Welcome to the Book Marks Questionnaire, where we ask authors questions about the books that have shaped them.
This week, we spoke to the author of Crooked Hallelujah (out this week in paperback), Kelli Jo Ford.
Book Marks: First book you remember loving?
Kelli Jo Ford: I don’t know if A Dog Called Kitty was my introduction to the sob-your-eyes-out dog story, but it was the one I read the most. I have a memory of being in bed with a flashlight, crying so hard I wet the pages of the book. Even as a kid, I guess I tended toward getting my heart ripped out.
BM: Favorite re-read?
KJF: Love Medicine. Always Love Medicine.
BM: A book that blew your mind?
KJF: Raven Leilani’s Luster. Spending hours mid-day luxuriating in a book is something I don’t do much as parent, particularly during the pandemic. But for this one I did. And afterward, I felt excited about the possibilities for a novel with one narrator that takes place over a short period of time.
In Crooked Hallelujah, I wanted to tell the story of four generations of women in a Cherokee family. By necessity, that kind of story is going to span decades. (My version starts in the 1970s and ends in the near future.) I love reading those kinds of sprawling, multiple POV stories! However, the idea of immediately trying to write another one made a little weepy and a lot weary. Seeing how much depth and resonance Raven was able to create in a tight, contained narrative felt like a light bulb moment. Luster made me want to get back to work immediately.
BM: Last book you read?
BM: A book that made you cry?
KJF: All of them? I am a crier, for sure.
BM: What book from the past year would you like to give a shout-out to?
KJF: Brandon Hobson’s The Removed—I thought the ending of this book was lyrical and beautiful and perfect.
BM: A book that actually made you laugh out loud?
KJF: I reread the title story from George Saunders’ Tenth of December every year or so because I often use it in classes, and every time, a different line kills me.
BM: Classic book on your To Be Read pile?
KJF: There are a million classics that I haven’t gotten to and I don’t have any real plans to read. One that I want to reread is Beloved. I wondered, as I was thinking about this question, what makes a work of art a classic and how old does a book have to be before it qualifies. Then I realized that although I can still sing all the words to “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and “Livin’ on a Prayer,” 1987 (Beloved’s publication date) was, indeed, a long time ago. And also, if anyone doesn’t consider Beloved a classic, then they’re wrong.
BM: Favorite book no one has heard of?
KJF: I really loved Dylan Landis’ debut novel-in-stories Normal People Don’t Live Like This, and I feel like I don’t hear people talk about it enough. I’ve studied and taught individual stories from the book, and I went back to book as a whole more than once when was writing Crooked Hallelujah.
BM: Book(s) you’re reading right now?
KJF: I’ve only just started The Magical Language of Others, but after I heard E.J. Koh speak at an event we did for the Yale Writers’ Workshop, I picked up a copy of the memoir as soon as the event ended. E.J. was so thoughtful and inspiring. Although we were over Zoom, you could feel the room shift as she talked.
I’m also reading and listening to Matthew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World, which is shaking me up a bit. I’ve got Elissa Washuta’s White Magic, which I’m really excited about,cued up next. Hey! That’s all nonfiction! I have two works of fiction I’m feeling especially antsy to get to: Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn and Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz.
BM: Favorite children’s book?
KJF: Mary and the Trail of Tears: A Cherokee Removal Survival Story by Andrea L. Rogers: I was pretty blown away by the way Andrea was able to weave meticulously researched history into such a compelling narrative about a girl and her family during Removal. Striking a pretty amazing balance for middle grade readers, she didn’t shy away from the terrible things that happened or from the strength of the Cherokee characters. I loved this book, and so did my 8-year-old daughter.
BM: Book you wish would be adapted for a film/tv show?
KJF: Selfishly, I’ll say The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones. He’s amazing, and I couldn’t put TOGI down right up until I got too freaked out to keep reading it. I think it would make a great film. And then I could cover my eyes and ears as needed.
Kelli Jo Ford is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. She is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize, the Everett Southwest Literary Award, the Katherine Bakeless Nason Award at Bread Loaf, a National Artist Fellowship by the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation, and a Dobie Paisano Fellowship. Her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Missouri Review, and the anthology Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial, among other places. She lives in Virginia and teaches at Santa Fe’s Institute of American Indian Arts Low Residency MFA program.
Kelli Jo Ford’s Crooked Hallelujah is out this week in paperback from Grove