1942: The Railway Express Man's Son

UNDER THE old elms, the shadows, purple as prose, were lengthening in the late spring afternoon. Down U the placid Midwestern street, a pudgy 10-year-old boy was scuffing his way home. Hundreds of miles away, the torrents of war were howling across three continents and a hundred thousand lusts were smoldering toward the fall of evening.

But the boy, John Jakes, was indifferent to the mighty march of human emotions around him. Forty years later he would have transmuted the tumult of battle and the passions of patriots into 36 million sprawling, brawling paperback copies of the Kent Family Chronicles, and his new Civil War saga, "North and South," would be topping the hardcover best-seller lists. Right then, however, he was thinking of dinner.

1982: Panorama and the Pentagon

The shadows are receding like unwanted memories in the Wisconsin Avenue morning as John Jakes approaches the broadcast towers of Channel 5. A genial, jowly man with a thick bowl-cut mop of graying hair, Jakes proves as hefty as his output: 200 stories and more than 50 novels, including eight volumes and 5,000 pages of the Kents alone, from "The Bastard" in 1974 to "The Americans" in 1980.

Sitting in the room ready for the "Panorama" show, he looks like someone had wrapped a suede jacket around a water heater. Standing, he dwarfs the two executives from Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, his hardcover publisher, who will escort Jakes and Rachel, his wife of 31 years, from the station to the bowels of Crystal City for lunch ("fast ethnic food," Jakes says, "it fuses your circuits"), on his first ride in the Metro system ("looks like a George Lucas movie--spooky") and into the Pentagon Bookstore for an autograph session. And then on to the four-week, 18-city tour out there in "what I call French-fried America. Just try and get vegetables for dinner--just try!"

The retinue is superfluous. After four tours for the Kents, Jakes steps up to promotional obligations like a pro golfer with an eight-inch putt. "Panorama," usually a par three, was tough last time. "I did this show in '75, when Pearl Bailey was on," he says, his elongated Midwestern vowels half an octave higher than his amiable bulk would suggest. "And they were having such a good time that I never got on at all. I had to stay overnight and go on the next day."

Not this year. Jakes at 50 is smooth on the tube, sliding through the questions about the TV miniseries Universal made from the Kent story ("I felt it was basically unadaptable," but "any author who goes into Hollywood expecting fidelity is crazy"), easing the flow of thought toward the new book. It follows two families--the agrarian Mains of Carolina and the industrial Hazards of Pennsylvania--whose two sons meet at West Point in the 1840s. The boys serve together in the controversial Mexican incursion and then find themselves on opposite sides of the Civil War. Not a shockingly innovative plot, perhaps, but at 740 pages, thick as a brick with period detail drawn from extensive research at West Point and travels to historic sites.

"I feel a real responsibility to my readers," says Jakes. "I began to realize about two or three books into the Kent series that I was the only source of history that some of these people had ever had! Maybe they'll never read a Barbara Tuchman book--but down at the K mart, they'll pick up one of mine." Millions did, and in the process developed a ravenous appetite for the fastest growing genre in publishing: the paperback original, multi-volume family historical saga. For brevity's sake, call them clanbacks.

Jakes' "sense of mission" as novelist-pedagogue persists in "North and South," the first of a trilogy in which he is trying for an unvarnished look at the ideology of the era. If there is little nobility in the characterization of either abolitionists or slaves, well, "the racial attitudes even in the North were deplorable, but I feel an obligation to talk about what really was. And we were really a racist society at that time."

An erstwhile adman, he writes in a brisk, workmanlike style and is not needlessly subtle with a simile: An ancestral Main, overtaken by libido, "planted his seed as methodically as he was to plant the crops that would create the Main fortune." As for literary pretensions, "I regard myself as a craftsman, period," says the big man in the blue raincoat and fussy blue knit gloves. "I'm middlebrow and middle-American." He attributes his huge sales to the fact that "people still like stories, although they're told that they shouldn't, that there's something crass or mundane about a real story as opposed to some rambling narrative."

He avoids literary enclaves--"I much prefer actors--they have a few beers and get silly"--living since 1978 in a cypress-covered ranch house on a golf-course fairway in Hilton Head, S.C., to which he fled from the winters of Dayton, Ohio. "I generally don't like writers. I think they're insufferable, all standing around talking about their art. I went through the science-fiction community for about 10 years, and I just found the egos so incredibly inflated in proportion to the accomplishments!"

Writing a novel, he says, is like building a desk: "It may not be Versailles, but it's a good, solid piece of work." He quotes the late Paddy Chayefsky to the effect that "Picasso's greatest boast was how much he got paid per square inch of canvas."

1950-70: Coming of Age in the Corn Belt

Born in Chicago, the only child grew up in Nebraska, Indiana, "all around the country," moving with his father, a "one-company man" who dropped out of school at 15 and worked his way up at Railway Express from truck driver to general manager of the corporation. In high school, Jakes started reading the pulps, especially science fiction, and was soon making up stories ("handwritten on notebook paper") and sending them in. His mother was supportive, his father "extremely suspicious--he thought it was kind of an oddball occupation for a kid."

Not that he was introverted, exactly. Just that he was "always the last one to be chosen for the baseball team. That hurt." He compensated on the school paper and in class plays, and began to dream of becoming an actor. "Some kind of ego indulgence. I enjoyed showing off. I've always thought that there's a tremendous reservoir of conceit in anyone who wants to be a novelist."

As hormonal promptings took their course, and the chubby thespian ("I had the build to be a football player, but I could never get it together") began wondering "how to impress girls," he turned to fiction. Soon after entering college, he sold his first story to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for $25 ("with two rewrites"): a sci-fi tale in which a diabolical toaster takes over its owner's body. Rachel Payne was impressed. Two years ahead of Jakes at DePauw University in Indiana, she taught the zoology lab course where he was first her mediocre student ("he got through"), and then her beau as love bloomed amid the amputee frogs and pickled entrails. They were married in 1951, at the end of Jakes' sophomore year.

In 1954, Jakes got an M.A. in English from Ohio State and started the Ph.D. program, teaching freshman English ("we were told to flunk them out mercilessly"). He found that "I couldn't dissect a sentence to save my soul, and I didn't like the academic life." Faced with a growing family (his four children are now aged 21 to 28), he started looking for work.(One son, Michael, is an electrical engineer in Laurel, Md.) He "got off at the wrong floor in a building in Chicago" and found himself applying for a job as an adman. Although "I didn't like the agency work and got progressively worse," finding the business "trivial" and developing a "general cynicism and contempt for society that shows up in some of my later science-fiction," he stayed with it through 16 years and several agencies, ending up as creative director at Dancer, Fitzgerald in Dayton.

"Life," says Jakes, "seems to be a series of accidents."

1982: Paperwork at the Pentagon

This orderly queue of Corfam-shod colonels, captains and patient NCOs, winding from the front of the bookstore out into the intestine fastness of the Pentagon basement, is no accident. Jakes, seated at a card table, looking like a Dickensian clerk with his scarf around his neck and half-glasses dangling by a chain, greets each with an enthusiastic "Hi! How are you?" After every exchange, he plops a beefy left hand with the gold Tiffany watch across a fresh volume, and produces a cheerful felt-tip scrawl with a right-handed flourish of diamond pinkie ring and ID bracelet.

"I'm glad to meet you, Mr. Jakes," says a well-starched and earnest man. "It took me five years to read the Kent Family books. Probably half as long as it took you to write it!" "Oh, well, thank you," Jakes says, sheepish and shifting in his chair. "Thank you very much."

As the line notches forward, Rachel Jakes stands a few feet removed, refusing a nearby seat. "I don't want to look attached," she says. "I really ought to stand over here with the book under my arm" to encourage sales. A quiet woman in a quiet suit, she has a sly humor at odds with her prim manner. She taught for a decade, and now is a "full-time telephone answerer" who doesn't get involved in her husband's books until the proofreading stage. "I'm too critical. He doesn't want any input--not my kind, anyway."

But the only input is at the cash register, where the store manager's grin threatens to sprain his cheeks as Jakes signs 235 books in less than two hours.

A woman bends down to ask, "Are you gonna write any more of those Kent books?" How many more could she want? The saga takes the picturesque and prolific Kent family through seven generations and the first 100 years of American history, propelled by a psychic storm of lust, ambition and circumstance that makes Flamingo Road look like Gasoline Alley. It also takes thousands of pages: An unthinkable spew for most writers, but business as usual for Jakes. He learned to write fast in the ad game ("It's the old maxim--'I don't want it good, I want it Tuesday'!"), concocting jingles for Frigidaire and other companies. Jakes apologetically explains that after eight thick volumes, he has pretty much exhausted the Kents. The woman's face sours in disappointment: "Well, I just have to know what happened to the rest of them!"

Some fans predate the Chronicles. One civilian in thick black sunglasses brings in an old sci-fi paperback for signing; another has a dog-eared copy of "The Devil Has Four Faces," a swastika-clad potboiler from the '60s. There had been many, many others.

1973: The Contract Writer

The list of titles was lengthening like elm shadows in the basement of the Jakes home in Dayton, where a fat man in a crew cut sat smoking and staring into the carriage of the "old iron Underwood" he still uses. It was here that Jakes found "my escape, the one thing that kept me sane. I'd see so many of my colleagues in the ad business bombed out of their minds at 5 p.m." It wasn't always a placid retreat: One year he wrote seven books on contract. "We saw him, yes," says Rachel, "but not often."

Many of his 50 novels (four are still in print in Tor paperbacks) have strong elements of moral fable, such as "Black in Time," a sci-fi allegory in which rival racial factions vie for control of a time machine which can alter the course of American history, or "On Wheels," a future-shocker about "a society in which 10 percent of the population lives on 16-lane superhighways and never leave their vans."

In 1970, Jakes ("poisoned early on by Errol Flynn movies and Max Steiner music--those big, opulent, whipped-cream scores") turned to drama. He still earns royalties for his musical comedy "Dracula, Baby," based on Bram Stoker's novel. "It was played very broadly." Less esteemed were the stage version of "Wind in the Willows" and the one-act redaction of Moliere's "The Doctor In Spite of Himself." The problem, Jakes thought, was that "I was too diversified--I couldn't find the slot where I could do my best work."

1982: Second Choice for Success

By 1973, "I had really reached a low point in my career as a writer," Jakes says now, fitting himself into an armchair in the Jefferson Hotel, apologizing for the waste of white wine ("I won't drink the whole bottle") while Rachel Jakes fiddles with the coffee service.

"I thought I had come to the end of the road. My stuff wasn't selling, and the last commission I had got from the agent[Scott Meredith]from whom I split was a $1,500 flat-fee novelization of one of the 'Planet of the Apes' movies." Jakes, dispirited after turning 40, was making a good living from his free-lance public-relations work. It was a good time to quit.

But one day the phone rang. On the other end was Lyle Kenyon Engel--the master book-packager of upstate New York and the man who did for clanbacks what Frank Perdue did for the chicken--with a plan for a Bicentennial series. Engel's first choice had been Don Moffit, an old ad-biz buddy of Jakes' who was writing novels for Engel. But Moffit couldn't do it and recommended Jakes--who, as it turned out, had sold Engel a number of stories when Engel owned an espionage magazine called "American Agent."

"So on such crazy turns of fate," says Jakes, "do careers rise and fall." Engel made Jakes an offer he could refuse: a string of Pyramid paperbacks at $10,000 each. "My first reaction was negative, since Lyle's basic deal was 50 cents commission on the dollar," leaving Jakes $5,000 per book. He found the deal "unconscionable." But he took it "because I liked the sound of the project," which called for five volumes taking the Kents from the Revolution to the present, with the last installment to be published in 1976. There was talk of promotion money, of backing the books as lead titles, of a 100,000 first printing for "The Bastard" ("most of my science fiction had sold around 30,000"). And Jakes had four kids headed for college.

He had written a half-dozen historical novels as "Jay Scotland," a more mellifluous moniker for the genre, and wanted to use a pseudonym for the Kents, since "a friend of mine told me that 'John Jakes sounds like a piece of faulty plumbing.' " But Engel insisted on the real name, a decision he now calls "the one thing I regret from my whole association with John Jakes. Because now I can't continue the series. And I've got two or three million people waiting to read the next one!"

For Jakes, it was "really more than I had bargained for," as he found that "I had some things I wanted to say about the country" and five volumes became eight. To concoct this vast verbiage, he sometimes put in 12- or 14-hour days six or seven days a week, pausing only for a dozen cups of coffee, his peanut-butter sandwich ("I'm addicted") and the odd poke into reference books. "There was a time around the sixth or seventh book when I got mighty frazzled," because even while turning out nearly 1,000 manuscript pages a year, "I was being exhorted by the publisher to write faster," at the same time that he was trying for more care and sophistication.

And there were the small perils of growing fame: "Even in Dayton, people were leaving folders of investment ideas on my doorstep at midnight." He concealed his address and took an unlisted phone number, but to no avail. "I finally knew we had to move one Easter morning about 9 o'clock. I was in my bathrobe when three old ladies in flowered hats pulled up in front of the house. They came up with their books and asked if I would sign them. I said, 'Sure.' And as I was bending over the piano to sign, flashbulbs started going off behind me! One of the old ladies was in the corner snapping away. That's the kind of thing that we had to deal with."

By the third volume the series was a monster hit, and "John said he would not write any more unless he got more money," Engel recalls. Since Engel was legally bound to deliver the series to the publisher (which changed names and owners during the series, from Pyramid to HBJ/Jove to MCA), "I gave John what he wanted." There was plenty to go around: The series netted Book Creations well over $10 million, including the TV sale, and turned the former ad-jockey and basement Thucydides into a multimillionaire national name.

Interlude: The Clanback Boom

Jakes the only child "really liked" the fact that his wife came from a family of six. He decided to have a large family himself, and suspects that "the family-saga genre is very strong these days" because "the American family is in such disarray, and has been for 15 years." The Nielsen ratings for "Dallas," "Little House," "The Waltons," "Falcon Crest," "Dynasty" and "Flamingo Road" tend to corroborate his thesis, as do the seven-figure sales for other clanbacks.

But the genre is also strong because Jakes gave it muscle. He was hardly the first big name in the forebear biz. That distinction seems to belong to Canadian novelist Mazo De La Roche, who from 1927 until her death in 1961 published 15 volumes of her "Jalna" series, which finds the Whiteoak family in the 1850s and takes them forward through several generations. Nor was he the only modern writer with dynastic yearnings: Among others, Louis L'Amour had been working for years on his Sackett Family Saga for Bantam.

But Engel, who credits himself with "pioneering" the genre, says the Kents were the first clanbacks designed as a series. And as they spread like manifest destiny from Bangor to Beverly Hills, publishers leapt to supply the new demand. The rush is still on, with over 50 major series now competing. Janet Dailey has begun a line of Calder Family books for Pocket. Bantam is about to reissue the work of several Western writers, including A.B. "The Way West" Guthrie. And Engel's Book Creations Inc. (whose slogan is: "When better books are built, Book Creations will build them!") alone has several dozen series rolling, including the popular "Wagons West" volumes ("a 'Grand Hotel' on wheels," says Engel) and "The White Indian" books, both for Bantam, and "The Australians" series for Dell. There is even a literary award, the "Porgie," bestowed by the West Coast Review of books, for the best series original. The 1981 winner: "Rakehell Dynasty," from the Engel factory.

"Like everything else in the paperback industry, we're going to kill it by publishing too many," says Pinnacle Books' editorial director, Patrick O'Connor. "But right now it doesn't seem killable." Pocket Books president Ron Busch agrees: "As usual in our business, the bad generally drives out the good" because too many publishers underestimate the sophistication of their readers, who can't judge the quality by looking at the covers.

Jakes sees a sociological side to the clanback explosion. "As we came out of Vietnam and the Watergate period, people wanted to be reminded of, as Lincoln said, 'the better angels' in our character." So he infuses his books with the sense that "we have a tremendous amount to be proud of."

1882: The Hermit

So does he. Yet the Holinshed of Hilton Head is obstinately modest. During the Kent years, "there was one point at which my kids said, 'Gee, you really were carrying on like you were God's gift to letters.' " So now he ducks the limelight, although "here and there I have a friend in what I consider the literary community." One is John Gardner, "one of the most down-to-earth human beings I ever saw." They met at a literary dinner in Pittsburgh, "me in my pin-stripe banker's suit and John in his leather jacket and beautiful silver hair. And we sat around and talked about how much money we made and how much the agents were gouging us. There was no heavy aesthetic discussion."

He lives quietly, as "part of the working community" in Hilton Head, directing and acting in community theater productions, determined not to be spoiled by success. "The notoriety is ephemeral. I think the danger point is reached when you begin to believe that you deserve all this, and that it's never going to change. I tried to prepare from the moment the Kent series took off for the day when the slump would come. And it'll come--just as sure as the weather changes."

His perspective was broadened in April of 1977 when a suspicious chest X-ray convinced Jakes' doctor that he had lung cancer. He went in the hospital and had the upper third of his right lung removed. "It was an interesting and traumatic experience because for a week or so I thought that I'd have to wrap it up in a few months. When I got out of the hospital, I promptly went off to Europe, ate French pastries and gained 35 pounds, I was so glad to be alive.

"I'll never retire. That's one of the things I admire about Michener." So after the Civil War trilogy, Jakes is already planning a book on European history: "I have a file box full of ideas."

And after that? "Well," he says, with the simple, gut-deep self-confidence of a man who has built many a good and solid desk, "my ambition is to do the libretto and lyrics for a Broadway show before I die."