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.
Apologies for freaking out but Samantha Downing is the biggest thriller writer working today, and she talked to us!
Matthew Turbeville: Samantha, I’m so excited to talk to you. I’ve been the biggest fan since your novel My Lovely Wife was first published, and I really feel like He Started It is perhaps the best sophomore novel in years. Can you tell me about how you came up with the idea, and without spoiling the reader, hint at how you’ve developed some of the twists?
Samantha Downing: Thank you so much, what an incredible thing to say! I originally came up with the idea when a friend told me about a recent road trip with her family. They had a bunch of problems along the way – a flat tire, a trip to Urgent Care when someone got sick, a stolen wallet. Nothing as dramatic as what ended up in the book, but it made me think about using a road trip for the basis of my next book.
MT: What’s your favorite part of writing a novels like this? I’ve had to put the book down numerous times, mainly because I’m either terrified or laughing so hard I can’t handle the book. The characters can be both terrifying and hilarious, sometimes back to back. Who are these characters, and how did you decide how to develop them and how they would fit into the novel?
SD: The characters aren’t based on anyone specific, but parts of them are. My goal is always to create compelling characters. They may not be people you love or people you want to hang out with, but I hope readers find them interesting enough to keep reading. There’s a long history of characters like this. Hannibal Lecter isn’t someone you want to have dinner with but he’s fascinating! So are Amy and Nick from Gone Girl, and Joe from You. When I’m writing, I don’t think about the characters are likeable or unlikeable at all. I honestly don’t think it matters as long as the characters are interesting.
MT: What are the books you feel helped shape the way you wrote this novel? What did you read between your first book and your second that really changed the way you wrote these two novels, and how very different they are?
SD: I’ve read a lot of thrillers over the past year. I love Kaira Rouda’s books, and Robyn Harding has become one of my favorites. The Swap was one of my favorite books I’ve read. It’s dark and creepy and everything I love! I also loved The Whisper Man by Alex North, which has a gut-punch of a twist.
MT: There’s a big issue of what a heroine is. In your mind, what do you think a heroine is, and how is your heroine different from Emma or Madame Bovary or Scarlett O’Hara? Do you feel they’re that different at all?
SD: I think the definition of a heroine has evolved over the past years. She doesn’t have to be perfect, but there are standards—specifically for women. I mention a few of them in He Started It. For example, a wife who cheats. It’s acceptable for men but not for women. For example, look at the TV show Mad Men. Don Draper cheats on his wife a lot, yet somehow it’s totally acceptable for him to be the anti-hero of that show.
Now imagine the same show with a female lead that cheats on her husband all the time. I suspect that show would never have been made.
MT: When writing the novel—and when writing any novel—how do you plot things out? Do you sort of just write, or do you plot things meticulously? The book counts down days and states, so it seems like you’d have a lot planned, but I wonder if a lot of the planning comes in revisions and rewrites. Will you tell us a little of how you work?
SD: Actually, I don’t plot at all. I don’t outline. I just start writing from chapter one and go from there. It’s an organic process for me, and that’s what makes it so fun. I discover the story the same way someone does when they read the book. Of course, that means lots of revisions but the process works for me. Outlining does not.
MT: When did you decide about the dynamics between the siblings, and was there ever a sibling you did or didn’t like? Do you go into your writing judging the characters, or are you trying to keep a distance? How quickly could you sink into Beth’s mindset, and was it hard to think outside of her own mind and thoughts or was it easy to understand each character, no matter how you the writer and us the reader get into Beth’s head?
SD: I don’t judge my character at all, nor do I think of them as likeable or unlikeable. I write them as they are now, given the background they have and the family they came from. It’s always difficult to write a book—any book, regardless of who the characters are—and I’m not sure mine are any more difficult than anyone else’s.
These characters are siblings with a lifelong history together, so once I figured that part out the rest of it came naturally. Siblings have rivalries, they have established relationships with one another. For instance, Beth’s relationship with her brother Eddie is very different than her relationship with her little sister, Portia. Creating the bonds they have, and how they affected their actions, makes writing them a lot easier.
MT: You wrote what some might call (I hope not) a #metoo novel but you never talk on the nose or use the term “#metoo,” etc. I really appreciate it (just like I do with any political or social issue) because I feel it’s so much effective when you show things—not to be too deep into spoilers, but the slamming of fists, for example—and we understand so much more than the character explaining a social justice issue to us. Did you find it hard to go deep into showing and not telling, or is this something that comes natural to you? You do such a good job of presenting evidence, foreshadowing to how a character could be and why we might fear him or her, and I wonder if this comes easy to you?
SD: Actually, I don’t see this as a #metoo novel at all! It’s funny how people interpret things differently. One of my pet peeves at the moment is calling a book a “feminist” thriller or “feminist” suspense novel. Feminism means equality. That’s it. But now, post-metoo, it’s being used to mean revenge.
Again, my focus is on the characters in the book and doesn’t focus on any political or social commentary. Beth’s reaction to things is based on what she has experience in her past, yet some women may relate to it because Beth is a woman. And that’s great. If people relate to my characters—good, bad, or a mixture—then I feel like I’ve done my job.
MT: In what ways do you really feel women are changing literature, and more specifically crime fiction? Why do you think it’s so important that we’re getting to see the points of views of writers of color, queer writers, female writers, etc? Do you think we’re getting to see different crimes, or maybe different angles of various crimes, or perhaps viewing traditional characters differently?
SD: I think everyone has a voice – all genders, all races, all religions, all sexual orientations. For me personally, it’s fascinating to read a book that comes from a completely different viewpoint or background than my own. It feels like more and more people are beginning to appreciate that there are great books written by all kinds of people, regardless of whether you have anything in common with them or not. A great book is a great book, period.
MT: You’re rapidly becoming my favorite author, but not just me. My grandmother keeps a hardcover of My Lovely Wife on her table. She tells people like her dog groomers to read the book, and they love it. My mother is very serious about our “quality time” listening to the audio of My Lovely Wife and will not hesitate to shush me if I comment on a scary or funny scene. What do you think is so appealing to, really, everyone about your books?
SD: Thank you so much! I have no idea why it’s so appealing, but I’m so grateful that it is! My Lovely Wife is a pretty dark book, so I didn’t know how many people would like it. I’m so happy to learn there are a lot of people who enjoy this sort of dark, satirical type of thriller.
MT: In My Lovely Wife, we see bonds between husband and wife, and we do to an extent with He Started It as well, but what about the bonds between siblings? What’s so interesting to you and other crime writers about family connections of various kinds, and which did you have more fun writing about and examining? Which did you feel you learned more about when you wrote?
SD: Siblings have a bond, and a shared history, like no other. You may have friends you grew up with, but they didn’t have the same parents and they didn’t live in the same house. Your siblings did. They know exactly how to push your buttons. They know embarrassing things about your childhood – who you had a crush on, who broke your heart, the bad things you got away with and the ones you didn’t. It’s really a relationship that can’t ever be replicated because it happened during your formative years, and that’s fascinating to me.
MT: What’s the most important thing you feel you’ve learned when you’ve written, and will you share it with readers?
SD: The most important thing is how I feel when I’m writing. If I’m bored, the reader will be bored. Guaranteed. That’s when I use the delete button. A lot of writers will disagree with me on that, and I know a lot of writers save everything they’ve written, even if they don’t look at it ever again. I don’t. If it doesn’t work, and I know it doesn’t work, there’s no point is saving it. Delete.
MT: Can you give us a hint as to what’s coming next? Do you have a work in process?
SD: I’m currently in edits for my third book. It’s another thriller but that’s all I can say right now!
MT: Samantha, THANK YOU so much for letting me interview you. We at Writers Tell All love you so much. I am so thankful that you exist at all and that you’re sharing your work with the world. Your novels have helped save me in various ways when I needed them, and I’m sure they will continue to do the same for various other readers. Thank you, and please, if you have any lingering questions, comments, or thoughts, leave them below. Thank you again.
SD: Thank you so much for having me! These have been really thought-provoking questions, and I truly appreciate that. You’ve been a fantastic supporter of my books and I can’t thank you enough!