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Interview: May 16, 2008

May 16, 2008

THE STEEL WAVE is the second installment in Jeff Shaara's historical fiction trilogy centered on the European Theater of World War II.

In this interview with's Stephen Hubbard, Shaara discusses some of the surprising firsthand accounts he had encountered while researching this novel and explains how it offers new material on a subject that has been covered many times previously in other books and films. He also singles out one particular lesser-known character who he hopes will gain more recognition as a result of his work, and comments on the current trend in historical writing to soil the images of previously respected historical figures, as well as increasing negative attitudes toward members of the armed forces. On your website, you mention receiving documents and diaries from veterans and their families. How important was this treasure trove to your work on THE STEEL WAVE?

Jeff Shaara: In every book I’ve done, the original documents (diaries, letters, memoirs) are the most essential part of my research. With World War II, there are so many more materials available that were impossible to find for the American Revolution, for example.

BRC: Was there any story or accounting you found in those personal collections that fascinated you or that led your writing of THE STEEL WAVE into an area you might not have gone otherwise?

JS: German Field Marshal Rommel’s papers were a key to my research, which I did not expect. He is brutally honest in his evaluation of Hitler and in the failure of his own army (especially his generals and himself). That was a real surprise, and it helped considerably in writing from his point of view.

BRC: You've often stated that first-hand accounts are essential for you to get into the heads of the historical figures in your work. In going through the diaries and letters during your research for THE STEEL WAVE, is there any one person who just impressed you or whose words may have changed your opinion of them, for better or worse?

JS: As I mention above, I was very surprised by Rommel. I did not expect to like the man (and I’ve heard from numerous readers of THE RISING TIDE who say the same thing). Much of what I knew of Montgomery and Patton was pretty well borne out by my research --- neither one is a very nice man, though both are exceptional battlefield commanders (Patton probably more so). I was very surprised by Eisenhower, by all that he went through trying to manage the extraordinary challenge of assembling a massive Allied army from two entirely separate military cultures and personalities (the Americans and British).

BRC: Can you discuss the responsibility that comes with taking actual historical figures like Eisenhower, Patton or Rommel and using them as main characters but still remaining true to the history?

JS: I am painstakingly careful to “get it right” when it comes to historical characters, especially iconic figures such as Churchill, Eisenhower, etc. It’s a very risky thing to put words in the mouths of these kinds of historical figures (as it was working with George Washington, Ben Franklin, Robert E. Lee, etc). The challenge is to get into the heads of these people, to feel I know them personally. If I don’t reach that level of intimacy, I can’t possibly speak for them. And, if I don’t believe that the dialogue or the inner thoughts are accurate, I promise you, the reader won’t either.

BRC: Since the release of THE RISING TIDE, Ken Burns brought us the documentary "The War" and showed us the personal experiences at home and on the front. Did you examine "The War" at all? If so, did it aid your work on THE STEEL WAVE in any way, or was it released after the book was finished?

JS: Ken Burns’s work was released after most of my own work was completed. In any event, I would not have relied on his research. I try to avoid riding on the back of another historian or historical researcher. I would much rather dig into these people myself and make my own discoveries.

BRC: THE STEEL WAVE, like its predecessors, is a stunning piece of work. You must enjoy writing these books or else you would stop. Are their frustrations you've experienced in trying to bring these stories to the page, or is this writing experience just invigorating?

JS: I am extremely fortunate that I have never suffered from what most writers know as “writer’s block.” My father suffered horribly, staring for months at a blank piece of paper, with no inspiration coming to him. I have never “struggled” to tell any of my stories. Once the research has been completed, I tend to be pretty excited about the story, as well as the people in it. Often, my greatest challenge is not to write too much --- too many pages of manuscript. I have to rein myself in from trying to tell too much of the story (something my editor reminds me of constantly). I am extremely fortunate to be doing what I’m doing --- I can’t imagine not enjoying writing, or telling these stories.

BRC: Given the power of hindsight, during your research for THE STEEL WAVE, was there any shortcoming on the part of either the Axis or the Allied forces that left you shaking your head?

JS: Mistakes are common in war, and both sides make them. In THE STEEL WAVE, as in every story I’ve done, I am constantly amazed how history turns on a single event, how entire battles (or wars) can be altered by someone’s idiotic mistake, or stroke of genius. I doubt it has ever been any different throughout history.

BRC: In discussing your series on the American Revolution you once referred to Nathaniel Greene as the Stonewall Jackson of the Revolution, yet he is relatively unknown. Is there a little-known figure in THE STEEL WAVE you feel more people should know about?

JS: The one figure that I hope shines through is paratroop commander James Gavin. His control of a desperate situation in the countryside behind the beaches quite possibly turned the tide of the campaign. I try to take you close to Gavin throughout the story, as told by Sgt. Jesse Adams of the 82nd Airborne. Most of the primary characters are pretty well known, and Gavin is certainly not unknown, especially to military historians. But the general public likely has not heard of him.

BRC: In THE STEEL WAVE, you take us to D-Day and the invasion of Normandy. It would be near impossible not to include this event, yet it is an oft-told moment in both books and films. How did you approach the writing of that chapter of history in order to set it apart and make it unique and fresh for your story, and not just another D-Day recounting? Was there anything new that you uncovered in your research of that event that you used?

JS: I was very apprehensive doing a book that covered the same ground that has been done so many times before. That is the primary reason I focused so much of my point of view on the paratroop sergeant, Jesse Adams. I do take you across Omaha beach, but only with a character you see for a couple of chapters. I couldn’t ignore that part of the campaign --- that would have been ridiculous. But to focus a hundred pages of the book on the same scene that was done so well in Saving Private Ryan or The Longest Day would not have given the reader any surprises. Instead, I take you across Omaha beach with a man who faces his own surprise, and it’s not pretty. I tell his story, as one GI, rather than using him to tell the history of Omaha Beach. To me, the story inland --- what happens to the paratroopers --- is a major surprise and is something most people have no concept of. That was fun.

BRC: You obviously can't write about everything when doing these books. Was there any story or event you loved that you had to keep out of THE STEEL WAVE simply due to time/space issues or an inability to fold it into the main story?

JS: I love Winston Churchill and would love to have included more of him. The same is true for Patton. Both are in the story, just not as often as I would have liked. But both will return in the next book, Patton especially. There are always stories I can’t include, and in the case of the paratroopers, there was so much more I could have written about, so many incidents --- some funny, some tragic. But, at the end of the day, I have to tell a good story and not try to tell ALL the good stories.

BRC: Thomas Paine and Phil Sheridan were previous figures you said you just couldn't get into the heads of, so they were ultimately left out. Was there anyone left out of THE STEEL WAVE because you just couldn't find a touchpoint for them?

JS: Not really. Montgomery is difficult, Hitler would be impossible, but I was able to portray both men through the eyes of someone else close to them. That challenge will come again in the next book, which will focus somewhat on the fall of Hitler, the final days.

BRC: Paratrooper Jesse Adams has his hands full in THE STEEL WAVE. As the fictional everyman, are his experiences purely fictional within the historical frame, or are they based on a combined collection of researched memoirs?

JS: Every event that occurs to Sgt. Adams is real. It happened. Adams is a composite, though he represents the real experiences (and memoirs) of several men. I never fudge history or create a scene that just isn’t plausible. Some of the events are shocking, some are (surprisingly) funny. My job is to create a storyline that makes sense, that flows well, and that engages the reader. Fortunately for me, there is so much good material, and the events as they happened are so appealing for the drama and the humor. (If you don’t have humor in a story such as this, the reader would simply get numb to page after page of trauma and horror. That’s a mistake that some filmmakers make. They bomb the audience with horrific special effects, as a substitute for telling a good story. It rarely works).

BRC: What do you make of the present trend in historical writing whereby historians seek to tear down once revered icons of our past or retell the history as more of a negative critique of events?

JS: Despite what most academic historians tell you, they are a product of their cultural environment. An historian’s job, in my opinion, is to tell us what happened --- just the facts. But inevitably, the desire to publish something “new” and “fresh” (I hate that word) results in a different take on a character. There are numerous grotesque examples, Ben Franklin being one. Hollywood thinks the audience would rather see him just as a “dirty old man.” In fact, Franklin changed the history of the world by what he accomplished in Paris with King Louis XVI. That's a great story, and one that I try to tell in THE GLORIOUS CAUSE. But modern historians would rather go for the salacious, the titillating, because they believe that’s what the audience expects.

One particular issue in the WWII series is Eisenhower’s relationship with his driver, Kay Summersby. It has long been speculated that they had an ongoing affair, but the only reference I ran across came from Patton, and all he says is that Summersby was present at various dinners, etc. Eisenhower had political enemies, and certainly this is the sort of thing they would emphasize. But --- whether or not the affair occurred --- it has nothing to do with the story I’m trying to tell. I’m not “covering up” some aspect of Ike’s personality, or choosing to gloss over some flaw. It just isn’t relevant to my own story. But many historians today would rather look at the presumed affair first and leave the rest of Eisenhower’s amazing accomplishments as a footnote. I hate that.

I think the tendency to focus on the negative in our “heroes” came during the 1970s, with the bitterness over the Vietnam War. Hollywood reflects this in the way the military was portrayed. Films such as Platoon, Apocalypse Now and Coming Home change the way the audience is supposed to view soldiers. I despise the movie American Beauty, because it uses the cliché of the Marine colonel as the obvious lunatic, as though any man who would be a Marine must be nuts. That kind of take reflects some people’s cynicism with our government and our military. It has no place in any of my stories.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

JS: I am now in the midst of researching the third of the WWII trilogy, which will cover the Battle of the Bulge and the fall of Hitler. I hope to be writing that manuscript by this fall, and the book will be completed (again, I hope) so that it can be released fall of 2009. No title yet (it’s too soon).