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Author’s Journal

KUDOS FROM WESTERN WRITERS OF AMERICA

In the summer of 2007, WWA, the organization of professional writers dealing with the American West, honored me with WWA’s annual Owen Wister Award for a lifetime of writing about our frontier experience.

I was thrilled and flattered by this unexpected recognition. I’ve never thought of myself as a writer of Westerns, though in the 1950s I wrote quite a few short stories and novelettes for the Western pulps, and one novel, Wear A Fast Gun.

Still, Western themes and subjects have been integral to many of my historicals: Custer and the Buffalo Soldiers in Heaven and Hell; the building of the transcontinental railroad in the sixth novel of the Kent Family Chronicles; the whole post-Gold Rush explosion of wealth in the Bear Flag state in California Gold, to cite just three examples.

Owen Wister was an Easterner who fell in love with the West and subsequently wrote his classic, The Virginian. I’m a Midwesterner and much the same experience befell me in the 1940's when we were still but a few decades from the closing of the American frontier. So I’ve continued to write shorter Westerns over the years, including “Manitow and Ironhand,” my tribute to the German popularizer of our West, Karl May. This story won a “year’s best” award from the Western Heritage Society.

I am in debt to Western Writers of America for the 2007 Wister honors.


COMING NEXT . . .

It's my plan to write a new, third volume about the Crowns of Chicago, carrying the family well into the twentieth century.
 

HOMELAND: THE WHOLE OPUS

Readers often e-mail me to mention a particular favorite novel of mine. Often it's one of the Kent Family Chronicles, most likely The Bastard. Sometimes it's a single work such as California Gold. But in front of the rest is the first novel in the projected Crown Family series.

Almost any place you can name has its own colorful and interesting history. But I was born and grew up in Chicago. I love the town, and for years wanted to deal with its history in a novel. Doubleday gave me that chance when I signed on to write Homeland.

I'd always wanted to write about the German immigrant experience, too, since I'm German on my mother's side, and that heritage, to say the least, is a minefield. Growing up, I heard many stories of discrimination and outright abuse of first- and second-generation Germans, both Jew and gentile, in this country. This is so even though, as a group, Germans contributed enormously to amenities such as education and health that we take for granted. Thus I had a second good reason for writing Homeland, which I must admit ranks right up there at the top of my "favorites" list.

But what you perhaps read in the doorstop-sized hardcover edition, or the paperback handsomely reprinted by New American Library, is not the whole story, by quite a few thousand words.

My distinguished and sometimes merciless Doubleday editor, Herman Gollob, asked for expansion in certain areas when I turned in the first draft. Out of enthusiasm, or perhaps submerged pique, I did a reqrite that clocked in at 2300 typewritten pages. I was not there when Herman opened the package, but I can imagine his pallor, even his fainting feelings.

Herman's sharp editorial pencil hewed the script down to 1700 pages and it was published at that length. So 600 original manuscript pages have never been seen.

Even at the edited length, the novel wasn't too popular with management; the publisher of Bantam, when I first met him at a dinner party, immediately chewed me out for writing a book whose paperback could only allow for 2 copies in wire display racks.

So where are the 600 extra pages? In the original manuscript in the John Jakes Archive, Special Collections, at Thomas Cooper Library, the University of South Carolina. There it will always be available for study by interested scholars. Maybe one day it'll even be published in its entirety by some kind soul less concerned with pennies than the Bantam publisher previously mentioned.

Doubleday-Bantam wanted nothing to do with the Crowns thereafter. The second Crown novel, American Dreams, was taken on by the U.S. Penguin group under the Dutton imprint, but I had to cut the manuscript severely to close the deal.

One day soon I want to return to the Crowns in another volume, bringing their story further along in the 20th century, but writing it, always, with an invisible neon sign about the computer:

NO MORE DOORSTOPS.

August 2006

© 2006 John Jakes.


BYE-BYE, UNIVERSAL

So far as I can tell, the Universal Studios web site no longer offers video versions of the mini-series based on the first three novels of The Kent Family Chronicles. Universal certainly offered them at one time -- I own all three -- but I suppose sales were negligible and the minis were dropped from the Universal catalog. Nor can they be found at large VHS and DVD retailers, though undoubtedly used copies can be had.

. . . And to think that my not-so-superlative scene as Elphinstone, Hamilton Stovall's crooked lawyer in The Seekers, is no longer available to connoisseurs of coarse acting. George Hamilton, playing Stovall, first plugged me with a pistol, then stifled me with his hanky; well, that's show biz.

I'm posting this journal entry in lieu of answering numerous queries about the films that are sent to my reader mail site. Consider the questions answered.

May 2006

© 2006 John Jakes.


SOME NOTES ON SAVANNAH (OR) A GIFT FOR MR.LINCOLN

This most recent novel of mine admittedly is hard to classify. It’s an historical novel that is in part a Christmas story. It’s a Christmas story that springs directly from U.S. history. Indeed hard to classify, except to say this: I’m intensely proud of the book, which came out exactly as I hoped. (Though some writers ludicrously claim that every word of theirs is precious and golden, I never that, believe me.) Whether it should be marketed primarily as an historical novel or a Christmas story is a judgment I still can’t make with any certainty.

I do know that a couple of the comments posted by readers on the Amazon.com site hurled me back into the 1950's, when I was in graduate school at Ohio State, studying American literature. There, I learned that a major fault of some critics is this: they write not of whether the author accomplished what he or she set out to do, but whether the author should have done something else entirely. For this reason, two reader comments seriously irked me.

One reader said the novel was “too short.” But that was by agreement, between me, people I trust at Dutton and the U.S. Penguin Group in New York, and history itself: General Sherman’s investment and occupation of Savannah filled only about two months of the tumultuous Civil War calendar. There was no need or reason to stretch the story. I expect the reader was reacting in a familiar way: writers aren’t supposed to vary the pattern of what they attempt; every Jakes novel ought to be doorstop size, like NORTH AND SOUTH, or HOMELAND. Indeed, publishers too can be guilty of this reaction. “The same, only different” is what sells best in the opinion of some marketing committees and their knee-jerk opposite numbers in the book store trade. In this case, however, both contemporary intent and American history were on the side of the book as it stands.

Another reader carped that the novel is “childish.” Presumably this was because there’s very little gore and mayhem in it; no cursing (except as I recall one “damn”); no sex; what I hope is ironic or in some cases even slapstick humor; and one of the heroines is 12 years old. I expect it’s this juvenile heroine that got the reader exercised - a reader presumably unfamiliar with Dickens heroines such as Little Nell, whose fate anxious crowds awaited on the New York piers when a trans-Atlantic ship arrived with the latest serial episode of THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP. This is another example of the point I’m making: the writer is drubbed for failing to do what the reader thinks a book should be.

Never mind; I remain delighted with the adventures of Hattie Lester and Alpheus Winks, Jo Swett and Judge Drewgood, General Sherman and the piano-playing reporter from New York. I hope you take the story for what it was meant to be, and enjoy it that way. I hope and expect the novel will be around long after I am.

June 2005

© 2005 John Jakes.

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