Kelli Jo Ford didn’t intend for Crooked Hallelujah to be a novel. At first she was just writing stories about Cherokee women who came to her. After a few stories, she realized they were all interconnected and the women were in the same family. These were stories she had to write.
Before the book became a novel – or a novel in stories, whatever you prefer – “Hybrid Vigor,” a story from Crooked Hallelujah, won The Paris Review’s 2019 Plimpton Prize. The book as a whole tells the story of four generations of Cherokee women and how their lives unfold through a series of moves, bad men, and ever changing relationships between mothers and daughters.
I spoke with Ford about how her childhood reading habits affected the book, why telling these stories were vital, and the long, crooked path it took to publishing Crooked Hallelujah.
How did reading and writing come into your life?
I was reading from an early age. I write about the Holiness Church in the book and I was raised in a family that was around it. I wasn’t always going to church in my nuclear family, but the Holiness Church didn’t let you watch television. People in my family who were in the church were veracious readers. It was a culture of reading. It was natural for me to grow up reading. Also, I was an only child. So even later when we have TVs, there’s a lot of time to kill when you’re growing up in the country.
Were there also strict rules on what you could read?
You know, growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, television was more of a communal experience for families. With books, it was easier to do your own thing. I could slide in whatever reading I could get my hands on. My mom was raised in the church and then left it, so she was a rebel. I experienced strictness about reading at relatives’ houses but not my own. It was like, if I could read it, take off and read it. At a grandmother’s house on the other side of the family, I was reading things like Stephen King as a kid.
I was similar as a child. I read some Mary Higgins Clark as a kid because that’s what my mom read.
It’s so different now. I am raising an only child daughter and I check the internet to see what books are appropriate for her. But do you remember The Flowers in the Attic? It was so creepy to read as a little kid, but I would pick up whatever tattered cover I could find.
Do you remember the first books that you read that had a big impact on you?
One of the first books I remember reading over and over is A Dog Called Kitty, which is one of those animal dying stories. Even as a child, I craved having my heart broken. I don’t know how often I read it but I would sob every time. You can see that book coming through in Crooked Hallelujah in some ways.
I was drawn to books like that: Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, and other books like that. That’s what I craved.
How early did you play with the idea of writing?
Probably like a lot of us, it was something natural at an early age and encouraged by good teachers. I got that shot of adrenaline and wanted more of it. I had teachers who encouraged me in that and it was always in my life in some way. I was a journal poet for a long time.
I went to college right after high school and only lasted a year and a half. One: because I couldn’t afford it. Two: because I didn’t know how the world worked. I went to the University of Virginia and it was like being in a whole new country and I didn’t get my footing. No matter what I was doing, I was always journaling and writing really bad poems.
Eventually I made it back to school and I don’t think I had aspirations of being a writer but those were the classes I enjoyed and was good at. I just kept doing it.
When did you first have those aspirations where you realized you could write and should write?
I think that’s something that was pretty recent for me. Even when I went to get an MFA, it was just sort of, “This is the next thing I am going to do.” There wasn’t really a big emphasis on the world of publishing in the program I went to. There were people there who were there to write a book and get an agent, but that was not how I felt at all. I just wanted to write one good story and then write another good short story after that.
I just kept writing stories and eventually they became this book. These are all the same people and the same place and it’s a book. I had to figure out what to do next.
I know “What Good is an Ark to a Fish?” was published in 2012, but was that the first part you wrote of this?
No. I think the first story from the book that I wrote was “Bonita.” That was the first story. This was just what I was always writing. There are other stories from this family that I wrote earlier that didn’t make the book. But “Bonita” was written in grad school.
At one point, the great-grandmother had a story about her when she was in an orphanage. I wondered if that could be a prologue. But I had to pull it in and focus.
What was it about this family that you needed to keep returning to them?
I didn’t decide to write any of the stories until the very end. They were the stories that came to me. What kept me coming back was the relationship between mothers and daughters. That’s something I care a lot about and am very compelled by. There’s also the questions about belief and faith and how when you’re raised in a religion where you’re told there is only one way to live and what happens when you chose not to live that way. So I needed to follow Justine through that and how it affected all of her relationships.
The most honest answer is that I don’t know. They were just the stories that came to me. Some people have an idea for a book. Some just have a story they need to write. That’s what it was like for me.
How did you decide to tell these women’s stories?
The longer I spent with Justine as a character, the more I realized how interconnected the women were in this family. I realized I couldn’t tell Justine’s story without telling Reney’s story. Then I couldn’t tell Reney’s story without telling the great-grandmother’s story.
I was more interested in them as people than figuring out how to streamline a novel.
Was any of the book a way to answer questions and grapple with your own past?
Oh, sure. I grew up in a household of four generations of Cherokee women. They were strong women, strong-headed women, powerful women. I was in awe. I grew up around powerful, badass women who do what the needed to do to survive. Not just for themselves, but for everyone around them. I think that was going to come out of me if I was producing art in any way.
These stories are individual, but it does form one story. Did you view the stories as something that was going to be a cohesive piece when you were writing them?
I started putting them together when I had so many stories. I knew I was writing about the same family and the same place. It became clear that these stories of the family was one narrative.
Did writing them as stories give you more freedom to play around with style, tone, genre?
I’m sure that it did. Since this is my first book, I don’t really know another path yet. Toward the end of writing, revising, and editing, it felt very difficult if there was a story or section of life that needed to be told. That’s not how I wrote the majority of the stories. Needing to write a certain story that was going to be useful for the book was difficult and not how I knew how to write. Before I was blissfully writing, but it became difficult when I needed to write a story/chapter. I wanted those story/chapters to feel like a complete movement and that it could stand alone.
I didn’t even think that these were stories. Even though they are very individualized, they all weave and add context to one another.
I love hearing that. I want someone who sits down with the book to feel like that. I also wanted each part to be able to stand alone and tell its own story.
Early on, I thought I was writing linked stories. Then later on the goal became making it read as a novel. I think about it as a novel in stories. The book cover says “novel” on it and that’s great.
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Adam Vitcavage is the founder of Debutiful. His interviews and criticism have also appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, Paste Magazine, and more.
Visit Kelli Jo Ford at her website and follow her on Twitter.
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