John Jakes has been called the godfather of historical fiction. Among the many works he has authored are the eight volume “The Kent Family Chronicles,” the “North and South” trilogy, “Homeland,” a novel of the Crown family of Chicago who’s stories interweave with the history of the twentieth century and its sequel, “American Dreams.” Mr. Jakes is also the author of “On Secret Service,” “Charleston,” “Savannah or A Gift for Mr. Lincoln” and most recently “The Gods of Newport.” A few years ago I was privilaged enough to interview him for “Fiction Fix” the monthly newsletter of Coffeehouse For Writers. Here is the interview:
Q: Why and how did you get started writing?
JJ: I began writing short stories in earnest during high school, submitting them to science fiction magazines I was reading at the time. I was fortunate enough to sell my first story at age 18.
Q: What is your educational background – where did you go to college and what was your major?
JJ: Education: A.B. in creative writing from DePauw University (Greencastle IN), then M.A. in American Literature from Ohio State (Columbus). I intended to continue for a Ph.D. in English but ran out of money, and went to work in advertising for 17 years, doing my own writing at night and on weekends.
Q: You started out writing science fiction and then switched to historical fiction. Why?
JJ: During my 50-year career I’ve written in many genres, because I like so many different kinds of literature. I was reading history for enjoyment as early as high school, but didn’t begin writing historical novels until the 1960’s. My later specialization (1970’s and after) grew out of my longtime interest in American and world history.
Q: You have written several works as series, most notably “The Kent Family Chronicles” and the “North and South” trilogy. You have been called “the Godfather of the family saga.” What is it about writing in this fashion that most appeals to you?
JJ: I have never been successful with a genre series as such; I was able to sustain only four novels about my 5’1” private eye, Johnny Havoc. Books in a genre series simply repeat themselves; I always get bored. But a series of novels carrying a family or group of characters through several generations is different because each historical period is different, hence I’m not simply rewriting the last novel. I realized this only after writing several volumes of THE KENT FAMILY CHRONICLES, but I’m sure it’s the reason the concept works for me.
Q: How many books have you now written? What is your next book and when can we expect to see it in the bookstores?
JJ: I can’t tell you how many books I’ve written: I’ve lost count. I was a client of the Scott Meredith agency for 22 years. During that time, I ghost-wrote a considerable amount of work besides my own. For instance, I did a young adult biography under another author’s by-line when the author couldn’t fit it into his schedule. I wrote half a dozen paperback novels under the byline of a deceased mystery writer whose widow wanted to carry on with earnings from her husband’s series character. I would guess my total output would be somewhere between 60 and 70 books.
Q: Writing historical novels entails a lot of research. How do you do your research? Do you have an assistant to help you?
JJ: Research is one of the best parts of doing what I do: I learn something new with every novel. I always begin by reading general studies about the period involved. When I find events or specific subjects that interest me, and a plot begins to shape itself in my mind, I research those specific events or subjects --cultivation of rice in the Carolinas is a good example from NORTH AND SOUTH--and then weave many independent pieces of research into the final story. I don’t have assistants, though I have people in New York and Los Angeles that I can and do call on to work the libraries there to turn up specific hard-to-find diaries, letters, out-of-print books and the like.
Q: Can you describe any writing pitfalls that other writers should avoid?
JJ: The greatest pitfall, I think, is procrastination. A writer should write even when the “feeling” isn’t there; otherwise you’ll never finish a long project. I scrupulously avoid talking about a project until it’s finished; I believe that chattering far and wide about what you are going to do steals a lot of energy and creativity from the final work. I know this is something of a superstition among writers, but it’s one I’ve honored for more than four decades.
Q: How do you decide which point of view to use? Do you have a preference?
JJ: I have no formula for deciding on point of view, though generally I find that third person works better than first for the kind of novels I’ve written in the last 20 years. This is chiefly because I often cut away from a leading viewpoint character to do a short chapter from the VP of another character. This is simply a variation of the novelistic technique that goes back to Dickens and others; D. W. Griffith studied Dickens and developed much of his film editing technique from it.
Q: Do you have a problem crossing the gender line? Is it easier for you to write male or female characters?
JJ: I have no problem crossing gender lines to write female characters. In fact I love writing about strong women, and have done so several times, most successfully in my opinion in THE FURIES (Kent Family Chronicles Volume IV) and volumes one and two of the Crown Family Saga, HOMELAND and AMERICAN DREAMS. Readers have never objected or complained.
Q: Describe your revision process. How many times do you rewrite a story? When working from draft to draft do you have a plan or a focus as to what aspect of your story you want to work on?
JJ: My working method is fairly simple. I know before I start each day just how much I want to finish that day--let’s say a chapter. I draft it quickly, then revise several times until I’m satisfied with it. Using a computer has been enormously helpful because of ease of revision. Let’s say I work from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. In the old typewriter days, I might revise a chapter once in that time, manually re-typing it and filling it with all sorts of squiggles, arrows, letter-coded inserts, etc. Today, in the same amount of time, I may revise the same amount of copy five, six, seven times because the computer makes it so much simpler.
Q: In your books you have so many characters and subplots, how do you keep them all straight?
JJ: I always write a detailed outline for a long novel. Often I’ll veer away from it as the writing leads me in new directions, but at least the plan is there. The outline keeps my characters and subplots clear and in front of me at all times.
Q: Have you ever attended a writer’s conference and if so did you find it useful?
JJ: No, I don’t attend conferences, though I have taught at one, the Antioch Writers Workshop (1994). I know many people find such get-togethers helpful, but they just don’t fit my style of working.
Q: What is your personal writing goal? What motivates you to write?
JJ: Personal writing goal? Always to make the newest book better than the last. I write to communicate one on one with an individual reader. I write to create the kinds of books I would enjoy reading. I write to share information about history in an entertaining way. The immense amount of fan mail I receive tells me I succeed pretty well with all these goals.
Q: What authors do you admire most and why?
JJ: The list of authors I admire is long. At the head of it stands Charles Dickens, whom I consider the greatest novelist in the English language. He was both a master storyteller, peerless in creation of memorable characters and suspenseful narratives, and a master stylist. The combination of those two elements in a single writer identifies a genius, and they are rare. Among American writers I prize Poe, Faulkner, and especially F. Scott Fitzgerald. Readers who are interested can check out the bio page of my Web site for some additional favorites.
Q: Do you have any advice for the aspiring write that is working on his/her first novel?
JJ: My only advice for a first novelist is to finish the thing and get on to the next one, whether the first one sells or not. In writing, the race is often not to the most brilliant, but to the most persistent.
If you would like to learn more about John Jakes you may do so by visiting his website http://www.johnjakes.com/.