Jones was born in Lower Hutt in 1955, and attended Hutt Valley High School and Victoria University of Wellington. Despite fulfilling the requirements of a political science degree, Jones was unable to graduate from university due to library fines owing at the time but he completed his course of study. He was the recipient of an honorary doctorate from Victoria University in May 2009.
Jones's older brother is property investor and former politician Sir Bob Jones.
In 1988, Jones was the recipient of the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship. In 1994 he curated an exhibition which illustrated the New Zealand Saturday. The work was a collaboration with photographer Bruce Foster and held at the National Library in Wellington. The work was published as The Last Saturday and included historical photographs, contemporary photographs by Foster and an essay by Jones.
In May 2003, a theatrical adaptation of Jones' novel The Book of Fame was presented at Wellington's Downstage Theatre.
In May 2007, Jones won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Overall Best Book Award for his novel Mister Pip. The novel is set during the Bougainville Civil War of the early 1990s in Papua New Guinea. The book was also short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2007.
Jones was the 2007 recipient of the Creative New Zealand Berlin Writers' Residency.
Awards and honours
1989 Meridian Energy Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship
1991 New Zealand Book Award
2001 Montana Book Awards Deutz Medla
2002 Montana Book Awards (New Zealand)
2003 Tasmania Pacific Fiction Prize
2004 Spectrum Print Book Design Award
2004 the Russell Clark Award for distinguished contribution to illustration at the LIANZA Children's Book Awards
2005 New Zealand Post Book Award
2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize
2005 Storylines Notable Non-fiction Book
2007 Montana Book Awards (New Zealand)
2007 Man Booker Prize for Fiction
2007 Creative New Zealand Berlin Writers Residency
2008 Antarctica New Zealand Arts Fellowship
2008 Arts Foundation New Zealand Laureate
2008 Kiriyama Prize
2008 British Book Awards Richard & Judy Best Read of the Year
2008 Booksellers Association Independent Booksellers' Book Prize
2008 Prime Minister's Awards for Literary Achievement
Honorary Doctorate Degree from Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand in 2009.
Gilmore's Dairy (1985)
Swimming to Australia, and Other Stories (1991)
Biografi: An Albanian Quest (1993) – a New York Times Notable Book.
This House Has Three Walls (1997)
Choo Woo (1998)
Book of Fame (2000) – winner of the Deutz Medal for Fiction at the 2001 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.
Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance (2002) – shortlisted in the 2002 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.
Napoleon and the Chicken Farmer (2003) – winner of an Honour Award in the Picture Book category at the NZ Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults in 2004.
Everything You Need to Know about the World by Simon Eliot, illustrated by Timon Maxey (Four Winds Press, 2004); US title, Everything You Need to Know About the World (2007)
Paint Your Wife (2004)
Mister Pip (2006) – recipient of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Book in South East Asia and the South Pacific and Overall Best Book. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2007.
Hand Me Down World (2010)
The Man in the Shed (2011)
A History of Silence: A memoir (Auckland: Penguin, 2013)