This past Tuesday, the Heathrow Literary Society had the distinct pleasure of not only discussing Tom Franklin's "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter", but chatting with the author himself. I stated in my five-star review of the book (which was way early because I couldn't wait) that I was officially a fan of Franklin. That attitude has been elevated now to somewhere in the neighborhood of "besotted with".
It would be nearly impossible not to fall in love with this guy. He is approachable and friendly, with his southern accent and easy charm. He is laid back (which we tested by having some technical difficulties with the phone and the speakers). And most of all, humble. He claims that alot of what he has written has been "horrible", only brought to a level of genius through his wife's editing. He despises the sound of his voice on interviews (and was cringing from the echo that he heard coming out of our speakers). Falling into my role of Southern Belle, I'd say "bless his heart".
On the development of Crooked Letter's plot: Early in his career, he had the general idea of a book about brothers. He noodled it around, decided that maybe it should include a small-town police officer. Years pass, and an African-American friend suggested that the police officer should be black. As Franklin admitted, he wouldn't dare presume to be able to understand someone from a different race (sometimes not even someone white or male), but this suggestion from his friend gave him permission. His friend's feedback further into the development of the book was priceless.
Only when his wife (a poet) won a Fulbright Scholarship and the family moved to Brazil for a time, did the book develop in earnest. Franklin said he had time on his hands, and he put his full effort into the book.
On his development of the character Larry Ott: Because most of Crooked Letter was written in Brazil, he had to draw his details and experiences from pure memory. Therefore, the mechanic father, the drive-in theater date, the mask, picking up a black mother and child walking along the road on a cold day, the obsession with all things Stephen King, all shards of Larry's life...were all drawn from Tom's life.
Did someone mention Uncle Stevie? No quicker way into my heart, as you all probably know. Tom grew up on Stephen King, and learned alot from his genius. (His favorite book is The Dead Zone.) He also much enjoyed Joe Hill's (Stevie's son) "Heart-Shaped Box", and has "Horns" on his TBR stack. So far Uncle Stevie has not indicated that he is aware of Franklin's fandom and many mentions in Crooked Letter, but maybe that will come when the movie is made.
Huh? Movie? Yes, well, it has been optioned! Only time will tell if that translates into something tangible. Franklin thinks (and we concurred) that Billy Bob Thornton should get dibs on Larry. And well, who else but Denzel should play Silas?
On the discussion-worthy ending: (Relatively spoiler-free) There were several people within our book club that were less than thrilled with the ending...they preferred things be wrapped up a little neater than they were. Others described the ending as magnificent and the most beautiful part of the book. Tom admitted to really struggling with it. One ending was very "Kumbaya" with singing and crying and hugging. His wife deemed it horrible and recommended a re-write. He messed with the dialogue between Silas and Larry at the hospital. Nothing worked. At the end of the day, he decided "less is more".
But what about the murders? (Warning! Minor spoilers ahoy!) The heart and soul of this book is about the relationship between Larry and Silas. The various murders were really just window-dressing. The best justification of this was when Tom admitted that late in the development of the book, he realized he had to address the issue of the murder of the modern-day girl. Who had killed her? Under what circumstances? One idea that Tom played with (something he has not told many people, so you heard it here!) was making the murderer (for those who have read the book, you know who I'm talking about) Larry's alter-ego. The Heathrow Literary Society gasped in unison. But no, that has been done before ad nauseum. He wouldn't go there. And we were glad.
Relatively unknown but amazing Southern novels: Music of the Swamp by Lewis Nordan. Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell. And anything by William Gay (whose inspiration was Cormac McCarthy).
On audio books: (You knew I'd ask, right?) Sadly, Tom said he had nothing to do with the production of the audio book. I assured him that the narrator, Kevin Kennerly, did a fabulous job. I find this a particularly scary idea, though. Bad narrators can KILL a book, and there are alot of audiophiles out there. I would want right of refusal.
What's next? A new baby has slowed things down in the writing department, but Tom and his wife are working on a project together, with hopes of seeing it on the shelves in the not-too-distant future.
After we hung up with Tom, we all were bubbling over with love for Tom. We all agreed that he is a guy we would love to sit down and have a glass of wine and dinner with (in comparison to Franzen, who 95% of us wouldn't give the time). He entertained us, made us laugh, and inspired us to do some serious work on his back list...