Interview with Kirby Jonas, Part 2
D: What are the two new books you’ve just put out, and when do they take place?
KJ: Russet, a book about a high school football player which takes place in 1955 in my hometown of Shelley, and Lockdown for Lockwood, my first full-fledged mystery novel and the number 3 book in my 1972-73 series, Savage Law, which is based out of Lemhi County, and the town of Salmon, in particular.
D: Savage Law. That’s the series with the photographic covers where you portray the sheriff. Those are beautiful covers.
KJ: Thank you. We’ve lucked out with great models and a wonderful cover designer. That’s another area where we’ve been very fortunate.
D: What was your inspiration for Russet? And we’re talking about the Shelley Russets, correct? Did you play ball for the Russets?
KJ: No, that’s the funny thing. I never played football. I never played any sports at all. My inspiration, or the part of it I can recall, came from my Uncle Burdett, who according to all accounts was the most famous ball player ever to come out of Shelley, and went on to be optioned by the San Francisco Forty-niners, then played for the Calgary Stampeders. I used my grandfather, Arch Hess, who was sheriff of Bingham County for twenty-three years and former police chief of Shelley, as the sheriff in the book—Russet’s father Arch Blevins.
D; Can you give us an idea of the story in Russet without any spoilers?
KJ: Sure. The main character, James Russet Blevins, is an 18-year-old senior in high school who was held back at the end of the first grade because he wouldn’t concentrate on his work—thanks to his obsession with football. Now this young man, known as Russ, is the star halfback of the Russets football team and is beginning to pull away emotionally from a lot of the people who have meant the most to him in his life. Pride goeth before the fall, you know. It is a rough downhill slide, with a lot of turmoil for Russ’s family and friends before he is forced to make choices that may change his life forever—and the lives of a lot of those around him.
D: Wow. I’m already sold. And that’s the biggest novel you’ve done, correct?
KJ: Yes, and it’s crazy. I wasn’t sure I could find enough to write about to get a decent-sized book out of that story idea, and then when it was all said and done I had to cut the font size down a point and it still ended up at six hundred and twenty pages.
D: Giving War and Peace a run for its money! (Jonas laughs. If you haven’t figured it out, Jonas does that a lot, and it truly has set me more at ease than perhaps any other public figure I’ve ever interviewed.)
D: What about Lockdown for Lockwood?
KJ: That is the third book in my Savage Law series, which begins on Halloween night of 1972 and is set in the Lemhi River Valley. Technically, it’s the fourth book, because the first one had to be divided in two because it was so big.
D: Bigger than Russet?
KJ, with another laugh: No, not that big. We just didn’t have any experience with huge books yet. It was around five hundred and ninety pages.
D: And so you decided not to paint the covers of that series but to use photographs.
KJ: Yes, but we had already done that with the five books before.
D: And you were on those as well?
KJ: Only on one of them, a book set in the Soda Springs and Pocatello area called Drygulch to Destiny.
D: Okay, so for me sitting here talking to you face to face, this probably sounds silly to ask, but for my readers, what led you to choose to be on the covers?
KJ: I was the cheapest model I could find.
We both share a good laugh over that comment. Jonas is great at poking fun at himself. But I think he knows the truth as much as I do.
D: Okay, be serious for a moment and pretend you are someone else and looking for a model for your books. Why choose Kirby Jonas?
KJ: That really puts me on the spot! But I guess I know I have been given a gift from God with my appearance, and I’ve worked really hard to keep in good shape. I also know I will always be ready to portray this character and that whatever clothing I want to put on him will fit, and I guess the list goes on. I don’t know if that answers your question.
D: (I have to laugh at Jonas’s embarrassed demeanor.) It does, pretty much. The short of it is, from my point of view and the point of view of probably anyone else who experiences Kirby Jonas, it would seem like a waste not to use you. I mean seriously, you have that Tom Selleck, Kurt Russell, Charles Bronson, Burt Reynolds kind of look about you that Hollywood was always looking for and had so much success with. Why waste a good thing if you’ve got it? And especially if you’ll model for free, right? (To this, I just get a laugh and a shrug. I think I’ve gone over the threshold of Jonas’s comfort level talking about his looks.)
D: I hear these rumors that you use real people for your books.
KJ: I do. Quite a few of them. Sometimes I have to change their names, if I’m not using them in the greatest light. But usually they are some of the “good guys”. The town mechanic, the auto body guy, the banker, the saddle maker, the prosecuting attorney, the deputy, one of the town defense attorneys.
D: That sounds like a lot of fun. Maybe you’ll need a reporter in there sometime. (I say this with a grin.)
KJ: If you’re not careful, I might!
(There is a stack of Jonas’s books near us, and I pick one off the top of the stack, his first Savage Law book, Law of the Lemhi, Part One.
D: This blond lady is really striking. Who is she?
KJ: Her name is Ashley Bullock, and she lives here in Idaho. Her mother and I are friends, and when I went looking for a model to portray the female lead in the book she sent me a photo of Ashley.
D: And she was a perfect fit.
KJ: That’s the funny part—no! My character had dark brown hair and is part Lakota Sioux. But Ashley was so beautiful and just had that look about her that fit the spunky, sassy attitude of my character, Maura PlentyWounds, so well that I decided to re-write her as a blonde.
D: PlentyWounds. What an intriguing name!
KJ: It was the name of a local Shoshone I knew of on our nearby Fort Hall reservation when I was a cop.
D: You were a cop too? I knew you were a firefighter.
KJ: Yes. I was a wildland firefighter first, then became a cop, which I think I gravitated toward because of my grandfather and because I didn’t want to go to the four years of school I had to have to be a Fish and Game officer. I moved to the fire department after three years.
D: And never looked back?
KJ: Well, I feel bad saying it, but that really isn’t true. In my heart I was always a law enforcement officer. I loved being a firefighter and helping people, but my true love was always law enforcement, and if it hadn’t been for the unfortunate aspect of being in court all the time I might have stayed. And I think most of my firefighter colleagues would agree that I never quite fit in there. I was the department black sheep most of the time, with a few glaring exceptions.
D: Why do you think that is?
KJ: I always wondered that, but I think I recently came up with the answer. When I was a cop I was always in my own car alone. I was my own boss and making my own decisions. When I became a firefighter I always had to be with at least two other people, and that was never my comfort zone. Never my style. Too many times I felt like I knew how something should be done, but I had to get it approved through a captain, some of whom weren’t the sharpest thinkers or had downright the worst possible tunnel vision in the universe on emergency calls. That is a terrible weakness for a firefighter to have, especially one who’s in charge of a crew, but sadly it was an ailment suffered all too often. It drove me up the wall.
D: That’s interesting. You seem to be really at ease with people.
KJ: Thanks. Well, it’s a strange thing. I am at ease with people, and I love to visit, but on my own time and by my own choice. I just never liked being forced to be with people, some of whom I honestly couldn’t stand to be in the same room with. There was a lot of personality clash in the fire department over the years, and it seemed like I ended up with the gamut of some of the absolute most horrible captains conceivable as well as some of the very best. I love some of those guys and would do anything for them, but I have to admit I spent most of my spare time in my room after regular hours working on books while most of the other guys were out watching TV. I was self-ostracized. Kind of the embodiment of the quintessential Western loner I write so much about.
D; Thank you for sharing your heart. I guess that was pretty hard. So what are your future book plans?
KJ: That’s a big question! I am working on Jinx, a novel set in Pocatello (his current city of residence) during the Great Depression about a thirteen-year-old boy and his struggling family, who live south of town. All three of my sons are characters in the book and will be on the cover. I am also starting a couple more traditional Westerns, which is still what people know me for the most, and a series about this strange, phenomenal young man who through freak circumstances was born with the bizarre ability to heal people with just his touch but who has to wander the country prior to and during the Depression, staying one step in front of the law because he is wanted for a murder he didn’t commit. Lastly, I am in the beginning stages of what may be my most monumental work, a historical novel on the Teton Dam Disaster of 1976.
D: Holy smokes! Those really are some big plans. But it sounds like you’re up to the task, from everything I’ve read about you. You said you are known most for your Westerns, and this seems to be true. Does this hamper your ability to successfully market your other books?
KJ: Sadly, it does. I admit I suspected this might be the case when I went down this road, although those who are brave enough to step out of the box to read them end up loving them. I probably get more correspondence and compliments on the non-Western books than I do on my Westerns, which really surprises me since the sales aren’t anywhere close. The trick is getting people who want that style of book to be aware that they are out there.
D: Why do you think the people who read them are so compelled by them?
KJ: I think because they are more immediate stories, in settings and in a time that are much more familiar with many more people, and readers are more able to relate to these characters than to people in the faraway “Old West”. I’m able to rebuild entire towns, schools, churches, etc., either from my own memories or from other people who were actually there.
D: What is your biggest regret, if any, in all the years of writing?
KJ: That is actually a funny question I’ve thought about a lot. And I have what will sound like a strange answer. My biggest regret, which is true with my Westerns, but I feel it more sharply in my more current works, is that I get to know these people, many of whom become almost like family to me, and I get to know these towns and settings so well, that it breaks my heart to leave them all behind and return to real life in modern times. Even to this day, when I go back to Shelley it just seems “off”, because in my mind and heart Shelley should look like it did in 1977, or 1955. And Salmon should look the way it did in the 1970’s. What I have created in my books has made the historical towns that real for me. I think this might be truly the only regret I have in my writing. I don’t deal well with change, or with the modern world we live in overall.
I won’t deny the deep sadness I feel as the sun slips behind the hills and I realize I’ve probably long overstayed my welcome at the Jonas home. I have felt a warmth here, both from Jonas and his wife, and even from his dogs, that I truly regret having to drive away from. This house, which looks so humble on the outside and is set in a forest that Jonas and his family have spent countless hours, and years, building up around them, and inside is such a treasure trove, will always hold wonderful memories for me, and I hope that perhaps Jonas has felt a little of the same connection to me that I have with him.
This is a gentleman who could truly be pretty haughty and arrogant, yet who exudes humility like it’s going out of style, and I know I could be happy spending many more hours in this home and getting to know his entire family, since I have to believe that any children raised by people like the Jonases must be pretty great as well.
Jonas shakes my hand with that wonderfully strong, firm grip I first experienced, and his lovely wife hands me a set of the four books from his Savage Law series as a gift. They tell me goodbye and wait to see me safely out of their long, steep driveway.
It is with a lot of mixed feelings that I pass through the big brown metal gate and pull back onto the asphalt, then drive away from one of the most intriguing, enjoyable interviews I’ve ever done, with one of the humblest, most kind men I have had the pleasure to meet in my writing career.