappointment. He taught English, literature and creative writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee. He told me how he struggled to help support his family. The Killer Angels had been rejected by the first fifteen publishers. That was a lot of rejection in those days. Finally, in 1973, it was bought by a small independent publisher, The David McKay Company. They were later acquired by Random House.
The Killer Angels never enjoyed commercial success despite winning the Pulitzer. It seemed there was little interest in a personalized story of one of our nation’s most tragic chapters. Now, the book is considered by many to be the best Civil War novel ever written. It was the basis for the film, “Gettysburg.”
Shaara started his career writing short stories. His first novel, The Broken Place was published by New American Library. It was a commercial disappointment. Michael’s drive to write continued. He would teach during the day and write late into the night. He said he lived on coffee and cigarettes throughout the writing of The Killer Angels. He suffered a major heart attack at the age of 36. And still he drove himself on to write.
Later that day, I bought a copy of The Herald, Michael’s third and final novel* I asked him to smile just before he autographed my copy of The Herald. He couldn’t bring himself to do it, but under his signature he drew a little cartoon of himself… with a smile. He died a few years later from a second heart attack or perhaps a broken heart. He paid his dues but never reaped the rewards.
PS: Michael’s son, Jeff Shaara, is the successful author of historical fiction, most notably by adding a prequel, Gods and Generals and a sequel, The Last Full Measure to The Killer Angels.
*Jeff Shaara finally got Michael’s last manuscript published. For Love of the Game, was in print three years after Michael death. Today there is a Michael Shaara Award for Excellence in Civil War Fiction, established by Jeff Shaara, awarded yearly at Gettysburg College.
As Seen on History Channel:
A Dramatic Biography on the Author of The Killer Angels
This video traces the highlights of Shaara’s dramatic and multifaceted life, from his promising youth in Jersey City to his stints as a paratrooper, amateur boxer, policeman and teacher…from the triumph of winning the Pulitzer Prize to the tragedy of a motor cycle accident that left him brain damaged until his untimely death in 1988. This documentary offers insights into the man who brought the Battle of Gettysburg to life for millions of readers. This program is must viewing for anyone who is a Civil War buff, a reader of classic literature or a lover of American family sagas.