Tom Franklin, Zombies, etc.

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You're stumped: How to get that novel of yours going? How to draw from personal experience? Maybe: how to turn a short story into a novel?

Tom Franklin, who teaches in the MFA program at the University of Mississippi, has a few words on these matters, on the occasion of his just-released Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (William Morrow), a Mississippi-set novel that is already getting great press and great book-industry recognition (here; here).

He's reading from and signing copies of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter tonight, Thursday, October 7th, 6 p.m. at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Memphis, in a joint reading with his friend, the multiple-award-winning crime novelist Laura Lippman (her latest: I'd Know You Anywhere, also from Morrow).

But as for that matter: getting things going. To begin:

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Tom Franklin: I started Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter in 2003. My novel Hell at the Breech had just come out. William Morrow had bought my next book. I had a contract. I had no idea what that next book would be.

Then I had a vague notion that it would be about brothers but didn't know much beyond that. For the next couple years, I just cast around how to write it. Maybe a year. I wrote a few bad pages.

And then my novel Smonk very rudely "assaulted" me. I took a year and a half away from this new book to write and tour for Smonk. But in 2006, I came back to the idea for Crooked Letter. I wrote for a couple more years without any success at all ... some of those early chapters about Larry Ott [one of the novel's two chief characters].

I still didn't know what the book was, but I knew I wanted to write about a mechanic's son. I used to drive by a mechanic's in Alabama, and there was never a customer. That fascinated me. The mechanic was in there waiting.

And: I grew up in Dickinson, Alabama, and two miles away, there was a mill town named Fulton with just a few stores to support them. It had one police office, named Larry Hicks. I was fascinated by the idea of one cop policing a rural jurisdiction.

But I still didn't know how to put it all together. Then a friend recommended that I make the officer a black guy [who would become, in Crooked Letter, the character Silas Jones], but it made me a bit nervous to try to write from that point of view.

In 2008, at some point, I thought what a great title Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter would be. I moved the setting from southwest Alabama to southeast Mississippi.

Back in the days when I was trying — and failing — to write it, I considered everything. That Larry killed the two girls murdered in the story. That Silas killed the girls. Maybe Wallace Stringfellow [another major character] is a figment of Larry's imagination or his alter ego. That's a tired idea. It's been done. It became more about the two characters, not the crimes.

Speaking of crimes ... You made a conscious effort to scale back on the violence that marks your earlier work, especially that novel "Smonk"?
I did want to scale back. I'm sure Smonk has sold the least of my not very well-selling books. It's a love-it or hate-it book, and I think many more hated it than loved it.

But it's a happy minority who love it, and Smonk is still, I think, the favorite of my books. This may sound immodest, but I don't really know of another book like it. To me, Smonk is funny. Almost no review mentioned that it's a broad comedy, almost slapstick.

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Back to "Crooked Letter": How much of it is autobiographical?
A lot. Larry Ott has a TON in common with me.

My father (like Larry's) was, is a mechanic still ... my brothers, my uncles, cousins ... I come from a family of mechanics. And like Larry, I was obsessed with Stephen King as a kid. Again like Larry, riding to school with his father ... One time my father was driving us to school and not the bus — we lived way back in the country — we picked up a mother and her daughter. I remember they smelled like woodsmoke and wondered: They must live in a house that only has a wood stove. Thinking that was sad.

And when Larry wears that monster mask to a Halloween haunted house ... That happened to me. I was deeply unpopular as a kid and only got invited to the haunted house because of my mask. After it was over, I was ignored and walk away alone.

My first "date" was very much like Larry's first date too. At a drive-in, with other kids in the car behind me, I pretended my hand on the top of the front seat was my date's head beside me.

It shocked me. I didn't realize I was doing it. I mean, I'm a little alarmed by what I mined of myself for Larry.

And by the way, that drive-in story: I tell it to my essay classes. I say this hand in high school was my "date" for years, which gets some real off-color laughs.

And now you're co-writing a novel with your wife, the poet Beth Ann Fennelly?
We are. You know that book Delta Blues? Carolyn Haines edited it. It's an anthology of noir stories with the blues as a theme. Carolyn called to ask if I had a story that fit her criteria. I did not. I just had a bad zombie story that I'd written.

I teach grad students, and I tell them, "I am so tired of stories about grandmothers and cats and cancer. Let's put some zombies in these stories. You can only pass this course if you put zombies in your stories."

It was fun. The students loved it. And I thought if I'm making them do it, I should too. So I tried it myself: a story set during a zombie plague where these guys are riding motorcycles, and one has a baby, and it begins to change him. Then I got rid of the zombies and set it in a kind of disaster, some unnamed disaster. Could have been a war. I sent Carolyn that story, and she said, "This could work, but why don't you set it during the Mississippi River flood of 1927?"

I was so busy I couldn't do it. But my wife was kind of blocked on poetry. So I told her to take this mess of a story and fix it and we'll say it's co-written. She did the research about the flood.

The story, "What His Hands Had Been Waiting For," came out in Carolyn's book, and it came out in a magazine called The Normal School [vol. 2, issue 2]. Then my agent called and said, "This should be your next novel."

But the story is now short-listed in the back of Best American Short Stories 2010. They publish the best 20, but they list the 100 for the year that are "distinguished."

Amazing ... and it all started with zombies.
As all good things do.

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