The Penmen Profile: Historical Fiction Novelist Julia Franks

by Rebecca LeBoeuf

julia-headshotJulia Franks’ first novel, “Over the Plain Houses,” published in May of 2016. This work of historical fiction focuses on the ideas of witchcraft and women’s independence, set in 1939 in North Carolina. The novel was chosen as the Spring 2016 Okra Pick from the Southern Independent Booksellers Association and the May 2016 Indie Next Pick.

Franks brought her passion for reading into the development of Loose Canon, a social media platform that helps schools organize independent reading in hopes that students will develop reading habits.

Have you always written?
No. When I was in college, I wanted to “be a writer,” but I wasn’t really prepared to risk my professional identity to pursue that goal. In other words, I was too wedded to the idea of salary and profession and paying off my student loans, etc., so I ended up working in other careers for many years. I didn’t have the confidence to make writing a priority. And, truth be told, I probably wasn’t ready to confront some of the issues that would later become my writerly obsessions.

Later in life, I didn’t care so much about “being a writer,” but I did feel compulsively driven to write. There’s a difference, you know. Writing for me is a way to make meaning of my life and the world around me.

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
So many would-be writers ask me about “process,” but I’m not sure I really have an organized way of proceeding. For me, creativity comes out of chaos, and a willingness to be okay with the fact that there is no organized way of proceeding. When I start conceptualizing a new novel, I’m usually just floundering. I have to be okay with that, with a lot of false starts. When I get to the thread or the character that feels promising, I usually know.

That said, I will offer two approaches that have helped me write novels. The first is that I usually know how the story is going to end, and the rest of the plot develops as an answer to the question, “How did we get here?”

The second is a technique for writers of historical fiction. Start by reading history. In other words, even though you think you know a lot about your subject or your time period, read more. You’ll find out a lot of interesting facts, and those facts will suggest certain characters or plot developments. For example, if you’re reading about the Southeastern mountains in the 1920s, you’ll learn that during that time the federal government was sending a lot of people and programs into the area to help “improve” people’s lives. That fact alone suggests certain plot developments, certain conflicts, maybe even particular characters.

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them? 
One problem I struggled with for a long time was plotting. I might start with a bunch of scenes, and characters and subplots that I wanted to include, but I might have a hard time fitting them together in a bigger overarching plot. I was forever cutting and pasting and moving things around, often drastically so.

But now that’s exactly the part of novel construction that I love the most, creating the cause and effect that drives the bigger arc of the story. This may sound obvious, but it took me a long time to admit that every scene had to move the plot forward in some way, that every scene had to be either a cause or an effect. Ideally, a scene will be both. Once I figured that out, it became clear which scenes needed to be jettisoned, and which needed to be changed to create that sense of cause and effect and which needed to be created.

What has the road to publication been like for you?
I don’t think my story is very typical. A lot of people get an MFA and then write lots of short stories to publish in literary journals, which is a great way to build your skills, your resume and important relationships. I never did those things, mainly because I never really made a plan. I was just writing compulsively, and mostly in novel form. The idea of learning how to compose short stories seemed like a terrible way to spend my limited amount of writing time when what I really wanted to be doing was writing novels.

The downside of this approach was that, when it came time to find a publisher, I was kind of a nobody. I had no writer “resume,” few contacts and no pedigree. I did submit several novel excerpts to journals, but I always received a polite rejection along the lines of, “This seems like part of a larger work.” The only experience I could claim was that I’d attended some prestigious writing conferences. One of my peers from those conferences even forwarded my name to a terrific agent, who fell in love with my book, but still wasn’t able to sell it. Finally, another peer recommended Hub City Press, an up-and-coming publisher in the Southeast, and Hub City jumped right on it. They didn’t care that I didn’t have a pedigree.

How do you market your work?julia-book-sm
I’m lucky enough to have a publisher who does most of this for me, but I’ve learned something important from her: it’s really important, especially in the South, to support other people in the industry, specifically indie publishers and indie bookstore owners and other fledgling writers. Almost all of these people are in the industry for idealistic reasons. In terms of marketing, I have to believe that we strengthen each other. For example, sometimes, I feel like telling people, “If you’re a reader, buy a book! It doesn’t have to be my book, but buy somebody’s book! You have to vote with your wallet!” I’ve come to the conclusion that single authors can’t really be successful unless the whole indie book industry is successful.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
If I could give a single piece of advice, it would be this: Look around you at the people in your classes and in your writing groups, the people who are most like you. Don’t imagine that you’re in competition with them, because you’re not. In fact, the opposite is true. They’re the people most likely to read your work and most likely to share contacts with you. They’re the people most likely to put your name in front of a publisher or to blurb your finished book. In other words, they’re the ones who are the mostly likely to help you. And you should be helping them too.

Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
I fell in love with Toni Morrison’s work early on, mostly because of her inventive and lush use of language. Her use of syntax and specific words isn’t realistic, in an anthropological sense, but in some ways, it’s more believable because of its originality, its lushness, its magic. She creates her own world partly by creating her own language.

My current writerly crush is probably Lauren Groff.

If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
Even though I’m a novelist, I’d have to choose poetry, because I’m more likely to read it over and over again. Walt Whitman, for sure. Probably Yeats. Maybe Mark Strand’s collected works. If I were going to choose a novel, it might be “The Things They Carried” or “All the Pretty Horses.” Those two novels are about as close to perfect as any I can think of.


For more information about Franks, visit her website.