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Novel Excursions

Idaho writer Kelly Jones on her second novel and storytelling


Studies show that more than 80 percent of Americans want to write a novel. Self-publishing and blogging are available to anyone with a computer and Internet access, so it's easier than ever to get a book out, but harder than ever for some books, even really good ones, to stand out in the crowd.

That hasn't been a problem for one local writer. Boise-based author Kelly Jones has written two books of fiction--The Seventh Unicorn and The Lost Madonna--that are clearly head and shoulders above the rest. Boise Weekly had a chance to sit down with Jones and talk about her novels.

BW: Your first novel, The Seventh Unicorn, has been published in 11 languages. How did that happen?

Kelly Jones: It was all done through my agent, who worked with an international agency, so the co-agents took care of the translations and all that.

Your novels both seem to me like stories that would appeal more to a female audience, with themes like motherhood and lost love.

Yes, I thought The Seventh Unicorn was a woman's novel. But I was totally surprised by the reaction I got from men. It just floored me.

Really positive?

Yeah! Since I wrote the novel in two voices [one male and one female], maybe men can identify with Jake. He's kind of a bad boy, yet he ends up OK. Also, one of the men who read the book is a friend from high school who is an artist; he seemed especially touched by the book because it expresses how he feels about his art. So I was really surprised--a nice surprise!

Did you have an image of this as a feminist novel?

Not really. But [medieval] Adele didn't have the choices that [the modern protagonist] Alex does, so I see that as maybe an undercurrent of feminism. I grew up in the '60s and '70s just when women were starting to have more choices, so it wasn't intentional, but I think that equality for women is part of who I am.

In what other ways does your life inform your work?

Knowing how it feels to be the mother of a small child, for instance. In The Lost Madonna, I'm writing from the point of view of a middle-aged woman (which, of course, I am) and also of a younger woman. The way you look at things does change as you grow, and I think that showed up in the character of Suzanne. I did have people say that they thought Alex was very much like me, and I suppose all my characters have something of me in them. In my second novel, I actually gave Suzanne some of my physical characteristics; I grew up in Twin Falls, and so did she. But she makes stupid decisions that hopefully I don't [laughs]. I thought this story was so far from my life that no one would think it was me. I did have an adventure in Florence when I was young, but it wouldn't have made a very exciting book!

You give credit to your writing group at The Cabin. Could you talk about your writing process and how the literary community works into that?

I've decided to try to write on my own for a while, but with my first two novels, the writing group was extremely helpful on so many levels­--editing, picking up technical details, language. The way I write, I feel uncomfortable sharing unless it's to a point where I can't see what's wrong with it. So I'd go for maybe a year without taking anything in to the group because I like to get through the first draft, then edit the first chapter myself before getting others to read it.

Your first novel took you about seven years. With your second novel, did you feel like you had honed the process so that it took less time?

Not really. It took so long with the first one to get an agent; I sent between 70 and 80 letters to agents over a three-or four-year period. Lots of rejections! In the meantime, while I was trying to get an agent for The Seventh Unicorn (and continually rewriting it), I was also working on The Lost Madonna at the same time. So it's hard to say how long it took. Going back and forth--really, I was working on different stages of both novels at the same time.

Is there one part of the process that you absolutely love or dread?

I love the research, since I travel to do that. My husband also likes to travel, and we're lucky, being in a position where the kids are grown, and we have the time to do it. That part I love. The first draft is very difficult--I think that's the hardest part. Every once in a while you get into a state of mind where it's flowing, and you're just going along with the story; I like that, but it doesn't actually happen very often. I like tweaking the final draft, once I've got the basic story line down, but the first draft is difficult.

Can you give a little hint about what you're working on now?

It's a novel set in Germany. I've enjoyed writing about art, and this deals with modern art--an art movement in Munich in the early 1900s. It's similar to my first two books in that it goes back and forth in time.

If I say the words "DaVinci Code"...?

[Laughs] I admire Dan Brown, that he can write a book that will get people so interested. The Seventh Unicorn, because it has a main character who is a museum curator, was compared to The DaVinci Code, but at the time, I hadn't heard of that book! I also started my novel before Tracy Chevalier's Girl with the Pearl Earring came out.

Both of those books have been made into movies; I wonder if you've had any offers?

An offer for a movie based on my novel? No [laughs]. It would be wonderful! I did have someone express interest--a TV producer picked it up in an airport, and she called a few times. Don't get excited. I haven't heard from her in a while. But who knows?

What is the one thing you hope to communicate to your readers?

Hmmm. Oh, I hate questions like that: "Why am I doing this?" [Laughs] I see myself as a storyteller. I think my purpose is to entertain people. I hope along the way I might educate them a little bit. I think there's some interesting information about art in my novels, and some interesting places. I hope maybe my readers will even gain something from my characters--the situations they've been in and the decisions they've made. But I think I see myself primarily as a storyteller.

Kelly Jones will read from The Lost Madonna on March 22 at 7:30 p.m. $4 members, $6 non-members. The Cabin, 801 S. Capitol Blvd., 208-331-8000,