As Boise Weekly was ending its conversation with Idaho author Kelly Jones, we asked her to autograph a copy of her just-published book Evel Knievel Jumps the Snake River Canyon ... and Other Stories Close to Home (Ninth Avenue Press, June 2014).
"The hardest thing for me to do is thinking of something to say when I'm asked to sign a book," she said. "What do you want me to say?"
Far be it from BW to tell Jones, author of seven mystery novels, published by Berkley Books, what to write. Eventually, Jones wrote she hoped we would "enjoy a visit to Twin Falls and the Snake River Canyon" through her new book.
Indeed, her story felt familiar and exciting, like re-living the days surrounding Evel Knievel's ill-fated jump over the Snake River, which landed Twin Falls on the front pages of the world's newspapers in September 1974.
"But my story is fiction," she said.
That was only one of the surprises in our conversation with Jones, in which we talked about self-publishing, her discomfort with self-promotion and her story's theme of (pardon the pun) good versus "Evel."
Do you recall Evel Knievel's 1974 jump?
I was there. I grew up in Twin Falls.
Is that why you wrote this book?
That's part of the reason. Plus, I thought it would be quite relevant because the 40th anniversary of the jump is coming up in a few weeks.
It's interesting to note that none of your other books have taken place in Idaho.
That's right; they're set in Munich, Paris, Florence, Italy, and my next book, coming out in January, is set in Prague. I had a very lovely childhood, but honestly, I never thought that I would have a story set in Twin Falls.
So, was your Evel Knievel story tucked somewhere deep in your memory?
When I saw the jump in 1974, I was eight-months pregnant, and I thought I might write the story through the eyes of a woman who was pregnant. But then I talked with my brother--he's 13 years younger than me--and asked him about what he remembered. And he got all excited, just like a boy, in sharing his memories. I thought, "OK, I have to tell this story through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy."
I guess the biggest surprise for me was that your book is fiction.
That's right. It's the story of what happens to that boy, in a summer of youth and innocence; but Evel Knievel comes to town to jump the Snake River Canyon. I guess it's a story of good versus... [long pause] well, to some degree, good versus Evel.
Where is the tension in your story?
The boy's dad has died in Vietnam, and his mother has to find work, so she leaves the boy to stay with his grouchy old grandma in Twin Falls. And then there's Uncle Buddy, out of work, until he gets a job with Evel Knievel when he comes to town. All of a sudden, the boy doesn't want to leave Twin Falls until that jump happens.
But your book isn't being distributed through your traditional publisher.
Oh my, no. My other books have been published by Berkley Books, part of the Penguin Group. They publish mainly women's fiction. This wouldn't have been a fit.
Most would-be authors wouldn't know where to begin in order to self-publish.
Honestly, I didn't either.
Was it more daunting or pretty much what you hoped it would be?
A little bit of both. I talked to a lot of people through the Idaho Writers Guild and realized that I couldn't do most of it myself. I had a design artist [Brian Florence at Steamroller Studios] do my cover and had Sarah Tregay of [Pete Wilson] DesignWorks do my interior design. Believe me, if you have computer skills, which I don't, it's a lot less expensive.
But the most important piece is retail. How are you putting this into bookstores?
The people at Rediscovered Books have been quite lovely. We're making sure that they have a selection of signed books. I must say, though, that the marketing piece is so hard for me.
But what's the point of writing something like this if people don't read it?
I know. I must admit that I really do want to share this story.
Two celebrated Idaho authors, Kathy McIntosh and Alan Heathcock, agree that your story is worth sharing. McIntosh wrote that you have "an exquisite sense of place that brings back treasured memories of a life less-complicated." And Heathcock wrote that he "adored being transported" into your world.
I know. I'm overwhelmed by how generous they were.
It's also worth noting your career as an author came in the second stage of your life.
I'm a mom of two, stepmom of one more, and grandma to eight. I never saw myself as a writer. I took a creative writing class at Boise State--it was about 30 years ago. I thought at the time, "Hey, this is fun." So I kept writing.
But I'm assuming you had a full-time job.
I worked at the Idaho State Tax Commission. But I have to tell you that I was disgusted with the commission and I hated it. One day I asked myself, "What am I doing here?" My husband asked, "Why don't you quit?" That was 1997.
How long did it take before you were first published?
I wrote two other books before my first published book, The Seventh Unicorn, came out. That was in 2005. My fifth book will come out in 2014.
That's a pretty good track record. How many books do you have in you?
I don't know. Let's find out.