By Meredith Allard
Named the “godfather of the historical novel,” “the people’s author,” and “America’s history teacher,” John Jakes has been one of the most respected authors of historical fiction since the publication of his novel, The Bastard, the first of the eight volumes of The Kent Family Chronicles. Since then, Jakes has gone on to write some of the most beloved historical novels of all time, including The North and South Trilogy, Homeland, American Dreams, and On Secret Service. You can visit John Jakes online.
Meredith Allard: Like Charles Dickens, your earlier inclination was towards acting instead of writing; then, after you sold your first story for $25 your focus changed to writing. What was it about writing that appealed so strongly to you?
John Jakes: Early on, I was equally interested in writing and acting as careers. When I sold my first story in 1950 – I was living in Chicago at the time, a freshman at Northwestern – I decided, as I have often said since, that it was easier to go to the corner mailbox to mail a story than to go to New York and audition. That realization put writing ahead of the stage to the benefit of audiences everywhere, I have frequently noted).
M.A.: What prompted you to start writing historical fiction? Have you always had a great love for history?
J.J.: My first historical novel, a paperback original about pirates entitled, predictably enough, Strike the Black Flag, was written at the request of editor Don Wollheim at Ace Books. Prior to that, I’d always read and loved history, but had never tried historical fiction. With Black Flag, the die was cast.
M.A.: Where did the inspiration for The Kent Family Chronicles come from? Was there something specific in the American Revolution that you wanted to explore?
J.J.: Again, the idea for The Kent Family Chronicles (originally The American Bicentennial Series) was not mine. I was approached by the packager of the series, Lyle Engel, to write five (not eight) novels about a fictional family from the early days of the country to the 1976 Bicentennial (which I obviously never reached). As the series took off and became a giant success, a debate raged between Engel and the executives of Pyramid Books, the paperback house publishing the books, as to who came up with the idea first. I can only say that I did not. Everything else beyond the basic concept stated here, however, is mine: I shaped the characters, the stories, etc.
I accepted the commission to do the novels because I thought it a tremendous opportunity to enjoy relearning some American history, and presenting my feelings about the country. At the time, like the packager and the publisher, I hadn’t the slightest idea that the series would become the monumental bestseller that it has. When last I looked, The Bastard was in something like its 68th printing.
M.A.: What are the joys and the challenges specific to writing family sagas? Why do you think family sagas are so compatible with historical fiction?
J.J.: The family saga is a particularly happy form for me because the familiarsturm und drang of life in a large family provides ready-made drama, often from the author’s own experience. The saga works well for historical fiction because both family history and a larger historical experience happen over a long span of time, hence, using a family story as a vehicle, the writer has perfect justification for moving through a complete historical era.
M.A.: Your novels have been praised for their historical accuracy. What is your method of research? How do you incorporate historical facts with your fictional characters and plot?
J.J.: My research process is the same for every book. If the period is largely unfamiliar, I begin by reading good secondary sources. From these spring ideas for characters, as well as aspects of the period that strike me as good background for the story. In American Dreams, for instance, I can cite the rise of the auto industry in Detroit as one area that immediately interested me. So did pioneer auto racing, early aviation, and the beginnings of the movies, both in the East and in California. With areas of concentration in mind, I dig into more specific sources, including biographies, letters, diaries, etc., relating to the subject. In other words, I travel from the general to the specific with each area in the novel, and with the novel as a whole.
As to blending history and fiction, that is something which I can only say I feel – I do it instinctively, out of years of experience as a fiction writer. In the past I have been accused by editors of ladling in too much history; a few extra paragraphs, interesting to me, can stop the story cold. Again, this is a matter of intuition, and an area in which a skilled editor can be very helpful.
M.A.: From your Civil War trilogy, North and South has become one of the most beloved Civil War novels of all time. What inspired you to write your Civil War novels?
J.J.: When I completed The Kent Family Chronicles, I signed a contract with Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (as it was called then) for three novels. I began discussing possible subjects with my wonderful editor, Julian Muller, and we jointly decided that it might be interesting to follow several generations of a military family (historical period or periods as yet unspecified). Early reading included, quite naturally, a history of the U.S. Military Academy. I came across a couple of pages that made me blink. The author included a list of all the famous men who attended West Point from the 1820’s to the 1840’s, and then went on to leadership in the Civil War, on both sides. They knew each other as students, then fought each other in the war. I knew that here was my story. The next step was easy: since we had three novels, why not divide the story into three periods – antebellum, the war, and reconstruction? My editor was enthusiastic, and thus The North and South Trilogy took shape. The idea was helped considerably by the importance of the background: the Civil War is not only of enormous interest around the world, but remains the most apocalyptic war in our short history, with vast social consequences that affect us today.
M.A.: What are the joys specific to writing historical fiction? Has there ever been a time when you were particularly frustrated by writing historical fiction?
J.J.: The pleasure of writing a new historical novel is easily stated, and I do so when I lecture: each book is like studying for a new graduate degree in a particular historical era. I learn an immense amount with each book, and love it, being, I suppose, just an over-age graduate student at heart. The other side of the coin is the same research process: sometimes I wish I could return to the days when I wrote science fiction or mysteries without having to read a couple of hundred books first.
M.A.: Your latest novel, On Secret Service, brought you back to the time of the Civil War. Why did you choose to return to this time in history?
J.J.: I’m not sure where the idea for On Secret Service originated. I have a faint memory of coming across the intriguing story of Civil War spying back when I was researching the North and South novels, and I expect I put it aside at the time because I already had more story material than I could handle. Then, the summer before I wrote On Secret Service, the idea simply popped into my head one warm afternoon, I put a couple of pages of character and plot points into the computer, and submitted them to the publisher with appropriate enthusiasm. Dutton and NAL were enthusiastic too and I leaped into the project, happy to be able to return to a time period about which I already knew a little something.
M.A.: On your website you named Charles Dickens as your favorite writer. Why do you believe that Dickens is the greatest novelist in the English language? What have you learned from Dickens that has helped you in your own writing?
J.J.: For years, I searched for a definitive statement of the difference between popular and “literary” fiction. Finally, an editor I met at a writers’ conference came up with it. He said popular fiction is about the story, while literary fiction is about the words. I have held to that definition ever since, and because of it, I realized what is, to me, the real nature of Charles Dickens’s genius: he could write both kinds of fiction in a single work. That is genius, of an order seldom found in literature. I think of a few examples. Shakespeare, whose plots are thumping good stories, enhanced by his gorgeous poetry. Or my favorite American novel of the 20th century, The Great Gatsby, which again satisfies with the story as well as the words.
As far as learning from Dickens, I expect that delineation of character would stand at the top of the list. I wasn’t really aware of Dickens’s cutting back and forth between story lines to enhance suspense until I read a biography of D. W. Griffith, who said he learned his film cutting technique from Dickens. Then I saw it.
M.A.: What is your advice to aspiring writers of historical fiction?
J.J.: The same as for all fiction: read voluminously; observe people carefully; practice your craft; avoid imitating other writers, and try to find your own voice.
M.A.: What are you working on now? What areas of history would you like to visit in your writing in the future?
J.J.: At the moment I’m writing a new multi-generational novel set against the enormously colorful but largely unknown history of South Carolina, where I have lived for the past 22-plus years. I would like to write about European history. The ancient world fascinates me, as do eras such as the Restoration in England, and the Napoleonic wars. Alas, the conventional wisdom in publishing suggests that I’m better off sticking to the subject for which I’m best known – American history. And there is, of course, the time constraint: I don’t have enough lifetimes to write everything I’d like to write.
Meredith Allard is the executive editor of The Copperfield Review.