The Unfailing Return of Tom Franklin

Posted on August 22, 2016
Alice Jackson

All roads lead South for Tom Franklin. The New York Times best-selling writer earned USA undergraduate and graduate degrees, taught at the University and will return in March as part of a visiting writers series. data-lightbox='featured'
All roads lead South for Tom Franklin. The New York Times best-selling writer earned USA undergraduate and graduate degrees, taught at the University and will return in March as part of a visiting writers series. Photo courtesy of the University of Mississippi.

When Tom Franklin’s father died earlier this year, the New York Times best-selling writer returned to the University of South Alabama campus to write the eulogy.

“I sat in the breezeway between the Humanities buildings, thinking and writing what I wanted to say about him,” Franklin said. “It seemed the place to do it since I’d spent so much time there getting my bachelor and master degrees in English.”

Before Franklin became published and praised for his writing, he “took eight or nine years” to earn his bachelor of arts degree with a major in English from South in 1990. All around him were memories of studying writing with Jim White, long-time former chair of English, and Dr. Sue Brannan Walker, who followed White as chair of English and was also Poet Laureate of Alabama.

“It doesn’t seem too long ago since I’d studied there, but that day I didn’t see a single person I knew,” Franklin said.

Passing students would have been impressed with Franklin’s writing credentials.

He is a recipient of the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, awarded for exceptional creative ability in the arts. The title story of his first book, a collection of short stories, “Poachers,” won the Edgar Award for Best Mystery Short Story from the Mystery Writers of America. His novel “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter,” won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award, the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Other critically acclaimed novels include “Hell at the Breech,” set in the rural community of Mitcham Beat near Franklin’s hometown of Dickinson in Clarke County, Ala.; “Smonk,” a novel about a murdering rapist; and “The Tilted World,” a novel co-written with his wife, acclaimed poet Beth Ann Fennelly.

Franklin is known for both darkness and humor in his stories, trademarks lauded by literary critics and loved by his fans. 

“I’m a very happy person and very lucky with my life, my wife and my children, but when I’m writing I find conflict interesting, and it goes to dark places for me. I’m interested in the shadowy part of humans,” Franklin said. “If I try to write against the dark, it feels false.” 

Last month, Akashic Books released “Mississippi Noir,” an assortment of crime stories from many of America’s best writers and edited by Franklin.

Franklin admits he entered South because “it was the closest school” after his family moved to Mobile. He took a variety of courses other than writing, and failing grades his freshman year led to his dad cutting off his college tuition.

“Any knowledge at all is beautiful and crucial for a writer, but I’m a little angry with myself that I didn’t pay closer attention to those classes, but I was so young,” Franklin recalled. 

Faced with an uncertain future, he was absolutely certain he didn’t want to enter the family business.

“My dad had an automotive repair shop, and he tried real hard to bring me into it. I once took out a transmission, worked on it, then put it back in, but I had extra parts, and I just threw them away,” Franklin explained. “After that, he told me I was ‘mechanically disinclined,’ and he put me in the office.”

Franklin, who wrote his first original story around age 10, borrowed story ideas from “Star Trek” and “Star Wars.” He, a brother and a cousin would create costumes, act out stories and take photos, getting them developed at the local drugstore. Then, they attached dialogue captions to create “photo novels.”

“If I’d had a video camera then, I think I would have gone into film making rather than writing books,” he declared. “Writing books is solitary work, but filmmaking requires people working together creatively.”

When Franklin returned to South, he worked a variety of jobs to pay tuition and to support himself, including as a heavy equipment operator in a sandblasting grit factory, and a construction inspector in a chemical plant and at hazardous waste clean-up sites.

His favorite job was in the morgue of a local hospital.

“I worked in receiving, and no one wanted to go in the morgue, but I loved doing it because you learned all kinds of stuff. Plus, when it was quiet, I could read and study,” Franklin said. “I’ve been lucky with some crazy jobs. I didn’t drink alcohol in those days, and I couldn’t find a girlfriend because I was always working or writing.”

His first writing break, along with his final decision to become a writer, came in an English class at South during the visit of a local magazine editor. The editor encouraged students to submit their stories, and he would publish the best one. 

“I’d written a really bad story called ‘Red Christmas’ that I submitted. The editor called me to his office, told me I was ‘a hell of a writer,’ then proceeded to edit every line of the story, telling me what I’d done wrong. Still, they published it and paid me $100,” Franklin said. “Today, I teach that story to my creative writing class, telling them ‘here’s how not to do it,’ and they like it because it shows there’s hope for their writing.”

Franklin completed his master’s degree at South “in ’94 or ’95.” He can’t remember the exact year “because I never walked at graduation or anything. I never liked pomp or circumstance. Just told them to mail me the diploma.”

Soon, the young writer had a growing list of credits, including a year teaching at Selma University, where he wrote his master’s thesis, a collection of short stories called “Don’t Touch the Ground” and a short story, “Rugs, Chairs and Tables,” which won the Playboy College Fiction Contest. “They sent me a check for $250, and I paid my light bill with it,” Franklin said.

The summer after receiving his master’s degree, he returned to work in the office of his dad’s business, but by August he moved to Arkansas to begin work on a master of fine arts degree in creative writing.

“Arkansas would take another four years, and I’d just spent my 20s working my tail off. I’d worked hard both academically and physically, but an MFA in creative writing would make me able to teach, make money and write,” Franklin said. “It was military demanding. If you didn’t do good work, they made you drop out of the program. I had that incredible attention to language because at South, Jim White was so focused on the specificity and clarity of language, but at Arkansas they were all about prose, structure and plot.”

In the same program, he met future wife Beth Ann Fennelly, and they married in 1998. After they completed the program, Fennelly received a fellowship at the University of Wisconsin, and Franklin returned to South as a visiting assistant professor. A year later, he received the Philip Roth Residence in Creative Writing at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.

In 2001, Franklin became the John Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi, and the next year Fennelly was hired there as a faculty member. After Franklin spent the following year teaching at Sewanee in Tennessee, he returned to Ole Miss where he is now an associate professor in the MFA program.

“In no way is it hard being married to someone in a related field. Beth Ann and I go to the same events, we like the same people and go to the same conferences,” Franklin said. “It’s also easy if I’m trying to work on something, and I’m on fire. She’ll give me space, or give me counsel, and I do the same for her.”

Until recently, Fennelly was also Franklin’s boss. However, she stepped down as director of the MFA program to resume teaching and to focus more on her writing. Recently, she was named Poet Laureate of Mississippi.

Later this month, the entire family, including two boys and a girl, is heading to Berlin until December. That’s because Franklin is a recipient of a Berlin Prize Fellowship at the American Academy of Berlin. While there, he will work on his next novel.

“We’re all excited about Berlin, and this fellowship is open across the board to all kinds of scholars besides writers,” Franklin said. “I have trouble writing here because there’s so many distractions, and I’ll have time to write there.”

Next March, the USA Visiting Writers Series, sponsored by the Stokes Center for Creative Writing, will bring both Franklin and Fennelly to South to lecture and discuss their writing.

“The campus has grown so much since I was there,” Franklin said. “We’re really looking forward to being there on campus together.”

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