6/10/2015. INTERVIEW WITH TOM FRANKLIN, CO-AUTHOR OF THE TILTED WORLD
Tom Franklin’s fiction overflows with detailed characters, rich emotion, and the smoldering energy of the Deep South. I first encountered his novels with Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, a marvelous story of murder and tested loyalty that was nominated for nine awards and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the prestigious Crime Writers’ Association’s Gold Dagger Award.
The Tilted World, which Franklin wrote with his wife, Beth Ann Fennelly, is even better. In The Tilted World, Franklin and Fennelly explore the devastating consequences of the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 on property and people. As I said in my review of The Tilted World last month, the authors give life to the fear, grit, and courage of the people who were there. Franklin teaches in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program. Today he tells us about the novel, Mississippi, and the flood.
SW. When someone asks you what The Tilted World is about, what do you say?
TF. I say it’s a love story and an adventure story. Also, a historical novel. I say it’s about the 1927 Flood of the Mississippi Delta.
SW. Your novels and short stories are set in Alabama and Mississippi. Why do you write about the South and would you ever consider setting a story outside of the South?
TF. I write about the South because it’s what I know, where I’m from. Also, I love it, love the strangenesses of it, the contradictions, the landscape, the dark history. As for setting something outside the South: Maybe. I don’t have plans to now, but I’m not a planner.
SW. People who live outside Alabama and Mississippi tend to lump those two states together. Is that fair? How are they different?
TF. Mississippi is slightly worse in terms of all those Lists you keep seeing. Alabama folks are thankful for Mississippi folks for this reason. But really, they’re not so different. Mississippi somehow produces more–a lot more–writers. I call them sister states.
SW. My favorite character in The Tilted World is Ham. Did he arrive full-blown in your mind when you began writing the novel or did you add his distinguishing characteristics as you wrote?
TF. At first Ham was only a man with a name whose origin kept changing. He developed as we wrote, as often happens, especially when we began to research WWI. He was more sensitive, as it turned out, than I had expected.
SW. How did you and Beth Ann Fennelly maintain a consistent voice throughout the novel? Don’t you have different writing styles?
TF. Honestly, she wrote much more of the novel than I did: she got into a groove immediately and stayed there. Our styles are similar in that we both love plot-driven stories composed of beautiful sentences. More than style, though, I think we have different approaches. Beth Ann is more of a methodical writer while I’m a binge writer.
SW. In The Tilted World, characters have to confront themselves in the face of an overwhelming natural disaster. In Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, characters have to confront themselves in the face of personal tragedy. In both cases they learn what they’re truly made of. How do you think these types of confrontations are different? Which was harder to write?
TF. I think they’re honestly the same. Writing is all about being a sadist, as Kurt Vonnegut tells us, to your characters, so the reader can see what they’re made of. I think we’re made of whatever we are made of deep down, and tragedy or disaster will out the true us. I think it’s the same, is what I mean.
SW. I know you and Beth Ann Fennelly both wrote from Ingersoll’s point of view and from Dixie Clay’s point of view in The Tilted World. Some of the characters’ motivations, however, spring from deep relationships, like mother love and male friendship. Were you able to understand and interpret Dixie Clay’s motivation, or did that come more from Beth Ann? What about Ingersoll’s motivation?
TF. Beth Ann wrote all the Dixie Clay sections. My favorite parts are the parts with her and the baby. We’d just had a surprise baby when she wrote those sections, and you can see the love bleeding through the lines.
SW. What do you hope readers remember about The Tilted World?
TF. That the history of the Flood of 1927 is eerily similar to Katrina. In other words: politicians haven’t learned a fucking thing.
SW. Why isn’t the Great Flood of 1927 taught in classrooms as part of U.S. history, given the impact it had on government, politics, and regional demographics?
TF. Because its victims were poor southerners, mostly, blacks and whites. Like Katrina. If it’d happened in the northeast, things would be different, you can count on that.
SW. The cover of The Tilted World was changed on the paperback edition from a photograph of the flood to a photograph of a woman. Why?
TF. To sell more books. Women buy like 90 percent of books that’re bought, so I think the good smart people at Harper thought it might do better with a different cover.
SW. The Tilted World has been out for a while now. How have readers’ reactions to the characters compared with what you expected?
TF . I had few expectations, so everything good has been gravy!
SW. What type of novels do you enjoy reading? Who are your favorite authors?
TF. Literary page-turners: George Pelecanos. Dennis Lehane. Laura Lippman. Also, Stephen King. Currently I’m reading Help for the Haunted, by John Searles. Next up is the new Stephen King. The best book I’ve read lately, though, is Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
Photo credit: Maude Schuyler Clay