Interview with Kelly Ford, Author of Cottonmouths
Please describe what the story is about.
In Cottonmouths, a college dropout returns to her hometown and reconnects with the woman she loved as a teen only to become entangled in a backwoods drug operation.
Share a teaser sentence or two from your novel.
“Her nerves pricked as she drew closer to that familiar plot of land. She came to the end of the road and paused at the faded black mailbox and the metal farm gate that stood wide open. Knots that had begun to cramp her gut told her to turn around, best to let some things lie, but a stronger current of curiosity and what ifs overtook her and she made the turn.”
What do you want people to know about your book?
I’m fascinated by the impacts of class, desperation, and desire in little-seen locales. It’s a world I’m familiar with, having grown up in Arkansas. In Cottonmouths, I followed that obsession but also focused on how it doubly affects a queer woman. In a way, it’s me trying to understand how one person can survive a society that is hell-bent on crushing them. That lends itself to darkness, but that’s how I make sense of the world.
What did you learn about yourself while writing this novel?
The hardest lesson was not to shy away from my own discomfort. During the early years of drafting and revision, I struggled with being open about my protagonist’s sexuality – which mirrored my own experience as a queer writer – and buried it under so much nuance it was barely visible. My agent encouraged me to surface my protagonist’s sexuality in a revise and resubmit request. Once I had the courage to write my character more honestly, the story came alive for me.
What was your timeline from drafting to publication?
13 years. The final draft and the first draft are barely recognizable. Time – and hard work – also heals bad drafts.
What is your favorite part of writing (drafting characters, making up scenes, plotting, developing emotional turning points, etc). Why?
I like to write hot, as the saying goes. First drafts are where I discover my story. I like to get messy in my sandbox. I don’t have to please anyone but myself. I can be as ridiculous as I want. That’s a lot of fun.
Briefly, where did the idea for your book come from?
I had been circling around the idea of love and meth since about 2000. I was addicted to my grandma’s romance novels in junior high and high school, the more tragic the better. And, unfortunately, I’ve been around alcohol and substance abusers much of my life. These elements have always mixed in a lot of the real-life stories of people I know.
All those lovelorn thoughts and the drug and death conversations I’ve had over the years coalesced into a story that eventually became the genesis for Cottonmouths.
When do you do your best thinking about your work in progress?
I rely heavily on novel-specific music playlists to put me in the right frame of mind for a scene. Typically, I put one song on repeat and then set out to think. The exercise and fresh air is a nice benefit.
Share something people may be surprised to know about you?
I was a huge choir geek in junior high. I still love to sing, much to the chagrin of my friends and neighbors. I’m a solid alto and have an extremely low singing voice. There are few female-fronted songs I can sing comfortably. But I can sing the hell out of Randy Travis.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
When I’m feeling lost and like my story will never come out on the page as vividly and amazing as it does in my head, I think about this section from James Scott Bell’s book, Revision and Self-Editing:
“Repeat this often: It can be fixed. Neil Simon was once watching a play of his in rehearsal. It was obvious something wasn’t working. The director of the play knew it, too. In the darkness Simon wrote something on a piece of paper and passed it to the director. The note said, I can fix it.
That’s a phrase worth putting up in your writer’s space. Because a writing problem can be fixed. All it takes is tools and experience. And you get both the more you write and revise. Remember that. Any problem can be fixed.”
I’m currently working on another novel and enjoying the debut author ride.
“With prose as lyrical and languid as a hot Arkansas summer, Kelly J. Ford explores the myopia of desire―and its tragic aftermath. I found myself torn between wanting to rip through these pages to find out what would happen, and a need to slow down and savor Ford’s sentences. A remarkable debut.” ―Lisa Borders, author of The Fifty-First State