This Issue’s Inquisitor: Tom Franklin

By J.Ed. Marston, Peauxdunque Review Features Editor

In this issue, we have the honor of featuring questions from Tom Franklin, who holds a special place in the Peauxdunque pantheon. (Wait do we have a pantheon? Not really, but if we did, Tom would be right up there). In addition to being the celebrated author of many books we love, Tom played a formative role in the Peauxdunque ethos.

Back in 2011, several of the O.G. Peauxdunquians traveled to Petit Jean, Arkansas for the Oxford American Summit for Ambitious Writers, where Tom was leading a workshop. Terri Shrum, in whose fond memory we dedicate this publication, was among the Peauxs who attended, and that’s where several of us from other parts of the country first encountered Peauxdunque and eventually joined.

During that workshop—the first some of us had ever attended, Tom showed such insight and generosity of spirit that he firmed us on our literary journey and accelerated our progress as no one else has. Tom’s works include PoachersHell at the BreachSmonkCrooked Letter, Crooked Letter, and The Tilted World with Beth Ann Fennelly (who has previously contributed questions for this column).

Tom: Why is fantasy always in trilogies?

Ask Peauxdunque: While it might be tempting (and ironic) to put forward “a singular reason” for the ubiquity of trilogies, I’m not sure this phenomenon is so simple. Some thoughts from different perspectives:

  • An author: “Creating a whole world and telling a story this big takes three books.”
  • A Jungian: “The tripartite structure speaks to a deep-seated archetype within our collective unconscious.”
  • A Publisher: “Tolkien sold a lot of books.”

There’s something in all of these perspectives, but I invite you to consider another way of thinking about the dynamics of items considered as a set.

  • One is a monolith, a unity of self-circumscribed all.
  • Two invites a stance of comparison and contrast. Pairs delineate each other as definitively as an on-off switch.
  • But three is much more than two plus one. Three opens a sense of mystery and open-endedness. Whether you’re talking about a religious trinity or a trio of people or a triad of philosophical concepts (like “Truth, Beauty, and Goodness”), things that come in threes ebb and flow in a dynamic mish-mash of similarity and difference. As soon as you get a handle on how you think Truth relates to Goodness, you remember Beauty, which brings in something totally different. And, if you start from Truth as the touchstone for understanding Beauty and Goodness, you’ve lost something haven’t you? You’re still thinking in pairs. Really thinking in threes reveals elusive vistas of possibility. And that sounds like the kind of magic you want to experience in a fantasy story, right? I know I do.

Tom Franklin: What’s more important: the telling or the tale?

Ask Peauxdunque: I love this question because it doesn’t invite (or demand) an “answer,” but rather a thought process.

Conventional parsing might suggest it’s a question of emphasis or perhaps even genre. In this view, literary writers lean toward the exquisiteness of the telling. Have you had the experience of reading an amazing book only to realize it’s pointless to explain to a friend what the book is “about”? Consider To the Light House, Ulysses, Gilead, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, etc. The elements that make these books so good can’t be captured in a summary of the narrative. This is one of the hallmarks of works we tend to think of as “literary.” By contrast, “genre fiction” almost by definition focuses on meeting (and perhaps cleverly subverting) certain reader expectations related to plot and content. Who hasn’t enjoyed the heck out of a poorly written novel, be it Horror, Mystery, Sci-Fi, Romance, Fantasy, Thriller or [fill-in the genre that speaks to your unliterary self]?

This is a common way of thinking about this question, but to my mind it skates over some nuances—like what do we really mean when we talk about the “telling” vs. the “tale”?

Consider if you will, the kind of joke nearly anyone can deliver to some humorous effect. You know the kind of joke I mean—knock-knock jokes being one of the most basic examples. These miracles of formulaic phrasing “work” so long as your audience shares some basic assumptions* and you express the content and form (which includes some element of timing and surprise) more or less correctly. A joke like this reliably produces laughter unless your audience has already heard it—and sometimes even then. Here’s one of my favorite examples:

Descartes goes into a cafe and orders a cup of coffee. The server asks if he wants cream and sugar. Descartes ponders for a moment before saying, “I think not” —and disappears.

This and other examples of its kind are not literature in the “high-flown” sense, but who could argue with the craft necessary to create an expression nearly anyone can deliver effectively. And yet, jokes are nothing without their content. So, where does this leave us in terms of Tom’s question?

Ultimately, “the answer” is in the answering through each writer’s work—or not at all.

*While acknowledging that many such jokes contain dangerous stereotypes and othering, there are plenty of great examples that don’t. In other words, these jokes don’t have to rely on dehumanizing content. Why so many jokes resort to this kind of content is a whole other question.

J.Ed. Marston writes stories about people fumbling to be heroic in cloudy situations. His fiction, poetry, and non-fiction have been published in BayouThe Double DealerUrban LandWired magazine’s blog, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among others. Marston serves on the Board of the Southern Lit Alliance and on the planning committee for the Conference on Southern Literature. Marston is a graduate of Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, where he earned a BA with a triple major in English, writing, and theater. He lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee.