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After Braveheart, alum pens novel

He was a Duke religion major who ended up in Hollywood. Struggling as a musician, he was unable to explain to his friends and family in Lynchburg, Va., why he did not take a more traditional route. All he knew about life was that he must be a writer.

Thirty years later, Randall Wallace, Trinity ’71, made a trip back to his alma mater as a New York Times best-selling author with an Academy Award-nominated screenplay for Braveheart to his credit. Wallace said his journey was at times lonely and depressing, but ultimately rewarding and successful.

Wallace developed his natural proclivity for writing after an early experience that indicated his gift.

“There was a city-wide poetry contest for the elementary schools, and the teacher told each of us to write a poem,” he said. Despite his efforts, his poem was rejected as his teacher charged him with plagiarism. “I realized at the age of the seven that, ‘She thinks I stole the poem,’ so it must have been a pretty good poem.”

Wallace’s aptitude for writing only increased as he progressed through school. Once Wallace enrolled at Duke, he applied for the renowned James B. Duke Professor of English Reynolds Price’s competitive creative writing class, certain of rejection; yet his talent had not gone unrecognized.

Although Wallace had always loved writing, only through his relationship with Price did he develop a formal model on whom to base a professional career.

In his spare time, Wallace pursued other creative outlets, including music. As the lead singer of a band with several local hit songs, Wallace concentrated on songwriting. These experiences propelled him to attempt a career in the music industry after attending Duke’s Divinity School following his undergraduate education.

He went to Nashville, Tenn., to hone his musical writing abilities, but realized that Tennessee’s culture of country music was not a good fit for him.

“I realized Nashville wasn’t the place for me,” he said. “Los Angeles had a real allure. I’ve always been drawn to the hardest thing to do; if that’s the biggest, scariest place, that’s almost invariably where I’ve gone.”

In Los Angeles, he found more loneliness than success. He decided to no longer pursue his career as a musician and turned to prose, first setting his sights on screenwriting.

“Screenwriting felt like a welcoming form because novels were intimidating to me,” he said. “They were massive and had an unlimited frame. With a screenplay you have a fairly set length, and all you can portray is what you can see a character do or what you can hear a character say.”

Wallace was able to find employment writing screenplays throughout the 1980s, although none of his works made it to the theaters. He also published his first novel, The Russian Rose, in 1980, which was based on one of his screenplays. After publishing another book, he was finally beginning to find his voice as a writer.

“[Price] told me writers oftentimes develop their voices later in life,” he said. “That’s exactly what happened to me.”

Wallace wrote steadily for four years and produced 1,600 pages of manuscript for his masterpiece, yet no publisher would touch the piece.

So Wallace once again concentrated on being a screenwriter. Success was sweet when a Wallace screenplay finally made it to the big screen in 1995. Although Braveheart told the obscure story of a 13th century Scottish rebellion, the movie became an instant classic. The Mel Gibson-directed piece won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Braveheart lifted Wallace into the upper echelon of Hollywood writers. His career has blossomed as he has both written and directed several major motion pictures, including Man in the Iron Mask and We Were Soldiers.

His success has allowed him to finally publish a succinct version of his 1,600-page manuscript. Entitled Love and Honor, the novel follows an American Revolution soldier’s journey to Russia in the hopes of dissuading Catherine the Great from sending troops to help the British defeat the American insurgency.

Wallace’s return to the Triangle area has been marked by his new role as member of the Divinity School’s Board of Visitors and the promotion of Love and Honor.

After a reading at Branch’s Book Shop in Chapel Hill, individuals at the event were pleased to see how grounded Wallace is.

“I am awed by his work and I am awed by him as a person,” said Kate Branch, Wallace’s friend and owner of Branch’s Book Shop “He’s the most genuine, authentic person.”

Additionally, Wallace has found time on his trip to the Triangle to spend with his son, Andrew, a junior at Duke.

“It’s pretty cool,” Andrew Wallace said, in reference to his father’s fame. “He’s spoken at Duke a few times while I’ve been there.”

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