John Jakes is a bestselling author of historical fiction, science fiction, children’s books, and nonfiction. He is best known for his highly acclaimed eight-volume Kent Family Chronicles series, an American family saga that reaches from the Revolutionary War to 1890, and the North and South Trilogy, which follows two families from different regions during the American Civil War. His commitment to historical accuracy and evocative storytelling earned him the title “godfather of historical novelists” from the Los Angeles Times and led to his streak of sixteen consecutive New York Times bestsellers.
Born in Chicago in 1932, Jakes originally studied to be an actor, but he turned to writing professionally after selling his first short story for twenty-five dollars during his freshman year at Northwestern University. That check, Jakes later said, “changed the whole direction of my life.” He enrolled in DePauw University’s creative writing program shortly thereafter and graduated in 1953. The following year, he received his master’s degree in American literature from Ohio State University.
While at DePauw, Jakes met Rachel Ann Payne, whom he married in 1951. After finishing his studies, Jakes worked as a copywriter for a large pharmaceutical company before transitioning to advertising, writing copy for several large firms, including Madison Avenue’s Dancer Fitzgerald Sample. At night, he continued to write fiction, publishing two hundred short stories and numerous mystery, western, and science fiction books. He turned to historical fiction, long an interest of his, in 1973 when he started work on The Bastard, the first novel of the Kent Family Chronicles. Jakes’s masterful hand at historical fiction catapulted The Bastard (1974) onto the bestseller list—with each subsequent book in the series matching The Bastard’s commercial success. Upon publication of the next three books in the series—The Rebels (1975), The Seekers (1975), and The Furies (1976)—Jakes became the first-ever writer to have three books on the New York Times bestseller list in a single year. The series has maintained its popularity, and there are currently more than fifty-five million copies of the Kent Family Chronicles in print worldwide.
Jakes followed the success of his first series with the North and South Trilogy, set before, during, and after the Civil War. The first volume, North and South, was published in 1982 and reaffirmed Jakes’s standing as a “master of the ancient art of story telling” (The New York Times Book Review). Following the lead of North and South, the other two books in the series, Love and War (1984) and Heaven and Hell (1987), were chart-topping bestsellers. The trilogy was also made into an ABC miniseries—a total of thirty hours of programming—starring Patrick Swayze. Produced by David L. Wolper for Warner Brothers North and South remains one of the highest-rated miniseries in television history.
The first three Kent Family Chronicles were also made into a television miniseries, produced by Universal Studios and aired on the Operation Prime Time network. Andrew Stevens starred as the patriarch of the fictional family. In one scene, Jakes himself appears as a scheming attorney sent to an untimely end by villain George Hamilton.
In addition to historical fiction, Jakes penned many works of science fiction, including the Brak the Barbarian series, published between 1968 and 1980. Following his success with the Kent Family Chronicles and the North and South Trilogy, Jakes continued writing historical fiction with the stand-alone novel California Gold and the Crown Family Saga (Homeland and its sequel, American Dreams).
Jakes remains active in the theater as an actor, director, and playwright. His adaptation of A Christmas Carol is widely produced by university and regional theaters, including the prestigious Alabama Shakespeare Festival and theaters as far away as Christchurch, New Zealand.
He holds five honorary doctorates, the most recent of which is from his alma mater Ohio State University. He has filmed and recorded public service announcements for the American Library Association and hasreceived many other awards, including a dual Celebrity and Citizen’s Award from the White House Conference on Libraries and Information and the Cooper Medal from the Thomas Cooper Library at the University of South Carolina. Jakes is a member of the Authors Guild, the Dramatists Guild, the PEN American Center, and Writers Guild of America East. He also serves on the board of the Authors Guild Foundation.
Jakes and his wife have four children and eleven grandchildren. After living for thirty-two years on a South Carolina barrier island, they now reside in Sarasota, Florida, where Jakes has resumed his volunteer work on behalf of theaters and libraries while he continues writing.