Please welcome Tom Franklin, November's featured author!
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
Q: Could you explain the significance behind the title of your new novel, CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER, and its setting?
A: The title comes from a pneumonic device to teach southern children how to spell Mississippi. M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I.
We moved to the crooked letter (slang for Mississippi) in 2001. I just loved it and wondered why no one had used it before. It sounded like an Elmore Leonard novel to me, and that was a good thing. It also seemed, or sounded, like a crime novel.
When I began to try and figure out how the title fit this story, the story of 32 Jones and Larry Ott, it occurred to me that, in some ways, the book is about how southern children are educated, and in this case educated into racism.
Q: What first inspired you to write this particular story?
A: The inspiration for this book came from a number of places: a mechanic's shop I used to pass every day; this place NEVER had a customer but the mechanic was always there, waiting. Also, where I grew up in rural Alabama, we had only one cop for our town. Larry Hicks (he's still there) had jurisdiction over the nearby mill town of Fulton, AL (the basis for Chabot), as well as where we lived, in Dickinson. I also wanted to try and write about race, which I'd avoided, for the most part, in my earlier books.
Q: You said even your previous novel, HELL AT THE BREECH, set in 1890s Alabama, ‘mostly sidesteps’ the issue of race. How did you go about tackling this issue in CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER?
A: Writing this book, half of which is from a black man's point of view, I tried to feel sensitive to issues of race. Writing from another point of view, from another race or gender, can be tricky and hard to pull off. What I finally decided to do was forget about it and just write Silas, the black man, as a person, not thinking as I wrote about race. I hope he comes off okay.
Q: How has growing up in the South influenced your writing and how does CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER compare to your previous stories set in similar settings?
A: The big difference is that this new novel is my first contemporary one. The stories in POACHERS were all contemporary, but my first two novels were historical. The South, of course, has changed with the rest of the world, just a little slower maybe. When I [wrote about] the historical world, it was a world I was discovering: The world of no electricity or cars, etc. What's interesting is that a lot of the problems then are still problems now, like racism or poverty. But writing about characters in the 1890s or early 1900s is vastly different from writing about people of today.
The other thing about this new book is that it's my first set entirely in Mississippi. The truth is that I loved the Crooked Letter title, and it's such a Mississippi title, this book had to be set there.
Q: You have a knack for weaving together intricate plotlines with deep and compelling characters—what is the writing process like for you, and what comes first: the plotline, or the characters?
A: Always the characters. I try to come up with somebody who interests me, and then I let them loose on a landscape and see what happens. Often it's a matter of presenting a terrible dilemma and seeing how he or she negotiates it. The writing of my first two novels was very different, HELL AT THE BREECH took almost five years and it was five years of hell, of thinking each day would be the day I gave up. Then SMONK came along and I did a very, very fast first draft, 200 pages in about ten days. This new one, I thought about it for a few years, trying different things, but when my wife won a Fulbright to Brazil last year, I was suddenly faced with days where my children would be in school and my wife teaching, so I'd have no distractions. In Oxford, I can always find somebody to distract me from work, I can go to a bar, wrangle up a tennis partner. But down [in Brazil], unable to speak the language, and with six or seven hours a day with nothing to do but write....
Q: Larry Ott, one of your main characters, has an apparent affinity for horror stories and more specifically, Stephen King novels. What role did horror (and Stephen King) play in moving this particular story?
A: I was obsessed with King as a boy and read everything he wrote. Larry and I have many things in common: we're both mechanic's sons, both country boys. I read King and other horror novels. Many of Larry's scenes—the drive-in movie, the haunted house, etc—are autobiographical.
Q: What’s next for you on the horizon?
A: A new novel, co-written with my wife, Beth Ann Fennelly, about the flood of 1927, how it affects two government agents and the young woman they meet.