By David Gulliver
John Jakes knows a bit about writing, as he’s the author of nearly 100 books – including the beloved “North and South” trilogy – that have sold a combined 120 million copies or so.
Now, the launch of the John Jakes Endowed Writing Scholarship at New College of Florida guarantees that future generations of students will master writing of all kinds.
New College celebrated the completion of the scholarship’s fundraising drive on Thursday, April 5, with a “fireside chat” with Jakes and his friend, author Don Bruns, in the College Hall Music Room on the Bayfront campus.
In the wide-ranging 45-minute conversation, Jakes emphasized the importance of training writers of all stripes.
“I must say again and again and again: This is not a fiction-writing program – it is anything but,” he said. “It is on clear, strong writing, no matter what you are writing, why you are writing it or who you are writing for.”
The Rotary Club of Sarasota, the Rotary Club of Sarasota Foundation, the New College community and friends and admirers of Jakes raised more than $100,000 for the fund. That prompted a $100,000 match from an anonymous donor.
MaryAnne Young, director of the New College Foundation, said the fund will be used just as Jakes intends. “It is for students who wish to pursue a career in writing, publishing, journalism or other writing fields, and so we are terribly honored and thrilled to have this at New College,” she said.
The scholarship fund began when Bruns approached New College some 18 months ago with the idea of an enduring gift recognizing Jakes’ craft and his appreciation of New College. Jakes came to know New College through his admiration of fellow Sarasota author John D. MacDonald, who served on the New College Foundation board in the 1970s.
Bruns led an often-amusing discussion of Jakes’ prolific career, including Jakes’ appearances on TV in productions of his books (“I was murdered by George Hamilton,” he said) and a game show (“Beat the Clock” – he didn’t, but his wife, Rachel, did land them a 20-inch television).
But most of the talk focused on his writing, of course.
They discussed his favorite authors, both late Sarasotans: MacDonald, best known for his Travis McGee series, and MacKinlay Kantor, who wrote the Pulitzer-winning “Andersonville.”
Jakes also reluctantly volunteered his favorite book – “like choosing your favorite child!” he said – naming 1993’s “Homeland,” about Chicago, where he grew up, and German-American families like his mother’s.
He also addressed why he once wrote under the pen name Jay Scotland: A book publisher once told him, “I’m not going to publish under your name – John Jakes sounds like leaky plumbing.”
Jakes began writing seriously in 1954, after receiving his master’s degree in American literature from Ohio State. He previously received a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from DePauw University.
He wrote advertising copy for a General Motors division by day, and at night he’d seal himself off in a basement office and write fiction for three or four hours a night – “pushing the rock a little bit uphill,” he said.
After trying out science fiction and fantasy, westerns, and detective stories — “anything that would bring in a few pennies” – Jakes settled into historical fiction. “I always liked history in the movies. I liked the color and scenery and the ambiance,” he said.
In the mid-1970s he tackled the history of the American Revolution, with a series of eight books known as The Kent Family Chronicles or The American Bicentennial Series.
Each book sold at least 3.5 million copies, and the first three later became a TV miniseries. His 1977 book “The Warriors” had an initial printing of 3 million copies, the largest first printing of any book in history at that time, and six months later the publisher needed to print 500,000 more.
He followed that with even greater success. The books of his “North and South” trilogy, set in the time of the Civil War, all debuted on The New York Times bestseller list, and were among the top 10 bestsellers of their publication years. The TV miniseries is the seventh-highest rated such program of all time.
The success, he said, was more than he could have dreamed.
“I’m glad it happened – but how in the world did it ever happen?” he said. “Writers do sit around and fantasize about numbers and getting big sales, but they don’t really know how and why it’s happening.”
The answer, it turns out, is hard work. New College President Don O’Shea asked Jakes how much time he put into research as well as writing.
“What I did was park my rear end in a library,” Jakes said. On the long historical novels, he said, he’d spend the same amount of time on both aspects: “It was a year’s research and a year’s writing. The research was at least as much as the writing.”
Bruns recounted a story in the Dayton Daily News, Jakes’ hometown newspaper while he was writing the American Revolution series.
A librarian saw a man in the Dayton library, day after day, reading one history book after another. The librarian finally approached him and said, “You know, you are researching the same stuff John Jakes writes about.” And the man said, “I am John Jakes.”
New College students write and research in depth across all academic programs, Miriam Wallace, professor of English at New College, told the talk’s attendees.
“New College is a community of writers,” she said. “Everybody writes, but especially, the students write. They write up their data and their results. They write their academic papers. We have a writing center that works with students, to have students help each other to learn how to write.”
Wallace noted that all students complete a senior thesis, a capstone project with extensive writing, whether the project is in literature, science, language, social sciences or arts. “So writing, in many ways, is not just one specific program, it’s very much inculcated and imbricated throughout the curriculum,” she said.
And for that community of writers, Jakes had one piece of advice: “Just go ahead and do it, and don’t quit at it, no matter how discouraged you get,” he said.
New College expects to award the first John Jakes Writing Scholarships in the fall of 2018. To contribute to the endowment fund, contact MaryAnne Young, executive director of the New College Foundation, at 941-487-4800.