SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
Kelli Jo Ford's debut novel, "Crooked Hallelujah," is a book about three generations of Cherokee women trying to forge futures for themselves in very harsh environments. Lula, her daughter Justine, and her daughter Reney make lives for themselves, mostly in Oklahoma and Texas, amid the 1980s oil boom. But for these Cherokee women, they find out how difficult that really is. The Plimpton Prize-winning author Kelli Jo Ford joins us now. Welcome.
KELLI JO FORD: Thank you. Thank you. It's so great to talk to you, Sarah.
MCCAMMON: Glad to have you. So I want to ask you about this title. Obviously, hallelujah is sort of an exclamation of praise...
FORD: Mmm hmm.
MCCAMMON: ...Right? But what does crooked hallelujah mean?
FORD: Sure - that's a title that came to me, like, really early in the process. And I think the crooked hallelujah is, to me, maybe an exclamation of the beauty of the relationships between mothers and daughters despite hardships and despite disagreements. And I think that's where crooked hallelujah comes from - the tension between those two things - they clash. But I just feel like they go together, you know?
MCCAMMON: You yourself, as I understand it, are a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma - although we should say you now live in Virginia, right?
FORD: That's right.
MCCAMMON: How did you draw from that part of your life to sort of flesh out these characters?
FORD: There were times in my life when I was a little girl that I, like Reney, the book's youngest protagonist, also lived in a household with four generations of Cherokee women. And so growing up with these strong women - these really close relationships in, you know, one household - that was just going to stick with me, I think.
MCCAMMON: And your characters - of course, the relationships between these women are really the central thread through this novel. Justine grows up around women who are described as, quote, "perpetually on the verge of middle age and capable of anything." These are women who are really toughened by life from an early age, aren't they?
FORD: Absolutely. And that is something that Justine and then her daughter Reney go on to live through, as well. Life toughens them. And I think through the process of that, they look to one another, even when maybe they're rebelling against one another or who they come from. They're just thrown together because they need one another. And I think that really was one of the drivers for me - is just sort of following their relationships as, sometimes, they're battered about by the literal winds of the world.
MCCAMMON: It's revealed - I don't mind saying this because it's very early in the novel - that Justine, who is sort of the middle link in this generational chain, that she has become pregnant as a 15-year-old as a result of, I think, what most of us would call rape. It's clear from the narrative she didn't consent to this. And yet...
MCCAMMON: ...She doesn't seem to understand this experience as rape - why not?
FORD: I think that the patriarchal church culture that she is a part of has influenced her such that she recognizes that the night that this happens to her, she's going against her mother's wishes also, which are the church's wishes. She's not wearing the clothing of the church that her family's a part of. She's sneaking out. And so she feels really distraught and conflicted as a young girl and even later in her life because she sees what she has done that has somehow brought about this violent act.
MCCAMMON: There is what feels like a repeated theme in this novel about leaving your community. We see Justine pulling away from her family and trying to meet her largely absent father, Reney - of course, her daughter - going off to college, the family moving to Texas in search of opportunities. How much did you experience that impulse to move away?
FORD: I think I left home the day after I graduated from high school. And I grew up in a very small town where my parents still live. But I was yearning for the world.
MCCAMMON: And what has that meant for you - that decision?
FORD: On one hand, I think it has meant writing this book because I think of the book, in some ways, of writing my way home - I did, you know? You know, I have a daughter, and I grew up like Reney when I was little. I slept with my great-grandmother a whole lot - we just had these generational bonds. And having a daughter who is growing up away from her grandmother is something that weighs on me.
MCCAMMON: I think it's interesting that the women in your novel - their lives seem to have kind of echoing and repeating themes from generation to generation - men who are briefly present and then absent, women who struggle a lot to keep the family going. Obviously, you have sort of charted your own path. But I still want to ask - I mean, in a larger sense, do you think we often end up kind of being our parents whether we want to or not?
FORD: I guess I'm thinking about, you know, as a parent now, some of the ways that I see my husband and I responding as parents to our daughter. And I do think that there are ways that, eventually - like, you may fight it for a long time. And then, eventually, once you settle into sort of what your life is, I think that it's really easy to see your parents coming out of you in the things you do and say.
MCCAMMON: For better...
FORD: You know?
MCCAMMON: ...Or worse?
FORD: For better and worse, for sure (laughter).
MCCAMMON: Kelli Jo Ford's debut novel is called "Crooked Hallelujah." Thank you so much for joining us.
FORD: Thank you so much, Sarah. It's been really great talking to you.
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