I was born in the hamlet of Dickinson, Alabama, which has a population of around 400 and is about half-white, half-black. I attended Dickinson Baptist Church for a while. I grew up a nonhunter in a hunting household, and I liked writing, drawing, and reading. I am the first member of my family to finish college.
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.