By M. SCOTT MORRIS / NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – The autobiographical information piles up in Tom Franklin’s new book, “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter.”
He’s from a small, segregated town in the South, where he attended an integrated school. The same’s true for Franklin’s main character, Larry Ott.
Both have a passion for Stephen King novels, their fathers are mechanics and neither felt at ease in their childhood surroundings.
“The mask, the Halloween mask Larry has, I had a mask just like that,” Franklin said. “I took it to school and went to a Halloween carnival, like in the book.”
While he was busy stringing together telling details to craft his vividly rendered story, Franklin didn’t notice all of that reality slipping into his fiction.
“I was surprised by how much I used from my life,” said Franklin, who teaches in the University of Mississippi’s master’s of fine arts program. “When I began adding it up, I was a little bit alarmed.”
But the book isn’t an autobiography because Franklin was never a suspect in a pair of murders committed some 25 years apart.
Despite those murders, “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter” isn’t exactly a mystery, either.
It’s a relationship story that focuses on the friendship between Larry Ott and Silas “32” Jones – how they meet as kids, how they split, how their lives intersect as adults.
An African-American, Silas is a constable in a southeastern Mississippi town. It’s his job to investigate the white man people call “Scary Larry,” exposing secrets and old wounds along the way.
“Silas didn’t have to come back home,” Franklin said. “He could have avoided that situation his whole life if he wanted, but he came back.”
The book’s title is from the way Mississippi children are taught to spell the state’s name: “M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I.”
During his early school days, Franklin had to learn to spell Alabama. He grew up in Dickinson, where he preferred reading his complete collection of “Tarzan” books over the more popular pursuits of hunting and fishing.
“I didn’t feel at ease there. I assumed everyone was at ease in his or her environment,” he said. “I didn’t know everybody sometimes feels that way, too.”
When it comes to writing, his childhood home in the timber country of Clarke County, Ala., has been a repeated source of material.
Franklin’s first novel, “Hell at the Breach,” was written while he was the John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss. The story is a fictionalized account of a series of violent incidents that took place in the 1890s, a few miles from Franklin’s home.
“Hell at the Breach” earned him a book contract for the idea that became “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter.” That contract was signed in 2003, but progress was slow.
“I paused this one to write ‘Smonk,’” said Franklin, who also wrote “Poachers,” an award-winning collection of short stories.
A trip to Brazil
“Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter” started to come together in 2009, when his wife, poet Beth Ann Fennelly, won a Fulbright Award and took the family to Brazil.
With his wife at work, their daughter, Anna Claire, 9, and son, Thomas, 5, at school, and nothing on television that he could understand, Franklin found himself with abundant free time.
He did what any writer would do: He spent two weeks reading books.
Then he got serious.
“I sat by the pool in our building, pulled out my laptop and wrote,” he said. “When I had that good, hard work ethic, writing all day, that’s how I got it done.”
Thanks to the Internet, Franklin kept in contact with Clarke County while he was in Brazil.
Ron Baggette, chief investigator for the Clarke County Sheriff’s Department, was a fan of Franklin’s earlier work. Baggette shared crime scene photos, interrogation techniques and insights he’d learned on the job.
“He said investigating a crime is about noticing what other people don’t notice. Investigators are trained to notice,” Franklin said. “I think that is not unlike a writer.”
‘Thrilled and shocked’
Released on Oct. 5, “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter,” reached No. 24 on The New York Times Best-Seller List for hardcover fiction. The Washington Post, Library Journal, Booklist and others have greeted the book with positive reviews.
“Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter” was a No. 1 Indie Next Book Selection for October, and Barnes & Noble picked it as a Main Selection.
“I’m thrilled and shocked by its success so far,” Franklin said. “I’d love it if it went global. That’s why you work, right? You want people to read your book.”
There’s more work to do. He and Fennelly are the first husband-and-wife team to be awarded Mississippi Arts Commission grants in the same year. They plan to write a book together, but that’s on hold.
Since Sept. 30, a book tour has taken him across Mississippi and Alabama, with trips to Massachusetts, Texas and Iowa. More travels are scheduled for November.
To tell Larry and Silas’ story in “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter,” Franklin drew on things he’s seen and experienced throughout his life.
Now, the book itself has become a growing part of his own story.
“I’m glad it’s in the world. I’m proud of it. I love to talk about it with people,” he said. “My wife and friends have heard all about it. Beth Ann was there for the sleepless nights, the anger and frustration, all of the things that go along with being a writer. I usually say, ‘I don’t like being a writer. I like having written.’ Writing is hard, but I love talking about it.”
Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or firstname.lastname@example.org.