Kelli Jo Ford’s fiction has appeared in Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial, New Delta Review, Drunken Boat, and Virginia Quarterly Review. A Dobie Paisano Fellow and an Elizabeth George Foundation grant recipient, she holds an MFA from George Mason University. She is a member of the Cherokee Nation. She currently lives in Virginia and putting the finishing touches on Crooked Hallelujah, a collection of linked stories about a mixed-blood Cherokee mother and daughter who move from Eastern Oklahoma’s Indian Country to North Texas to start life anew amidst the oil bust of the 1980s.
To read an exercise on describing characters without relying on mirrors and Ford’s story, “You Will Miss Me When I Burn,” click here.
In this interview, Ford discusses the revision advice of Alan Cheuse, the challenge of portraying characters both as they are and as they’re viewed by others, and resolving (or not) plot threads in a story.
Your character descriptions are so good. I love this passage:
I called for him again, and he came out of the bedroom, pulling a long-handle shirt over his head and stomping his foot down into his boot.
“You’ll break the back of your boot like that,” I said, but you can’t tell that boy nothing. I tossed him a sausage biscuit I brought, and he grabbed a Dr Pepper from the fridge, opened it up, and took three long swallows without coming up for air. With his head tilted back like that, I could see where my boy was losing the hair on his head, and I felt proud to have a full head of my own, proud I didn’t work indoors under fake lighting on another man’s schedule. But it got me antsy.
I love how the passage has multiple things happening at once: the narrator telling his son what to do, the boy ignoring him, the action (throwing the food, drinking the Dr. Pepper), physical description (baldness), and emotion (the narrator’s various reasons for feeling proud). Do all these things land on the page as you write, or do you start with one or two and build the rest in gradually?
Kelli Jo Ford
Thank you, Michael! Sometimes a passage will come in a glorious chunk that sticks around in its God-given form. Usually though, it’s a matter of writing and rewriting. I retype my drafts a lot, something I think I picked up from Alan Cheuse back at George Mason, who felt rewriting (or retyping) a draft allows you let go of what’s there and truly revise instead of tweak. It’s slow work, especially for a plodder like me, but I find it so helpful. I’m constantly adding new stuff, layers or descriptions, which lately has created the problem of what to cull.
I couldn’t remember how that bit came to be until I found an old draft of the story. It looks like most of the descriptions were there but sort of spread out in the narrator’s rambling, which I condensed a good bit. In addition to Paul Reyes’s keen eye at VQR, I’m sure the final product came about with great help from my husband, Scott Weaver, who’s a poet and really helps me 1) see what a story is trying to be about (for lack of a better word) and 2) tighten my language and descriptions.
I’m curious about the son’s wife—the Indian, as the narrator calls her. I don’t think we ever learn her actual name. She’s just, “the Indian” or “that Indian daughter-in-law.” What was your approach to this character—and to the narrator’s view of her?
Kelli Jo Ford
Justine is actually one of the main characters in the collection I’m working on. She and Ferrell have a sort of lovingly contentious relationship, though it doesn’t come through in this stand-alone piece. She’s a truth-teller and doesn’t let him get away with much. During the time period when this story takes place, they are going through a pretty contentious time, but of course, there’s more to it than that.
As we went through final edits, I began to feel a little uncomfortable with the narrator’s portrayal of Justine, to be honest. Justine’s the hero of the collection! In the end, I was comfortable enough, I guess, with what Ferrell’s portrayal of Justine says about him. “Lovingly contentious” is where I started, but doesn’t cover enough ground. Ferrell’s story grounds us in the culture Justine and Reney, the “little girl already in tow,” confront in North Texas. Through Ferrell we see the casual racism they face. The story is told from his perspective, so there’s no filter. I could go on more here, but that would probably be more relevant to the collection than this particular story.
At the same time, there is love and respect between the two. From Ferrell’s perspective, calling Justine “the Indian” is probably no different from the banter (or what he might call “good-natured ribbing”) that takes place at the D.Q., but that doesn’t make it any less racist or potentially hurtful. I’m out of my depth, but I’m thinking about micro-aggressions and the way that something Ferrell perceives as banter could quickly become straight-up aggressive, hurtful, and racist.
As for how his use of “the Indian” functions in the story, I think it allows readers to see Ferrell better than he sees himself. I hope readers pick up on some of Ferrell’s self-delusion and see that probably everything Justine tells him is spot-on—and that despite his hoo-hawing, he has heard every word.
In earlier drafts, the only female characters he called by name were Liza Blue and Elsie from the DQ, so the most important women in his life—his wife, the girl from Wyoming, and the Indian—didn’t get names. In the end, it got a little tedious and confusing to refer to his wife as “my wife” over and over. So having him name her was a technical decision that may make his usage of “the Indian” stand out a little more.
In seems that a crucial question in this story is how we feel about the narrator’s actions with the Wyoming girl. But, frankly, I have no idea how I feel about it. What happens is, on one hand, part of the great tradition of “loving someone you’re not married to” stories. But it also cuts against the usual storyline in such unexpected ways that I’m don’t know wha to feel. When you finished the story, did you have a particular way you wanted the reader to react and feel?
Kelli Jo Ford
Good question! I don’t think I was going for a particular reaction or feeling. I think I only hoped to put readers right there with him and to, perhaps, help them see him better than he sees himself.
In some ways, the story for me started with that scene. Well, that scene and the magic horse. So the trick, if there was one, was to somehow get readers to want to keep reading and caring about the story, despite the character’s pretty despicable actions.
The story starts with the threat of fire, and while we get the fire of passion, the actual fire never arrives. Was this always the case? It’s an interesting structure. You go back and forth between past and present, and I expected the present to be resolved one way or another. When it wasn’t, I felt relieved. If the fire had come through and burned everything–a kind of thematic burning–it would have felt cheap, I think. Were you ever tempted to do that?
Kelli Jo Ford
I don’t think I was ever tempted to resolve the question of whether the fire arrives, not in this story, at least. In “Bonita,” a companion piece of sorts, we learn that the fire does destroy Ferrell’s house, but that didn’t seem important to Ferrell’s story, somehow. Though he has some misgivings at the end, the house is the least important thing to him that day. Later, he may realize he was wrong to toss aside a life’s worth of memories, as well as a family that clearly cares for him. But as far as the confines of this story, (he thinks) he’s all forward motion
Maybe the past and present structure reflects how much the past is present for him. If he slowed down to think about it much, he might make a different decision.