The Casual Brilliance of Tom Franklin

The past year has been unusual for author Tom Franklin. His 2010 novel, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, a New York Times bestseller, was selected as the abitur (or “high school”) book in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. Now, every high school student in the third-largest state in Germany is required to read Crooked Letter, a development that Franklin says came out of nowhere. “Pure chance that it happened. My book happened to fit.” The theme of the district’s curriculum that includes Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is “the ambiguity of belonging,” an appropriate theme for the novel, which centers on two childhood friends, one of whom becomes an outcast suspected of committing a decades-old murder and another who is an African American police officer in rural Mississippi. Franklin has traveled to Germany twice now to give readings and participate in Q&A sessions with students. This experience has provided Franklin with some insights into how the United States differs from other countries in their treatment of authors.

He says, “The United States is the exception on how literature is viewed in the whole world simply because we’re the only place with all these creative writing programs. One big difference in Germany is that no one there has really met writers, so when I go to these schools, I’m the first writer anyone’s ever met.” In 2016, when Franklin first met a couple of German emissaries tasked with interviewing him about his book, he was taken aback by how nervous they seemed. “They were terrified to meet me, like I was some kind of monster or someone with a really bad reputation for being mean or evil. They were breathless and scared and trembly. Like, shit, for me?” They were lucky, though, because Franklin is a good writer to meet if you’re looking to get a realistic picture of what it means to be a writer. “I tried to make them see that writers are just like everybody else, probably a lot worse than everybody else because we sit down by ourselves and our prostates get giant and our hemorrhoids grow.”

Although a few minutes with Franklin will show that he is decidedly not a monster and in fact very friendly and remarkably funny, it’s easy to read any one of his stories and conclude that he must be a severe and perhaps prickly individual, the kind of writer whose austerity and gloom contribute to the myth of the Tortured Artist. The stories in his first collection, Poachers, offer visceral depictions of violence that place Franklin among the likes of Cormac McCarthy and other writers who have managed to incorporate abject brutality into their writing as an important thematic aspect. For instance, “The Ballad of Duane Jaurez,” one of the stories in Poachers, concludes with a scene in which the protagonist uses a shotgun to kill several cats, an act that encapsulates his frustration with having a wealthier, more successful younger brother. The violence, it seems, serves a much deeper, emotional purpose.

Still, Franklin has had to deal with the consequences of writing such bleak stories. Of his 2006 novel Smonk, he says, “People hated it. My mother cried after she read the first few pages and never went back to it. It’s a hardcore, x-rated, ultra-violent broad comedy.” Franklin himself, a longtime fan of Stephen King, enjoyed the novel, despite its harsh and bizarre subject matter: “It’s my favorite book I’ve written.” But the success of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter taught Franklin an important lesson in giving readers a source of hope: “[Crooked Letter] was a more hopeful book. The others were devoid of hope. Hell at the Breech was really a dark book and everybody dies and it’s ultra-violent. So, you know, put in some hope.” It may seem a tough injunction for a writer who has made his bones telling brutal yarns about murderous families and vigilante justice, but his readership’s need for hope does not entirely preclude such savage subject matter, so he doesn’t seem to plan on abandoning this aspect of his craft. In fact, he says several of the stories he’s working on currently have plenty of “violence and murder and gore.”

Franklin’s laid-back, candid approach with the German interviewers is a good example of how he approaches writing. If you ask him about his process, for example – whether he writes in the morning or the evening, if he reads anything before he writes or has an ideal word count in mind when he sits down – he might tell you that any of these approaches sound like good ideas, but he abides by none of them: “I don’t have a system. I don’t have a pattern.” His wife, poet and author Beth Ann Fennelly, with whom Franklin co-authored the 2013 novel The Tilted World, differs in this respect. “My wife goes, every morning, to her computer. She goes in there, closes the door, begins to read. Puts the book away and begins to work.” Franklin’s process is more fluid. “If I’m on a novel, I go to the novel every day. It may be in the morning. It may be in the evening. It may be late at night with music playing.” Right now, Franklin is working on a collection of short stories, a collection he says is almost finished. Franklin’s first book, 1999’s Poachers, is also a short story collection. “It’s going to be a nice thing to have, twenty years later, another book of stories.”

Franklin’s trajectory as a writer has been a long road, one that has occasionally veered in unusual directions. Born and raised in the rural town of Dickinson, Alabama, he held several blue-collar jobs to support himself in college, working for a period at a chemical plant where his job was to clean up hazardous waste. As far as his path to becoming a writer is concerned, he says, “I wrote about eighty-six or eighty-seven really bad stories before I wrote one mediocre story. I had a long runway, as they say.” Franklin spent a great deal of time finding his voice, and many of his early stories were unlike those that would later appear in literary magazines and in his collection Poachers. “I was real clever. I wrote clever stories. Have you heard of the expression you know what they say? I wrote a story about that, about who they were.” It was through reading authors like Rick Bass and Raymond Carver that Franklin made an important discovery about his writing style: “At some point I discovered that I really, really loved realism.”

Franklin’s form of realism has taken different forms throughout his career. For example, three of Franklin’s books have been set in the past: Hell at the Breech in 1897, Smonk in 1911, and The Tilted World in 1927. His foray into historical writing was prompted by his first novel, Hell at the Breech. “That was strictly because of a kind of practicality. An agent, Nat [Sobel of Sobel Weber Associates], saw a story of mine in a literary quarterly, and he wrote me and said, ‘I like this story. Do you have a novel?’” At the time, Franklin had only the story, and his initial novel proposals to Sobel were refused. “He said, ‘What I like in your stories is their exploration of violence. I want a novel that explores violence as well.’ So I remembered this feud that happened twelve miles from where I grew up called the Mitcham Beat war, and it was still so recent and fresh in the memory of the people that people didn’t speak to each other.”

This novel, which Franklin says took four years to write, required historical knowledge that Franklin admittedly did not have. “I failed history classes. I saw Apocalypse Now when it came out in the theater and I didn’t even know what war it was. I took US History to 1865 in college and didn’t know why it stopped there.” To make matters worse, Franklin had never written a novel. Although Hell at the Breech took Franklin “four years of agonizing hell” to write, it was the beginning of his trek into historical research that would lead him to setting two other novels in the past. “I began to let myself write [Smonk] in the past when I realized all this that you’ve learned from Hell at the Breech, all this stuff you have in your head – use some of it.

Just as Franklin is candid about his approach to writing, he makes no claims of possessing secret access to a wellspring of literary creativity. He says, “This writing shit doesn’t get easier. For me, it’s getting harder.” Nevertheless, the future seems promising for the author. The story collection he is working on is nearly finished. He talks about the stories in the breezy manner one might use when discussing a baseball card collection. “I need one good long one,” he says. “If I can finish three or four of the shorter ones or one of the longer ones, I’ll have another collection of stories ready.” Franklin didn’t divulge whether the majority of the stories will be set in the past or if they will take place in Mississippi or Alabama, where most of stories have been set. Whatever shape these stories eventually take, one can rest assured that they will be at points violent and at others hopeful, but all of them will capture a realistic aspect of what it means to be human, all from a writer who is decidedly down to earth.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

By Tom Franklin
William Morrow
Published May 27, 2011