Ashley C. Ford’s powerful story of Fort Wayne childhood becomes NY Times bestseller

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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — Ashley C. Ford is a Harding graduate whose memoir, Somebody’s Daughter, has become a New York Times bestseller. Her book has received critical acclaim and been touted by Oprah Winfrey. Ford lives in Indianapolis and has been named a writer in residence at Ball State University. She talked to WANE 15 via Zoom.

Q: You share so many emotions in your book. What do you think of first when you hear “Fort Wayne?”

A: Childhood. It is where the entirety of my childhood lived. I feel like I could find my way around Fort Wayne if you covered every street sign. If I got my way, I would be at every festival Fort Wayne has every year: Johnny Appleseed Festival, Three Rivers Festival, RibFest, even the Festival of Trees. I felt like I grew up in a really great place. I mean, that’s where magic first existed to me – driving around downtown. No matter what kind of Christmas we were going to have that year, whether we were going to have things or not, it was just this beautiful tradition, this beautiful thing to drive around and look at those lights and believe in the magic of Christmas for as long as I possibly could. Even when I didn’t believe in Santa anymore, I believed in the magic of Christmas and I think, downtown at Christmastime had a lot to do with that. It’s wild to see our little city go out into the world via my view and my words and my book. That is just wild to me but it’s also really exciting. There’s a reason why, even when I lived in Brooklyn, I came back to Fort Wayne to get married. And not just because it was cheaper. I specifically scheduled my wedding to be the day before the Johnny Appleseed Festival so that I could make all my big city friends go and they loved it. It’s fantastic.

Q: You are the right age to remember two Fort Wayne malls as an important part of growing up.

A: When I was a kid, we spent a ton of time at the Southtown Mall. Just knowing that once we got to a certain end of the mall that you could go into the McDonald’s that was built into this little stone encasement on the corner of one end and ask for a free kiddie cone and they would give you a free vanilla kiddie ice cream cone. And then you could walk over to look at the rollerblades that you couldn’t afford but that you knew one day you were gonna get. Those images are still in my mind. I remember what the floors look like. I remember what it smelled like. I remember when there was still that Appleseed Court in Glenbrook where it was like cobblestones in the middle and you had to walk through and it had the big wooden sculpture of Johnny Appleseed. That was my favorite place in the mall. So yeah, I’ve held on to those memories pretty hard.

Q: There’s one key moment in the book that takes place at the mall when your grandmother tells you why your father was in jail. Do you remember the exact spot?

A: Yeah, I do I remember because the carousel had just gone up. That was in the Glenbrook food court. And I remember getting my Panda Express and sitting where my grandma likes to sit, which was almost directly underneath the escalator. And I remember sitting there and looking at that carousel while she was telling me what was happening, and it was really, really heartbreaking. And it was not the best place for her to tell me something like that, but you know, it was the mall, so at least it offered some distraction from what was going on inside me.

Q: Was there a Fort Wayne teacher that helped you notice you could write?

A: Yeah, absolutely. There was Mr Martin, when I was at Village Woods Middle School, who really deeply pushed me to care more about myself, about my future, and to put a little more thought and a little more work into writing. And then when I got older, it was Miss Reinking, now Miss Coyle, who actually recently just moved back to Fort Wayne. We’re still in touch and she’s amazing. There was my band director, Mr. Caffee who, you know, out of any educator I’ve ever had, probably did the most to teach me about being a good person and about doing things with intention and having conviction in my beliefs and in my values and letting those play out in my expression of my life.

Q: Your story is so compelling. How many people come up to you and say they lived through something similar?

A: More than you think. You have to think about the incarceration levels in this country and think about how many incarcerated parents there have been. Even if a person hasn’t had all the exact same experiences, they know the shame of having a parent who’s incarcerated. They know that people will try to put that shame on you as their child, that people will try to punish your parent through you, as if it doesn’t affect you at the same time. And I think that my story is specific to me but the themes that are in my story are very common, more common than we want to admit as a society.

Q: What was the moment like when you found out you were going to be trumpeted by Oprah? Even without her show, she’s a huge cultural gatekeeper.

A: Oh, yeah, Oprah’s still Oprah, 24/7. When different publishers were making bids for my book, she was part of the bid that came from the publisher that I went with, which means that she read my proposal. So before the book was even a book, she had decided that it was something that she wanted to be attached to and that she wanted to support in the world. At the time it was kind of rough, because writing the book, at any given point I’m thinking, “Oh my gosh, I don’t want to disappoint Oprah.” I wanted it to be good and I wanted it to be true and I wanted to be honest and the fact that I was able to do all that and she still loved it and she still took the time and takes the time to support me, it’s invaluable. What do you get that’s better than that? It’s amazing. I grew up watching this person every day on TV and now she’s read my book about growing up in Fort Wayne. She likes it and she’s telling people she likes it. It’s an embarrassment of riches. I feel really, really lucky.

Q: What else do we need to know about your connection or your fondness for Fort Wayne?

A: You should know that I love Fort Wayne so much: the three rivers and the festivals and the downtown Christmas lights. But I also just love the people. I feel like I grew up in a place (and the older I get, the more I realize) that is not without its problems, but people generally seek to be kind. That is a beautiful way to get to grow up, where you know people are doing their best and they’re trying to be good.

Q: How do you top this book?

A: You know, I don’t have that kind of drive. I’m not that kind of person. I think of myself as ambitious but I’m ambitious in relationships. I’m ambitious in my connections with people. Work is great, don’t get me wrong. I’m a very lucky person to get to do a lot of work that I love. But I’m not going to pressure myself to be the best worker or the greatest worker who ever was. I’d rather work on being the best person I can be. And I think that I’m on a good road for that and I’m just going to keep following it and see where I end up.

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