OXFORD, Miss. — When author Tom Franklin submitted the first 80 pages of his new novel, "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter," to his literary agent, he got an alarming response.
Nat Sobel would fly down. Immediately.
"That was definitely one of those moments like you see on TV when an alcoholic is confronted by all his friends – the intervention," said poet Beth Ann Fennelly, Franklin's wife.
Sobel's visit sent a clear message: The book was a mess and needed work. Franklin had already wrestled with it for a few years, trying different characters, approaches, story lines and tones as Fennelly gently pointed out the flaws. Franklin threw away a lot of pages and even set it aside at one point to write another book that came to him more easily.
His agent saw the new book as key to Franklin's career. It had long been sold – his publisher bought it on spec after his first novel, "Hell at the Breech," showed him as a writer of great promise. But the only thing Sobel liked about "Crooked Letter" was the first chapter, a key moment when the two boys at the heart of the story first meet.
Sobel's advice: Start over from there and see where it goes.
"So that's what I did," Franklin said. "At some point I put it all together. It took awhile." He thought about it and attempted a few starts from 2003 to 2008, and had "no traction and panic and worry and arguments with my wife." It wasn't until he accompanied his wife to Brazil as part of the Fulbright Visiting Scholars Program that he really got rolling. He was able to write without interruption for six months.
What emerged was Franklin's most successful novel.
"Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter," named for the way children in the South learn to spell Mississippi, is an ultimately sweet tale of two half brothers – one white and one black – who live very different lives in the fictional town of Chabot, Miss. It's a crime novel with a little mystery thrown in, a meditation on race and relationships, and a character study.
It caught the attention of both a major chain and independent bookstores when it was released in October, drawing recommendations from Barnes & Noble and Indie Next, and appeared on The New York Times list of best-sellers, a first for Franklin.
His previous books – the Edgar Award-winning short story collection "Poachers," the historical novel "Hell at the Breech" and the demented "Smonk" – were hailed by critics and booksellers alike. They were dark, violent tales filled with characters who had no redemption.
He aimed for something very different with the new book. His publisher, HarperCollins Publishers, saw something special and sent him on an early round to meet with bookstore owners and buyers around the country. He found that he had a lot of fans who found it almost impossible to sell his previous works, especially to women, who are key to life on best-seller lists.
"So this was met with almost relief," Franklin said as he sat on the covered porch at his favorite bookstore, Square Books, overlooking Oxford's town square during a recent moody rainstorm.
The 37-year-old Alabama-born writer wore a brown fleece vest, worn red Chuck Taylor high tops and talked animatedly in a lilting Southern accent about the exciting reception the book has received.
"Crooked Letter" centers on Larry Ott, a white man long suspected of murdering a teenage girl who disappeared after a date with him, and Silas "32" Jones, the black town constable still remembered as the star high-school shortstop.
They are opposites in almost every way. Larry spends his days manning an auto repair shop no one frequents and his nights living in a house still haunted by the memories of a difficult childhood and his father's disapproval. Silas is handsome and popular with the ladies, and as close to a celebrity as little Chabot will ever get.
The two were friends briefly as children, and that friendship colors their lives decades later in different ways. They're thrown back together when another girl disappears and Larry is considered a suspect.
Franklin pulled many of the details in the book from his own awkward childhood and the character of Larry resembles the author in many ways. Like Larry, Franklin was an isolated loner with few friends and both were ridiculed by schoolmates.
"Crooked Letter" owes much to Fennelly, who had to talk her reluctant husband into going to Brazil with her. In a way, she's his muse, pushing him in the right direction or pulling him back from the edge. They know writer couples who don't want criticism or advice from their significant others. But for them, challenging ideas and language enhances their relationship.
"I do feel like we're really lucky to have this big part of our lives to share," said the 39-year-old Fennelly, who is expecting the couple's third child any day now.
Their personal and professional partnership has worked so well, they're writing a book together about the devastating Mississippi River flood of 1927. It has already been sold. Fennelly, who like Franklin teaches at the University of Mississippi, finds herself in a familiar role.
They recently hired a baby sitter and went out on a date to discuss their progress. Franklin pointed out a few flaws in her writing, easily anticipated and fixable. When her turn came, she expressed reservations about his pages. He thought about it a bit and then came to the conclusion she wanted him to toss those pages and start over.
"But we still had a good date somehow," she said with a laugh.