Mason author gives voice to generations of Native American women


Despite the pandemic, it has been an amazing year for Kelli Jo Ford. In addition to being named to Oprah Magazine’s list of Native American Authors to Read Right Now, the George Mason University alumna’s debut novel, “Crooked Hallelujah,” was recently named one of the best books of 2020 by Publishers Weekly and is on the longlist for the 2021 Carnegie Medal for Fiction, among other accolades. 

Kelli Jo Ford
Kelli Jo Ford. Photo by Val Ford Hancock

“Crooked Hallelujah” is a novel in stories that follows four generations of Cherokee women over five decades. Ford will be discussing her book on Friday, Nov. 6, as part of this year’s virtual Fall for the Book festival. Find out more information about the event here.

It isn’t easy to launch a book in a pandemic, but Ford has been able to find a silver lining in the many virtual book talks and readings she has given.

“My mom and aunts get to attend as many of these readings as they want,” said Ford, who graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from Mason in 2007.

“And, on a normal book tour, I would have to be away from home,” she added. Home is in Richmond, Virginia, where Ford lives with her husband and fellow MFA alum, poet Scott Weaver, and their 7-year-old daughter, Cypress.

Ford, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, said she has “always been a scribbler” and wrote a lot of “really bad poetry” as a young person, but didn’t start writing seriously until her late 20s.

The first in her family to graduate from college, Ford was a student at Loyola University New Orleans when one of her teachers, author James Nolan, told her she was better at fiction. Then she found Mason’s MFA program.

Ford said that she really didn’t know a lot about getting an MFA when choosing Mason, but found what she needed here from her very first fiction workshop with Richard Bausch, who was the Heritage Professor of Writing at Mason at the time.

“[Bausch] is really good at helping students believe in themselves,” she said. “I needed that.”

Ford was looking to hone her craft, and she speaks glowingly of working with the late Alan Cheuse, who mentored her while at Mason.

“I wanted to work hard and have a critical eye,” Ford said. “Many of the lessons I learned from [Cheuse] I carry with me to this day.”

The world in “Crooked Hallelujah” is one that Ford found herself creating from that very first fiction class. In fact, the story “Bonita” dates back to her MFA days.

“I kept coming back to the same characters and places. Eventually, I realized, hey—maybe that’s because this is a book!” she said. “I tried to honor the characters and places by creating the world I was being led to create.”

“While I'm sure Kelli might often have wished for things to speed up a bit, I'm just endlessly impressed by the way she cultivated this book. She took the time to find the right form for it, made sure she found an agent who truly believed in her voice and vision, and revised and revised and revised,” said Mason English professor Scott W. Berg. “ ‘Crooked Hallelujah’ is a great book, a hard-earned nugget of pure gold, and I couldn't be happier for Kelli that it's finally out in the world and getting all this loud and well-deserved acclaim.