Friday, November 22, 2013

Michael Shaara Prize Acceptance Speech

I was recently honored to recieve the Michael Shaara Prize for Excellence in Civil War Fiction.  Here is the acceptance speech I gave: 
It is my great privilege to accept this award, named in honor of his father Michael, from Mr. Jeff Shaara.  My love of history was instilled in me by my own father.  We were both high school history teachers, students of the Civil War, and great fans of Killer Angels as well as Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure.  We read them all, discussed them all at length, sometimes quoted them in random every day conversations…often to the befuddlement of those around us.  When the movie Gettysburg came out, we went to see it on the first Saturday afternoon.  The young man selling the tickets issued a warning to us before collecting the money.
“Just so you know,” he said, “the movie’s like four and a half hours long and has an intermission.”   We just smiled and nodded.  Told him it would be fine.  “Kid’s obviously not a history buff,” my father said as we walked inside.

Now the next Saturday we went back to see it again, and there was the same young man at the ticket booth. 
“Just so you know, “ he began, “the movie’s like four and a…wait…weren’t you guys here last week?”

The rest of the transaction was conducted with eyebrows raised as he handed us our tickets with a look of disbelief.  Now the THIRD Saturday…there was no effort to deliver the warning, he just stood there, mouth agape, offering a bewildered sort of, “Ahhh, enjoy the show?” as he handed us our tickets.  Different strokes, for different folks, we figured. 
We decided not to go back on the fourth Saturday, lest there be a stroke of a different kind. 

My father passed away in 2010.  But he lived to see my book sold at least, if not published.  He would have loved to have been here today, for so many reasons.  He was one of the very few people who didn’t think it was a completely absurd idea for me to leave teaching, if only temporarily, in order to write that novel I’d been meaning to get around to since I was in college.  Or at least if he did, he never said it out loud. 
I made that leap in 2007, living off my 401K savings as I wrote full time.  I had two characters, the first a Civil War photographer who would take a picture of Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address, but rather than develop it, in his war-weariness, he would preserve the negative and store it away, not telling a soul about it.  Some 160 years later it would be discovered in an attic by the second main character, who would share it with the world.  For a year and a half, or so, I worked on filling in the story over that century and a half, developing the characters and broader themes, until, 700 single-spaced pages later, I realized I had a trilogy on my hands.  Only then did the first part of it, May the Road Rise Up to Meet You, truly take form.

To be honest, I think it was only then that I discovered that each of the now four principle characters in this first book had one main thing in common.  There was Ethan, a poor immigrant who comes to America to escape the Irish Potato Famine; Marcella, a society girl from Spain who emigrates with her family, and Micah and Mary, two slaves separated from their families early in life.  Each of them faced, in varying degrees, the oppression of a society that defined them only by the simplest of terms, as mere functionaries of the larger, far more important economic system around them.  That could have been, should have been, their prison cell.  And yet each of them, endowed with great talent and most importantly, ASPIRATION, somehow went beyond those constrictions.  All of them thus became heroic in their own right, in their own small lives, even amidst the conflagration of world events all around them.  I would like to say that I created them that way from the start, but I didn’t.  I think instead they were the reflection of an attitude, an aspiration that had been instilled in me from childhood. 
These characters are fictional – as I sometimes have to be reminded - but I would hope they are inspirational, particularly in today’s society.  As a teacher for fourteen years, I can say that at times it felt like swimming against the seemingly unstoppable tide of our modern society, the tide that would reduce learning to its simplest terms, valuing functionality alone.  The liberal arts, the creative arts are too readily cast aside in favor of greater focus on technology and economic expediency.  And the cost is a society that increasingly worships fame for fame’s sake alone, while devaluing knowledge for knowledge’s sake alone. 

I think the greatest influence my father had on me was his love for learning, a love which only grew with age rather than fading away.  In my teaching days I tried to inspire that same love of learning in my students.  “Will that be on the test?” was the only question not permitted in my class.  And so, I suppose it would be inevitable that I would write characters like these.  For them, knowledge was hope.  Knowledge was joy.  For them, as for us, Knowledge was and is, LIBERATION.
My mother and father were each the first ones in their extended families to graduate from high school.  That was an accomplishment in and of itself, but not enough to quench their aspiration, and so, well into their forties after their children had already begun college or even graduated, they went back to school themselves.  On the brink of fifty, they emerged as newly certified teachers and spent the next twenty three years inspiring their students as they had done their children.  I dedicate this award, I OWE this award, to that example of courage, commitment, and most importantly, the love of learning.

Thank you.