Archive for Thursday, June 17, 1999

June 17, 1999


A Southern writer draws on his upbringing for the quirky characters in his short stories.

Author Tom Franklin began writing to ease the pain of being a misfit.

Franklin grew up in Dickinson, Ala., where boys were expected to hunt, and if they didn't they were ridiculed as being mama boys.

"I didn't like to hunt. I preferred to stay inside and draw comic books," Franklin said, in a recent phone interview during his 23-city tour to promote his first book, "Poachers."

"I started hunting to please. I faked enjoyment. I used to go early and then stay late. " I took it to the extreme and became the most zealous hunter I knew."

Peer pressure reared its head when he was hunting deer.

"The first I shot too close and it ruined the meat," he said.

His second try was no more successful. He shot the deer but the animal did not die. A second shot, however, would tip off the others that he wasn't a skilled hunter, so he pulled out his knife and stabbed the deer.

"It was emblematic of my desperate search for approval," he said. "When my father saw the deer, he realized what had happened and gave me a good talking to."

Because he felt like an outsider, Franklin was a quiet boy -- but he paid close attention to people's behavior and speech patterns.

"In retrospect, that's what made me want to write -- the close observation of things around you," he said.

Franklin, 35, said it wasn't until he enrolled at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville to earn a master's degree in creative writing that he realized he had grown up in atypical surroundings:

His family quit the Baptist Church when he was 8 or 9 because its members didn't believe in speaking in tongues. His parents eventually built their own church, and Brother Bob, a fervent minister, moved in with them.

Brother Bob believed in faith healing and burning books. The minister told the youngsters that if they listened while the books burned they could hear demons scream.

"Fantasy (books) were evil, including Disney," Franklin said, adding that to a youngster filling a 45-gallon drum with books and igniting them was exciting. "I had a haunted house sound effects record, but it didn't scream."

When he was 18, Franklin moved to Mobile, Ala., where he enrolled at the University of South Alabama to pursue an English degree. He joined the Covenant Church, a charismatic congregation that believed in exorcisms.

"They sent an exorcist to my house to cast out the devils," he said. "It scared the hell out of me."

So when Franklin started telling his new University of Arkansas friends about his upbringing, they pointed out that he had a lot of material to draw from for his writing. Since then he has written more than 100 stories.

"Poachers," a collection of nine short stories and a novella, assembles an array of unforgettable characters from Alabama who share a common trait -- they are all men who suffer from a lack of love and work, leaving too much time for whiskey and hunting.

Already the book is receiving critical acclaim. The title story won the Edgar Award for Best Short Story and was selected for inclusion in three anthologies -- Algonquin Books' "New Stories from the South 1999," Houghton Mifflin's "Best American Mystery Stories 1999" and "Best Mystery Stories of the Century," edited by Otto Penzler.

All this attention has earned him the "Southern writer" tag, but Franklin's not sure exactly what that means.

"I'm trying to figure it out. " It's curious. It has to do with being rural and tied to the land," he said. "There's also a sense of failure because we lost the Civil War, and we feel trapped on the land and like we have something to prove. It's a desperate sense to prove ourselves. "

"Southern writing -- I know it when I see it. I like those writers the best because it's the land I know, and I know they're telling the truth."

Franklin said his writing has been inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote the Tarzan novels, Stephen King, Barry Hannah and Thomas McGuane. But it was Rick Bass' first collection, "The Watch," that most affected him.

"I was about learned about style and what a daring writer can do. I read it over and over," he said. "Most writers of my generation know of him and revere 'The Watch.'"

Franklin and his cousin wound up driving to Utah to meet Bass.

"My life changed on that trip, not in any way I can tangibly express; but I'd left Mobile a sad, lonely man and I returned healed in a way I still can't understand. And this is what I've always wanted from my writing: to so affect someone that they do something big and crazy, something that heals them in a way they can't explain."

Franklin's next book, "Hell at the Breech," is a fictionalized account of an 1891 feud in Clarke County, Ala., about 10 miles from where he grew up.

-- Jan Biles' phone message number is 832-7146. Her e-mail address is


Who: Book signing by Tom Franklin, author of "Poachers."

When: From 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday.

Where: The Raven Bookstore, 8 E. Seventh.

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