"The Hardest Job You'll Never Get Paid For": A Conversation with Cottonmouths Author Kelly J. Ford
Novel Incubator graduate and Grub Instructor Kelly J. Ford's searing debut novel, Cottonmouths, has just hit the shelves. After spending a feverish night inhaling this unputdownable story about love and meth in the rural South, GrubWrites Editor and fellow Novel Incubator alum Sarah Colwill-Brown couldn't wait to sit down with Kelly for a chat about the pains and pleasures of novel writing, navigating the publishing industry, and the scary prospect of writing about home. Cottonmouths follows Emily Skinner, a young college drop out forced to return home to small town Arkansas after losing her scholarship. Back under her parents' roof, Emily is desperate to pick up her life, get a job, and save enough money to move out, but that's not so easy in Drear's Bluff, where the only employment prospects are part-time shifts at the local fast food joint. And Emily isn't the only troubled soul back in town: Jody, her childhood best friend and longtime crush, is back with a baby in tow and a meth lab in her chickenhouse. A mixture of desire and despair drives Emily ever deeper into Jody's world, and when Emily's role in the drug racket becomes dangerous, she realizes, too late, the consequences of her decisions.
Psst: Want to Write with Kelly? She's teaching at Grub this September! Find out more here.
(SCB) I have too many questions for you.
I think about novels a lot from the point of view of the person who had to write them. So, my first question is, there’s so much going on in Cottonmouths: we’ve got a depressed rural Arkansan town, a protagonist, Emily, who has this—I keep wanting to say unrequited love, but I don’t know if that’s true, but certainly a burning desire for Jody, who may or may not feel the same way back—there’s financial desperation, there’s family tension. There’s so much here. What was the germ? What was the seed that started it all?
(Pause.) Unrequited love (laughs). You are correct; I would call it unrequited love.
Yes! (Strikes victory pose.)
That’s what Sarah, my wife, says: It’s unrequited love, obviously. It’s the best—in fiction, but not in life. That was the start of it: I was dumped by someone while on a trip to Alaska to visit my Aunt Judy. I was depressed, and I was looking at these really stark landscapes while listening to these violent stories that my Aunt Judy loves to tell, and that I love to hear, because I’m addicted to crime and punishment, and weird, violent stories. She was also talking about drug stories, because she was a phlebotomist and did a lot of drug testing for the state at that time. I had also been hanging out with my friends back in my college town. A lot of meth labs had started popping up in our town because it’s along I-40; these little towns off the interstate are just ripe for that type of activity.
So, I was speaking with my friends about this, and I was also depressed because of my break up, and, as I always do, I went to writing to work through my feelings.
I don’t know why I started writing a story; typically I wrote poetry and journaling. At some point, I can’t even remember, I decided I was going to start writing stories. So, there you go: That was the germ. It was love. I had to add all the other stuff in later.
Unrequited love does feel to me like the heart of the book, but I think there are so many other elements you could have pointed to. So, you were writing poetry, and then you started writing stories. How did you know that this was a book? How did you know you were going to have to push this story into a bigger narrative?
Hmmmm. I had to write my first short story in college—I took one creative writing class. One. I was such a slacker. I was an English Lit major; we didn’t have to write, we just had to read and I loved reading. But I think that was the germ for writing stories. After that, I just started to expand.
I’m one of those people who gets stuck on something, some sort of art or creative project and I just go with it. I’ve dabbled in photography, I’ve dabbled in drawing and sketching, poetry. I wanted to be the person who did all the artistic stuff, and I guess that carried into my adulthood, because it was my early-mid 20s when I started to write, when I moved from poetry into prose. And then I thought, I’ll just start writing a screenplay. I don’t know why; this is just something I do. At the time I was also interested in going into animation, because why not? There’s no connective tissue for anything I do, I’m just a curious person. Once I see something interesting, I just do it, I try it, because why not?
So I decided I would try screenwriting, and I actually went to that famous course by Robert McKee, the “Story Seminar.” Did you see that movie Adaptation?
You know the story seminar he goes to? It was that. So I went when it was in Boston. When I returned to Boston from Alaska with the idea for Cottonmouths, I was thinking, I could make it into a screenplay. I had these thoughts roiling in my head. I don’t immediately go to writing; I let things simmer. And I’m a big day dreamer, so I spent a lot of time thinking. And then I went back and forth for two years: Screenplay, novel, screenplay, novel. And then I decided that there are too many people involved in movies, so I didn’t want to do that. (Laughs.) I’m very practical. I wanted to be on a team of one.
Writing a novel is such a long process, though.
Mmhmm. You have to love it.
You do. So how did you stick with it?
I worked on this, all told, about thirteen years. It took me about four years to finish a first draft, and in that four years, it was that same back and forth: Why am I doing this? This is terrible. The odds are so slim that I’ll ever publish a book. But I think the odds are always slim. There’s never a great time to publish; there’s never a great time to pursue your passions. I thought I was too old, and I wasn’t even that old. It was thirteen years ago. I was still fresh and young. (Laughs.)
Once I get stuck on something, I have to complete it. It’s probably because I’m a project manager by trade that I have to finish things, including books. That got me through the hard times.
Then I started taking classes at GrubStreet in 2008, after I lost my job in the big recession. I’d always wanted to take classes, but there was always some reason why I couldn’t do it: I had a job, I was working so many hours a week, I was tired and I didn’t have time. But now, suddenly, I had all this time, because I was unemployed, along with the rest of my friends, and there was nothing else to do. I could only hit refresh on job sites so many times a day, so I finally decided to take classes. Getting active in the GrubStreet community and being around other writers really helped me to continue with my novel. That’s especially true with the Novel Incubator. You cannot see another alum without them asking your how your book’s going, or what are you working on. You have this constant guilt—Oh god, I better work on something; I better get this done.
I hadn’t really considered publishing seriously until I’d gone to GrubStreet and got some good feedback on my story. Still, a lot of work had to be done, but I think it was that push, and people being honestly and genuinely interested in stories, that really fired me up and kept me going.
Having that community, it’s so key.
I wouldn’t have finished without them. There’s no way.
Because finishing a novel is hard. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
It is. It’s the hardest job you’ll never get paid for.
(Laughs.) That’s amazing. Another Novel Incubee was talking to me recently about the Novel Incubator community, and she said, “It really is a family; they’ve seen your worst sentences, and they love you anyway.”
This is true! And you see each other at your worst—not just your worst sentences, but at your worst. While you’re in the program, there’s a tendency to feel completely overwhelmed and emotional. I cried so many times. Not in class. I wanted to cry in class -- I might have once or twice -- but I had one-on-one meetings with Lisa Borders, who was leading the Novel Incubator program at the time with Michelle Hoover. I swear, I had ten or twelve one-on-ones where I just cried the whole meeting: It’s so hard. Fiction is so hard. Why am I doing this? It’s so painful! They see your worst sentences, and your worst behavior.
You identify your dad as a storyteller. What influence did your family and your early life have on you becoming a writer?
My family used to all go down to my grandma and grandpa’s house (on my dad’s side) for the weekend. At the end of the night, we’d all get together around a fire. My uncles and my dad loved to tell jokes. Once they tired of jokes, they’d get into ghost stories. I loved to sit and listen. That’s something I miss the most about Arkansas, gathering around the fire and telling stories. My dad actually still does this. Granted, it’s usually just me, and him, and my wife, and my stepmom, but he tells stories from his youth, and stories he heard from his uncles or his dad.
I was always surrounded by people who knew how to tell a story. I never felt like I could; I was always the quiet one. One of my aunts would say about me, Oh, still waters run deep. (Laughs.) And I was like, Not really; I’m not that deep. I’m just listening.
I’m just still.
(Laughs.) Really, nothing going on here. But you do have to watch out for the quiet ones in the family.
So I never talked. I never told jokes, because I can’t remember punch lines. I never told stories because I never felt like I had anything interesting to say. I felt like an outsider in life: in my family, in my schools. I had a few close friends, and that was it. The majority of my life, I’ve just been sitting back and listening. But, that’s good material. I learned, from my family, especially my dad, how to tell a story: you hook them, then there’s increasing tension and conflict, and then there’s the pay off at the end—he’s so good at that. I always beg him to tell me stories.
Well, you’ve got it, too, I have to tell you. I was up until four a.m. with Cottonmouths, wondering how it would end. I couldn’t sleep until I knew.
I was too! For years! (Laughs.) Oh, god, how does this end, Kel? Jesus. Figure this shit out. This does not come naturally to me. I have to work very hard at revision. I’m all over the place in my early drafts.
Well, you definitely figured it out. I was in a big reading slump, and I was starting to wonder, Why can’t I pick up one book that can hold my attention? Is it me? And Cottonmouths reminded me why I love reading. So, thank you.
That’s honestly the best thing to hear. Especially after you’ve struggled with it for so many years, hearing things such as, “It’s too quiet. More needs to happen. The pacing lags.” Those are the types of things you’re used to hearing as a writer. In the moment, you’re thinking, There’s no way. You’re overwhelmed. You start crying to people like Lisa Borders: I don’t know what to do. (Laughs.) I’ve had so many meltdowns over this book, and it was only after the meltdowns, and getting back to work, that I was able to buckle down and say, Ok, let’s try this again.
I got some feedback from certain people at certain times that wasn’t great—it was a little harsh, but it gave me the fire to continue. And that’s just something within my personality since I was very little: You cannot tell me that I cannot do something, because I will absolutely do it to prove you wrong.
When you’re sending your work out, and hoping for the best, the hardest thing is keeping the faith in the face of rejection, whether it’s tangible—you got an email—or, if it’s complete silence, which is its own rejection. That part is pure faith, I think.
What was your experience of the publishing process as a debut author? What was unexpected? What were the biggest challenges? What were the biggest joys?
I got through by reading about other authors who had been through the process. There’s really nothing like talking with other people who have gone through it. And even though they tell you that it’s very rare to sell your book immediately and have editors be wowed by it, deep in your soul, you’re still like, Maybe I’m different. And then, when you realize you’re not different, that’s calming, that’s like, Ok cool, I’m not an anomaly, so pressure’s off.
Because we’re in the Novel Incubator, we have so many people that we can talk to who have gone through this before: E. B. Moore, Jennie Wood, Patty Park, Emily Ross, Stephanie Gayle, and Louise Miller. I really leaned on these folks when I was going out on submission. Especially Emily and Stephanie. I have sent them so many emails with the subject line, “Is this normal?” Because there’s so much you can’t really learn online—it’s hard to sift through what’s real. So, leaning on people in our community who have been through it in all different genres and different prisms of the publication journey really helped me, because I knew going in that the odds are high. That helps, too—to set your expectations, and to know that this could take a long time.
I love the stories about how long something took to publish. Marlon James, I think he got, what, seventy-eight rejections for A Brief History of Seven Killings? [Ed.’s note: Google corroborates, exactly seventy-eight.] So, when I was querying agents, I kept thinking, Seventy-eight rejections: That’s the goal. I will not quit until I reach that goal. And it helps to be around people like Jennie Wood. She’s a work horse and she will not give up on anything. I love surrounding myself with people like that, because, so often during this process, you can also be surrounded by depressive personalities—and I say this as a depressive personality.
No, it’s true—I have to stop myself. I think, I can’t be telling aspiring writers all the things I’m telling them. Stop, gag yourself. They’re not going to be motivated after talking with me.
You’re saying, “It’s terrible, but keep doing it.”
Right. “It’s 10% happiness and 90% pain. Keep going.” (Laughs.) I actually said that to a class last week. Because I am the literal worst.
You might as well say how it is.
I think, too, you have to laugh, right? I say these things jokingly, because you have to have some levity in this situation.
So, yeah, I got through it by setting goals for myself, and thinking, Every time I get a rejection, I’m going to send another one out, and I’m not going to stop. But, then, if I heard the same feedback from agents over and over again, such as, “the pacing’s really off,” then I went back and I revised it and I just never stopped. Every time I hit a road block, I poured a glass of wine and kept going.
I did work on other novels, too. And I know everyone gives this advice, but that’s because it’s honestly the best advice. It took about ten months to sell my book, and I was on my last round of submissions to publishing houses. At that point, I had already told myself, This is fine, because I’ve already written two other novels. But then I got lucky enough that it was sent to my editor, Chelsey, and she loved it. When she took it on, it was a total shock. I was already in the acceptance phase of the five stages of grief, so then I got to be happy. Bonus!
I think this is some of the best advice you can give to someone who wants to do this. Thank you.
Writing about where you grew up—a place you’re really familiar with that might not get as much attention in mainstream lit as we would like—what was important to you in representing the experience of living in the South? What was it really important for you to get right?
I was actually pretty nervous about the reception from Arkansans, because Arkansas is kind of a joke to people. The thing I hear the most is, “I don’t even know where that is. That’s a state?” People kind of forget, even though we had a president from Arkansas. Stephen Colbert did a bit about meth jokes—there are tons of meth jokes. I originally did not set it in my home town, or in the region where I was raised, because I didn’t want to deal with messing things up. I was scared. It’s always scarier, to me, to get feedback from family and friends, or people I’ve known, than it is from the public. I was very much raised in an environment where you’re supposed to keep your mouth shut and not have an opinion. That was terrible, but it was also good for me in a way, to develop as a writer. I absorbed a lot instead of expelling a lot.
I did not realize I was gay until I was in Boston and in my twenties. Going back to Arkansas, I’m always very conscious of my surroundings. Really, any time I’m anywhere that’s not a city, I’m conscious of my surroundings. I’m always on guard, and that’s how I felt with this book going out into the world, especially into Arkansas. I’ve got my fists up, and I’m ready to fight.
I also wasn’t sure how the meth storyline would be taken, but it’s still a huge issue there. I didn’t want to present another bad view of Arkansas; I didn’t want to contribute to a stereotype. But the thing is, it’s still an issue. I had to get comfortable with the idea that Arkansas doesn’t belong to the people who still live there; it belongs to any of us who have been there and have a story. Maybe this is an issue in general for writers who have left their homes. Maybe you feel this way too? I don’t know. But you feel like, you left, so you no longer have any authority to talk about this place, because you left. Coming to terms with that was an issue for me. But then I thought, OK, but I spent twenty-two years of my life there. I came of age there; I became a person there. The place was imprinted on me. So, I got over it. (Laughs.)
I think that’s really common. I write about home. Most of my writer friends in the Grub community are writing about places where they’ve had formative experiences, but where they don’t live now. It’s so complex. Especially because I very rarely go home, I freak out that I’ve made things up, that I have invented my memories.
Or, I worry that I can’t speak for the people that I’m representing.
There’s this question of authenticity, I think. Who are you to talk about this place? You’ve been gone twenty years. What do you know?
But I think this is what writers should do: question our own perspectives. You’re trying to represent your experience, but you’re also aware of the limitations of your experience.
Arkansas is also in the bible belt, and I have some criticisms. I’m too close to the book to know how critical it is of religion, but I’m very critical of religion in life. That was another concern, because a lot of people I know there are religious, other than my family, who I’m grateful were not. But you’re in this environment where religion is everything. From a very young age, I saw the hypocrisy, and I couldn’t deal with it, it wasn’t for me. So that was another concern.
My sister-in-law was actually one of the first people to read it. I was so flattered, and also terrified, because she and my brother still live in Arkansas. I told her that I was nervous about the representation of Arkansas, and she was like, “No, it’s real.” She’s very straightforward: “No, it is what it is, Kel. It is what it is.” (Laughs.)
Given that we are lacking in queer protagonists in mainstream literature, what were the biggest considerations for you in writing Emily’s story?
I think the most important thing was being brave and honest in her portrayal. There are a lot of tropes that queer people have to fight against. Like, the queer character usually dies: that’s something that always happens. It’s in the history of pop culture, and so accurate representations are so important. But I also want to be able to write what I love, and I love dark things. In everything I write, somebody’s done wrong, just because I grew up reading those stories. I didn’t have parental supervision that much, so I would look through the pictorial history of crime and unusual punishment, and my grandma’s true crime magazines. I just loved that stuff. I was in to it. For me to write a happily ever after is just not going to happen—unless a murder’s already taken place. The murder has to happen before the happily ever after. Somebody has to die.
I want to be able to write complicated people in complicated places, people you may hate. The character may not be relatable; they may not be likable. But I don’t read books for likability. I read books because I’m fascinated by a character or a situation. It doesn’t matter to me if they’re “good” or—I mean, I do love the bad ones. When you have so few representations – and I’m not saying this with my book, because there’s far more lesbian literature—but say, for example, I’m preparing for the LGBTQ Teen Camp at GrubStreet, and I was reading an interview with Meredith Russo, who wrote If I Was Your Girl. She talks about how, when there’s so few trans female characters, you become the role model. You’re held up as an example, whether it’s good or bad or whatever. You’re thinking, I don’t want to be a role model; I just want to write this book. I really love that, because she’s just writing her story.
When you have so few stories about people like you, it sucks, because then you have to represent everyone. We need more of these stories—I want to read more of these stories—so that you don’t have to be held to some sort of standard. You get to write things that are dark and don’t have happy endings. And you don’t have to feel so crappy about it.
The freedom to be complex, or dark, or not altogether good is a privilege of characters and writers who are widely represented in literature, because they don’t have the burden of representation.
To have more queer lit would be great for our audiences, too, because a lot of women who love to read these happily-ever-afters with queer women, maybe they’re not going to like Cottonmouths, and that’s OK. I’m glad that they have everything else, because I just don’t like that, and I don’t necessarily read that. Unless there’s lots of trauma, and then happy. Then I’ll read it! (Laughs.)
It’s rare to find—whether it’s queer lit or whatever—a woman writing about dark things. It feels like we should have a club. Especially grit lit—any time you look at the lists for grit lit, hick lit, country noir, whatever, anything related to darkness in rural kooky places, the lists are almost all made up of male writers, so the female perspective, when you get it, is typically written by a man. They often do a great job, I’m not saying they don’t, but there’s just something different—the perspective is different when you read it from a woman. It’s a thrilling thing, at least, for me as a reader.
Which brings me perfectly to my final question: What are you reading?
Oh my god, what am I not reading? Because I’m preparing for the LGBTQ camp, I am knee-deep in about ten books. I am reading If I Was Your Girl, by Meredith Russo; Sarah Farizan’s Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel; None of the Above, by I. W. Gregorio. Gosh, what else? Seriously, I’m reading everything I can, all at once. And I can’t get to them all, because there’s so much, which was the great thing about prepping for this class. I was like, Oh my gosh, there’s so much queer lit for teens. Awesome! How am I ever going to get through it all? But it’s great, too, because I get to think about teens as future readers. They’re going to need some adult queer lit. And I’m here for them.
Check out Cottonmouths and the other amazing novels from the Incubator here. Plus, did you know Cottonmouths is soon to be available via the wonderful Books on the T program? Find out more here!
Colwill is an instructor and manuscript consultant at GrubStreet, an associate editor at Bat City Review, and an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. After graduating a scholarship awardee of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, Colwill found representation for her first novel, Before We Tear Our Selves Apart, with Robert Guinsler of Sterling Lord Literistic, which is currently on submission to publishing houses. She is the recipient of the Wellspring House Emerging Writer Fellowship, the Henry Blackwell Essay Prize, and a Crawley-Garwood Research Grant, and has received fellowships and support from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The University of Texas at Austin, Boston College, Kansas State University, the Anderson Center for Disciplinary Studies, and GrubStreet. She was a finalist for the 2019 Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize, the 2019 Reynolds Price Award, the 2019 Far Horizons Fiction Award, the 2019 Disquiet International Literary Prize, and the 2019 Lit Fest Emerging Writer Fellowship. Colwill’s fiction is forthcoming in Granta and is anthologized in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53). She has served on the editorial team for Post Road magazine, The Conium Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, and Pangyrus magazine. Colwill is a founding member of the Back Porch Collective, a Boston-based group of writers. With members connected to Cuba, India, Albania, Atlanta, Bosnia, Miami, Jamaica, and the UK, they bonded over a common passion for global narratives and literature’s potential to create empathy and understanding across all geographical, political, and cultural borders. Hailing from Yorkshire, in the north of England, Colwill is determined to introduce the word “sozzard” to the American vernacular. For a full list of publications, projects, and services, please visit colwillbrown.com.See other articles by Colwill Brown