A Writer and His Field
A Personal Interview with John Jakes
Many writers of the past as well as the present have used accurate historical accounts as a format to write fiction. New York Times best selling author John Jakes is one of those wonderful authors who make it possible to visit the past and be absorbed into his characters lives in the world of words. Jakes has touched on many aspects of history down through the years. His novels are well researched into the true facts of the time in his historical settings. According to Jakes, research, life experiences and being well read are some of the things that make a good writer.
Those who are just beginning to find their footing in the business will find some helpful advice among the questions we posed to Mr. Jakes. He illustrates that it is possible to write with a purpose and to be focused as well as organized in the process of writing. Success comes with practice and perseverance.
Your novels are in such historical detail sir, when did you become so immersed in history as a format for many of your writings?
Study of history has always been an avocation, for as long as I can remember. I grew up on historical movies from Warner’s and other studios (pretty short on “history,” I discovered later). I read both adult historical novels by some of the outstanding writers of the 1930s and 1940’s – Harvey Allen – Thomas Costain – Samuel Shellabarger - and the historical tales for young people by Joseph Alsheler: series about the Civil War, the Revolution etc. Out of all this grew my liking for writing historical novels.
Mr. Jakes, you are such a prolific writer in so many ways. How is it you can sit down and knock out a story in such a short time as your biographical essay states?
To this question I really don’t have a valid answer. I write speedily (sometime too speedily; I have learned to slow down and revise carefully). Part of this is due to my early work in the pulps: the objective was to produce publishable fiction fast, not necessarily of the highest quality. Another part may come from my 17 plus years as and advertising writer, when sometime, again, speed was more important than quality.
Does having a staff of research assistants make the job less insurmountable? Do you do any of your own research? Do you type your own work or record it for others to write later? From photos of you I have seen, you look as if your making notes on a legal pad is this the mode you used for brainstorming?
I have no research staff; I prefer to do all of my homework, as I call it, myself, because I’m afraid paid researchers might miss a detail I’d want to include. Occasionally I have called on professional services in New York or L.A. to help dig out material on a specific, narrow topic, but this is only when I am unable to come up with satisfactory answers myself. I read extensively before each new novel. I annotate the books I’ve bought, then transfer notes to the computer. I use a computer for all my creative work as well.
How many hours a day do you sit down to write and do you always sit at a computer when writing?
Yes, a computer, roughly from 8 or 8:30 in the morning until 1 or 2 in the afternoon, though later in the day I frequently make revisions of work just finished, or notes on the next day’s work.
Everyone knows the first line is probably the hardest in any form of writing. Do you have problems with first lines? Do you wrestle with the first line or does it just come?
Sometimes I struggle with the first line, but sometimes it comes easily. I know that the first paragraph must contain something to intrigue the reader right away – this I learned when I was writing short stories in the 1950’s.
Do you have an ending up front or does that come as you write?
Because I outline each novel before I begin, I have the ending in mind.
How long does it take you to come up with the fictional characters in your novels?
The fictional characters emerge from research – they are usually amalgams of many people I’ve read about. That’s why the research time track for a given novel is about 50% of the total- 1 year it it’s a 2-year project, for example.
Are most of your novels your own ideas or do you get asked to write about a certain topic?
Since the 1970’s I have worked out the subjects of my novels with editors: we talk until we find something that interests and pleases both of us. It’s good to have the subject of a novel something that won’t surprise and/or dismay the publisher when the manuscript arrives.
It seems that you wandered in and out of different fields in your lifetime until you found your niche in writing. Did you enjoy acting on stage or writing the plays the most?
The theater has always been a hobby – an avocation. I really did not want to spend the time it takes to perform a show for three or four weeks, several nights a week; that was OK when I was in my 20’s and 30’s but I soon “graduated “ into playwriting and directing, where I could more directly control the whole process in the theater.
From all the novels you have written over the past decades a majority has been about the Civil War era, is that time period your favorite and is it the easiest to write about?
Many historical periods interest me, though I must say the Civil War is one that interests not only me but millions of readers around the world – and the sales and marketing staffs of publishing houses, too. The Civil War is a major watershed in our country’s history – inherently dramatic – so I have returned to it effortlessly several times. But that doesn’t exclude an interest in other eras of American and world history.
The Civil War era leaves an abundance of openings for ideas for more novels of this kind, are you planning any others in this format soon? If not what setting will your next book be in?
No I feel I’ve worked out the Civil War vein for a while and will turn to something else for my newest novel.
During the time you lived in Dayton, Ohio as a copywriter did you have an opportunity to study the area for it’s historical aspects?
Yes, I did study the history of the Ohio country but have had no opportunity to use the background in a novel, except for one section in THE SEEKERS (Kent Family Chronicles Volume III).
Because you lived in Dayton, Ohio and Ohio played a great part in the Civil war and the Underground Railroad before the war, have you considered doing anything in this line for a novel? (I am from Ohio.)
There is certainly something to be said for the idea you suggest. I touched on this part of Civil War history to set up the background of one of my leading characters in my novel ON SECRET SERVICE.
It is my opinion that where we began our roots has a great influence upon what authors write about, do you agree with this theory about your writing?
Yes I do agree: not only where we grow up- where we come from, so to speak – but everything that we read, and see, and do, as we grow into adulthood eventually finds it’s way into finished work.
Do you have any advice for future authors who wish to succeed in the literary world?
In talks to writers’ groups, I stress that I call my Three P’s: One, practice – a writer gets better (or should) from writing and writing and writing. Two, Persistence – fashions in publishing change, as do editors – the editor who rejected your material this month may be gone by the end of the year; too many writers give up to easily. Three, Professionalism- seeing why it does or doesn’t work, from the smallest line of dialogue up to the largest plot arc. Compliments from “Aunt Nelly” or other sympathetic listeners don’t count. This is one priceless lesson I have learned from writing for live audiences in the theater: their reactions tell you when something isn’t working and must be re-done.
Last but not least, the crucial question I want to pose to you for our readers at Issues Magazine is: Are you working on a new novel at this moment and when can we expect it to be out on the market? If so can you give our readers a hint of what the story is about?
Yes, I am in the research phase of work on a new novel. It will deal in large part with the era of the 19th century “robber barons,” whose exploits, if that’s the right word, I find fascinating. That’s all I can say at the moment.
© 2005 by John Jakes. All rights reserved
Find out more about his books in our Book Review section...
Editor's note: Christine K. Rex graduated from Owens Community College where she was a research assistant for Professor Dennis Cole (author of many college textbooks), Student Editor of "Pathways" at Owens CC, a member of Sigma Kappa Delta, published poet and short story writer. She became an intern and contributor with Issues back in 2001, then an Editorial Assistant and is now Associate Editor. For a long while she travelled the United States with her truck driver husband, before heading back to their home base in Ohio. She now resides in Florida right across from Cape Kennedy where she gets to watch rocket launches, she also reads a lot, takes in local events and does freelance writing for other publications.