tom-franklin-photoTom Franklin is the author of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, Hell at the Breech, and Smonk. Winner of a 2001Guggenheim Fellowship, he teaches in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program and lives in Oxford,Mississippi with his wife, the poet Beth Ann Fennelly, and their children.

Q (Meg Pokrass): Do you mentor? If you would discuss the importance of mentoring?

I think mentors are essential for writers, but since writing’s such a lonely biz such mentors are often on-the-page mentors, that is, writers you learn from by reading their work or by reading interviews, etc. I’ve had several of these, Barry Hannah chiefly, whose sentences were so packed with electricity and kick-ass language that he opened my eyes to what one could do with nouns and verbs and their juxtaposition without ever telling me this face to face.

Other kinds of mentors are important, too, of course. Teachers are who I’m thinking of now. Nearly every writer has a writing teacher he or she remembers. This works well alongside the non-present mentors because while you can certainly learn a lot on your own, a hands-on mentor can identify things you’re not doing as well or things you’re doing and shouldn’t. It’s more direct. The two together work well. That second kind, though, is the type mentor one has to seek out. Mentors don’t often come a-looking.

What tricks to you use when you are feeling stuck and uninspired when writing something?

When stuck, which seems to be much of the time with me, I usually watch tv. If nothing else, I begin feeling guilty about not writing, so that’ll maybe get me back to it. A better thing to do is read. And for me, reading something that pertains to what I’m struggling with is best. Now I’m writing a character who was in WWI. I’m all over the internet these days, finding cool WWI stuff. This’ll be a small part of the novel I’m doing — one character’s backstory — but it’s interesting and if I get interested I’ll want to dig deeper.

Looking at pictures is good, too. Esp. for anything historical. Try to describe what led to the taking of a photograph. What’s going on in those folks’ heads? How did that photo come to be taken? Remember that every person in the picture had a life before and after that picture, that’s one moment in a person’s life. Clearly, carefully, fully imaging your characters will make them breathe on the page. They’re the sum total of their experience until the moment you take them up, and they’re the sum total of all the hopes for whatever future the end of the page holds.

Being stuck can also be a sign that you need to take some time off. Don’t fret about leaving a ms for a few days or weeks or even months. I have 3/4s of story that I started in 2000 that I take out and peck at every few weeks. At some point I’ll finish it, knock wood. But only lately have I realized what the ending should be. This is, what, 2011, and by my math that’s like 11 years. So don’t worry if you set something aside. Work on something else for a while.

Any exercises you give your students that you will share here?

What I do in my workshops (undergrad and grad) is begin each class by having students tell us one detail they observed since the last class. Detail is god in fiction, I tell them, and I want them to start viewing the world like a writer, constantly looking for things to use in their fiction. For instance, the worn path lines in grass, the places that cut across lawns where people are supposed to use sidewalks, these paths are called “desire lines.” It’s an architectural term but a great detail. It’s easy to see how that might fit in a story as a detail but also how it might grow metaphorically to represent more than itself, and that’s what good detail does: mean more than itself.

Can you describe your process toward making characters real?

I usually begin with an image or even a line of dialogue. I’m writing a character now who’s an old man. The only thing I know about him is that he has a waddle, that roostery loose skin that hangs under the neck. Apart from that, he’s a mystery to me now. But as I write, beginning with his waddle, he’ll start to true up, he’ll say a thing or two that’ll surprise me and then he’ll be off and running, that waddle shaking, doing things on his own. So the answer is that I get a foothold and then wait for the character to begin to act. Do they always? No. Often nothing happens but a stagnant waddle. It just hangs there. But if I go in and prod that waddle often enough, it’ll start to shake on its own at some point….

Will you tell us what draws you as a writer toward writing about people inhabiting unhealthy physical environments, dying towns or communities?

A dying thing, a literal one, a carcass, is itself full of new life. Disgusting maggoty life, yes, but flies rise from this out into the world, and then the carcass ultimately dissolves into the dirt and bones’re eaten by other animals, it’s all life. With a place it’s the same thing. Especially a small place. Where everybody knows yr name.

Something happens, something goes out of a place, the store closes, a certain family leaves, somebody dies, and suddenly a place, a town, hamlet, village, is on the downslide. People who can leave do. This leaves those who can’t leave or those who choose, for whatever reason, to stay. They cling to the past, or they just ignore everything and go about without living. The buildings become deserted, houses empty, trains stop stopping, grass grows in the graveyard. At some point such a place might become quaint, or of historical interest, or just fashionable for some reason. But it’s got a history now, and it’s not all good. It died, once. And mostly, these places, they’re dead still, haunted by fascinating people. Rick Bass’s lovely “The History of Rodney” is about Rodney, Mississippi, population: “about a dozen of us.” It’s a perfect example of a story like this. A tree grows through the middle of the narrator’s house, if I remember correctly. It’s man’s history dissolving back into nature, and parts of the death of it, the houses, fences, old bridges, are so lovely, sunset lovely, the last dying colors of something. Where better to focus your gaze?

I noticed that in his novels William Gay often had young men and old men, seldom were there any in-betweens, any 20s to 60s. I asked him about this and he said he thought we as humans are most interesting as young people and old people, that the beginnings and ends are better ground for fiction. Maybe it’s the gothic instilled in me by the very air but I can’t help loving an old building. Broken windows. Wood the color James Agee described as that of a hornet’s nest. Throw on some kudzu, I’m sold.

The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday — and over the holidays, every Saturday — Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. Her first full collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” will be out in February from Press 53. She blogs at

  1. Jane Hammons

    Wonderful all over the place. But I’m especially interested in the use of images. And TV. And guilt. Love Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter.

  2. Sheldon Lee Compton

    This is grand:

    “For instance, the worn path lines in grass, the places that cut across lawns where people are supposed to use sidewalks, these paths are called “desire lines.” It’s an architectural term but a great detail. It’s easy to see how that might fit in a story as a detail but also how it might grow metaphorically to represent more than itself, and that’s what good detail does: mean more than itself.”

    Thanks for this, Meg. Tom Franklin is one of my five favorite writers.

  3. Robert Vaughan

    A wonderful interview with a peek inside this monster of a talented writer’s mind! Thanks for this, Tom and Meg! Great food for thought on this snowy white morning.

  4. Murray Dunlap

    Damn good! Fascinating!

  5. susan tepper

    Enjoyed this a lot! There is an open door feel to what Tom Franklin says here.

  1. 1 “Desire Lines” | engl310

    […] up” — love that expression! And I like what he says about the potential of dead/dying environments, too—I might like this most of all, from a personal perspective—but I’ll leave […]

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