Grit Lit

Tom Franklin burst upon the literary scene in 1999 with the publication of his award-winning short story collection “Poachers.” He followed up that impressive success in a methodical fashion with three novels, “Hell at the Breech, ” “Smonk” and “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, ” and came to own a reputation as one of the South’s premier practitioners of so-called Grit Lit – tough-edged prose about working-class folks in bleak situations. Interested to find out what Franklin is up to these days, I give him a call at his Oxford, Miss., perch, where he is a University of Mississippi associate professor of fiction writing.

As usual, my outdated BlackBerry delivers a subpar connection; and the steady breeze and a nearby train render my decision to try to do this outside idiotic, but Franklin’s obvious enthusiasm for his craft manages to come through just fine. He says that he’s busier than ever with his job, working with gifted students and reading stacks of galleys from fellow authors seeking blurbs. “I love it, ” he says. “I truly can’t imagine that anyone considers this work.” Franklin’s personal life is just as full. He and his wife, the poet Beth Ann Fennelly, have three children, ages 12, 8 and 2, and Franklin glories in the roles of loving, devoted husband and father. “I’m not a great reader now, ” he confesses. “I come home, and I’m tired of reading all day.”

Franklin was born in 1963 in Dickinson, Clarke County, Ala., an unincorporated dot on the map. His mechanic father, Gerald, and his mother, Betty, reared him in this “lush and green” rural world where hunting before and after work — in or out of season with handed-down, battered shotguns — is an ongoing way of life. Though he did his time tramping through the woods with his father and brother, Franklin didn’t care for blood sport, preferring to read or “draw my own comic books. I was always telling stories.” When he was 18, the family moved to Mobile, where Franklin attended the University of South Alabama. His college trajectory was anything but swift or sure, however. “It took me nine years to get my bachelor’s degree, ” he says. Besides his book learning, he worked full time at demanding jobs in a sandblasting grit factory and a chemical plant. Franklin found these hours among blue-collar folk incredibly rewarding: “I was physically exhausted but mentally on fire.” Convinced this made him a better writer, affording him a stock of character types and situations alien to those in academia, he strongly recommends that his students get  some real-life experience under their belts before they write. “I see lots of stories about frat parties, which is what they are experiencing, ” he chuckles.

Franklin eventually took an M.F.A. from the University of Arkansas, where he discovered the importance of not just saying something well but having something meaningful to say. “Plot is very important, ” he explains. While at the University of South Alabama he had learned a lot about language and line editing, but only when these skills were married to story did the magic happen. “In fiction, things have to have a reason to be there.”

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I ask Franklin what it was like when the title piece in “Poachers” won the 1999 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Mystery Story. “I didn’t know it was a mystery story, ” he laughs. “It was like winning an Academy Award. It was great.”

Franklin’s most recent achievement is a collaborative novel written with his wife. “The Tilted World” (Morrow, $26), released in October, is set against the backdrop of the great Mississippi River flood of 1927. “We had organized it as a him-and-her book, ” he says. “She would write the woman character and I the man character.” As it was, Fennelly ended up helping Franklin write his part, too, and he is anxious that her effort not be eclipsed by his reputation. “She is a tremendous fiction writer, ” he declares. 

As our chat winds down, I ask Franklin about his hopes for the future. “I’d like for one of these books to become a movie and not have to worry about money, ” he says. He hastens to add that it’s not about the fame, just the financial security. It’s hardly a far-fetched dream. All his books have been optioned, he is friends with David Simon, creator of HBO’s “The Wire, ” and he’s done brief appearances on the HBO series “Deadwood” and “Treme.” Whether or not lightning strikes, time will tell, but in the meantime, Franklin will keep on teaching and telling stories. “I still want to write more books.”

John S. Sledge is the author of “Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart.”

text by John S. Sledge • photo by Maude Schuyler Clay

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