Published March 4, 2021

Kelli Jo Ford, author of Crooked Hallelujah, is a debut author who was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and a Publishers Weekly Best Fiction Books of 2020. She has work published or forthcoming in The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Missouri Review, and Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial, among other places. A citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, she lives in Virginia.

Get to know Kelli in this Q&A and then join us on Wednesday, March 17 at 12 PM ET as part of the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book to hear her discuss her work in Indigenous Lit: Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, Kelli Jo Ford & Diane Wilson.

Festival: What motivated you to become a writer? 

Ford: Becoming a writer was kind of a natural progression, or maybe—if I’m being honest—the result of a slow, dogged unwillingness to quit. For a long time, I was filling journals with poems and scribbles, just working things out and diving into the world of language. Eventually, I wound up studying at George Mason University, which was where I wrote the earliest story from Crooked Hallelujah. I wasn’t intending to write a book then. I was simply writing one thing and then another, kind of chopping the wood, carrying the water. But it turned out that the wood and water all felt very much a part of some greater whole. I kept coming back to the same characters and places. Eventually, I realized, hey—maybe that’s because this is a book! I just kept going, doing my best to honor the characters and places by creating the world I was being led to create one story at a time.  

Who or what are some of your creative influences?

I dipped back into Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine so many times as I worked through the years. I love her more recent novels, of course, but to me, Love Medicine is just the perfect book. Taken as a whole, it’s incredibly powerful, but you can also read any chapter aloneas its own beautiful, complete (and funny, heartbreaking; you name it) movement. 

Other books I went back to when I was puzzling over something or looking for inspiration: Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America, Breece Pancake’s collected stories, Randall Kenan’s Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, and Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn. When my love of reading was born, I was reading anything I could find on my grandmother’s shelves: Stephen King, all kinds of Louis L’Amour books, the creepy Flowers in the Attic series. Not a book, but I’ve taken great inspiration from the heart and humor of the documentary Hands on a Hardbody

What was your favorite part about writing your book?

There is a moment in drafting when you tap into something that takes you along with it. I think of it as a kind of river—or maybe sometimes a creek—of creative energy. In those moments, you become a vessel going where the river takes you. These moments are fleeting and precious, of course. Most of the work is revision, stopping to read something, going for walks, getting second and third opinions, and, for me, a lot of retyping. But there are these moments that truly feel magical, that feel gifted from the outside. And those are really special. We have to keep working, seeking them out, showing up to the altar, perhaps. Close seconds would be 1) hearing from people back home and feeling supported and (still) loved by them and 2) the relationships with my agent, my editor at Grove, and the whole team at Grove Press. The book took many years to complete, and I could not have done it without the kindness and grace of a lot of people.

Do you have any sources of inspiration that you come back to while writing?

I keep a photograph on my desk from when I was very young. Even when I’ve gone off to residencies or anywhere I know I’ll spend any amount of time working, I’ve taken it with me. In it, I’m sitting on my great-grandmother’s lap. My grandmother and my mom are beside us. It’s one of those department store kind of pictures from the early 80s. Like Reney from my book, when I was young, I lived in a household made up of four generations of Cherokee women. Growing up with these fierce, loving women inspired the book and pretty much everything I do. So I keep that picture close to me. The women in it ground me and give me strength still.

What is something that you’ve read recently and would recommend to others?

Right now, I’m reading Brandon Hobson’s The Removed, and it’s such a powerful, compelling novel. Brandon’s a fellow Cherokee Nation citizen. We teach together in the M.F.A. program at the Institute of American Indian Art, but I’d be singing this book’s praises even if he wasn’t such a good person! Like his last novel—Where the Dead Sit Talking, which was a finalist for the National Book Award—The Removed deals with a Cherokee boy in the foster care system. It’s a departure from that book, though. Told from multiple viewpoints from members of a family that has lost a son to police violence, it’s steeped in Cherokee stories and culture. I think we’ll be hearing a lot about this book. 

What are you working on next?

With a child at home in fully virtual second grade (of all things), the next thing has been s-l-o-w. Creative work has just been a struggle. I’ve been revising a short story with the eye of a very patient editor. That’s been a nice way to dive back in. And I have an idea for a novel that, as of now, is far more idea than anything else. I imagine the book set amid the backdrop of the Cherokee Nation and Timothy McVeigh-era White Nationalism in the 1990s. I foresee familiar themes (fundamentalist Christianity, mother-daughter relationships) taking shape—with a side of revenge thrown in. At its heart, I feel like it’ll be a story about the fierce love between a mother and daughter. I’ll probably always write about mothers and daughters. Again, these are mostly ideas. If I am able to coax the characters to life on the page, I suspect they will laugh at me and my ideas. 

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