Please welcome Amy Franklin-Willis, a writer I hugely admire, and the author of The Lost Saints of Tennessee (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012), a novel I highly enjoyed and can’t recommend highly enough. I had the pleasure of hearing Amy read chapters of Lost Saints in my late-night workshop at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference while it was still a work-in-progress. I knew right away that the book would one day be published and that this woman had a future.
An eighth-generation Southerner, Amy Franklin-Willis was born in Birmingham, Alabama. She received an Emerging Writer Grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation in 2007 to complete The Lost Saints of Tennessee, which was inspired by her father's childhood in Pocahontas, Tennessee. She now lives on the West Coast with her family. The Lost Saints of Tennessee is out in paperback now.
Find her on-line at: www.amyfranklin-willis.com, www.facebook.com/amyfwauthor, and on Twitter @amyfranklinwill.
My review of The Lost Saints of Tennessee appears at the end of this post. Meanwhile, read what Amy Franklin-Willis has to say about “The Joy of Story.”
Joy of Story
We’ve been scribbling stories on cave walls, whispering them around campfires, and painting them across church ceilings since the beginning of time. In the delightfully creative novel The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, one of the characters says, “You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose.” This is the power of story. I tell my writing students that the piece they are working on right now, right this minute, might one day save someone’s life. The writing of it may even save the writer’s life.
I’ve been writing fiction, making up my own stories, for fifteen years. But long before that, I was raised on them. My tribe encompasses eight generations of Southerners, and one of the first stories I can recall was about the time my father almost got his little brother killed by having him climb up on the roof to tie a radio antenna to the chimney so my dad could get better reception.
I couldn’t hear that story enough. My dad would act out the parts, raising and lowering his voice for drama, and I sat riveted, letting the words wash over me. My paternal grandmother held court at her kitchen’s Formica table telling the big and small happenings of all the Willis relatives, shaking her head occasionally and saying, “Amy-girl, who knows why she did it?”
Now with three daughters of my own and never enough time to write down the memorable things they do, I try and tell them. Over and over again. How toddler Grace would wake at seven a.m. every day, put her shoes on, and go stand by the door saying “walk” in a tone equal parts questioning and demanding. How Georgia’s quick thinking and bravery saved the life of a third grade classmate. How baby Gia offered me unsolicited “thank you”s after diaper changes. These tales are gifts, artifacts bequeathed to support their exploration of who they are.
No matter the origin of a tale—whether it be fiction or non-fiction, the pleasure of hearing or reading or writing a good one is considerable. The teller hears her creation out loud or sees it spread across the page, reveling in the sweet music of round vowels and hard consonants. The listener/reader enters the cell of the story, steps inside another person’s world where love and hate and grief and struggle and mercy unfurl.
Long-term solitary confinement is considered a form of torture. Why? Because it deprives us of story—the ability to connect with others, to be heard, to listen. To be. To feel less alone.
When Oscar Wilde was confined to Pentonville prison, it was standard for the first three months of a Victorian convict’s sentence that he be allowed only one book, the Bible. And while the Bible brought Wilde some comfort, his physical and mental state deteriorated rapidly under these conditions.
It wasn’t until an exception to the policy was granted and he garnered access to a wider array of books that he regained a portion of his health, occupying the days by drawing up lists of books to request. These books journeyed from friends’ hands to prison officials for approval before finally reaching Wilde, providing life-saving nourishment for his mind and soul for the remainder of his two-year imprisonment.
As promised, here is my review of Amy Franklin-Willis’s novel, The Lost Saints of Tennessee, which is loaded with story:
The Lost Saints of Tennessee, by Amy Franklin-Willis, is a gem. It is a family novel, and like all good family novels, it's about love and other big, big problems. The Coopers of Clayton, Tennessee are a struggling bunch. They never quite make a good living; they tend to drink a lot of beer, whiskey, and vodka laced iced tea and smoke a lot of Lucky Strikes; sex gets them in trouble and teenage pregnancy seems to run in the family. They get into spats and hold grudges. But this is a novel of family love, and it's in the end about forgiveness and redemption.
At the center of the novel are twin boys, Ezekiel and Carter Cooper, who are not only brothers but also the best of friends. Ezekiel is voted (by Lillian, his ambitious and self-destructive mother) the Cooper most likely to succeed. Carter, however, was damaged by encephalitis as a toddler and has developed slowly, although emotionally he's perhaps the healthiest of the Cooper children. The lifelong devotion between these two brothers is pure and strong. It is also a vulnerable thing, for their paths must eventually part, and out of that parting comes tragedy from which it takes a lifetime to heal.
Mostly, Lost Saints is Ezekiel's story, for it is Ezekiel's lot to forgive and earn forgiveness from his mother, his ex-wife, his daughters, his sisters, and especially the brother who will haunt him forever.
I love this book. It has sentiment in spades, and no sentimentality. It is in a long tradition of Southern family novels, yet it is original, not derivative. It is also funny, sexy, gritty, even at times horsey. Amy Franklin-Willis, with this debut novel, The Lost Saints of Tennessee, is well on the way to joining the pantheon of Southern women writers, an august group including Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Harper Lee, and Flannery O'Connor.
I hope you’ll buy or order this fine novel from your local independent bookseller. If you’d rather shop on line, you can find the book at: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780802120816