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Interview: August 9, 2002

August 9, 2002

John Jakes has been a dominant force in historical fiction for decades, beginning with his highly successful eight volumes of THE KENT FAMILY CHRONICLES, followed by the NORTH AND SOUTH trilogy. His character-rich storylines take on epic proportions when set against the panoramic backdrop of our American heritage. In this interview with's Ann Bruns, Jakes shares his views on America's painful struggles for unity and his passion for recreating those stories.

BRC: CHARLESTON's storyline covers the years from the Revolutionary War through the Civil War, with a focus on the residents of this southern city. Your earlier books: THE KENT FAMILY CHRONICLES, NORTH AND SOUTH trilogy, and the more recent ON SECRET SERVICE, all revolved for the most part around this same time span. Do these early struggles in our nation's history hold a particular fascination for you?

JJ: For reasons that elude me, I do keep returning to the American 19th century for subjects. This is not entirely intentional, although I do believe that certain periods in that century, especially our apocalyptic Civil War, were watersheds in our history. Beyond that, they were packed with drama and melodrama (not to say our age is not). I continually want to move my fictional characters forward into the 20th century but so far have always been swept back a hundred years or more.

BRC: Your depiction of the cruelties of slavery in CHARLESTON are among the worst I've encountered in any novel. Was fear the main factor that drove southern slaveholders to be so inhumane? Were the slave codes common to many cities in both the North and the South?

JJ: As I read the record, fear was indeed the main factor driving and promoting the excesses of the slave system. Certainly the extreme punishments I've depicted were not widely used, but they were real. The Charleston work house did exist, as described; likewise the tread-mill therein. Cat-hauling is a punishment I also used in NORTH AND SOUTH.

BRC: The conflict between the North and the South has often been depicted as a moral issue, but your novel underscores the obvious economic concerns of both sides. If industrial interests in the north and agricultural interests in the south could have reached some satisfactory compromise, do you feel the institution of slavery would have flourished far longer in America?

JJ: Very difficult to answer, as are all "what if?" questions. I do not see how the economic concerns of the South could have been accommodated without some kind of acceptance or tolerance of the slave system, and the whole thrust of our national history was against that. As you probably know, various solutions for the slave problem --- gradual abolition; re-settlement in Africa, etc., --- were suggested, but none was ever realized, probably because all were basically unworkable.

Certainly slavery was rightly perceived, in the U.S. and in Europe too, as a moral issue. But there was definitely an economic factor operating --- the Industrial Revolution, threatening an agriculture-based system --- and that aspect can't be ignored. Really, the strands were woven together in a single, not very pretty tapestry. It is just like trying to analyze the "cause" of the war --- slavery or secession? People split hairs over this yet today, even though the true answer is "both."

BRC: At the close of the Revolutionary War, Charleston was subjected to prolonged occupation by British troops even after the British had been defeated. Edgar Bell voices the opinion that the final withdrawal terms were actually most favorable to the Tory sympathizers and opportunists. Why would such concessions have been made at all?

JJ: Concessions of the kind you mention were made because there was such a strong pro-English sentiment (and many "closet" Tories) in South Carolina. Fifteen years after the war, England was our friend again, and our strongest market for Southern goods, especially cotton. Remember, South Carolina is still acknowledged as the most "royal" of the original thirteen colonies.

BRC: The fictional families that populate CHARLESTON are so well defined that readers may wonder if you've drawn their characterizations from actual families discovered during your research. Have you?

JJ: In CHARLESTON, as in all my other historical novels, fictional characters are usually amalgams of real people I discover in my research. Tom Bell, for example, while fictitious, is representative of the fierce patriots who were arrested and shipped off to jail in St. Augustine during the Revolution. Tom's friend, Christopher Gadsden, not fictitious at all, suffered the same fate.

BRC: Your Afterword explains that Charleston was so pivotal in the political spotlight of the time that you felt compelled to write about it. Why do you think Charleston occupied such a crucial place in our nation's history?

JJ: Charleston, and the South, had a pivotal role in the first 200-plus years of our country because America was, at the time, largely an agricultural nation. Thus the leading states --- Virginia, South Carolina --- came to dominate national affairs until the rise of the industrial North shifted the power base.

BRC: To what degree do the uglier aspects of Charleston's history remain unacknowledged by its residents? Is there still an emotional wall of protectiveness that sets Charleston apart from the outside world?

JJ: I believe there is no longer any widespread lack of recognition of the uglier aspects of Charleston's history. Indeed, as I have noted elsewhere, Charleston mayor Joe Riley, a very savvy gent, has proposed establishing a museum of slavery in the city, on the grounds that Charleston was, after all, the "Ellis Island of American slavery."

BRC: Prior to writing THE KENT FAMILY CHRONICLES, you wrote 200 short stories and 60 books in a variety of genres: mystery, western and science fiction. What sparked you to make the move to historical fiction?

JJ: Before launching THE KENT FAMILY CHRONICLES, history, and historical fiction, were an important part of my writing and my personal life. In the 1960s I wrote half a dozen historical novels, paperback originals, that sold successfully. I had read history ever since my teenage years, so the move to history was not all that sudden or surprising. When I was offered the chance to create and write about the Kent family, I jumped at it because it fit with my longtime interests.

BRC: Although it would be difficult to chose one novel, I'd have to say my personal favorite was HOMELAND. I learned so much about areas of our heritage not often explored. Was the sequel, AMERICAN DREAMS, the end of the Crown saga or will we see the return of the Crown family in future novels?

JJ: I happen to rank HOMELAND high on my list of personal favorites, too. I don't expect that we have seen the last of the Crowns. Readers keep writing to say they want more, and I'm eager to bring the family further along in the 20th century. Indeed, I've been making notes on a third Crown family novel for some time.

BRC: Your novels have covered such a rich cross-section of American eras and are populated with so many wonderful characters. If you could live in one of the historical times you've written about, which would it be and who would you be?

JJ: Who would I be in another era? Shakespeare's personal assistant (to see how the great man worked). Would I enjoy living in another era? Many of them --- but one of my favorites would be California, early 20th century (I wrote about it in CALIFORNIA GOLD) --- before they completely screwed up a beautiful place.

BRC: All eight volumes of THE KENT FAMILY CHRONICLES were best sellers as well as your North/South trilogy, which was also a mega hit as a miniseries. The individual novels NORTH AND SOUTH and HOMELAND were also nominated for Pulitzers. Which is most gratifying to you as a writer --- the critical acclaim from literary corners or the enjoyment of the fans who clamor for the next John Jakes' novel?

JJ: What is most gratifying is reader feedback --- not only general appreciation of the stories, and requests for "more," but especially the satisfaction of hearing that a reader has taken up a college major in history, or even the teaching of history as a profession, because of what I've written.

BRC: How involved were you in the miniseries productions of THE KENT FAMILY CHRONICLES and NORTH AND SOUTH? Are there plans to adapt any more of your novels to movies?

JJ: While I was a most interested spectator for the filming of my several novels for television, beyond vetting the scripts and offering occasional corrections of fact, I had little to do with production. We did spent quite a bit of time in Charleston while the first two 12-hour pictures were being filmed (my wife appears as Mary Todd Lincoln, a one-scene walk-through on the arm of Hal Holbrook in the final hour of NORTH AND SOUTH I; I have one scene in THE SEEKERS, where I play a lawyer whom villainous George Hamilton dispatches). Other novels --- CALIFORNIA GOLD, HOMELAND, ON SECRET SERVICE --- have been optioned, more than once, but no production deals have resulted. My novels lend themselves to mini-series rather than feature film treatment, but network TV audiences are shrinking, as are production budgets, and "period" pieces are no longer as popular as they once were.

BRC: You've been described in some sources as "America's history teacher." Is educating readers about our country's past a conscious objective when developing your novels?

JJ: The answer is yes, always.

BRC: When you start a new novel, do you map out the historic background first and then develop the fictional storyline to intersect with it, or just the reverse?

JJ: The first alternative is the correct one: first comes the history, then the fictional story that intersects with it. I never knowingly alter major historical facts or events; if there is a date change for purposes of the story, it is minor, and is always acknowledged (see the Afterword of CHARLESTON for examples).

BRC: Among your favorite novelists, you've highlighted Charles Dickens as "the greatest novelist in the English language." What did you, as an author, find so inspiring about Dickens?

JJ: What I find so inspiring about Dickens is his genius. Some commercial novelists are skillful with plot --- i.e., with keeping you turning pages. So-called literary writers are often skilled with the language. There are just a few writers, truly deserving of the term genius, who are skilled with both, and Dickens stands at the top of that class in my estimation. In U.S. letters you have Scott Fitzgerald, whom I consider right up there with Charles D.

BRC: Your list of contemporary authors that you enjoy reading include many historical fiction as well as mystery/thriller writers. Why is it that those two genres are often equally appealing with many readers?

JJ: I read mystery thrillers for relaxation, finding them far afield --- different from --- historical novels. If there is a connection between the two forms, I can't see it, nor do I personally experience it.

BRC: Are you presently working on a new novel or any other projects that you can give us a hint about?

JJ: Several projects are on the drawing board but I'm not rushing any of them. CHARLESTON required a lot of time, effort, and thought, and I am taking a good rest now that the race has been run.