Franklin, Fennelly make powerful duo

Published 12:00 pm Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Everybody should have the luxury of taking a road trip with Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin, the first couple of Southern literature who call Oxford home.

We did it last summer, Tom, Beth Ann, and myself, traveling to a few cities in Alabama for a book event related to the release of Harper Lee’s new novel, “Go Set a Watchman.”

They were members of a panel that I tried to moderate. Mostly, I did introductions and got out of the way, since I well know the charisma that emerges when either one of them is on stage. Put the two together and, well, you find their stage talent for working a crowd rivals their writing talents.

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And that’s saying something.

Both drip wit, and intellect. Tom’s storytelling is captivating, and Beth Ann can step in and deliver a punch the crowd longs for.

“That’s why she’s my boss,” Tom will say the moment the crowd enthusiastically responds to Beth, referring to the fact that as director of the MFA program at Ole Miss, where he has also taught, she has been his superior.

Stealing the punch back may be a problem in some marriages, but on most days Tom and Beth Ann understand that each must have their professional moments. And over the years, there have been plenty, including a bestselling book and award-winning fiction and poetry and plenty of wowed crowds at literary events.

He’s known as one of the South’s greatest contemporary writers. Yet, he tells anybody off the record and on that’s she’s the biggest talent of them both.

“She wrote most of it,” he will say about the successful novel they wrote together a few years back. “All the good lines were hers.”

Never mind that they are also outstanding instructors and editors of some fine fiction others wrote, besides being good parents, friends to many, and ambassadors for Mississippi and the South in general, since good writing and intellect goes a long way in putting our best foot forward.

Wherever we went across Alabama last summer the crowds adored both Tom and Beth Ann, and I have seen that in other settings with them as well through the years.  But it was rewarding seeing it away from Oxford, which has been their home for many years now.

But the desire of both to keep reaching for more is what intrigues me the most about Tom and Beth Ann. Each could easily rest on achievements, finishing out wonderful careers by teaching and delighting crowds. They keep digging, however, believing strongly that well-crafted words can and literally do make the world a better place.

That’s why it’s worth celebrating Tom’s recent winning of the Berlin Prize, a notable honor that gives him time this fall to work on an upcoming novel and get an inspirational break abroad.

He’s also editor of a new fiction collection, Mississippi Noir, which features works from several Oxford writers including Ace Atkins and Jack Pendarvis. The book has a launch event this Thursday at 5 p.m. at Square books, and Tom and friends will be there, by the way.

But what makes this couple so special from a talent perspective is that while Beth Ann is cheering for her husband’s latest successes as we all are, rest assured that she will be delivering a punch of her own soon enough. That’s the way it happens with two big talents share the stage.

And when it does, Tom will be delivering the loudest applause of all.

David Magee is Publisher of The Oxford Eagle. You can reach him at