Author Tom Franklin was raised in rural southwest Alabama (Clarke County), a dozen miles from the setting of his new novel, Hell at the Breech. He was educated at the University of South Alabama and the University of Arkansas. His first book was a highly regarded short story collection, Poachers. He has been published in The Black Warrior Review, The Southern Review, and The Oxford American, among others. His stories have been included in Best American Mystery Stories of the Century, New Stories from The South, 1999 and Stories from the Blue Moon Café. Tom Franklin has received a number of fellowships and is currently at the University of Mississippi at Oxford, where he lives with his family.
Hell at the Breech is based on real events that took place in the 1890’s that pitted poor white sharecroppers against the landowners who controlled their fates. The story begins when young Macy Burke, a poor white teenage orphan, accidentally shoots a local merchant, Arch Bedsole. "Tooch" Bedsole, his cousin, uses this killing as a pretext to form the Hell at the Breech gang. This group of criminals and powerless poor white tenant farmers terrorizes Clarke County, murdering and intimidating its law-abiding citizens. Sheriff Billy Waite steps in to fight this menacing outbreak of violence. Mayhem ensues. But quite a story well told.
Robert Birnbaum: Is the Mason-Dixon Line an anachronism?
Tom Franklin: Not to a lot of people. I have a friend in Alabama who is a wonderful guy. His name is Buford Devoid Scarborough. His middle name is Devoid. It’s like a terrible trick that his parents played on him. To him it’s a very real thing. He said a wonderful line to me, fairly recently. He’s in the CSA, Confederate Sons of America. He’s going to quit because it’s getting too liberal for him.
RB: What’s too liberal?
TF: He’s infuriated by my wife and I having different last names. It infuriates him.
TF: He’s very much old school.
RB: Is your friend an exception or typical?
TF: He’s a shrinking minority. He’s a dinosaur. He’s a 37-year-old dinosaur in Alabama. I like him for archaeological reasons. I call him for details in stories occasionally.
RB: What’s his livelihood?
TF: I think he works construction and doesn’t really have a job per se that I know of. One of his big ambitions is to get on at the chemical plant. When I did the long story Poachers in my first book, I needed to know what would happen—I had a game warden chasing a guy in the woods and I was stuck. I called Buford and asked him what might happen. How might he fight against the game warden? He has no gun. Buford began describing how you make a fertilizer bomb. He said, "Let him find a barn with fertilizer" and began describing this to me. And I realized it was wonderful and terrifying stuff.
RB: When you come across the Mason-Dixon line given that you live in Oxford, Mississippi what’s it like for you? Are you identified as a Southerner?
TF: Yeah, and I am often called upon to speak for the South. To explain its alleged racist tendencies.
TF: Which irritates me. I actually hate to be put on that spot. I get it all the time. I, of course, lived in more places than just the South. Racism is everywhere. We’re just famous for it.
RB: Do people look at you as a Southern writer? Are you practicing Southern writing?
TF: That is a good thing. We do love our writers. We treat them well. And we have New Stories from the South; it’s the only regional anthology that I know of. I’m kind of proud that Southern one. There is [also] another one, Stories from the Blue Moon Cafe.
RB: I noticed an anthology of Texas writing coming out this Fall published by Norton.
TF: That’s great, and there are certainly wonderful Texas writers and everywhere. The Southerners have built-in audience. We have just been traditionally— it’s the one thing we are given. We’re racist and stupid and talk slow, but we can write.
RB: Ever see the movie that Arliss Howard and Debra Winger made out of Larry Brown’s Big Bad Love stories? What a great piece of work. It’s an amazing way of showing a writing life.
TF: It sure is. and it’s hard to make a movie about writing. It’s such a solitary, introspective thing. He handles it really well. There’s great images in it. I actually met Arliss Howard. Every year in Oxford we have the Oxford Conference for the Book, which is a wonderful celebration of books and writers. And they showed Big Bad Love last year, and Arliss and Debra Winger came down for that. There was a reading before the conference and the three of them, Debra and Arliss and Larry Brown, answered questions.
RB: I’ve heard that Oxford is a wonderful place despite the occasional New York Times article that says real estate is getting outrageously expensive.
TF: It is getting outrageous there. We just bought a house. We sold a house in Illinois that was half as much. It is getting to be an expensive place, but there is a reason for that— it’s a wonderful place to live. It’s got great bars.
RB: So does Chicago. Where in Illinois did you live?
TF: Galesberg, which is south. It’s a dying town. I think towns that are dying are more interesting when they are smaller. Bigger dying towns are more depressing. A small dying town is kind of a beautiful thing.
RB: You’re teaching at Ole Miss [University of Mississippi]?
TF: My wife and I were both teaching at Knox College in Galesberg for a couple of years and we loved it there. Great school, good people. But we had always said to them and to ourselves that we are going South when we can. My wife, for a Chicago girl, loves the South. She loves the heat and the food, the people. Everything about it. So I was offered the John and Renee Grisham Writer in Residence at Ole Miss. I hate to use the phase “It’s a wonderful gig,” but it’s a wonderful gig.
RB: It’s a wonderful sinecure.
TF: You teach one class per semester.
RB: That’s hardly work, is it?
TF: I was able to finish Hell at the Breech because of that. I had a lot of time off. And Beth Ann took a year off and she wrote her second book as well, which is coming out next year.
RB: I recall strands of American history and it strikes me that the time frame for Hell at the Breech seems to coincide with the populist movement in the South. Are there historical coordinates for this narrative, a basis in fact? Does what took place in your novel have any tie to the populist movement?
TF: It did in real life. And it’s based on real stuff and the people are named after real people, but they are totally made up as I went about working on the book. What I did, for better or worse, was take the politics out of it. It threatened to overwhelm the book. People who read the book for me said either add a lot more or none. So I choose none. Everyone back then was involved, as far as I could tell, from the research that I did. Everyone was really interested in politics. It was life and death to them a lot more than it is to us now. They were a lot more interested.
RB: Why was politics more of a life-and-death matter in the time frame that your novel takes place in?
TF: Whoever was elected governor could make a difference to the farmers and make life a lot better. And so that way there lives were more immediately affected and at such a drastic level. A real-life storeowner, Rafe Arch Bedsole, who dies mysteriously, was running for a local office, and his family and friends were sure his political opponent poisoned him. His political opponent was a doctor and would have known how to do that. So that’s where the Hell at the Breech gang came from. It was a response to this man’s alleged murder. Here’s how I changed it. For two years I tried to stick to the story, as it was known. And tried to keep to not as many events, as I structured for the book. But I couldn’t do it. So as an example of the liberties I took, instead of having him be poisoned, I have him be shot, twice. That’s much more dramatic. But also, the person who shoots him has significance, and I think that became a metaphor or us in the South, always shooting ourselves. So that also worked [for me].
RB: It seems that more novels are being written with historical factual foundations.
TF: You are right. There are a ton of examples right now. Real life is so full of great stories. And, of course, every novel written, every story written has some basis in…something. Do you know the writer Catherine Tucker Windham? She is better known in the South, especially in Alabama. She wrote a book about thirteen Alabama ghosts in Jeffrey. She went around and collected these ghost stories in dozens of books. She read this book [Hell at the Breech] and liked it and called me—which was a surprise to an Alabama boy who read her books in the sixth grade. She said she always wanted to write this book. She has relatives who were from the area. She told me a great story about a man who, a member of the gang going to kill somebody and he himself, as he is on his way to kill this preacher, gets shot by someone else. I’m going to write this as a short story when I get home. The first line is going to be, "It was August. They had to bury him fast." They really decomposed quickly. He was to have a Christian burial and the only preacher around was the guy he was going to kill.
RB: We both know many books are being written in this way. Does this provide you with some security or is it a burden? The security is that you are aware of the arc of the story and the burden is having to consider the connection to the factual record.
TF: Just this morning I received e-mail from the great grandson of one of the people in the book, Ernest McCorkadale. It was an innocent question, “First, thank you for writing this book so I now understand the murder of my great grandfather.” And then he says, “But I am confused, you say that the people are all made up, but you use their real names.” I have regretted using the real names a number of times since the thing’s come out. Burden, absolutely, but it did come with a built-in structure. That also was a burden because I tried to stick to it. Once I was away from it, things were much easier. There are a couple people that are angry about this.
RB: Because they are reading it as historical fact? Does it seem to be hard for people to acknowledge the difference between a novel and a factual account?
TF: There is a wonderfully vague genre called creative non-fiction. Around every book published there is a small group of angry people. I have a big disclaimer, which this guy didn’t read or misunderstood.
RB: Why don’t readers accept the notion that novelists
are professional liars?
TF: So why did I use the real names? I’m really kicking myself now.
RB: Well, they are good names.
TF: You can’t come up with a better nam
e then Tooch Bedsole. For a while I had him named Bledsoe, which seemed like a bad pun because he bleed so much at the end. I was told that people would think I got the name wrong. I didn’t want to appear that sloppy. Anyway nobody comes off looking real good.
RB: I sympathized with the sheriff, Billy Waite. He’s had a long run and seemed to be an honorable man but for a lapse into a vigilante mode, which is understandable.
TF: His big sin in the book is that he waits too long. If I were making a name up, I would never call him Waite because that’s what he does. If he had acted quicker things would have come out a lot different I think. I was going to call him Farnsworth. I love that name. I talked to three people and they are named in the book, Hardy Jackson, Jim Cox and George Burrage, they are three local caretakers or guardians of this story, the three most prominent ones. A lot of people in the county know and even have their own stories. They all said use the real names. They all understood it was going to be a novel. I, at one point, changed the names, and then I changed them back to keep it authentic—I told myself.
RB: Is this [the South] a land of long memories?
TF: Yes it is.
TF: Long memories and long shadows.
RB: The sheriff, in the end, does display kindness to the younger brother. I didn’t expect the story to go in that direction, but I liked him for doing that.
TF: I do too, yeah. What’s funny about him. He was too good until almost the end of the writing process.
RB: He didn’t drink all the time?
TF: I gave him that flaw. I had to give him something. What could it be? It could have been a temper, but the drinking seemed natural, and I am pleased with how it came out. His grandson, Hardy Jackson, is a friend of mine, and he is perfectly happy with it. In real life, William Waite at the time of these events was twenty-eight years old. I make him sixty.
RB: It is an interesting array of characters. There is the mysterious midwife who provides a kind of connection with the spiritual and occult. She was a likeable woman despite a kind of detachment that’s almost disconnection. And the villains are fascinating and compelling.
TF: They’re my favorite. Ardy Grant is my favorite in the book.
RB: A true sociopath.
TF: Yeah, a psychopath. He was a trip to write; everything he did surprised me. The other ones didn’t really. I wanted them to, and I waited for them to surprise me–that’s what good characters do. This guy, every time he came on, something terrible happened.
RB: His fate is horrific.
TF: His fate was also a surprise. As it was happening, I was thinking "Oh my god! No, no stop." Even as I was typing, I said I’m not going to use it, but I’m going to see what happens.
RB: Tooch’s end comes in true Sam Peckinpah style. There is a consistency in him that makes him also almost admirable.
TF: In all honesty, he is the least successful [character]. He never worked as well as I should have been able to make him work. I am a little disappointed in him, in myself.
RB: Should he have been more evil or more complex?
TF: More complex. Less evil, things that he does are bad enough but understandable. I always understood his motivations. I wanted him to be very complex, I wanted him to be strange and have a power over people and…
RB: He does have power over people, though they are bunch of low-lifes.
TF: It gets hard to talk about because I haven’t said this aloud much, if at all. I wanted him to —I totally lost my train of thought here. When he rips open his shirt at the end, that comes out of nowhere. I didn’t think it was clear. I wanted him to feel invulnerable. He’d had a bad childhood, a bad life. He had his chance to get the store. He’s in there. This is what he always wanted. No one is taking it from him, and he has this plan that is above the law. I don’t think I prepared his end as well as I wanted to. So I am disappointed in that. Also, I don’t do his point of view at all. There is one camera eye scene in the store toward the end where he waxes his mustache, and I wish I had given him more touches like that.
RB: His interactions with the younger brother were telling.
TF: I wish there was more insight into him as that scene provides. This is not me being coy and fishing for compliments.
RB: I thought that was a Northern kind of thing.
TF: No. We hide it better. Behind a veneer of civility.
RB: Any civility, these days, is appreciated. [both laugh] I’m not asking how long it took you to write this, but as you are voicing some concerns about various issues about Hell at the Breech, have you settled into whether you are proud of what you have accomplished or happy with it? Or is a conditional "well-I’m-done"?
TF: Except for the thing about the names. Probably given the chance I would keep the names. Everybody who finishes something as long as a novel is going to have things they are not quite happy with. You have to let those go. So I am very happy with it. It took four years. It’s the hardest thing I have ever done. I truthfully thought I would never finish it.
TF: It was hanging over my head every day for four years and they gave me a year to write it at first. I didn’t write anything in that [first] year. And every time my editor called…
TF: Yeah, it’s funny now, to me, too. Or my agent and said, "How’s it going?" I would lie. I would say, "It’s going great." I grew to dread their questions. Then my father, every time I saw him. "How’s the book coming?" "Good, thanks for asking." It was a really wrenching process.
RB: This was all within your realm. Why did you have a problem writing this novel?
TF: A lot of it was the fact that it was historical, and I couldn’t assume anything with the day-to-day details. I had an armadillo scene in the book. Hardy Grant kills an armadillo with his knife. I found out there were no armadillos in Alabama at that time. They hadn’t crossed the Mississippi yet. There were no coyotes or egrets. So that kind of thing handcuffed me again and again and again.
RB: That kind of factuality was a problem?
TF: Even though it’s fiction, it has to be totally accurate in terms of all the details.
RB: Who would know?
TF: There is always your nightmare reader out there. Larry Brown read the Poachers and wrote me and said, "You got this dog wrong." A friend of mine read Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and said a certain kind of apple didn’t exist at the time. And there are people out there who know this stuff. I read in Memphis and a guy raised his hand and said, "I just wanted to let you know Bull Durham never came in a can. It’s always been in a pouch." I got that wrong. People delight in pointing these things out.
RB: Sure, I enjoy writing to the New Yorker pointing errors of fact.
TF: Checks and balances. It’s good to know. I will fix that if given a chance. I just found out it’s going into a second printing. Which is good.
RB: Yes it is. So you have been on far-flung tour?
TF: Seattle and Portland. I was sent to stores that seemed to want me. Then I came back home, briefly, and then went all over the Southeast— Birmingham and Montgomery, Fair Hope, Alabama. And then Jackson, New Orleans, Memphis, Louisville, and Nashville, New York and Boston. South Hadley, a place I have never been but a nice bookstore called Odyssey Books. Then this great bookstore in Blythethville, Arkansas called That Bookstore in Blythethville.
RB: Didn’t Malcolm Gladwell write about her in the New Yorker?
TF: Yeah, he did Mary Gaye Shipley. She is a wonderful bookseller.
RB: You’ve done the independent bookstore grand tour.
TF: I did insist on all independents. Which made me feel good. When I have done some of the larger chains the audience…they don’t publicize as well. In fact, I would have read in a Barnes and Noble in Mobile like I did the last time, 150 people in ’99, but they discontinued their community outreach. They don’t do readings anymore. And they had two copies of the book. I thought that was funny in what is in effect my hometown. But I did a reading across the bay in Fair Hope. They did a wonderful job. They made up the stage like Bedsole’s store and we sold about 140 books that night. Had a huge crowd.
RB: Wow. Are you a young emerging writer?
TF: I turn forty in a few days. I feel young except for a constantly aching back, I feel young.
RB: What’s been the response to the book?
TF: So far every review has been good. The hardest one was the Mobile paper—they just harped on the violence. The reviewer felt that he should warn everyone that it’s very violent. In the last paragraph to the effect, "Franklin’s outlook is very bleak, but those who persist it is not utterly without hope." Not a terribly strong endorsement. It’s an honest and forthright review. I wish it would focus less on the violence. But it is a violent book. Tooch Bedsole in real life was shot so many times that had to drag him away on a tarp. He would have come apart in their hands.
RB: Not as a comparison, but I do think of Cormac McCarthy and James Carlos Blake.
TF: He’s a good friend, so that’s a pleasant association. McCarthy, nobody can write like that. Blood Meridian is the most violent book ever written except the Bible. It is really a wonderfully, gorgeously written book. And a man’s head is "swapped" off with a bowie knife. He is sitting there with two ropes of blood coming there out of his neck, his fingers still holding a cigarette.
TF: Makes up words. Also when the wonderful villain John Joel Glanton is killed. He is called Glanton all the way through the time of his death; "this Indian splits the head of John Joe Glanton to the thrapple."
RB: I am fascinated by his intense detailing of the natural world and the precise nomenclature. I wonder whether those names are made up.
TF: I bet you a thousand dollars they are totally dead on. He [McCarthy] rode the land he writes about on a horse. He saw the places. He was there. You can feel it in how beautifully he writes. You can really make gunpowder by following his instructions—when the Judge makes gunpowder out of bat guano. I think he is that dead on. That’s why you owe it to the readers, even though it is fiction, to be as honest as you can with those day-to-day, true-life details.
RB: We sidestepped my inquiry about what you are looking forward to. Is anyone talking about making Hell at the Breech into a movie?
TF: Clint Eastwood was interested for about a week. It’s kind of funny. He turned it down because it’s too violent. Apparently there is another company. So I hope they do because I want the money. And they can have it.
RB: What’s too violent?
TF: That was probably an answer to give. There are probably many other answers.
RB: I think it’s that there weren’t any Jewish characters and a lack of ethnic diversity.
TF: I’ve been asked why isn’t there more race in this book. The same with the politics. It was a matter of focusing in a wide-ranging and messy story. This was my first attempt at a novel. And what I learned is that it’s a matter of simplifying things, getting as sharp a trajectory as you can and going for the end.
RB: How and why did you want to become a writer?
TF: It seemed natural to me. I was always interested in telling stories, growing up. I would draw comic books. We did a thing you call photo novels where you take a roll of film and act out something and then draw balloons—captions and write what the people are saying. And taping those to pages. I was always telling stories one way or another. Then I read Tarzan of the Apes novels, all twenty-four of them. And Conan the Barbarian…it seemed natural to start writing stories because I loved to read. I started on an old manual typewriter. I started out writing really bad science fiction stories. They were funny. One was called Boborigmi, which is the medical name for the sound your stomach makes when it growls. Then I started reading Raymond Carver and Barry Hannah. I wrote a really bad story called Red Christmas published in a local magazine in Mobile. It’s about a guy going to kill Santa Claus and the editor told me to read Barry Hannah and Thomas MCGuane and Carver and I thought, this is what I really want to do. I was a huge Stephen King fan.
RB: Is Gulf Coastal, Alabama a different culture?
TF: Only in that a lot more transplants live there. It’s getting more and more expensive to live. Snowbirds, we call them. It’s much more touristy. That’s the biggest difference that I can see.
RB: Living in Oxford, what is your sense of contact with the rest of the country and the world? I’m trying get a sense of whether there is a sleepy South.
TF: Much of Mississippi has that. The Delta is hot. You can’t be outside, the mosquitoes are so bad in the summer. Oxford is the heartbeat of Mississippi. It certainly—I hate to use this word—the coolest place. Just an hour and a half from Memphis, and it’s got one of the country’s best bookstores, Square Books. So there are always writers coming through. Oxford is an ideal place, a happening place. We have a film festival every year now. We have the southern Foodway Symposium, the Oxford Conference for the Book, the Double Decker Music Festival. We had Los Lobos last year. And a blues festival. RL Burnside…
RB: He’s on the Big Bad Love and Sopranos soundtracks.
TF: We have seen him at juke joints out in the country where we are the only white people. I’ve heard Bob Dylan on the streets there once in a while. Morgan Freeman lives near there. Person for person it has more interesting people than any place I have ever been. New York has many more people, but if you focus on them, everybody has a story to tell. Everyone is doing something interesting.
RB: What’s the critical mass of hipness that might ruin that?
TF: Some people think it might be headed for that now. It keeps getting Best Small towns in America awards and places to retire. Bless their heart, but retirees are the last things you want in a town. They don’t want to pay any school taxes, and I have a two-year-old daughter. I want to have a good school system. I do worry. I think five or seven years ago it was at its optimum time. It’s gone from ten thousand to thirteen five in five years.
RB: Any Starbucks?
TF: No, there are two coffee places, independently owned. But they’ll get there. I read an essay in the Utne Reader, "The Bookstore that saved a Town." John Kurtz, the owner of City Grocery, credits Richard Holworth, the owner of Square Books. He says, "I’m riding on Richard’s coat tails." He’s there because of the bookstore. It’s a beautiful town square. It’s just like it was. The court house, a statue of Faulkner on a bench. A Civil War monument. It’s a beautiful place. And there are ten bars, and all of them are interesting.
RB: Is there still an Urban/Agrarian split in America? People who think cities are the devil’s work?
TF: I guess so. It’s [Oxford] ideal for my wife and me. I don’t want to be in a city. I couldn’t live in a city of this size. I love to visit. It’s the best of both for me. I want to live in a small place where I know a lot of people. I find that ideal. She [TF’s wife] wants culture and art and good music and theater and she gets that in Oxford. It’s good place for us because we are both happy and we are close to Memphis that has its own dirty wonders. But that didn’t really answer your question did it? I don’t know. I think people are the way they have always been. I don’t know if we are changing very much.
RB: What’s next for you?
TF: I started another novel. William Morrow has already bought it, bless their hearts. They bought it untitled, without much of a plot summary at all.
RB: Why would they do that?
TF: We’re a good fit. I fit with them and they fit with me. Also that’s making them push this [current novel]. They are going to bring the paperback out early. And send me all over for it too.
RB: Have you had the same editor?
TF: No, when Harper Collins bought William Morrow there was a big shakeup and my editor left. But I have one that has worked out beautifully.
RB: Who’s that?
TF: Claire Wachtel. She did what I needed. She said to me, "Don’t be rushed. Take all the time you need." And I think she took heat for that. Not much but I think …I never felt it. I felt my own pressure and from my agent. He would call me and say, "Slowpoke. Hurry up." He rushed me when I needed to be rushed. He never did it in any mean way. Toward the end, they both called me when it was time and said let it go. And they were right. They were ideal in that sense.
RB: There was a point when you were still tinkering?
TF: I had done all but the last scene, which is the hooves and the creak of good leather part. The posse rides in. I knew what happened there. I don’t know why I was lingering. Maybe I was afraid to finish, thinking it might not work. I had a real fear that I would never finish it. And that when I did, it would suck.
RB: Having a novel under your belt, does it give you confidence or trepidation?
TF: Both. That’s the safe answer. What I have heard people say is that every time you sit down and write a book you have to learn how to do it all over again. Every one is different. I feel confident until I sit down. I suddenly get that terror.
RB: A few times you have quoted others on writing. Do you talk a lot with other writers?
TF: I have so many great friends who are writers. William Gay is one of my best friends. That’s what we talk about. We also talk about baseball.
RB: Whom do you root for, the Braves?
TF: The wonderful Braves. I started watching them in 1980, when they won 19 in a row coming out of the gate. It’s the Braves or the Cardinals. They are the two closest teams. There’s Tampa now, but they are terrible.
RB: How did Phillip Roth come to blurb your book?
TF: After my wife and I got married we were desperately seeking jobs. We applied for everything we could find. I applied for the Phillip Roth Residency in Creative Writing at Bucknell and I got it. He was a final judge. He picked the story Poachers to win and wrote me a letter congratulating me.
RB: And Richard Ford?
TF: He doesn’t want to be a Southern Writer. I heard he was doing a third Frank Bascombe novel.
RB: Oh no. I talked to him when he published Independence Day and broached the possibility of a trilogy and he pooh poohed it.
TF: He wrote me a wonderful letter about Poachers. He’s very smart. I asked him and he said, "Sure. Send me the book again." Because he had given it to somebody. And he wrote me this wonderful blurb. I am very proud of those two. And Rick Bass I met years ago and he has done back flips to help me.
RB: You pretty much have things going your way. Can I characterize you as a happy contented writer? [laughs]
TF: Absolutely. I am waiting for something to go wrong. My wife and I have had these wonderful two years. Most of it has been our daughter. We have this beautiful little girl.
RB: Well, this has been terrific and I expect that whenever you finish your next novel we’ll talk again.
TF: Thank you. I’ve enjoyed this.
© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing