116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
If you ask author Charles Forrest Jones how it feels to publish his debut novel at age 70, he’ll hit you with some wisdom. “To tell you the truth, I don’t think I could have written a good novel until I was 70.”
“When you’re young you think of opportunity, when you’re in your productive years you think of success. As you get older you start thinking about meaning. And I think only when I began to lock into meaning did I have the kind of literary maturity to write this novel.”
“The Illusion of Simple,” out now from the University of Iowa Press, begins like any good murder mystery — with a body. A group of girl guides finds a severed hand in a field, and local sheriff Billy Spire is called to investigate. Word travels fast in this rural community in western Kansas, and soon Billy is joined by two of his closest colleagues: the town’s mechanic, and a local banker turned state senator.
This literary novel is much more than a mystery: it’s also a deep dive into state politics, the culture of violence and redemption.
“I wanted to write a literary novel about western Kansas, and I used a mystery as a mechanism to pull readers through,” Jones said.
Jones was not an English major — he has a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Kansas — but he did enjoy writing and saw early on how writing and creative thinking skills could help him get ahead.
After graduation, Jones took a temporary job with the Kansas Corporation Commission and joined a team that was tasked with promoting a low energy assistance program. While other group members considered placing ads in the paper, Jones came up with a bigger idea.
“I said: how about we get some big movie start to do a PSA? And everybody just laughed and said, yeah, well, good luck.”
Jones wrote a script and sent it to several people. “About four or five months later I was in a radio studio recording Gregory Peck reading this PSA. I took it back to the office and played it and everyone was just astonished.”
“But it was a matter of one, being able to write a good script, and two, being just sort of out of the box in terms of creativity.”
His writing skills began to open doors within the agency, and soon Jones was being called in to write speeches. “My undergraduate degree was in biology, but I had strong writing skills so I could translate technical matters into ways that were meaningful and compelling to average citizens.”
“When you write speeches, you get very quickly into the weeds of policy: ‘Well, this doesn’t make sense, how do I explain this, are you sure you want to do that?’” Jones then made the quick jump into doing policy analysis.
“When I taught public policy, there’s this tendency to be bloodless on the part of young bureaucrats: ‘We just have to present the numbers.’ And I would say every policy issue is a human story. Otherwise why does this policy matter? And sure, you’ve got to present the numbers, but there’s nothing wrong with telling the human story — being evocative and being compelling.”
Jones explained that good ideas and good numbers aren’t enough to get something through the legislature. “You have to have a good idea, but it has to be well written, well-conceived and compelling.”
“I have spent my whole life in government. For me, writing was always a source of power and success.”
Jones recently retired from directing the Kansas University Public Management Center. But he always had an interest in creative writing. He’d taken a few classes in college and continued writing on his own.
“After awhile I formed a group of the best writers I knew and we met at my apartment and just kept writing. We all had jobs — we were all paying the bills — but they were great. One of them became the poet laureate of the state, one of them became a fairly well-known author, so it was a matter of finding a way to keep one oar in the water through my career.”
“I always said when I retire I’ll get back to it.”
And while writing could be a source of power in his day job, writing creatively during retirement proved to be a method for self-reflection and analysis.
“There’s a great deal of self-consideration that goes into writing a novel. It’s you and a piece of paper. I had a very difficult childhood. I changed schools 12 times before I got out of high school, I lived in 18 houses before I got out of high school. My father couldn’t hold a job. It was really a difficult, pained family, and it didn’t leave me with a tendency towards violence, but it sure left some great capacities to meanness.”
“I dedicate the book to Floyd, George and Francis: these were people who were mentors of mine at the University of Kansas who taught me that if you want to live a good life — meaning affluence, meaning happy, meaningful — that you better start moving away from some of those more animalistic tendencies toward something good. And they could always see more good in me than I could see in myself.”
“So Billy (the protagonist in his novel) is a surrogate multiplied by a 1,000.”
Retirement has been a productive period for Jones. He’s already at work on his second novel, a work of magical realism set in the mountain community of Crete, Colorado, where he lives part of the year.
“It’s probably true for every man — every person — that when you hit retirement, when the phone calls stop and the work ends, there’s a period when you think: who am I without those external presences?”
The answer for Jones seems to be clear: a writer.