The Goldmine in Your Back Yard

Alabama, water tower

photo: sunsurfr, creative commons license

The Spring/Summer 2016 issue of Glimmer Train includes an interview with Tom Franklin, conducted by Kevin Rabalais. Franklin is the award-winning author of short stories and the novels Hell at the Breech, about Alabama’s 1890s Mitcham war, Smonk, and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, which won a Los Angeles Times Book Award in 2010.

One of the issues they talked about was how Franklin’s upbringing in Alabama prepared him to be a writer. His response reminded me of what another Southern writer, Flannery O’Conner, famously maintained: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” And to write about, too.

Franklin developed an affinity for the physical and cultural environment of the Deep South practically by osmosis. He didn’t recognize the richness of this heritage, his attachment to it, and how it might shape his work until he moved away. Home was a place to return to in his writing because “I know what everything is called, the trees, the animals. I know it in and out, instinctively, because I’ve hunted and fished that land.”

He told the interviewer that his fellow graduate students would react to his Alabama stories by saying, “You really had a great childhood for a writer” or “I envy your material.” It was around that time, Franklin said, “I realized that, yes, I’d had a writer’s education my whole life.”

About Franklin’s most recent book, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, Ron Charles in The Washington Post says, “Franklin is a master of subtle withholding, revealing lines of culpability and sympathy in this small town one crooked letter at a time.” It’s the tale of an awful crime in a small Mississippi town, but what makes the particular setting in which his characters operate so believable are the down-to-earth, day-to-day details Franklin searches out and knows in his bones. His enviable material.

Especially worth noting is that the title story in his collection, Poachers, was included in The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century, and The Best American Noir of the Century. Today, he lives in that hotbed of Deep South fiction-writing, Oxford, Mississippi.