Bedrooms and Battlefields Fill John Jakes' Sagas of the Old South

updated 11/12/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/12/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

The nation's Bicentennial eight years ago launched more than a fleet of tall ships. It also gave an anonymous, struggling author named John Jakes a life of smooth sailing as a writer of American historical fiction. Jakes' eight-volume paperback series, the Kent Family Chronicles, which covers nearly 200 years of battle-scarred, love-scarred U.S. history as seen through the lives of the fictional and lusty Kent clan, sold a total of 40 million copies. Each was a best-seller, and in 1975 Jakes became the first writer to have three books on the bestseller list in a single year. In 1978 The Bastard was made into a miniseries and the next year The Rebels and The Seekers were turned into TV movies.

To reap further the spoils of war, Jakes turned to hardcover fiction in 1982 with North and South. Volume One of a trilogy, it dealt with the two decades of political and social upheaval preceding the Civil War. Within a month of its publication, North and South was No. 1 on the charts, selling more than 250,000 copies. And this week comes Volume Two, the 1,011-page Love and War (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $19.95). Like its predecessor, Love and War weaves historical characters such as Lincoln (who is portrayed more as a country-hewn clown than a statesman) and Jefferson Davis with a feisty assortment of fictional heroes and heroines. The Hazards, a wealthy Pennsylvania industrialist family, and the Mains, prosperous plantation owners from South Carolina, fight and intermarry with fiery abandon. Add a little abolition, sedition and a Creole mistress, and a Civil War Dynasty seems to be taking shape. Naturally, no sooner had Love and War cannon-balled onto the best-seller list (where it is now No. 3) than David Wolper, the producer of Roots, contracted to turn the two books into an 18-part miniseries. The author is already envisioning Anthony Perkins as Abe Lincoln.

Jakes' own roots are considerably north of the Mason-Dixon line. The only child of a railway-express worker in Chicago and his wife, John moved frequently throughout the Midwest during his youth. Never in one place long enough to form close friendships, he lost himself instead in watching Errol Flynn movies and writing short stories. An aspiring actor in high school ("I was the fat kid who never made the football team"), he switched to writing when he sold his first short story to the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for $25. "That check changed the whole direction of my life," he says. "I decided it was easier to go to the mailbox than to Broadway."

After graduating from Indiana's DePauw University in 1953, Jakes earned a master's in American literature from Ohio State in 1954. By then he had married his DePauw zoology lab instructor, Rachel Payne. The couple eventually settled in Dayton, where by day Jakes wrote ad copy. At night he spun out in-significant sci-fi paperbacks, more than 50 in all, and about 200 short stories.

In 1973 Jakes hit what he considers his low point—a $1,500 fee to write a novelization of one of the Planet of the Apes movies. Later that year he got a call from a New York book packager, Lyle Kenyon Engel, asking him to write a series geared toward the upcoming Bicentennial. Jakes had been suggested to Engel by another writer friend, who knew he could write fast.

Intrigued by the project, Jakes agreed to try. Ten months later, he turned in The Bastard, the first of the Chronicles. Nine sagas later Jakes, 52, has come to a middling appreciation of himself. "Sue me for not being Flaubert. I've given it the best shot I can," he says about his popular approach. As for historical accuracy, however, Jakes is proud of his works. He travels extensively, prowls the local libraries and often enlists the help of historical societies. "They're a gold mine of information," he says. Jakes works out of the Hilton Head, S.C. home he and Rachel share. (Their four children, ages 24 to 31, are spread out across the U.S. and England.) A disciplined writer, he averages up to 5,000 words a day and tries to take one day off a week, but the grueling schedule does have its rewards. When Jakes was recently in Richmond, Va., promoting Love and War, he went to a local department store to autograph a few score books. "Guess what, Mr. Jakes," said a breathless clerk. "A woman just called asking for the latest John Jakes novel, War and Peace!"

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