WRITERS TELL ALL
Interview with Kelli Jo Ford
Matthew Turbeville: I’m so excited to get to talk with you about your novel, Crooked Hallelujah. First, what a brilliant title. Can you explain or hint at what the title means, and maybe how the book came to you, and briefly what you feel the book is about?
Kelli Jo Ford: Thank you so much, Matthew. I really appreciate you reading the book and giving me the chance to talk about it. The title was one of those things that just sort of came to me early on and always felt right. I was open to other titles, but none ever settled in my gut the way that this one did.
The book came about as a group of characters connected to a place that I couldn’t seem to stop writing about. I was writing stories, one after another, and they kept coming from the same town(s). Eventually it became clear that I was writing something with a larger narrative, and I decided to focus on this family of women, where they are from and where they end up. I think I was always interested in writing about place as much as people.
MT: Who are some of the authors and what are some of the books which helped shape you in your formative years? What are the books you feel have spoken to you recently, and are there any authors or novels you feel are overlooked or underappreciated and need to be more widely read? Feel free to give as many shout outs as you’d like!
KJF: As an undergrad at Loyola, Christopher Chambers directed my honors thesis. I’d never taken a class with him, but he kind of understood what I was trying to do right away. (I certainly didn’t at the time!) He gave me a wonderful list of books to read, a list of books that emphasized place, about people from rural areas, books totally changed who and what I thought literature was supposed to be about. I can’t even remember what all was on that list, in part because some of those books have become so engrained in my life. One book that I know came from Chris is The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. That book was really influential. I studied those stories off and on for years and may not have ever come across it had it not been for a good teacher who took some time to see me.
I returned to Love Medicine again and again while writing Crooked Hallelujah. For me, that book is perfect in its form. I love the short story, probably first and foremost. But I also love the way that Erdrich wove together this epic tale of people and place, using beautifully rendered short stories as fiber.
I went back to Dylan Landis’s Normal People Don’t Live Like This, a linked collection, pretty often through the years. I loved the way she was able to enter the lives and minds of the girls she wrote about and capture their culture and city in doing so. I love that book, but I haven’t heard many people talking about it.
To be honest, I have really struggled to both read and write since February. The last books I read and couldn’t put down were Miriam Toews’ Women Talking, Lily King’s Writers & Lovers, and
Megan Giddings’ Lakewood. There’s so much going on right now, but 2020 is such an exciting year for fiction. Already, we’ve had extraordinary debut novels by Alexandra Chang, Z. Pam Zhang, and Megha Majumdar. Soon we’ll be graced with books like Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden, Inheritors by Asako Serizawa, and Shruti Swamy’s A House Is a Body. I feel sure these books will find their readers. I’m definitely cheering for them.
MT: What is your writing process like—time of day, how you write (longhand, computer, etc), do you have anything necessary for a great writing experience and environment others may not anticipate or readily guess?
KJF: Before I became a mom, I wrote in long, obsessive stretches. I might not write for a while, then I’d sort of catch fire, and fit whatever I was working on into every available moment and many that weren’t available at all. I don’t have the time to work that way anymore, of course. And, honestly, I’m still learning how I write as a mom. I try to get up early and make that time sacred. But I don’t really sleep much now, so even if I get up early (easy if you’re already awake!), I find that I struggle to get much done. I guess I’m better in the afternoons, but that time is not really available to me. What I am saying is: I am having a hard time writing.
MT: Where do you think Native Americans currently stand in American literature? Sure, we have Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich, and they’re wonderful staples, but who do you think is shaping up to be the next great voice for Native Americans, and do you think room is even being made for the entry of new voices? Minorities can be silenced often even when stories, like your novel, are so essential and need to be told.
KJF: It seems like a few doors have opened to some extent, and some really great Native writers are getting an opportunity to publish books that reach a wide audience. It is a good thing that when I think of the list of folks I’d like to shout out, it gets so long that I know I’ll leave people out.
However, I don’t really feel equipped to say where Native Americans stand in literature. For one, that’s a really big question, and I’m not a scholar. And two, I’d refer people to the work that people like Erika T. Wurth is doing. Giants like David Treuer.
I don’t think any of us should have to carry the weight of being the next great literary voice for Native Americans! I hope Native writers have the opportunity to write the stories we are called to write and that those stories can stand (or fall) on their own as literature.
MT: You write through multiple points of view and you delve deep into the brains of these people, never sugarcoating anything. How hard was this, both structurally and emotionally?
KJF: Structurally, it was hard to figure out how to best tell the larger story of the book. I wasn’t always set on a chronological order. However, as I worked on revisions with my agent, it became clear (through no small amount of convincing on his part!) that chronological was the best way
to help orient readers in the multitude of voices and points of view. Emotionally, there were definitely sections that were tough. I had a hard time, for instance, during the early stories when Reney is witnessing violence. It took me a while to revise those and get them right as a result. Writing “Consider the Lilies” broke my heart more than once.
MT: What was the hardest part about writing this novel, and how long did it take you to complete it? I know most authors have a moment like this so I’ll just ask: was there ever a point where you thought you’d given up, and if so, what part of the book almost did you in?
KJF: The hardest parts were figuring out where the book started, which stories to include and cull, and how to order the stories. As for how long I worked on it, the short answer “is a long time!” The longer one is that it’s hard to say. As I sort of mentioned above, I didn’t realize I was writing a book and certainly not this book for quite some time. I would say I worked on what became the book for well over ten years. I really intentionally worked on this book for at least eight years.
I don’t think I ever seriously thought about giving up. There was at least one long stretch after grad school when I felt burned out by writing in general and wasn’t sure I understood how to approach it anymore. I took a long break, and eventually I found myself writing again.
MT: Which character were you most attached to, and upon finishing the book, which character did you miss the most, or anticipate missing the most? Do you ever feel authors can get too attached to their characters?
KJF: Interesting question! I was probably most attached to the Granny character, the child version of Reney, and Lula and Justine in every iteration. So…all of the main characters? I am not sure I am totally done with Justine and Reney, to be honest. And there was a version of the book that had a short short about the Granny character as a girl being picked up at an orphanage by a distant aunt. Though most days I am ready to move on from these characters, I wouldn’t be surprised if any of them come back and demand to be let out. I am sure that authors can get too attached to their characters and that I am certainly that author.
MT: What advice do you give to any writers who are struggling to make their names known in the writing community and become a part of this great world you’re contributing to? Are there any tips or words of advice you can give?
KJF: I’d probably give them the same advice I could use on any given day. Keep going. Don’t worry so much. Work hard and hold yourself to the highest of standards, but if you need to step away, let yourself. Have faith in yourself and whatever brought you to the work. Just try to write the very best thing you can. Spend time reading what inspires and challenges you. Spend time making your work the very best you can. Put your energy there, and allow the rest to fall into place.
MT: Are you writing anything new now? Is there a work-in-progress you can hint about? We’d love to hear—I’m already a big fan!
KJF: Thank you again, Matthew! You are very kind. I have an idea, lots of notes, and a rough start for a novel. But I’ve never really written something that arose from an idea. So in some sense, I feel like I am starting all over. Don’t people say that that’s what each book does, teach you how to write anew? Fingers crossed! But, in this world of spotty paychecks, no childcare, isolation from family, global pandemic, and righteous social uprisings, I am struggling to write at all. I want to and I believe I will, but we’re just kind of getting through each day as it comes.
MT: I want to thank you for letting me interview you, and everyone Crooked Hallelujah is going to be out in bookstores soon, so please do preorder (from your local indie or whatever you prefer) and support great authors like Kelli Jo Ford. Thank you again and please feel free to leave us with any thoughts, ideas, lingering questions or issues you had, and know that we are so lucky to have you as a writer, and someone contributing so much to this world.
KJF: Matthew, I just want to say thank you. I really appreciate the work that you are doing to amplify literary voices. Thank you all for spending so much time thoughtfully considering Crooked Hallelujah and allowing me the space to think about it in new ways. Take care.