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Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter: A Novel Hardcover – October 5, 2010
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Edgar Award-winning author Tom Franklin returns with his most accomplished and resonant novel so far—an atmospheric drama set in rural Mississippi. In the late 1970s, Larry Ott and Silas "32" Jones were boyhood pals. Their worlds were as different as night and day: Larry, the child of lower-middle-class white parents, and Silas, the son of a poor, single black mother. Yet for a few months the boys stepped outside of their circumstances and shared a special bond. But then tragedy struck: Larry took a girl on a date to a drive-in movie, and she was never heard from again. She was never found and Larry never confessed, but all eyes rested on him as the culprit. The incident shook the county—and perhaps Silas most of all. His friendship with Larry was broken, and then Silas left town. More than twenty years have passed. Larry, a mechanic, lives a solitary existence, never able to rise above the whispers of suspicion. Silas has returned as a constable. He and Larry have no reason to cross paths until another girl disappears and Larry is blamed again. And now the two men who once called each other friend are forced to confront the past they've buried and ignored for decades. A Q&A with Author Tom Franklin
Q: Tell us a bit about your latest book Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. How did you come up with the title?
Franklin: Title's a pneumonic device used to teach children (mostly southern children) how to spell Mississippi. M, I, crooked-letter, crooked-letter, I, crooked-letter, crooked-letter, I, humpback, humback, I.
Q: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a bit of a departure from your previous two novels—Smonk and Hell at the Breech—in that it is set in contemporary times and the story line is a bit less dark. What inspired the premise for this novel and the departure from a more historical setting?
Franklin: I'd been wanting to write about a small town police officer, and I'd long had the image of a loner mechanic in my mind. When I put the two together, the story began to form. I used a lot of autobiographical stuff for Larry, the mechanic.
Q: A review in USA Today (for Hell at the Breech) stated that, “he also makes his characters rise up from the pages as if they were there with you.” …and this is certainly true in your latest novel. How do you approach the task of developing your characters and bringing them to life? Are the characters in Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter based on anyone in particular?
Franklin: They're both a combination of different facets of different people, a conglomeration of fact and fiction. I usually try to just let them begin to do what they want to do, just put them in a situation and see what they do. When they begin to surprise me, do things I hadn't anticipated, that's when it's working.
But the character of Silas "32" Jones is very loosely based on the sole police officer of the hamlet of Dickinson, Alabama, where I grew up. This guy was actually the law in a nearby mill town, and my hamlet of Dickinson fell in his tiny jurisdiction. I've always loved the idea of small town cops, especially one who might be a kind of underdog to the police forces of nearby larger towns.
Q: In Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter your two main characters are anything but stereotypical—the young black boy goes off to college to play baseball and comes back to be the town constable and the young white boy is the accused murderer and the town outcast. What, if anything, prompted you to portray these characters this way?
Franklin: No real person is a stereotype, and I try to make my characters as real as I can. We're all a mess of contradictions and secrets, strangenesses and desires, and nobody's all good or all bad. We're all somewhere in the spectrum between absolute good and absolute evil. So I just try to find a character who's fairly normal, and put him or her in a fix and see how he or she negotiates it to see, as Kurt Vonnegut says, what he or she is made of. In this case, the story as I came to understand it called for Larry to stay home and Silas to leave. If it had been the other way around, I'd still work to make the characters unstereotypical.
Q: Without giving away too much of the story, what is one thing (emotion, thought) that readers can expect to walk away with after reading this book?
Franklin: It's a sad book, but it's full of hope. Hope is what I want a reader to leave with.
Q: Historically the South has not always had a positive image in other parts of the country. How has your experience growing up and living in the rural South shaped your talent as a writer? And have you ever felt the need to justify or redeem the South’s past in any of your works?
Franklin: I think growing up in the south made me the person I am, and the writer I am comes from that. So, yes, the south's made me the writer I am. It taught me to listen to the cadences and rhythms of speech, and to notice the landscape. It also has this defeated feel, a lingering of old sin, that makes it sweet in a rotting kind of way. Much of it is poor, much is rural, and that's an interesting combination, a deep well for stories.
Q: Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer? Who are some writers, past and present, that you admire or have inspired you?
Franklin: I always knew I wanted to tell stories, one way or another. If I'd had a video camera in the mid 1970s I'm sure I'd be a filmmaker now. But I just had a portable typewriter, and so the stories I could tell were ones on paper.
Q: You are one of the most celebrated writers in the field, and have been compared to the likes of Harper Lee, William Faulkner, and Elmore Leonard. What do you believe is the one thing that sets you apart from other contemporary writers in your genre?
Franklin: What sets me apart? I honestly don't know that I’m more "apart" from other writers of my generation. Landscape plays a large role in what I write, but that's true of many other writers. My stuff is set in the south, but that's true of others as well. I don't know, honestly.
Q: As a professor of English, what is one piece of advice that you would share with aspiring writers?
Franklin: Read, starting with the classics. Read all the time. If you don't read, you won't ever be a writer. Also, write. This seems obvious, but it's amazing how many "writers" don't write very much.
From Publishers Weekly
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More About the Author
When I turned 18, we moved to Mobile, and my father, a mechanic, opened a shop there. I went to the University of South Alabama, but I got such bad grades that my father told me he wasn't going to pay anymore. From there, I got jobs in a warehouse, at a plant that made sandblasting grit, and finally with an engineering firm, which sent me to a chemical plant where I spent years cleaning up hazardous waste. All through these jobs, I took classes at the University of South Alabama, paying my own tuition as I went, and finally discovering creative writing classes. I worked in my late twenties, finishing my BA and beginning my MA, in a hospital in Mobile, and also tutoring in the university's writing lab. From there, I got a job teaching at Selma University, an historical all-black Baptist college. I was neither black nor Baptist (not anymore) and was, usually, the only white person on campus. I taught six classes one semester, six different classes, and five the next. I also finished my comprehensive exams for my MA, finished my thesis (a short story collection), and worked on my foreign language proficiency exam.
I'd published a few short stories and won third prize in the Playboy College Fiction Contest (around 1991), and so I decided to pursue writing as a career. I applied to several MFA programs and wound up, fortunately, at the University of Arkansas. There I met my wife, poet Beth Ann Fennelly. We got married at the end of that four-year-long program, and around the same time, I sold my first book, Poachers, and the idea for Hell at the Breech, to William Morrow. We lived apart that first year of marriage--it was hard getting teaching jobs in the same city--but moved to Galesburg, Illinois, where my wife got a job teaching at Knox College. I won the Philip Roth Residency at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and moved there for one semester. After that, we decided no more living apart.
I taught at Knox for a year, during which we had our first child, Claire. Then I was offered the John and Renee Grisham Chair in Creative Writing in Oxford, Mississippi. We moved there, planning to return to Galesburg, but never have. Beth Ann was offered a job at Ole Miss, and they named me an ongoing writer-in-residence--and there we remain to this day. Our second child, Thomas Gerald Franklin III (I'm Junior) was born in Oxford in 2005. We love Oxford and hope never to leave.
Top Customer Reviews
The novel revolves around two men who were friends for a short but very pivotal time during their childhoods in the late 1970s in the rural South. Larry Ott was the son of white, working-class parents, while Silas "32" Jones was raised in a black, single-parent household, transplanted from urban Chicago to the backwoods of Chabot, Mississippi. Their brief friendship fractured, and Silas went on to become a high school baseball star while Larry was relegated to "weirdo" status as an odd duck. Larry's status went from harmless to dangerous when he picked up a girl for a drive-in movie date, and she was never seen again. While he was not arrested for any crime associated with the girl's disappearance, he was adjudged as guilty in everyone's mind and condemned to lead a solitary existence.
Silas left the area for college and returns after two decades to take a job as Chabot's constable.Read more ›
It's a thriller -- but not like all the other police procedurals/crime stories you've read. The two main characters are so well described you feel like you've known them all your life. The story starts out fast, solidly capturing your undivided attention -- and it never stops doing so. This is truly a book you don't want to put down.
This is a story told in chapters that often alternate in time. Our two main protagonists are Larry Ott, a sweet oddball man who was always awkward with his peers and most comfortable reading a novel. Preferably a horror novel, and preferably one by Stephen King.
The other main character is Silas Jones, a black man who is now a policeman in the tiny Mississippi town of Chabot where they both grew up. They were friends as children, or as close as they could be in such a town during the racial tension of decades past.
One day, the incredibly shy and awkward Larry gets asked out on a date by a popular young attractive girl named Cindy. Only Cindy was never seen after their date and suspicion of her murder fell on Larry. There was never enough evidence to prosecute - but in the eye of the town he was guilty both because of the perceived facts of her disappearance and because of his peculiarities and he was ostricized.
The chapters that take place in the present time start off with the disappearance of a young girl named Tina Rutherford, and when Larry Ott is found shot - everyone thinks he killed the girl and then tried to kill himself out of guilt. The truth of course is a lot more twisted and complicated.
In support of the story, I did think the author did a good job of giving us a feel of a very small rural Mississippi town - both from the 1970s and in modern times. This is a moody evocative book, and I did enjoy it.
In critique - I thought the characters were way too stereotypical. Larry was just too good to be real - any injustices he may have suffered felt so manipulative.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Really great book. Kidnap mystery with interesting subplot between the accused and childhood friend. I read it in 6 hours.Published 4 days ago by Amy
I've had this book on my kindle for awhile and finally decided it was time to read it! I don't know why I waited so long! It was a really great story. I highly recommend it.Published 7 days ago by Arlene Feustel
A but slow at first but Tom really set the stage and characters. Not too many that no one got lost. Nice curve ball at the end. Read it.Published 12 days ago by Bigdaddyograham
I would describe this as a literary thriller: well-written and filled with three-dimensional characters but also a page-turner. Read morePublished 16 days ago by G. Dawson
I will admit that I don't read many books in the murder/mystery genre, but I was interested in the setting of this book and thought I'd give it a shot. Read morePublished 18 days ago by Miz_Jen
Excellent and well written. Would like to read more by this author.Published 19 days ago by patti Barrett
Enjoyed the story. It dragged a little in the middle. I will read some other work by this author during the summer.Published 22 days ago by Dr. C.
The flavor and feel of a small southern town have been very nicely done....numerous small details make it right. Interesting story and it develops at a decent pace.Published 23 days ago by Tom D
This one grabbed me easily and held on. Despite one awkward leap into the past for some needed exposition, this author builds a fine, atmospheric tale that flows naturally. Read morePublished 25 days ago by L E Boller