Unlikely Friends Color Novel's Deep South

The title of Tom Franklin's new book is Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. If you know what that means, then you can also probably imagine the Deep South small town, the legacy of racism and the economic despair that shape the characters. Guest host Rebecca Roberts speaks with Franklin about his novel, part crime drama, part coming-of-age story and part portrait of a small town largely left behind by the 21st century.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

The title of Tom Franklin's new book is "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter." And if you know what that means, then you can also probably imagine the Deep South small town, the legacy of racism, and the economic despair that shape Franklin's characters. The novel is part crime drama, part coming-of-age story, and part portrait of a small town largely left behind by the 21st century.

Tom Franklin joins me now from the studios of member station WKNO in Memphis, Tennessee. Welcome to the show.

Mr. TOM FRANKLIN (Author, "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter"): Thanks, Rebecca. It's really good to be here.

ROBERTS: So, what does crooked letter, crooked letter mean?

Mr. FRANKLIN: It's how Southern children are taught to spell Mississippi - M-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I-humpback-humpback-I.

ROBERTS: So, which came first: the title or the setting?

Mr. FRANKLIN: You know, what happened was, I was trying to write this novel and it was not going well at all. And as some point I thought, I don't know, that title occurred to me, "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter." I thought it was strange no one's ever used that before because it's so prevalent in the South. I thought, you know, what a great title. It sounds like an Elmore Leonard novel.

So, I was actually was writing the book set in Alabama, and because of the title, I just slid it all west into Mississippi.

ROBERTS: It is sort of a shibboleth. If people know what that means, they grew up in the South.

Mr. FRANKLIN: Right, right. And so, you know, I put an epigraph in the front of the book explaining it, you know, because what I've discovered is that a lot of people don't know what it means.

ROBERTS: So one of the main characters is a white guy named Larry Ott. The locals call him Scary Larry because when he was in high school, he took a girl on a date, and she was never heard from again. And no body was ever found; Larry never confessed; but he's been ostracized and ridiculed forever.

The thing about Larry is that he had been an object of ridicule long before that first and only date. And I wonder if you could read a description of Larry and his father, Carl.

Mr. FRANKLIN: (Reading) Larry had become an expert at reading his father's disapproval - sidelong looks, his low size, how he'd shut his eyes and shake his head at the idiocy of something or someone. Y'all look just alike, Larry's mother said at dinner on Uncle Colin's last night, looking from her brother to her son. Larry saw Carl was sawing at his venison. My little doppelganger, Colin said. Carl looked up. What did you say? Your little what? Uncle Colin tried to explain that he hadn't just referred to his sexual organ, but Carl had had enough and left the table.

Doppelganger, he said, glancing at Larry. Rather than his father's tall, pitcher's physique and blond curls and dark skin and green eyes, Larry got Uncle Colin and his mother's olive skin and straight, brown hair and brown eyes with long lashes - which attractive on women, made Larry and Uncle Colin soft and feminine, seatbelt users who ate tilapia.

ROBERTS: The review of your book in the Washington Post says, these childhood scenes are so painfully accurate that one suspects Franklin was not the coolest kid in the eighth grade.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANKLIN: I love that line. It's absolutely true. It turns out that Larry Ott and I have a lot in common. As I wrote this book, I kept surprising myself by plugging my own past into Larry's past, including Larry's first date to the drive-in movie.

He takes Cindy Walker there. Turns out, Cindy really wants to go see her real boyfriend, and just uses Larry to get out of the house. Asked him to drop her off somewhere - he does that - and then goes to the drive-in by himself. And soon a couple of people who know him pull in behind him, and he's mortified that he'll be at the drive-in alone. And so he puts his blanket over his hand, and holds it up beside his head as if that's his date - and sits there and watches the movie that way.

And it's kind of embarrassing now, but that really happened to me. I was stood up on a date. The girl wanted to go see her boyfriend instead. I dropped her off there, went to the drive-in alone, paid $5 per carload - which isnt the same, you know, with an empty car. And then I sat there, hoping that darkness would finally fall so no one would recognize my car. But of course, before darkness fell, a couple of people pulled in behind me. And I did the same thing - I put this blanket up beside my head, hoping that I'd be able to pull it off. And I guess it worked because no one ever knew it.

ROBERTS: What was the movie?

Mr. FRANKLIN: Which maybe - the movie, honestly, was "The Villain," with Kirk Douglas. It was...

ROBERTS: That is not very good choice for a date - had it turned out to actually be a date.

Mr. FRANKLIN: Well, that was my only choice. I mean, there weren't many theaters to go to, or many movies to choose from. This theater showed really old movies.

ROBERTS: The other main character in "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter" is Silas "32" Jones, a black kid who's dirt poor, but he's much - sort of more comfortable with the world than Larry Ott is. And they play together, in secret, as kids. As teenagers, they grow apart, and by the time a second girl disappears in this little Mississippi town, Silas is back in town as the town constable.

Every time you introduce a new character, you mention - and usually, totally casually - whether or not the character's white or black. Why is that important?

Mr. FRANKLIN: Well, you know, its interesting. I have never written from - I'm a white guy - I've never written from the perspective of a black man before, which, you know, was kind of daunting. I don't want to try to appropriate anyone else's voice. It's not first-person I, but it's third-person - you know, he. So I'm not really speaking for Silas, but I'm describing and narrating Silas.

But you know, that was nerve-wracking. I wanted to get it right. I didn't want to offend anyone, but you know, more importantly I wanted to get the characters right. I tried to think, you know, as I thought a black man would think - which, you know, maybe is dangerous for me to do.

But I occurred to me that a white character, each time he encountered a white man, would just say, you know, he saw a man. But if a white character sees a black man, he would say, a black man. He would identify the opposite race. I tried to do that with Silas. You know, if it was a man, you know, a black man, he just saw a man. If it was a white man, it would be a white man.

I mean, I tried to get in their heads and understand the difference in race.

ROBERTS: How do you feel about being characterized as a Southern writer?

Mr. FRANKLIN: I feel less good about it every year. I was happy about it for the first couple of books because I never thought I would - honestly - publish a book. And then I did. And being a Southern writer, there is kind of a built-in audience. But I'm feeling more and more pigeonholed by that.

ROBERTS: What do you think the limitations of being pigeonholed as a Southern writer mean?

Mr. FRANKLIN: Nobody in New York reads me. I mean, honestly, I think that, you know, that New York is so important in publishing. But if somebody's a Southern writer, I think it's harder to break through.

ROBERTS: Well, if resisting categorization seems impossible, how would you feel about being put in the crime writer category?

Mr. FRANKLIN: That's a funny and good question, because I did set out to write a crime novel. But even the idea of a crime novel, to me, is kind of strange. Because Otto Penzler, who owns the Mysterious Bookstore and edits the Best American Mystery Story Anthology series, Otto defines a crime novel as a novel that opens up with a crime. So by that definition, "Crime and Punishment" is a crime novel. "The Great Gatsby" is not because the crime happens at the end. And it's the result of the events.

So being a crime novelist, I don't think, is a very bad thing. And the people that I kept reading and enjoying, like Dennis Lehane or George Pelecanos, those guys are considered crime novelists. And if they are, I'm happy to be one.

ROBERTS: Tom Franklin, his new book is called "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter." He joined us from member station WKNO in Memphis, Tennessee. Thanks so much.

Mr. FRANKLIN: Thank you, Rebecca.

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