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August 11, 2007

John Jakes' journey to New York Times bestseller list included boyhood years in Terre Haute

TERRE HAUTE — The last thing John Jakes felt like was a future literary icon.

He’d worked into his 40s in advertising as a copywriter and creative director. On nights and weekends, Jakes practiced his passion, writing fiction, to earn extra money for his kids’ college education. He wrote nearly 200 short stories and more than 60 books — science fiction, Westerns, mysteries, even novellas for the Man From U.N.C.L.E. magazines — “at blinding speed.”

Heavier writing projects eluded him. “I was about ready to quit,” he recalled.

Then fate intervened. His advertising career jolted to a stop when the firm lost a lucrative account.

“We lost the account, so what are you going to do?” Jakes explained of his decision to pursue writing full time. “So I thought I would do it, and a couple of years later, the Kent books came along, and the rest is history.”

Jakes was referring to the “Kent Family Chronicles,” an eight-volume series published from 1974 to ’79. Those books detailed the lives of a fictional family enduring the Revolutionary War era. With America celebrating its bicentennial during the 1970s, each installment of Jakes’ “Kent Family Chronicles” sold at least 3.5-million copies. In 1975, Jakes became the first author to have three books on the New York Times bestseller list simultaneously with the Kent volumes two, three and four.

Thirty years later, more than 55 million copies of the “Kent Family Chronicles” remain in print. So are 10 million copies of Jakes’ 1980s Civil War book trilogy “North and South,” which inspired an ABC television miniseries — the seventh-highest rated miniseries in TV history. Since the first Kent volume, “The Bastard,” Jakes has put 16 consecutive books on the Times’ bestseller list, including last November’s “The Gods of Newport.”

He’s been labeled “the godfather of historical fiction.”

All of those milestones and praise are “something one just shakes his head at,” Jakes said in a telephone interview earlier this month.

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