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Interviews

Interviews

Meet Kelly J. Ford, Author of 'Real Bad Things'

By Emily Ross

This post was originally published on Dead Darlings, a blog about novel writing run by alumni of GrubStreet's Novel Incubator program.

In Kelly J. Ford’s gripping Southern noir, Real Bad Things, Jane Mooney returns to her Arkansas hometown after a body that might be the abusive stepfather she confessed to murdering 25 years ago surfaces in a river. The police were never able to charge her with a crime, and now Jane must uncover the truth and face the trauma of her past. Real Bad Things digs deep into the hearts and souls of its characters and brings rural Arkansas to life with poetry, pathos, and unflinching precision, all while keeping you on the edge of your seat.

“Beautifully written and socially astute, Real Bad Things delivers on the promise of Ford’s 2018 debut, Cottonmouths.” —CrimeReads

“Ford’s follow-up to her devastating debut novel, Cottonmouths, is a moving meditation on misplaced loyalties, love, and the legacy of violence and abuse, all wrapped in a mystery filled with guy-wire tension.” —John Vercher, author of Three-Fifths

I was thrilled to speak with Kelly about how she creates heart-wrenching real bad characters and so much more in her dark twisty novel.

Emily Ross: Real Bad Things opens with a tense homecoming to rural Arkansas for your main character, Jane Mooney. You evoke this place so vividly; from the moment she sets foot in Maud Bottoms “with its sad lack of trees or functioning streetlights,” I felt like I was right there with her, surrounded by townspeople with suffocating small-mindedness and venomous gossip. What were the rewards and challenges of writing so unflinchingly about this part of the country you once called home?

Kelly J. Ford: Arkansas is still home in my heart. I didn’t move away until after college; it’s where I came of age. For me, the challenge is not in the writing but in the reception. Setting is truly one of my favorite things to write, read, and teach. When I’m reading a book, I love when the author evokes a unique sense of place, even on well-worn streets that we’ve seen in fiction or real life so many times. When I’m writing, I try to bring that same energy to the page. As for writing, creating a sense of place helps me to get in scene and under my characters’ skin. I want my readers to truly feel the oppressiveness of Arkansas humidity, the smell of homemade rolls cooked with bacon grease, the nectar of honeysuckle on their tongues. For me, these are small joys that remind me of growing up.

Of course, writing about home can be a dicey situation. I love Arkansas and will crack skulls if anyone but an Arkansan talks shit about it. It takes love, I think, to be able to look at something beloved to you and acknowledge its flaws. Sometimes, that makes readers uncomfortable—and not just the ones from Arkansas. Perhaps there’s a small part in all of us that dreads the eyes and judgment of the towns or neighborhoods where we grew up or the places we currently inhabit. I like to think that’s why readers have such a visceral reaction to my small towns and characters. I’m tapping into our fears.

It’s impossible not to get drawn in as Jane reconnects with a group of friends to unravel the mystery of what really happened to her stepfather twenty years ago. They were all there, and each one of them holds a piece of the puzzle. It reminds me of I Know What You Did Last Summer, only queer and set in Arkansas. What was the inspiration for this tense, twisty tale?

Though my books are not “about” me, they all contain pieces of me. I feel like a collector, going through life gathering memories and images that I can use at a later time. The output of Real Bad Things is kind of like a collage of odd texts, old hurts, and ongoing fears.

My dad is my favorite storyteller. To this day, I nag him to build a fire and tell me stories when I’m home. He’ll fuss, but I can usually get him going and come away with all sorts of stories full of specificity and hilarity.

On the opposite side of that, I was also at the emotional mercy of a mean stepfather for several years as a kid when we lived with him and my mom in Arkansas, Southern California, and a ghost town in Arizona (on the weekends). I was stuck in these hot, toxic places where I wasn’t wanted. That feeling fueled a lot of my creative fire. And because we were in California, we went to the beach often. My brother and I almost got carried away by a rip current at Huntington Beach until a nice stranger literally saved us.

Mix all that up along with some other weird shit and you get Real Bad Things.

Jane’s mother, Diane, is one of those incredibly vile characters who sink their claws into you and don’t let go. Her refrain says it all: “Nothing but bad luck my whole life.” She would rather blame bad luck than take responsibility for the damage she’s done to the people in her life. But Jane still looks inside herself for the reason Diane is so mean to her. Can you share some tips for creating complicated, heart-wrenching real bad characters like Diane?

Diane is a tough character for a lot of folks because she’s so mean. But I can also understand her, in a way. She’s lost someone dear to her, and as such, she lashes out. So often, the “bad ones” are folks who came up through hard times. Their environment mixed with their specific personality and generational trauma led them to become who they are. But there’s something so viciously fun about her. I had a great time writing her and reading her scenes out loud.

Villains are often too easy to write because you can just make them do dastardly things. It feels much harder to make them understandable. With any of my antagonists, I want them to also have other things going on. I want to dive into their psychology to figure out what makes them tick. You really need to have empathy for your characters, even the bad ones. And at the end of the day, I’d rather have a character that someone has a strong reaction to—whether it’s like or dislike—than to have no reaction at all.

Real Bad Things is a dark thriller that keeps you guessing all the way, but it’s also a love story. Georgia Lee and Jane are opposites with a complicated history. Georgia Lee seems sweet and soft on the outside, but she’s a calculating politician who is adept at hiding her true self and feelings. Jane is unabashedly hard-edged and doesn’t try to hide who she is. Inside, however, she’s a mess of emotions. As the mystery unfolds, the sizzling tension between these two builds. What were some of the challenges of weaving a love story into your suspenseful thriller?

The better question might be, what were the challenges of weaving plot into a love story! I’m a real sucker for romance. Always have been. And I think almost every story is a love story: Someone wants something or someone so bad that they’re willing to do anything for it. That’s love. That’s the good stuff! It’s much harder for me to figure out how to add thrills because I’m so focused on building characters and the environment they inhabit.

Still, if I had a process, it’d be: I start every book with characters. If I’ve done a good enough job with breathing life into them, then I can put them in pretty much any situation and in any setting and in any time period and see what happens. That’s what happened with the characters of Jane Mooney and Georgia Lee Lane. They both began life as characters in two different unpublished novels of mine (they were even different genders and ages at some point). I couldn’t get either character out of my head, so I played around with the idea of mashing their stories together. Because I’d done so much work on their character development, I could go into that magical trance-like state and they came alive in my imagination.

I absolutely loved your first novel, Cottonmouths. Second novels can be difficult to write, but Real Bad Things clearly establishes you as an important new voice in the world of crime fiction. Tell us about the path to publication for Real Bad Things.

Real Bad Things wasn’t a straight line of draft, revise, and submit. I had to draft, revise, submit, and get lukewarm reactions for both of those abandoned novels first. Once I had the characters set and used some of this and some that from each abandoned novel, I was able to truly see the story come together.

Even that more complete draft of Real Bad Things was not a homerun. My agent at the time had different ideas about the book, and so we parted amicably. But I believed in the book enough to try to find it a home elsewhere. I was lucky in that I made so many friends in the crime fiction community after publishing Cottonmouths. Author-friends PJ Vernon and Amina Akhtar both encouraged me to submit to their agent, Chris Bucci with Aevitas Creative. Gratefully, our creative visions aligned and he exhibited a belief in my stories and author path. My draft of Real Bad Things still wasn’t ready, though. I had to go through additional edits with Chris before he sent it on submission to editors. I eventually found a home for this book with Thomas & Mercer, and they have been incredible.

It can be such a long, hard, lonely journey to publication, so I’m grateful that I have an amazing team behind me, as well as a community of support. But more importantly, I never gave up on this story. I knew I could make it work, and I never let a no stop me from trying.

The mystery at the core of Real Bad Things kept me turning the pages right up to the ending I didn’t see coming. As in the very best thrillers, the end also resonated emotionally, making it more than a surprise. Without spoilers, can you talk about how you pulled this off?

With wine, tears, and edibles. Truly. Plot remains one of the hardest things for me to write. I didn’t come to crime fiction naturally; it was purely accidental. I felt like I was walking around asking other writers, what is my genre? It wasn’t until I had already published Cottonmouths and met a ton of crime writers that I realized that I “fit” in that genre, if not so cleanly.

Because I’m more of a cross-genre crime writer, I’m always trying to balance characters with plot. The only way I can seem to get a handle on plot is to write a lot. I mean, a lot. I have tossed so many pages. I have written so many things that eventually end up in the trash. When I’m thinking through endings and clues, I play a monster What If? game, and try to exhaust every option to find the most organic and plausible ending that also resonates. Luckily, by writing so much material, I’ve already offered myself so many breadcrumbs to choose from.

What are some of your favorite reads, crime fiction or otherwise?

I’m a huge fan of non-fiction, particularly history and science. I’m currently reading Powers and Thrones, A New History of the Middle Ages by Dan Jones. But I’ll also read anything by Isabel Wilkerson or Erik Larson. As for fiction, I read across a wide spectrum of genres, but primarily literary fiction featuring unconventional women and crime fiction. Some of my faves are The Passion, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Convenience Store Woman, Nothing to See Here, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist, and so many others. I’m also a real sucker for Sarah Waters and Lucy Foley.

Your novel is cinematic and seething with tension and drama, kind of like Big Little Lies—but set in Arkansas and darker. Who plays Jane and who plays Georgia in the movie or HBO series?

This question always feels like it will jinx me, so I’ll defer for now.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently in the developmental edit phase for my third book, tentatively titled THE HUNT. Of course, things can change significantly in this phase of editing, but the gist is that a small town stands divided as the local classic rock station prepares to host its first post-Covid Hunt for the Golden Egg scavenger hunt. Self-proclaimed “Eggheads” ready themselves for the largest payout ever, while anti-Eggheads rally against the Hunt and brace for the return of The Hunter, the alleged serial killer who has been using the Hunt as their killing ground for 17 years.

Kelly J. Ford is the author of Real Bad Things, from Thomas & Mercer, and Cottonmouths, named one of 2017’s best books of the year by the Los Angeles Review and featured in the “52 Books in 52 Weeks” from the Los Angeles Times. An Arkansas native, Kelly writes crime fiction set in the Ozarks and Arkansas River Valley. Kelly is also an occasional co-host with Daniel Ford on the Writer’s Bone podcast. She lives in Vermont with her wife, cat, and dog.

Keep reading in this series