Before John Jakes ever started writing history, he lived it. Perhaps the details of his birth (the middle of mob-ridden Chicago in 1932, the middle of the Great Depression) give a clue to his fascination with America's infamous past. In any case, he has devoted his career to writing the stories of real and fictional American families during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Postbellum South, and the early twentieth century, all in the name of recreating history for his fans.
Jakes started writing professionally during freshman year at Northwestern University in Chicago, submitting stories he wrote on his typewriter. At the time he was following his dream of becoming an actor, but his first published story changed all that. He received a twenty-five-dollar check as payment from the magazine, and promptly gave up acting. "That check changed the whole direction of my life," he remembers.
He transferred to DePauw University to study creative writing and earned his master's degree in American Literature from The Ohio State University in Columbus. Jakes then took a day job writing copy for a pharmaceutical firm in Chicago. In 1961, he moved to Dayton and lived there for ten years, working as copywriter for several advertising agencies. During the night, he continued writing, short stories and full-length books. He worked like this until 1973, publishing a total of two hundred stories and sixty books in mystery, western, and science fiction genres.
In March of that year, Jakes started working on a new type of story for him -- historical fiction. He had read history all throughout his life, so the opportunity to mix fictional characters with real-life occurrences was particularly interesting. In truth, some of his sixty previously published titles were historical fiction, but compared with what he began to write now, they had been easy.
When finished, The Bastard told the story of the son of a French actress before the Revolutionary War. Philippe Charboneau, searching for his inheritance, boards a ship to the American colonies, where he changes his name to Philip Kent, meets revolutionary Samuel Adams, and joins the fight against the British crown. It was followed by The Rebels, The Seekers, and The Furies, volumes II, III, and IV in The Kent Family Chronicles. They were published just in time for America's Bicentennial, and in 1975, Jakes set records as the first author to have three books on the New York Times best-seller list in the same year.
The Kent Family Chronicles grew to finally include eight titles; the imagined family mixed with historical figures and real people Jakes found in his research. He takes the history very seriously when writing: "…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." After the success of the Kent Family series, Jakes started on another, this time smaller, one. His Civil War trilogy included Pulitzer Prize-nominated North and South, and all three were made into a popular television miniseries. He wrote two novels about families in Chicago during the Great Depression, one of which received his second Pulitzer nomination. In 2002, Jakes achieved his sixteenth consecutive New York Times best-seller with the publication of his latest novel, Charleston.
Jakes' novels have been continuously adapted into television miniseries, and his original plays and musicals (he couldn't completely give up the theater) have been performed all over the world. He holds five honorary doctorates and was awarded the dual Celebrity and Citizen's Award from the White House Conference on Libraries and Information in 1995.
Though he can count many other awards on his résumé, he derives the most satisfaction from reader feedback. "Not only general appreciation of the stories, and requests for 'more,'" he says, "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." Jakes has been called "America's history teacher" and "the people's author" for his work in historical fiction. In his novels he often tells two stories, that of his characters and the struggles they overcome, and another, of America, the good and the bad of a young, growing country.