Reviews/Interviews Editor Ann Beman interviews Kelly J. Ford about Cottonmouths, her debut novel blending noir and Southern Gothic into a story set in rural Arkansas, where complicity and unrequited longing take equal tolls.
What is your definition of Americana? Does your novel fit into that definition? How?
When I hear the word ‘Americana,’ I think of twangy music and dark humor, old photographs and RC Cola. Rundown towns with ghost signs on brick buildings that give a hint of a more vital and economically stable past. An exploration into the attics and dusty corners of places that most people avoid – because they’re old fashioned or forgotten, or ignored entirely. And honestly, if I had a quarter for every time someone told me that they forgot Arkansas existed…
In many ways, Arkansas hasn’t changed. It’s still guns and God country, more so with the progression of equal rights, as people cling to the storied past. I suppose Cottonmouths fits within this category because the folks in Drear’s Bluff are still clinging to this bygone era, with a “from my cold dead hands” mentality. My wife and I jokingly rewrote and sing the lyrics to Miranda Lambert’s “Automatic” as such:
It all just seems so good the way we had it
Back before everything became ‘equal status’
The good people of Drear’s Bluff are fighting the future, but the future’s not waiting on them to catch up. Poverty and drugs and desperation are the byproducts of this town and all the things they pretend they don’t see. That’s the real crime, I think: their silence and their crushing ability to pretend that everything is fine. Nothing good comes from that.
Drear’s Bluff. Could a placename be more saddled with portent? Where in the process of writing Cottonmouths did this name present itself? Is there a Drear’s Bluff in your past? (Maybe everyone has a Drear’s Bluff somewhere in their lives.)
Cottonmouths was originally set in both Alaska and Arkansas. But when I read the first draft, the elements that struck me were set solely in Arkansas. I couldn’t shake the woods. There’s something wonderfully dark and enticing about them. I love going out in the woods for walks and hikes. The smells, the sounds, the varying temperatures depending on where you stand, there’s a lot to work with. There’s a lot to love and to fear. So when I was thinking of a name for the town, I wanted to tap into that.
My Grandma Sue lived in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. I always liked the name. It reminded me of jumping off the bluff into Lee Creek, those humid summer days, those snakes in waiting. I tried out different adjectives to fit the tone but that would work with Bluff. Eventually, I landed on Drear’s Bluff. It felt right.
I reckon a lot of people have a Drear’s Bluff in their life, a place where they can’t be themselves, for whatever reason, and feel stifled. I don’t think that’s so much a southern thing but a matter of who populates your life. But anytime I go home to Arkansas, it’s a little bit harder to breathe, to be myself. Because I’m gay, I tend to have my defenses up more. Once we get out in the woods, though, I feel at home. I love it, and sometimes I hate it. That’s what Drear’s Bluff is for me.
What experiences influenced your construct of Drear’s Bluff?
For most of my school years, I grew up in Fort Smith. It was industrial, we had a lot of fast food restaurants, two malls, two rival high schools. A lot of my friends were first-generation Americans or refugees from Southeast Asia. But then I moved in with my dad and stepmom in the woods, and it was a cultural shift for me. I moved around a lot as a kid and was used to being new. But I could usually find one or two outsiders at my other schools, girls like me who were quiet and liked to sing choir songs. Not here. This was a whole other ballgame. Most of these kids had grown up together, since before kindergarten. So it was hard to wedge myself into any group. The first two weeks of school were hard, and I felt incredibly alone. Things eventually normalized and high school ended up being a great experience, one I look back on fondly.
In hindsight, all those years being the new kid sharpened my attention to detail. With no one talking to me and me being daydreamy, a lot of details stuck with me. I overheard a lot of conversations. I saw a lot of things no one else did. That’s the benefit of being invisible to others.
One of those details is how church society plays such a heavy role in the south. I was never much of a churchgoer, but everyone I knew was. It was hard enough being the new kid, so I often lied about going to church and would go when my friends asked me to join their church. I hated every minute of it. But I did it because I wanted to fit in.
And well, I was always in love with someone who didn’t love me back. (Rejection is protection.)
What incited you to write Cottonmouths? What was the seed you took into the GrubStreet Incubator?
I’d been blindsided by a breakup while on a trip to see my aunt in Alaska. While on my visit, I couldn’t really focus or interact with that emotional weight on me. So I listened from the back seat as my friend, who’d come with me, asked my aunt questions while we were out exploring. We’re all pretty macabre and enjoy dark humor, so the questions were about my aunt’s time working in a morgue and all the fascinating ways you can die in Alaska (a lot, there are a lot of ways). That same friend also told me about how our college town, right off I-40, had started to have a lot of trouble with meth (this was in the early 2000s).
Back in Boston, those ideas kept gnawing at me and I began to write a short story that would become my novel. It took me years to get a first draft down, but it was a start. The idea of a “seed” is so appropriate because the first draft is just the beginning. A novel requires much more maintenance and attention than I’d realized. I had a novel that was set in two different states, the plot was meandering, and I had four or five points of view, including, at one point, a ghost. Total mess. That’s what I took into the Novel Incubator program. God bless ’em, because they helped me figure out what was working, what wasn’t, and how I might proceed, emotionally and on the page.
By the end of the program, I had whittled away the excess and had found my story, my characters, my voice.
I love that there is one singular mention of the titular snake, yet that lone reference carries such weight, such portent. At what point in the writing process did the title occur to you?
That scene has been there, in some shape or form, since the first draft. Ever since I was little, snakes have terrified me, whether in kindergarten nightmares or walking through the woods and not paying attention because I’m too busy daydreaming. Snakes and creeks are a part of backwoods life, so including them in Cottonmouths felt natural.
In junior high and high school, I loved spending time down at Lee Creek in the summer to get a break from the heat and humidity. My Uncle Larry was always teasing us kids about landing in a nest of water moccasins when we jumped off the bluff into the water. Over the years, the creek’s dried up and lost a lot of its charms. Now it’s either too shallow or flooded. And there are a lot of sketchy characters down there, drinking, smoking, doing things that scare parents. The road’s all tore up and hard on your car. On one visit home, my friends and I rode the ATV down there and saw a car sitting on the side of the road. We slowed down and gave them a one-finger wave. A guy was sitting in the driver’s seat and a younger girl in the passenger seat. I can’t describe her face as anything but haunted. We all had a moment of “wtf” and debated whether we should call someone, but we didn’t know who. It’s in the middle of nowhere. By the time we’d gone down the road and turned around, the car was gone.
For me, the creek is a place that presents itself as relief and recreation, but there’s a lot hiding in the water, in the woods. I tried on a few titles before realizing that it was right there all along.
What was your process for writing this novel? In general and on a day-to-day level? Was there coffee? Sweet tea? Wine?
This novel took me about 13 years, all told, from first draft to publication. In that time, I drank a lot of red wine. When I began the novel, I was working as a software project manager. My team and I were always at work late, so I had no time or energy to write after work. I learned how to adapt and write in whatever environment I was in. I wrote this novel in workplace conference rooms, on airplanes, on my couch, in my bedroom, on a beach in Ptown. Really, all I need is my White Noise app or Spotify and something to write with. I do tend to get distracted easily so I try to avoid other people. That sounds terrible, but I need my blinders on so I can get pulled into the fictional dream.
I’m not one of those “write every day” folks. That doesn’t work for me. After so many years on a software schedule, I’m still more of a weekend warrior. The most important part of my process (other than red wine) is a deadline. I’m pretty lazy, to be honest. I’d watch TV all day if I didn’t have my wife to hold me accountable. She’s holding me accountable for this interview. If I don’t finish it today, I don’t get to play Donkey Kong Country Returns or watch TV tonight. So you best believe it’s gonna get done.
Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what were you listening to when writing this book?
Since I was a child, I’ve used music as an escape, a way to understand feelings I can’t quite put into words, as a mood enhancer. I especially use it for those latter purposes when writing. I prep myself to write by creating project-specific playlists that evoke a certain mood or place. Then, I set out in my neighborhood and go for a walk. By the time I’ve returned, my head’s already in my story. I usually put a song on repeat that fits the scene that I need to work on and write for as many hours I can stand it.
Editing’s a bit different, though. It’s hard for me to concentrate on revision with lyrics, so I switch to instrumental or classical. Mozart’s Requiem is great for editing. When I’m really stuck, I sometimes put on the sound of a lawnmower. It reminds me of my dad working out in the yard, and that makes me feel guilty, like I should be doing something too. I guess I should add that guilt — real or imagined — is a pretty big part of my process as well.
If this book had a soundtrack, what might that look like?
Dark and emotionally stormy, with a bit of Jesus thrown in for good measure. I created a playlist of all the songs that I’ve put on repeat over the years that I still listen to (https://open.spotify.com/user/1217575227/playlist/3XMizzubsN1cdhNWrEjWfr)
I can tell you which scene I wrote or edited to for every single song on this list. But if I had to cull the options to a standard soundtrack format, I’d likely pick the ones that best capture the region, the tone, and the characters’ emotional states:
“Revival” by Jamestown Revival
“Sex and Candy” by Unions
“Just As I Am” by Willie Nelson
“Do I Look Worried” by Tedeschi Trucks Band
“We’ve Never Lied” by Jessica Lea Mayfield
“First Defeat” by Noah Gunderson
“Don’t Know How” by honeyhoney
“House of Gold” by Patty Griffin
“Lay ‘Em Down” by NEEDTOBREATHE
“Small Town Heroes” by Hurray for the Riff Raff
“Way Down We Go – Stripped” by Kaleo
“Where I’m Going” by The Wild Reeds
I read somewhere that you have a binge-watching TV habit? Were there any shows, characters, or settings that influenced this book?
Ha. I guess I talk about TV a lot. For me, it’s simply another medium for stories. I don’t care how you give them to me, I just want my stories: around a fire, on a page, on a screen. Gimme.
But no. TV rarely, if ever, influences my writing and didn’t with Cottonmouths. I don’t get swept away in a story the same way I do when I read a book. Books give us access to the internal, and that’s what sticks with me. The emotions, all the things that are said and not said. And I don’t really like having an actor’s face stuck in my head when I’m writing. That feels like bringing baggage into the characterization.
I’m currently binge-watching old episodes of Top Chef. I like watching creatives tackle problems in a competitive format (which is why I also love Project Runway and The Great British Baking Show, and I love the Youth America Grand Prix dance competition and the Meilleur Ouvrier de France documentaries.)
Writing and publishing is not for the faint of heart. There’s a ton of rejection and disappointment and hard mental and emotional work. When things don’t go according to plan, you have to figure out a solution. Though it sounds hokey, I sometimes ask myself: What would a Top Chef do?
So nerdy. Yeah, I like TV. A lot.
What’s your research process like? Did you spend time in Arkansas recently or were your working through childhood memories?
The majority of my research for Cottonmouths was around things like farm equipment and chicken house construction, mom and pop production of methamphetamine, the social hierarchy in meth labs, law enforcement and prosecution details, that sort of thing. I wanted to ensure that I got those parts right, or as best I could. For building the small town world, I didn’t have to dig too deep.
I didn’t move away from Arkansas until I was 22. I spent a majority of my life surrounded by the people and places that make up Cottonmouths. Arkansas is still a huge part of who I am. Though I left some time ago, I still try to return about once a year. And I talk to my dad on the phone every Sunday and stay in contact with my brother and sister-in-law and friends who live there, so I’m not too far removed from place. Plus, I follow the local news channels, which is both hilarious and horrifying.
One of the last times I went home, we were driving through the backwoods to my dad’s house. There was a burned-out trailer on the hill. Dad said that a meth lab had blown up. My wife leaned over and said, “It’s your book in the flesh.” For me, research often involves sitting back, listening, asking questions about what I see, and capturing the sensory details. Like I did as a kid, I let my synapses spark and connect all these disparate elements into a story.
Which authors influence your writing?
I read Kate Chopin and Jeanette Winterson at critical times in my life: right before I broke off an engagement that would have landed me in a lakeside double-wide (if I was lucky) and when I first started to realize that I was gay, respectively.
But I’m constantly inspired by contemporary writers, such as Merrit Tierce, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Sarai Walker, Sunil Yapa… the list goes on. They’re creating worlds and characters and narrative structures that help me realize what’s possible in fiction.
Do you have projects in the works? What’s next?
I wrote a couple other novels in the process of bringing Cottonmouths into the world. But I’m still noodling on them and a few other ideas. I have a passion project that involves the gallows in my hometown and a brothel. For now, I’m sitting back, listening in on conversations, and seeing what develops.
Kelly J. Ford is a graduate of GrubStreet Writing Center’s Novel Incubator program and a regular contributor to the website Dead Darlings. Her fiction has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, Fried Chicken and Coffee, and Knee-Jerk Magazine. Although Kelly currently lives in Boston, growing up in a small southern town at the foothills of the Ozark Mountains made her intimately familiar with the kinds of people and places that fill her novels. Although Kelly is from Fort Smith, Arkansas, she now lives in Boston with her wife and cat.