A literary legacy: Lila Shaara emerges as novelist in her own right

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Becoming a published novelist was something Lila Shaara "couldn't not do."

After all, writing runs in the family.

Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette
Lila Shaara, at her home in Forest Hills, says, "I want to tell a good story. ... I want it to be interesting all the way through."
Click photo for larger image.
Book review
'Every Secret Thing' by Lila Shaara

Her late father, Michael, won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for "The Killer Angels," a fictionalized account of the Battle of Gettysburg that was filmed in 1993. His posthumous novel, "The Love of the Game," was also turned into a Hollywood film.

Her brother Jeff also began to write historical fiction after their father's death, composing two best-selling Civil War novels that formed a trilogy with "Angels." He has also published novels with Revolutionary War and World War I settings.

Shaara admits that "being the third [writer in the family] amped up the pressure [that anything I wrote] had better be good," adding with a laugh, "I didn't want to be the one that stinks."

Still, she concluded, "I couldn't not write a novel. I said, 'You know what? I have to do this.' "

It was simply the matter of finding time in her busy schedule.

The mother of two boys, Shaara was commuting from her Forest Hills home to work as an adjunct professor in cultural anthropology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She also found time to squeeze in the occasional music project with husband Rob Rayshich, a fellow veteran of Pittsburgh's alternative rock scene.

When a break came in her IUP schedule in the spring of 2004, Shaara took the opportunity to craft the book she knew she had inside her.

Not one to map out an entire plot and merely fill in the details, Shaara began with "characters and situations" and decided to "follow the images and see where they'd go."

"Every Secret Thing" is the result, a complex, first-person tale of Gina Paletta, a Victoria's Secret model-turned-professor who is also a widowed mother of two sons.

Three major plot strands are launched when two of Paletta's students are suspected of murder and harboring unhealthy fixations about her.

Shaara recognized that the story she was composing likely wouldn't fit neatly into one particular genre, that it was at most "maybe 'woman-y,' but I didn't particularly want it to be only for women."

One of her influences was the work of Barbara Vine, the pseudonym of British writer Ruth Rendell, particularly "A Dark-Adapted Eye," winner of the 1986 Edgar Award as best mystery novel.

It convinced Shaara that a complicated, psychological story involving many characters and crossing boundaries of genre can work when it is deftly written.

For Shaara, genre issues are less important than great writing.

"I want to tell a good story. I want it to be coherent. I want it to be interesting all the way through," she said. "And I want you to feel, when you read it, that you care about at least one of the people in it.

"It should feel good to read, and by the end you should feel like something is resolved, something happened."

With her first novel in bookstores, she is hoping that its sales will establish her fiction-writing career.

Shaara's second novel, "Harmless," a thriller that draws on her experience in bands such as The Mutettes and Bone of Contention, is tentatively set for publication in September of next year.

Despite her early success, Shaara said she will always remember the hard lessons she learned through her father.

While now viewed as a successful writer, most of Michael Shaara's recognition came posthumously.

"My father was absolutely miserable the last 30 years of his life," Shaara says. "He wanted to be taken seriously, he wanted critics to think he was great, but he also wanted best sellers, and he wanted movies to be made. He wanted all that very, very, very much," she said.

"He had such a miserable time, and ultimately it killed him, broke his heart. It wasn't like writing was this bucolic, rewarding, fulfilling thing. And that's really helpful to keep in front of me: 'If that's how you're going to be, don't do it.'

"I can't get away completely from really wanting people to like my work and wanting it to sell," Shaara said, "but I think [my father's experience] really helps knock down that grandiosity anybody writing a book has. You can't control anything other than what you write."

John Young is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.


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