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Author Interview With Tom Franklin
M, I, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, I, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, I, Humpback, Humpback, I. Just a string of gibberish until it's put together as Mississippi, the setting of mystery author Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. This RT Top Pick! captures the feel of the South and has RT Reviewer Donna M. Carter raving, “Much more than a mystery, this literate, evocative tale is a story of guilty secrets, hidden loves and, ultimately, of redemption, with characters who are so real they practically walk off the page.” Now get an inside peek into the mind of the author behind Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter and don't miss the excerpt at the end of the interview.
RT BOOK REVIEWS: You grew up in the Deep South and you return to this setting for Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. However, you actually wrote the book while living in Brazil. Was it difficult capturing the atmosphere and feel of Mississippi while in South America?
Tom Franklin: No, because I've lived in the landscape of this book almost my whole life. I think going to the real, real, real South gave me a bit of perspective I otherwise wouldn't have had. I had to rely on memory where otherwise I might've just looked around me. I need something about a tree. There's one right there. But because I was in Brazil, all I had in terms of setting was in my memory. And I think that stirring up all those memories is perhaps why this book is more autobiographical than my others.
RT: Did your experiences in Brazil have any influence the story?
TF: I kept trying to fit it in, but it never quite fit. I'd introduce a character named Ejmo (pronounced "edgy-mo") because I loved the name -- it was the name of our neighbor down there. And at one point I had Cindy Walker having disappeared to Brazil, and coming back. And as it is I think I have Silas there in the Navy in a bit about his past.
But I'll use that somewhere, some time. It's too fresh now. I'm just now using stuff -- for Larry Ott -- that happened to me twenty-five or thirty years ago. You have to get away from stuff (or a place) for a while to see it.
RT: A main focus of your novel is race relations in the south during the 1970s. Growing up in Dickinson, Alabama you have first-hand knowledge of race and class inequities. In the last few decades have you noticed changes taking place that would make it impossible for the plot of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter to happen today, or do the same prejudices still exist that would tear apart teenage friends because of the color of their skin?
TF: I think the same prejudices exist, sure. But I think the public consciousness has evolved enough that Silas and Cindy would have a much easier time dating now. The consequences of their relationship wouldn't be as dire as they would have been then.
I think that the media would play a larger role today than it did in the 1980s. Cindy Walker disappearing now would likely bring a media blitz. Which would affect the outcome.
RT: Your father was a mechanic as is Larry your main character. Is this a coincidence or done by design?
TF: Both? I knew I'd write about mechanics at some point because my father, brother, some uncles and one cousin are mechanics. It's a world I know something about and find interesting. But what I didn't know was how much of myself I would put into Larry Ott, his being a mechanic's son only one of many things.
RT: Are there any specific real-life experiences that you used in the story that you can tell us about?
TF: The episodes with the zombie mask is real; Larry's first date mirrors mine closely, except the girl didn't disappear -- I took her home safely. And there are several other anecdotes from my life I used, The Time Mom Took Some Poor Kids Coats, The Time We Picked Up Hitchhikers On Our Way To School. Larry and I both loved Stephen King books as boys (and still do).
We both caught snakes, carried .22 rifles, and on and on. I took a bunch of stuff from my life and put the thread of the missing girl into them, then added Silas (though my mother used to pray for a friend for me, and one came...)
RT: You are known for your realistic depictions of characters. If Larry and Silas were indeed real people, would you be friends with either?
TF: Both. I'd find Larry too clean-living to be much fun, though. I'd tell him to leave Amos, Mississippi and see the world.
RT: Your characters are deeply affected by the rumors and innuendo as neighbors speculate about each other. This can be a downside of living in a close-knit community. What do you feel are some of the positives of living in a small town?
TF: The positives and negatives are often the same: You know everybody, but you know everybody.
RT: You worked diligently to finish college – I read somewhere that in order to afford school you actually worked on a hazardous waste crew. Was writing always the end goal for you even during these tough times?
TF: By my mid-twenties, yes. I'd worked at several jobs while writing, but I started getting really serious about it around the time I was working in the chemical plant, cleaning up hazardous waste. I'd be in a fully encapsulated plastic suit, air piped in, gloves taped over gloves, boots over boots, augering up samples of poisonous mud. But I'd be thinking of the story I wanted to write, knowing I didn't want to be here all my life. A lot of my jobs were on the night shift, which was good because, with fewer or no bosses around, I could read or write my stories.
RT: You are the writer in residence at the University of Mississippi. Some of the other RT editors and myself were speculating exactly what this entails. (More than one of us had the vision of you sitting in a glass box with a laptop while students stopped by to watch you write.)
TF: The glass box reminds me of Harlan Ellison, who used to sit in the windows of bookstores and write stories while people watched. Or Robert Olen Butler, who real-time camera-ed himself online as he composed a story. Believe me, nobody wants to be outside my glass box. Lots of scratching to watch. Farting. Just sitting glazed over staring at the computer. Playing solitaire. Napping.
I've actually just become a tenure-track assistant professor, if you can believe it.
I came here to Oxford in 2001 as the John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence, which is for an "emerging Southern writer." That changes each year, and we get someone new. We just never left, even when that year was up. My wife, Beth Ann Fennelly, hired on with the English Dept. and they offered me one class per semester, as a writer in residence, with no name attached.
Now, as I say, I'm an assistant professor. I now teach two classes each semester as well as direct theses, serve on committees, mentor students, read admissions, etc. I rarely "profess" anything.
RT: And finally, is there anything you can share about the next book you are working on?
Tom Franklin: 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.