Reviews/Interviews Editor Ann Beman interviews Kelly J. Ford about “Real Bad Things,” Ford’s second novel set in rural Arkansas. This latest is rural noir exploring what it means to be queer in the South when faced with the consequences of desire, crime and punishment.

What’s it like writing mysteries as a queer female in a genre dominated by male authors?

For the most part, I’ve had a really great experience in the crime writing community. Overall, they’re a welcoming bunch and, I would say, far more progressive than outsiders might expect. But of course, there are always standouts who can suck the air out of a room and an experience.

They’re almost always cis-het white men who have been publishing a while and consider efforts to diversify as something one should roll their eyes at, even though publishing data shows that cis-het white male and female writers receive the lion’s share of attention and money. But I’m super competitive by nature, and I refuse to let someone’s entitlement to a genre stop me from writing about crime from a queer, female perspective. If anything, it fuels my fire and that of other marginalized authors. We’re not just diversity initiatives. Go to any conference or read our books, you’ll see that we’re changing the genre for good. 

As they say, adapt or die.

Back in 2017, I asked you your definition of Americana. You mentioned twangy music, RC Cola, and “rundown towns with ghost signs on brick buildings that give a hint of a more vital and economically stable past.” Would you say that Real Bad Things fits into that definition?

Oh, absolutely. More than Drear’s Bluff from my debut Cottonmouths, I think the fictional town of Maud, Arkansas, represents the current world, where there are deep divisions in society between the haves and have nots. There’s nothing more Americana than that. I think people tend to romanticize Americana. It reminds me a lot of how we hold these places in our memories as being bigger and more perfect than they actually were, and you really don’t realize that your memories are skewed until you return to those places. In some ways, that’s why people who leave home have a unique perspective on a place. We’ve seen it from the outside; we’ve been away. We see it without the sheen of nostalgia and memory but for what it is, not just the good parts captured on film for all to see.

What incited you to write Real Bad Things? 

Even though Real Bad Things is set entirely in Arkansas, much of it is inspired not just by time spent living with my mom in Arkansas but visiting her over five or six summers after she moved to California. The first time I met our soon-to-be stepdad he told my brother and I that he hated kids. My mom wasn’t there for that. But it set a tone of dread and emotional violence from fifth grade through tenth grade. I wanted to be anywhere but home. That feeling never went away, and I’ve always wanted to capture it in fiction. Maybe to trap it and put it away for good. 

Also, I have been obsessed with stories of drowning forever. I don’t mean to write them, but they keep coming to me. Probably because my brother and I almost got carried away by a rip current at Huntington Beach in California as kids. We were always jumping off bluffs and bridges into murky water somewhere in Arkansas with our wild pack of cousins. I always jumped, but not without thinking of a nest of Cottonmouths or some other creature lurking beyond my sight. 

Mix those two things together with other bits and pieces of this and that and you get Real Bad Things.

You are a master at creating portentous Gothic atmosphere with a mere placename. In Cottonmouths it was Drear’s Bluff, while Real Bad Things takes place in Maud Bottoms. How did you come up with this name and does it have a real-life, real-bad counterpart?

That’s one of the best compliments I could receive, so thank you! Setting is so important to me as a reader and a writer. Maud Bottoms is a mixture of two places: the place where my dad’s family resided in East Texas and a section of land near Lock and Dam 13 in Barling, Arkansas, where we lived for a while. 

It’s hard for me to remember the origin of an idea, but it’s usually some odd thing I heard about when I was a kid from my dad, Uncle Larry, or grandparents. In this case, I was texting with my dad and mentioned the name of the town in my book. He was tickled, of course, because he loves those little insider details too. And he said of the Bottoms something like: Oh yeah, they find dead bodies out there all the time! I have no idea if this is true. But that original comment must’ve stuck in my head.

I knew I wanted Bottoms in the town’s name, so then it became a matter of finding the right vowel to compliment it. I’m a sucker for assonance. And I’d heard about Maud, Texas, my whole life so it felt like a perfect fit because it’s also a source of some sketchy family history.

What experiences influenced your construct of Maud Bottoms? 

Maud Bottoms feels more like where I grew up in Northwest Arkansas than any other place I’ve written. There’s the Arkansas Valley section of Maud Bottoms, where everything floods, there are tons of tornado warnings, and it feels like a rundown industrial town that would fit perfectly in the Rust Belt, just with a southern accent. The people are often as depressed as the economy. And then there’s Maud Proper, up on the hill, where things are shiny and new and not all that complicated in terms of making a basic living. It’s very much a have and have not setup. 

That’s kind of how I felt living between parents: the river valley where I grew up was a source of great consternation for me. But when I lived “up on the hill” (as my dad calls it), I felt calm and like I could set aside a lot of worries and just be a kid. Maud Proper is fancier than the woods when I lived with my dad, though. It’s more like a Hillbilly Beverly Hills, if you will. It’s very much that “city on a hill” concept. The two parts of town are almost like two siblings, locked in combat. It’s like the two centers of my upbringing.

What experiences influenced your constructs of Jane Mooney, her mother, her brother, Georgia Lee?

I’m a Gen X latch-key kid whose time was split between two wildly different parents and multiple homes and did not look like the families I saw on TV, read in books, or experienced in real life. I explore a lot of my ongoing confusion and complicated feelings about that situation within the family relationship in Real Bad Things. Somehow, it’s easier for me to express and work through some issues within a fictional construct because I’m still a (mostly) nice Southern girl at heart, and I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

Although not the same, my own sibling relationship informed the one between Jane and Jason. Like them, we had a complicated relationship with our mother (though Diane is not an exact replica of my mother, I can assure you). There’s a bond that’s both solid and tenuous. You experience the same life event, but your interpretation is vastly different due to a variety of reasons. Your sibling can be your closest friend, but they’re also a reminder of trauma. And in such a situation, you find other people, like Georgia Lee and Angie Pham, who fill holes where other people in your family can’t or won’t. Those two women especially are the found family that helps Jane and Jason to survive their trauma. And I can certainly attest to the power of that.

Let’s Talk About Maud. That happens to be the name of the novel’s local true crime Facebook group. True crime is so hot right now. Why do you think that is? Talk about the tone you were aiming for with the LTAM group. It struck me as TMZ-adjacent. 

That’s absolutely what I was going for. Years ago, I found this private Facebook group for my hometown whose tagline was basically about exposing the real truth behind our town, which I found hilarious. I was a political science minor at a state school in Arkansas, and the classes I loved the most were state and local government. I’m drawn like a moth to the flame of small town grievances about things like potholes and the wrongdoing of city council members and other such “inflammatory” topics. It’s a gold mine. 

I’m not sure why true crime is so hot right now, possibly it’s just a matter of social media making the content more obvious and accessible to all of us. I’ve been reading about true crime most of my life, but I do have a problem with the way it’s sometimes consumed. I’m guilty of it as well. There’s a voyeuristic quality to it. The fascination, I think, is that we’re witnessing base human instincts that don’t always put human beings in the best light. That makes for good content, sad as it is. But perhaps it’s catharsis as well. There’s not much we can do about a lot of the trauma in the world, but in such shows, we can see clues and outcomes. We can see the What Ifs in action.

Southern crime fiction. What’s its deal within the genre?

It’s definitely a smaller subgenre of a larger community of crime writers. But I’ve found such a wonderful community there. We’re a fairly small, tight-knit group of authors who really support each other. We don’t often get the spotlight or attention because maybe small towns don’t have the national or international appeal of cities or suburbs, but we are writing about places and people that are in our blood. The best of southern fiction, for me, taps into the weird and the wild of the distinct regions where we came of age. There’s a certain Coen Brothers, dark humor about southern crime fiction that really draws me in and reminds me of the stories my dad and Uncle Larry used to tell around a fire. There’s that, y’all ain’t gonna believe this shit quality to it. But the way they tell it, you’re like, Damn. I actually can believe that!

Have you made a playlist dedicated to this book? Will you share it with us?

Music is a huge part of my writing process. I hate it when people say that thinking is not writing. Thinking is critical for me. I can’t just sit down and start writing. I create a world in my head for months and sometimes years before I commit anything to paper. Much of that thinking and daydreaming is facilitated by music, usually when I’m working out in the morning or taking a walk or just staring out the window. 

Everything listed here either matches the vibe I was going for or sparked an idea for a character or scene. The playlist for this book is pretty long, but here are ten seminal tracks, available here on Spotify:

  1. Comin Home by Murder by Death
  2. My Ego Dies at the End by Jensen McRae
  3. Rebellion (Lies) by Arcade Fire
  4. Wouldn’t It Be Nice by The Beach Boys
  5. Edge of Town by Middle Kids
  6. Head Underwater by Jenny Lewis
  7. Level Tools by Yoke Lore
  8. Lord I Hope This Day is Good by Don Williams
  9. With You by Valerie June
  10. Bad Things by Rayland Baxter
  11. Tomorrow by Shakey Graves

 What was your research process like for this book? How did it differ from the past? 

Unlike Cottonmouths, where I had to learn about the ins and outs of small, southern mom and pop meth labs and the intersection with farming, Real Bad Things didn’t require as much research. So much of what I researched in this book didn’t really make it in the book, but it informed how I wrote the book–and gave me confidence to write it, such as details about how a Lock and Dam works and ensuring that the characters represented the diversity of my hometown, which Maud is based upon.

Which authors most influenced you when writing Real Bad Things? Who are you reading now?

Like a lot of Gen X, I read a ton of VC Andrews growing up. I love the gothic, suffocating, family horror that she created. And of course, I read a ton of Stephen King. I’m currently making my way through Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages. I’m a very slow reader in general, but it’s also been much harder to find time to read while on a deadline. But next up for me will be Blackout by Erin Flanagan. And I’m really itching to finally read Yasmin Angoe’s Her Name is Knight. I’ve been “living” in the South so long in my head, so I tend to veer toward entirely different locales when I’m reading.

Do you have projects in the works? What’s next?

I’m currently completing edits 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, published on September 1, 2022 by Thomas & Mercer, and Cottonmouths, which was named one of 2017’s best books of the year by the Los Angeles Review and featured in the “52 Books in 52 Weeks” by the Los Angeles Times. Kelly is also a co-host with Daniel Ford on the Writer’s Bone podcast Happy Hour episodes. An Arkansas native, Kelly writes about the power and pitfalls of friendship, the danger of long-held secrets, and the transcendent grittiness of the Ozarks and their surrounds. She lives in Vermont with her wife and cat. Learn more at her website,, Instagram, @kellyjfordauthor, and Twitter: @Kelly_J_Ford