Kelli Jo Ford on the Books That Helped Her Find a Way Home
The Author of Crooked Hallelujah Recommends Jesmyn Ward, Louise Erdrich, and More
Crooked Hallelujah was a book that kept me up at night. Sometimes voices stirred me. Sometimes it was just a push, a movement coupled with some emotion I needed to find. The thing is, I didn’t set out to write a novel, or even a novel in stories. I set out wanting to write one good short story, one complete movement populated with characters who felt real on the page, characters I could care about.
It turned out those characters began to come from the same places, the Oklahoma and Texas landscapes I knew as a child and teenager, places I’d pretty much put in my rearview as soon as I turned 18.
The characters and their hometowns kept coming. So I wrote them. I tried to understand what their stories were in one particular moment in time: where they started, where they ended up, what they cared about along the way. Like any writer, I turned to books as teachers.
The stories I cared about were made up of characters that seemed to spring from cities, towns, and lands, not the other way around. Often those stories came in the form of linked collections or novels in stories. Those were the kinds of books I turned to again and again.
Any trip I took that lasted longer than a day or two included one bag devoted to the books that guided me along the way. I never knew what I’d need to suss out, whose voice I’d need in my ear for my day of work, so the bag grew. I wanted to share some of those books with you.
Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine
I have clumsily described this book as both my holy grail and my knight in shining armor. Love Medicine, for me, is the perfect book. I feel sure that I could reread it every year for the rest of my life and take away new lessons. Of course, Erdrich is a master still at work. I love her novels, and I am sure she has grown as a writer in the nearly 40 years (!) since she wrote her debut… novel? Novel-in-stories? But Love Medicine was my first love. It was one of the books that showed me I could write about the places I know and the people who could come from those places. I didn’t have to do what the people around me were doing. I could read, listen, and learn. Then I could shut the door and write what was closest to my heart.
I didn’t set out to emulate Love Medicine—what folly that would be, to be an aspiring painter and to decide to start with The Creation of Adam. But I think maybe I read that book so many times that, to me, the form became just the way a good book—the perfect book—was shaped.
The commitment to the short story as form never left me. It was important that every story—or every chapter depending on how you approach Crooked Hallelujah—stand alone as a complete movement unto itself.
And this is what is so impressive about Love Medicine. You can take any story out of the book, sit down with it, and read it for the love of a good short story. And then you can take that story and break it apart, and try to understand how it works because there’s a little bit (or a lot) of magic in there, and that’s what we are all trying to capture, to create. Erdrich is a master of the form.
But the book as a whole tells a story so compelling that you turn the page eager to see what happens next in this world and the families in it. If we are in trustworthy hands, the novel-in-story from allows us to be surprised at where we meet up with our heroes, or even who the heroes of the next story might be. But each story is working toward some greater significance. Like a family photo album, each photograph tells a story. But once you’ve flipped through the whole thing, you have the greater story for this family, their friends, where they come from, and where they’ve been.
Now I’ve gone on entirely too long about Love Medicine. I tend to do that.
Dylan Landis, Normal People Don’t Live Like This
It makes sense I would find my way to Landis. Her thrilling debut, Normal People Don’t Live Like This, is a novel-in-stories about a troubled teenager, her parents, her friends and nemeses. 1970s Manhattan may as well be an entirely country from where I come from, but Landis brought it alive in the world of these stories. It also makes sense that I’d find my way to a writer who said this of Love Medicine: “Sometimes, when you are in dire need of a craft lesson, one book opens itself up like a flower for your inspection, and for me, that book was Love Medicine. It revealed that stories can be crocheted together so intricately and dimensionally that they form a kind of lacework.”
Lorrie Moore, Birds of America
Because I often need reminders that this world and our very best stories—no matter where they take place—are not only heartbreaking and heartbreakingly beautiful, but also, quite often, funny as shit.
Ryan Call, Weather Stations
When Call’s debut story collection came out, I was deep into Crooked Hallelujah’s drought and fire stories. In a book in which the land figures prominently, weather must too. For me, Weather Stations was some kind of kismet: the world we know just off-kilter, not quite magical realism but not quite not, stories-in-vignettes, weather as landscape. This is a strange, beauty of a book.
Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones
I tend to read novels when I want to lose myself. Sure, I can do that in short stories, but I think of them as my work. Novels don’t carry that burden. Salvage the Bones is the only traditional novel in my list. How could I leave it out?
While I did lose myself in Salvage the Bones, I couldn’t help but try to understand the book’s beautiful magic. And that got me thinking about its language and lyricism. Ward seems to be writing in the language of place, and in doing so, she invites readers into a story on its own terms. Salvage the Bones warrants much more than these few lines. All of these books do.
Place, place, place. The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake was given to me by an undergrad advisor who saw me writing toward home, but perhaps not yet sure that was something you could do. That book, set mostly in West Virginia, altered the course of my writing and reading life forever. Writers like Bonnie Jo Campbell, Ron Rash, and Randal Kenan kept the river flowing. Masterfully crafted stories made up of challenging forms and unforgettable situations (an outcast who hits a girl with his car realizes that she’s not a deer too late and makes saving her the his life’s work; a hungry girl who swallows a hook-baited egg meant for a snake; a hog that starts talking on the day of a boy’s birth and stops on the day of his death) are good no matter the setting. But these stories couldn’t take place anywhere else. The characters are borne of place. As a linked collection made up of characters and voices that embody the tiny fictional town of Tims Creek, North Carolina, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead was especially inspiring as I was sorting through stories, trying to understand where the life lay in my own work.
I could come up with a paragraph praising the Nevada landscape Watkins created and some of the ways it functions in Battleborn. I would mean every word, but I’m going to be honest. I feel scared to write about Battleborn! Scared because I want to get it right. Scared because before “On Pandering,” I never once interrogated my love for Battleborn? That’s not it. Scared because “Ghosts, Cowboys” is one of my favorite stories to introduce to talented students who are becoming serious about writing and pushing themselves to let their own stories create the rules for the game in which they want to play? I don’t think it’s that either. I don’t think it’s about Battleborn at all.
Maybe it’s because “On Pandering,” revealed an uncomfortable truth: I’m not sure I’ve questioned my own influences enough. I think it’s that I’m still trying to understand the question of who I am writing toward and why.
I know that I care deeply about getting the places I write about right and that the only people who can decide whether I have are the people, in this case, back home. But literary influences? Sheesh, I’m going to need some more time. Still, I am grateful for “On Pandering.” And as a reader and a writer, I can’t help but return to Battleborn for what I find there too. It’s a heckuva-lot more than place.
As a person whose fiction occasionally dips more than ankle deep into autobiographical waters, I really appreciate what Watkins has said about “Ghost, Cowboys”: “The reason I was interested in engaging with [my father’s story] in fiction is because I can create this character, who happens to also be named Claire, who is able to find more significance in the story than I do.” Perhaps even more, it was good for me to see that she drew her boundaries and moved on: “For now, at least, I’ve felt like I’ve said all I need to say about it, fictionally or otherwise.” Amen to that.
Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford is available now from Grove Atlantic Press.