INTERVIEW BY DEVIN DULAINE
He looks like a character out of his own novels. In fact, he portrays two of them in photographs, Matthew Morgan, on the cover of his novel Drygulch to Destiny, and Sheriff Coal Savage, on the covers of his crime and family drama series set in Salmon, Idaho, in the 1970’s.
His name is Kirby Frank Jonas.
I walk into Jonas’s home on a cool fall day. It is the type of home I would expect a writer of Western novels to live in, as well as an artist of Western and wildlife scenery. The place reeks of flavor, from a rock walkway made to look like a dry creek bed wet with fresh rain that winds from the entryway to three huge log slab steps leading to the main part of the home.
The main family room, where the creekbed winds, is surrounded by what appears to be wet mud, into which are embedded the tracks of a wandering bear cub, which Jonas sculpted himself and stamped into the wet concrete surrounding the “creek”.
Natural wood abounds, from the uniquely designed door frames and the pine doors to the massive entertainment center made of unfinished pine, with a huge slab of it on top, the bark still on, and handles Jonas made out of real deer antlers on the front. The centerpiece of the room is a wood stove built onto a rock pedestal and a massive wall of river rock that he and his wife Debbie made by hand, along with a massive mantle decorated with painted sculptures of horses and Indians—also items that Jonas has done.
In short, the place is a museum.
After a quick meeting with Jonas’s gracious wife, mother of four grown children whose appearance denies her age, for she looks no more than twenty-five years old herself, she leaves me alone, literally mesmerized by this veritable museum of hanging art, much of which Jonas painted himself. Many of these pieces are original paintings which make up his book covers, and other greats are represented as well: local treasures Hayden and Dallen Lambson, father and son masters of wildlife artistry, and Tom Mansanarez, from the nearby town of Blackfoot. There is even a whimsical mount of two adult skunks, peeking out of a hollow log on the wall, and a massive mule deer buck which won a big buck contest for Jonas in 1993, and which he did the taxidermy of himself—another surprise talent. Yes, indeed, it is a home worthy of a man who is not just an author, but the author the press and others have for years called, interchangeably, “The Renaissance Cowboy,” and the “New Louis L’Amour”.
Jonas enters the room wearing a black hat reminiscent of the Old West, a dark blue shirt, Wrangler jeans, and black cowboy boots that he tells me are made of water buffalo skin and designed exactly like boots from the 1870’s. Standing at the top of the three log slab stairs, he looks a little like a giant, with a narrow waist and very broad shoulders and chest that I am later to learn are the product of many years pursuing another hobby, that of bodybuilding.
His coarse, wavy dark hair grows slightly over his ears, he wears long sideburns, and a mustache that Tom Selleck would surely envy, and his deep-set eyes are a piercing blue-gray in color. As I am to learn they can drill you through with a serious gaze, then in another moment crinkle up in mirth as he breaks into his contagious laugh. One thing I learn quickly is that, in spite of an appearance that might have won Jonas starring roles in major Western movie roles of the 1960’s, he has the strength of being able to laugh at himself, at his own failures and mistakes. And although he could easily do so, he never takes himself too seriously and is easily one of the most approachable men I have had the pleasure to interview.
After a brief tour of the rest of the house, most of which Jonas has decorated himself and which is full of the flavor of the Old West, and of the woods, along with a wonderful meeting with his shaggy German shepherd-chow mix, Strider, and his charming purebred female Doberman pinscher, Luna, we settle back into the Indian design couches in the family room to talk about the things I came to the Jonas home and studio to learn: What makes author, artist, and musician Kirby Jonas rise so high above the crowd of talents in those three realms today?
In the following interview, I will designate myself as “D” and Jonas as “KJ”.
D: I have to say that I was somewhat intimidated by your appearance. (Jonas gives me a quizzical look and a smile and asks me what I mean.) Well, I had heard that you cut an imposing figure, but I guess I wasn’t prepared for the reality. (He gives a hearty laugh.) How tall are you? Six-four? (Again, he laughs, and he lifts up one of his feet and taps the heel of his boot.)
KJ: I think these heels are close to three inches! (It turns out that Jonas, in reality, stopped growing in the eleventh grade just shy of six feet, which he says has always rankled him.) I always thought I should grow to six-foot-four because that’s what Tom Selleck is and what all of Louis L’Amour’s characters seemed to be.
D: Let’s talk about that. What is Louis L’Amour to you?
KJ: Well, I don’t really read him anymore, but I read his books extensively in my younger days. I believe I could say I owe my desire to be an author to him.
D: What is it you like about him?
KJ: Today? The fact that his books are clean. Anyone can read them. I would recommend them to my kids, or to any more sensitive person.
D: What do you not care for then? Is that fair to ask?
KJ: It’s a touchy subject with a lot of people, but sure, I’ll answer. He is known as having done a lot of research, and perhaps he did. But a lot of it never showed in his work, and a lot of the “facts” he presented weren’t accurate, which I didn’t discover until I started doing my own research, years after picking up my first L’Amour book. He was a fast writer, so I guess he didn’t have time to be very careful. He would write a single draft, according to a conversation I had with his son Beau, and that draft is what he insisted on Bantam Books printing, with the threat that otherwise he would find another publisher—and he was pretty much the king of literature then, so that was a viable threat.
D: What do you think about that one-draft thing?
KJ: Well, I go over my books anywhere from ten to twenty times, so the one-draft idea makes me break into a cold sweat. (He laughs, and his eyes nearly disappear.) The truth is anyone who can write a story like that in one draft, my hat is off to him. L’Amour made a lot of mistakes in his work, where he changed characters’ names, had people sit down who are already sitting, or others take off their gun belts that they have already taken off or set something down which they have already set down a paragraph before. Fairly small errors in the grand scheme of things, but noticeable, and distracting. But even with that, if a book from L’Amour was from one draft, then I bow to him. I sure couldn’t do it. I deplore the idea of being caught in a writing error of any kind.
D: You started writing in 1994, correct?
KJ: Actually, I wrote my first novel in the sixth grade—but I would be embarrassed to have anyone read it. My first book was published in ninety-four, yes.
D: And you were how old?
KJ (After a moment’s thought): Twenty-eight. And a half. (He laughs. It is a very contagious laugh, I think because it is so genuine.)
D: Did the book you wrote in the sixth grade get published?
KJ: Sort of. Well, yes. I heavily re-wrote it, though. It came out in 1999 as Legend of the Tumbleweed and was very changed from the original. The ending and the beginning were among very few things that stayed close to the same.
D: And you had a best seller in the late nineties, correct?
KJ: Yes, that was called Death of an Eagle. I had readers challenge me to write a novel set in Idaho, so I did after my first three were set in Arizona. They told me they’d buy a book if I wrote one set in Idaho.
D: And did they?
KJ, with another merry laugh: Wow. They sure did. I am still amazed. We printed 5000 books, and they were gone in five months. That might not sound like a lot, but since we are a small publishing company I think it was unheard of. It was good enough to knock every single Western author in the country down the list and put me at the number one spot for the most purchased Western novel in January of 1999, just three months after that book’s release.
D: (I am properly impressed!) And you also won an award from the Western Writers of America?
KJ: I did. Amazingly.
D: Why do you say that?
KJ: Well, as a self-published author, I was in a group that was generally scorned in the industry. Other authors were friendly toward me, but the general consensus was that if a book was self-published it couldn’t possibly be any good.
D: What’s your opinion about that?
KJ, with a big grin and a shrug: Well, I’m not sure I should say!
D: It’s for posterity.
KJ: laughs again: Okay, well, I hate to say it and sound hypocritical, but usually there is a very good reason for the prejudice.
D: How so?
KJ: Well, most self-published books are bad. I mean really bad.
D: Bad in what way?
KJ: In every way, I guess I’d have to say. The story, the plotting, the description, the grammar, the punctuation, and probably the worst is the dialog. I have tried to read a lot of them, and honestly, I can’t make it through one out of twenty. I seriously think I break into a sweat. Most people have really bad need of an editor, and a lot of them really shouldn’t be putting their work in the public at all.
D: Okay, Kirby, I have to say this. From what I have already seen of you, I sense that you feel bad saying this.
KJ: I do. I mean, they say everyone has a book in them, and that is probably true. I know a lot of these guys have really put their heart and soul into what they wrote and they think they did a great job. I cringe when they ask me to do reviews for them.
D: Okay, fair enough. So here is a harder question. I see in you a lot of humility about yourself, and about your work. You are gracious in thanking me for compliments about your art and your books, and your looks—you know, whatever. But I sense that it’s hard for you to publicize yourself, shall we say.
KJ: Yes, I’m told that’s one of my weaknesses. I hate pushing my own stuff on people.
D: I don’t know that it’s a weakness. It seems like a strength to me. But here is the question: What about Kirby Jonas? Does he need an editor? Where does he fit in with all this controversy?
KJ: As far as a self-publisher? Okay. So, Devin, I’m under heavy training on how to talk about myself without being disparaging. (He stops and gives out a hearty laugh. I can sense how embarrassed he is talking about himself this way.) I feel like I am in a group that is extremely small. I have come to grips with the knowledge that God has given me talents to write, and paint, and play the guitar and sing. I also understand that he has given me physical gifts with my looks that give me an edge over other authors when I’m selling myself. (He laughs again.) I feel really stupid saying that.
D: Well, don’t. You’re really only acknowledging your gifts, right? So this small group you’re talking about, let’s hear more about that.
KJ: Well, what I mean is that I am also a proofreader and editor for other authors, and I think I’m in an extreme minority who can safely edit and proofread their own work and get away with it. And where I am also an artist, and I think probably a pretty good one, for my purposes, I am able to paint my own covers, or in some cases where they are photographic to pose for them and portray certain characters, I don’t need to rely on someone else modeling or doing artwork for me.
D: That sounds like a huge plus.
KJ: It is. But it also cost me a publishing contract in 1998.
D: Tell me about that.
KJ: Well, I was a member of Western Writers of America then, and the New York City publishers would come to our conventions so we could meet with them and try to work out publishing contracts. I had one editor who was very impressed with what I had done with my first self-published novel, and he wanted to publish me. But when it came down to it in a phone conversation one night he was giving me a huge fight on doing my own artwork. So I ended up turning his contract down and continued on my own.
D: So you’re saying you actually turned New York down? That’s a gutsy move. Is that common?
KJ: I’m going to make a wild guess and say at the time it was possibly unheard of. At least I had never heard of anything like it.
D: Did you ever regret it?
KJ: Never. That book we argued over the cover of was Death of an Eagle, which is the book that became number one.
D: Wow. Now that is impressive. Did you ever have any contact with the publisher again?
KJ: Oh yeah. I saw them every year at our conventions, and that particular editor after seeing my book go to number one on the national list asked me if I had another manuscript I could send them.
D: And you told him . . . ?
KJ: I feel a little bad admitting the answer.
KJ: Well, at the time I was with a bunch of authors who were there begging editors to look at their work and were having no luck. This guy I’ll just call Don came up in front of all of them to ask me to send him a manuscript, and I turned him down. I probably should have taken him to the side where the others wouldn’t hear. They would have done anything for that kind of opportunity.
D: But not you. Crazy. So . . . It was all about the cover?
KJ: No, not all. I guess I’m just a control freak overall. I had heard too many stories about the New York houses changing their author’s titles, sometimes without even asking them, or challenging them on details in their books that the authors should know and editors who live in New York really had no reason at all to know. I knew what I wanted to write, what I wanted it to look like, and how I wanted to sell it. I had also heard they paid their authors something like two to ten cents a copy, and I was making more like seven to ten dollars each. To me, it really wasn’t much of a choice. And then not long after that, all those publishers started dropping their Western lines, and if I had let my own publishing company go for the next several years and gone with a big house I would have lost a lot of momentum. A lot of fairly successful authors were left out in the cold then because they had no idea and maybe no energy to publish their own work.
D: Let’s take another direction before I forget. So you have been called by fellow authors, readers, and the press, the “New Louis L’Amour”, but now you are also writing in other genres. How did this come about?
KJ: Through craziness. (Jonas laughs.) I think life takes us on strange, unexpected paths sometimes. Back in the nineties, I read a book called Bridge to Terabithia, which as you know became a blockbuster movie of the same name. I was profoundly moved by this book, as well as by Richard Paul Evans’s The Christmas Box. I determined then that one day I would write a non-Western book that dealt with young people, and in particular, something that had an optimistic spiritual feel to it, although not an outright religious book. That led fifteen to twenty years later to my twelfth published book, Samuel’s Angel, which ended up being a largely autobiographical work, and a very self-healing one. I had so much fun writing it and got such great reviews that I have since put out eight other novels that aren’t traditional Westerns.
TO BE CONTINUED WITH PART TWO . . .