Many new arrivals to Sarasota are fleeing cold, gray Northern winters, and John Jakes admits that he, too, wanted to get out of the snow.
But an equally important motivation for Jakes, the prolific, prize-winning author of bestelling books including the Kent Family Chronicles and the North and South TrilogySarasota’s reputation as a writer’s colony. “I knew of Sarasota a long time ago,” says Jakes, who became a snowbird here with his wife of 55 years, Rachel, three years ago, “because of the mystical attraction it seemed to have for writers, namely the much-revered John D. MacDonald and my friend, Evan Hunter. I knew about the Liar’s Club [the famed gathering of writers at a local restaurant to talk and play games of Liar’s Poker]. And then [fellow writer] Stuart Kaminsky started working on me to move down.”
So Jakes, who’ll guest at the Sarasota Reading Festival this month to talk about his latest novel, The Gods of Newport, found a part-time home on Sarasota Bay and began making time between writing books to attend Rotary meetings and Cincinnati Reds games here.
Another draw for him has been Sarasota’s cultural life. For Jakes, who also has a home in Hilton Head, S.C., the theater has always had as strong an appeal as writing. Although he no longer acts and directs in his spare time, as he did for many years, acting was his original course of study at NorthwesternUniversity. He changed his mind about that when, at age 18, he sold his first story, for the grand sum of $25. “That check changed the whole direction of my life,” he says.
But it was far from being an easy road to success, Jakes admits. The man who is now praised as “the godfather of the historical novel” spent his years after graduating from DePauwUniversity’s creative writing program writing copy for ad agencies while scribbling away on short stories at night, mostly in the mystery, Western and science fiction genres. His detour into historical novels was something of a fluke.
“I don’t think my family had a passion for history,” Jakes, now 74, says. “I do remember back in the 1930s, when I was a kid, crawling under my seat when a cannon went off in an Errol Flynn movie. I loved those Warner Brothers movies, although they were not really true history. From them, though, I graduated to historical novels and nonfiction.”
So he was prepared, in a way, when the opportunity came along to switch from science fiction (“I wasn’t getting anywhere with that,” he says) to history. “A book packager had approached a friend of mine with this concept—which could have been written on a cocktail napkin, really—of writing books following an American family through American history,” he says. “The friend was too busy, so he passed it on to me. I’d been quite discouraged with my writing career before that, but I thought, I won’t give up. So I said yes. And the results were beyond anyone’s expectations.”
The results were, in fact, the eight volumes of the Kent Family Chronicles, which became the publishing industry phenomenon of America’s bicentennial decade. All eight volumes were bestsellers; in 1975, with the publication of volumes II, III and IV, Jakes became the first author ever to have three books on the New York Times bestseller list in a single year.
“I wasn’t very good at handling [success] for a while,” Jakes admits. “I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder, and I expected too much out of other people. I had issues with what my wife likes to call ‘adoring reporters.’ I’ve mellowed a bit over the years.”
But he’s certainly kept up the work ethic that has served him so well over decades spent producing best sellers like the North and South Trilogy (which, like portions of the Chronicles, became a top-rated miniseries in the 1980s), California Gold, Charleston and On Secret Service. “I work every day, five days a week,” says Jakes, “from about 8:30 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon. I used to work until 4:30 or 5 when I was writing the North and South Trilogy. I think 17 years spent writing in business gave me that discipline. Of course, sometimes the real danger lies in getting so immersed in the research you never want to stop. The fact that there’s a contract and a deadline, though, that’s a stimulant I respect.”
Still, even Jakes has had periods where he didn’t want to write. But perseverance is key. ”That’s the only way you have a career,” he says. “A lot of people just write one or two books and that’s it.” But when you’ve produced dozens, it means you get used to experiencing that “you write something and you’re feeling wretched. You think that it’s garbage. But then you read it later and it’s not half bad. Writers aren’t necessarily the best judges” of their own work, he says.
Jake’s latest book, The Gods of Newport, takes him away from the South, a trip he was glad to make. “I wanted an escape from the South. I’m not from the South, after all,” says the Chicago-born author. “And I’d always wanted to write about Newport.” The book, set amid the class warfare of glittering 19th-century Newport, R.I., is typical Jakes in its blend of real historical people with fictional ones. But sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.
“If I’d invented some of these characters [say, for example, socialite Mamie Fish, renowned for her elaborate Dog’s Dinner party], the editors would have said, ‘Get out of here,’” Jakes says with a laugh.
Although Jakes knows many of his fans desperately want him to enter the 20th century with his work (“I get a lot of e-mails urging me to do that”), they’ll have to be patient. Jakes says that first he’s taking a nice, long vacation—a cruise that includes stops in Beijing and Rome. After all, he’s been writing steadily for 50 years now, time enough to glean some sage advice for would-be writers.
“First of all, you have to practice,” he says. “Unless you’re a genius, which I’m not and most aren’t. I hate to compare it to something as mundane as a golf game, but with both you have to practice.
“There there’s persistence. Don’t give up if you’re rejected, because publishers change from one day to the next. And the third ‘P’ is professionalism. You have to stand back and take a look at what you’ve written and admit it if it’s really terrible. The great thing I’ve gotten from the theater work I’ve done is that if you stand in the back of the theater and it’s flopping, you know.”
Jakes’ favorite author of all time, Charles Dickens, was also a man of the theater, he notes. Among the authors he’s reading today:
“Daniel Silva [The Messenger, Prince of Fire] is one of my favorite thriller writers. I just finished John Dean’s Conservatives Without Conscience, and I hope to start Douglas Brinkley’s book on [Hurricane] Katrina very soon. I have many books stacked up by my bed I want to read, but that’s better than stacking up bottles of liquor, I guess.”
He wishes, he adds, that he could be around to read the history books of the future. “We live in such a period of government secrecy,” he says, “that layer after layer will be slowly peeled back over the next 50 years.”
Despite that long cruise lying just ahead, Jakes has no intention of retiring anytime soon. “I have an idea for a book bringing some of my characters into the 20th century,” he says. “I keep notes on my computer, grouped by topic, for all the ideas I have for the future.
“I look to write better and better, for posterity. A lady named Andre Norton, a dear friend of mine who was a science fiction writer, once said, ‘The book in the typewriter is never as good as the one in your head.’ So you’re always striving to be better.”