In Ford’s Crooked Hallelujah (Grove, July), a young Cherokee woman struggles to overcome a generational cycle of broken families while remaining close to her mother.
The bond between Reney, and her mother, Justine, is central to Crooked Hallelujah. How does this speak to the book’s themes concerning the cycle of bad relationships and occasional co- dependency between mothers and their daughters, and the resilience of Cherokee women?
As I work, I probably actively resist thinking about the broader implications. But now that I’m away from the book, I’ve thought about the way families who grow up really needing one another—particularly because of poverty, but also perhaps other issues or traumas—can become closer because of that need or trauma. Coming up in a family of very tight-knit, strong, stubborn Cherokee women—fighters all of them—we didn’t call it codependency.
To me, the story of Reney and Justine is also the story of Lula, Justine’s mother, and Annie Mae, Reney’s great-grandmother. They all have such similar stories—difficult lives with men, poverty—Reney is the first character who might escape these cycles. So you can’t tell Justine’s story without telling her mother’s, Lula’s, story. You can’t tell Reney’s story without telling her great-grandmother’s, Annie Mae’s, story. Their lives are inextricable from one another. And I do think that can happen when you grow up in poverty, wading through generational trauma, when you grow up needing one another in this way.
Could you talk about Reney’s interest in her Cherokee identity?
Reney faces a complicated question of heritage and identity. She has a multi-tribal heritage, but as she tells us, she’s all her mother; she never cared about who her father was. Then again, as a teenager she notices similarities between herself and her biological Choctaw father. As an adult who has made her way to college, Reney calls Justine asking questions, wanting to learn about their Cherokee heritage. Justine scoffs at the idea that she has anything worthy of sharing but does her best. However, Reney never even asks any questions about her Choctaw heritage. She understands that she can’t because of her allegiance to her mom, but I suspect that as time goes on she will.
Do you have a sense of the story you want to tell when you set down to write?
For me, everything springs from the characters and the language. I’ve worked with these characters for so long that I eventually had a pretty good sense of them. As I work and rework the language, that’s where I find movement and eventually, hopefully, a plot. Stuff has a way of happening if you stick with it long enough—you look up and someone has pulled out a shotgun, or, hey, there’s a tornado! Then you can go back and shape what you stumbled upon. But I have to have the language right to move on and discover the story.