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Brian Jay Jones is the executive communications officer in UNM's Office of the President.

 

President Stokes’ speechwriter brings impressive resume back to New Mexico

 When Brian Jay Jones graduated from the University of New Mexico with a degree in English literature, his aspiration to be a novelist was dashed by a realization that he was a terrible fiction writer. Now, with a decades-long career as a legislative staffer and four biography credits in tow, UNM President Garnett Stokes’ official speechwriter has found his own voice in writing by breathing life into others’.

As Stokes’ executive communications manager, Jones helps to coordinate all written and spoken correspondence from the president and gets “last pass” on any speeches to be given by her. Prior to coming to work at UNM, Jones worked as a legislative assistant for senator Pete V. Domenici and later senator Jim Jeffords.

His first job was answering constituent mail on behalf of Domenici before being promoted to handling education policy. Jones came across the job by happenstance; having graduated from UNM as an English major with no prior studies in public policy, he came out of school mostly lost in terms of career direction.

“I sort of backed into landing a job in D.C. Turned out to be a great place to go. Those of us who all worked there together … It was a group of 5 or 6 of us who were all in our early 20s and we were all making like $10,000 a year, we’re living in group houses, none of us had cars. You’d go across the hall when there was a reception and we’d all trickle in there instead of buying food,” Jones said.

Jones said his work in Congress researching and condensing policy questions turned out to pave the way for his work in biography: he has written biographies for Washington Irving, George Lucas, Dr. Suess and perhaps is most notable for being the first person to write a comprehensive biography of Jim Henson, creator of “The Muppets.”

“Every English major thinks that they’re gonna write the great American novel, and I found out I just can’t make stuff up. I’m a terrible plotter … but what I found out from working in Congress was that I was a pretty good explainer, and that’s pretty good practice for biography,” Jones said.

Jones decided to write his first biography after reading the Christmas stories of Washington Irving and subsequently seeking out a biography only to find that there was none. In the spirit of “writing the book you want to read,” Jones started from complete scratch, spending seven years researching and writing and learning how to seek publication by reading “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published.”

James McGrath Morris, best known as the biographer for New Mexico-based novelist Tony Hillerman, met Jones through the Biographers International Organization, a support network for fellow biographers of which Morris was the president, a title later passed down to Jones. Morris credits Jones with helping tremendously to grow the scope of the organization from a small handful of members to a truly international group.

“Many people, when you meet them through your book, your initial impressions will be from their work, and he was in the process of writing a rather remarkable book on Washington Irving, which at first sounds like a dull subject, but he managed to make it very interesting and approached it from a very different point of view,” Morris said.

Jones said he is most proud of his Henson biography, especially since he was the first to complete an official biography of him, despite the fact that several writers before had reached out to the family and were unable to get the blessing to tell Henson’s story. Morris said that part of Jones’ skill as a biographer lies in capturing the culture his subjects encapsulated.

“He’s very plugged into a kind of approach to the culture in which his subject is featured, in the sense that he writes books that, in a way, could be about American culture even though they’re biographies of figures … he has a particularly good ability to capture that. And secondly, like many successful biographers, he’s quite obsessive about the research, and creates these incredible binders with all these interviews that he does and his notes,” Morris said.

Currently, Jones is working on a biographical history of the U.S. Capitol Building. He was spurred to do this after the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, which frustrated him as a former staffer in D.C. He hopes to capture the contentious history that has always surrounded the building, and the ways in which we have been able to come to agreement for the sake of the country.

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“Having been a congressional staffer, Jan. 6 made me really mad. Watching people on the floor of the Senate: that was one of the moments I stood up and was screaming at the screen. There’s people sitting in the speaker’s chair on the floor of the Senate, and I was like, ‘How dare you? You don’t understand the history of that building,’” Jones said. “I want people to understand how special that building is.”

Since coming back to Albuquerque, Jones has enjoyed becoming reacquainted with the city, which he said still feels the same, despite the many changes made since he moved away nearly 30 years ago.

“During the pandemic I just loved … walking my dog out on the mesa and then taking him down to the Bosque. I just love the open spaces around here. Albuquerque looks like nothing else. And I loved D.C., and there was tons of stuff to do in D.C., but it’s not the same as out here,” Jones said.

Zara Roy is the copy chief at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at copychief@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @zarazzledazzle 

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