Lila Shaara Considers Her “Heavy Name”

When you think Shaara, you probably think of the Civil War—Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, maybe his son Jeff’s Gods and Generals (though he’s written several other historical novels set in other American conflicts). Lila Shaara is about to change your mind with her debut psychological thriller, Every Secret Thing. And in a special essay for Beatrice readers, she explains why the Shaara literary legacy isn’t as cut-and-dry as you might think for her.

lila-shaara.jpgBefore the manuscript of Every Secret Thing ever saw an editor’s desk, I gave it to a friend whose opinion I value. She said she liked it, adding, “But you’ve got a heavy name.” Believe it or not, this had not occurred to me. The truth is, I don’t feel as though I came from “a writing family.” The phrase brings to my mind a large group around a fireplace, all happily scribbling on parchment and eagerly showing each other their finished work. But in our house, my father alone was The Writer.

He also taught for many years at Florida State University. He loved teaching, and was great at it. Because of that, he taught all the time, and so I learned as much as I possibly could about story-telling from him (e.g. never use the phrase “naked bulb” for a bare light, and there are three main ways to start a story: introduction of a character, something happening, or atmosphere). But since it was clear that in our house there was only one writer, the short stories, poems, songs (a lot of sea shanties, for some reason) that I wrote as a child were not for public, or even family, consumption. When I left home for college and beyond, I joined a band and for many years wrote the angriest and most emotional songs I could. I got better at it, went to school far longer than any sane person should, and did a lot of academic writing as well as music. But I stayed away from fiction.

Writing killed my father. When brain damage from a motorcycle accident left him unable to do it as well as he’d done it before, it killed him faster. He never sold enough books while he was alive to make a living. By some measures, he was very successful in that he published most of what he wrote while he was alive, but the publisher of his first novel (New American Library) folded after printing only 3,000 copies of The Broken Place in 1968. It wasn’t reprinted until long after The Killer Angels won the Pulitzer, and then only because McGraw-Hill wanted another historical novel, this one about William Shakespeare. It was never finished, in part because my father heartily resented being told to produce something for commercial reasons, even though he desperately wanted commercial along with critical success. The Killer Angels itself was rejected by twelve publishers before it found a home. The year he won the Pulitzer Prize, Time only listed my father’s name in a footnote to an article called “The Quiet Pulitzer.” He got a phone call, a plaque and a check for a thousand dollars. That was it. After he died, the university where he’d taught for fifteen years wasn’t even interested in his papers; few people in the English department there knew who he was.

My father hated publishers, agents, New York City, and most of all, being pushed into genres. Yet he longed for validation, vindication, and an audience. He had great hopes of the Pulitzer Prize bringing him these, but even that accolade was as understated as such an honor can be. The Killer Angels is now considered a classic of its kind, but most of the attention my father has gotten has been posthumous; almost all of his other works, some of them arguably superior to his most famous book, are out of print.

I grew up seeing writing as something that gripped you in poisoned talons, gave you little or nothing back, drove you to addiction and depression, and killed you young. And so I avoided writing fiction for as long as I possibly could. When I couldn’t hold it back any longer, it came out in great gushes. And so I’ve become, for better or worse, a writer. I have two great advantages that my father didn’t have; his heavy name, and his example. I’m doing everything that I can to see that it doesn’t kill me; my kids are still young and need a mother. They are already producing plays, books, songs and poems by the bucketful. They come from a writing family.

15 August 2006 | guest authors |

Interview Roundup

  • In Nextbook, Nelly Reifler interviews Lee Greenfeld about coming to terms with mortality when you’re an atheist. Elsewhere on the site, A.B. Yehoshua weighs in on the Israeli/Lebanese conflict and turns on his interviewer for invoking the Talmud:

    “You think people read the Talmud? People know what the Talmud says? Where in the Talmud does it talk about bombing with airplanes or not? And what if the Talmud does say it’s okay to kill the Christians. And I decide I don’t want to kill them. I am building my identity, in a moral way. Why should I be answerable to the Talmud? And anyway, have any American Jews read the Talmud?”

  • Stephen Dixon talks to about End of I., a sequel of sorts to I, and why you shouldn’t ask him what it’s all about: “I just write; I have no plan of attack. I don’t think of hybrids, character studies, metafiction. Whatever I’m doing and have done will have to be explained by other people who know my work better or differently than I do. I’m just the writer.”

    13 August 2006 | interviews |

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