In the late 1890s in rural Clarke County, southwest Alabama, townspeople and tenant farmers waged their own civil war. The Mitcham War it was called, named after the isolated backwoods known as Mitcham Beat. On one side of that conflict, you had middle-class white citizens in the town of Grove Hill, upholders of order but uncivil in their treatment of the white families (there were next to no blacks) who lived on and worked the townspeople's land. On the other side, you had those farmers (surviving just barely and under threat of foreclosure) uniting to form the Hell-at-the-Breech gang. Hell indeed, resulting (1897-'98) in a series of ambushes and night raids, armed posses and mob violence, hooded gunmen and common-day criminals; a bloody episode that put the fear in Clarke County as late as the 1950s, mistrust between townfolk and countryfolk that would not be entirely resolved until the 1970s.
Tom Franklin, author of the award-winning book of short stories Poachers (1999) and former John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi, grew up in Clarke County -- grew up hearing tales of the Mitcham War, of its cast of law-abiders and law-breakers. His debut novel, Hell at the Breech (Morrow), is a fictionalized recounting, not a historical retelling, of those turn-of-the-century events. The place names he did not change. The leading characters he borrowed, altered somewhat, enlarged upon to suit his eye for the lyrical and the lawless -- characters such as Sheriff Billy Waite, aging but unwilling to put his trust in the hands of a deputy; Mack Burke, 15, a boy thrust into manhood but already with blood on his hands; and the Widow Gates, a midwife and healer, "Granny" to Mack, his older brother William, and any number of Clarke County men she brought into the world. There's blood on her hands too.
The Flyer recently spoke to Tom Franklin from his home in Oxford (which he shares with his wife, the poet Beth Ann Fennelly, and their 2-year-old daughter) on the eve of his book tour and concerning the background to Hell at the Breech, the violence that marks his work, and early audience reaction.
Flyer: Why did you choose the Mitcham War to form the basis of your first novel?
Tom Franklin: My 11th-grade English teacher, Joyce Burrage, is one of the area's preeminent experts on the story. Her great-uncle was in the Hell-at-the-Breech gang. So I heard it from her, heard about it from my uncles. The Clarke County Democrat, the local newspaper, published a book on it written by history professor Hardy Jackson, the Democrat's editor Jim Cox, and Joyce Burrage in 1993. I got hold of that book. I was fascinated by it.
Cut to 1998: An agent read a story of mine in a literary quarterly, and he wrote me. He wanted to represent me, and I agreed because of who he was: Nat Sobel -- quite a well-known agent. He said he needed an idea for a novel. He could sell my stories if I had the synopsis for a future novel. So I came up with two ideas. One was a love story, and one was a comedy. He said they were both terrible. He said, "No, no, no. You 'do' violence well." So I wrote a synopsis based on the Mitcham War.
Your nonfictional, first-person introduction to Poachers -- on your experiences as a hunter -- "did" violence well too.
Sobel had me do that. He thought the collection was kind of gritty, and an introduction would help pave the way for it. I got a ton of reaction from that introduction.
You were encouraged to write when you were growing up?
Very much so by my mother, who always read and gave us books and allowed me to do whatever I wanted to do. But there was also a lot of pressure to hunt with the uncles I had, cousins and friends. Writing and drawing were things I was a little embarrassed about.
A little like the sensitivity you show in your character Mack Burke.
It is. He's the one I identified with. He's young and full of guilt. I'm not young [Franklin will turn 40 in July], but I'm certainly full of guilt. I identify with Billy Waite's backache too.
There are scenes in Hell at the Breech of almost operatic bloodshed. Are you drawn to or repelled by that level of violence?
I think I've always been interested in violence, because I myself have lived a life so apart from it. I've never had the shit kicked out of me. I've never been beaten up and left in an alley. My fights have been mild. I've lived the life of a quiet coward. But I'm interested in people who are not afraid to get bloody and give blood: people who live in a different, tougher, meaner world.
As a hunter, you certainly saw it.
I did. But it was animal-related. I mean, I've killed every kind of animal you can imagine. Every animal that walks, crawls, flies across Alabama ... I've killed it. I say that with a mixture of pride and shame. So there was that violence. Guns everywhere. I could walk down the street with a gun, and nobody would think twice about it.
Your father hunted too?
He was a retired turkey hunter. I had uncles who went with me. My brothers, friends, cousins. It was the thing we did. I got way into it for a while as a matter of fitting in. And I even convinced myself that I loved it. And I did love being in the woods. That was not self-deception. I could go and sit and never knew what I was going to see. It was a great power ... the fact that you could kill something.
You hunt today?
No. I mean, I go to the woods, but I haven't shot a gun in I don't know when. But I think I'd shoot a deer if given the chance, because I love the meat. It'd be great to fill the fridge for the winter.
But the violence in the book ... To tell the truth, I was concerned about it. You wouldn't know it from the paragraph where the character Tooch Bedsole gets shot and shot and shot. But the fact that that happened ... They did shoot him to pieces ... How do you not go into that? How do you not show what happened?
The book's complex structure isn't weak.
I looked at all kinds of novels, and the one that almost killed me was True Grit by Charles Portis -- the worst thing I could have done, because I was so in love with the narrator, Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old girl.
Any reaction to the book from the locals in Clarke County?
I know Hardy Jackson liked it a lot, but Jim Cox I think is a little worried that it's not what people are expecting. And Joyce Burrage is not happy at all. She told a reporter from Book magazine that she doesn't like the "hell"s and the "damn"s, maybe a "shit" or two. There aren't that many "f" words in there -- maybe one time and that's from a character who'd been out West and brought it back. But she told that reporter, "Even when they were killing people, they wouldn't have used that kind of language."
You're doing a signing in Memphis on June 6th. Do you mind book tours?
I love it. I look forward to it. I get nervous before a reading, but when it's over, it's nice. People generally say nice things. They take you to dinner sometimes. Buy you drinks. I don't mind it one bit.
Hell at the Breech
Burke's Book Store
Friday, June 6th, 5-6:30 p.m.