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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, a novel inspired by stories of her father’s childhood in rural Pocahontas, Tennessee. She now lives with her family on the West Coast.
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An eighth generation Southerner, I was born in Birmingham, Alabama. Relatives on my mother's side include four Revolutionary War soldiers.
Due to my parents separating when I was in elementary school, my mother and I moved to the dusty plains of southwestern Oklahoma--first to a small town called Durant and then finally to Lawton, where I would graduate from high school.
I come from a family of readers. I don't recall my mother ever being without a book on the bedside or coffee table. She worked in the local library as a young woman and has retained the lost art of mending books. My father is an academic and has read more books than I can imagine as well as having over sixty of his own published.
Thanks to my mother, I fell in love with reading and with libraries as a very young girl. The Wizard of Oz was the first "big" novel I read. I recall being so proud of making it through all of those pages. Point me towards a library and I will happily spend the day finding lost treasures on the shelves.
My mother and I traveled back to the South every Christmas and most summers. It was on those annual pilgrimages to visit my paternal grandmother Lavice MacAlpin Willis Paudert in Pocahontas, Tennessee, that the roots of Lost Saints took hold.
I felt more at home in my grandmother’s small, eat-in kitchen with the Formica table and the washer and dryer in the corner than anywhere else in the world. She told me news of my cousins, my aunt Bonnie, and my uncle Jimmy. Fed me tomatoes grown down the road by her best friend Carolynn and freshly made cornbread. Loved me in a way I can only describe as pure, devoted and thoroughly uncomplicated. I slept in the back bedroom my father used to occupy and I’d lie in bed listening for the rattle of the nightly Memphis freight trains through the railroad tracks on Main Street.
My father shared the stories of his childhood with me—the danger-filled exploits through water moccasin-filled creeks near my grandmother’s house, his extraordinary efforts to connect by radio and by mail with the world beyond Pocahontas. I begged to be told the chimney story, the vegetable garden story, the Mrs. Leland's Golden Butter Discs story over and over again because each one offered a precious piece of the unsolved mystery that was my father.
In 1993 my grandmother died of complications from lung cancer. I was 21. My father and his siblings sold their childhood home within a year, officially severing ties with the town all of them had moved on from years earlier. The person and the place were lost to me.
I married my college sweetheart, a San Francisco native, in 1995 and California became and is my home state. I have come to love the Bay Area with its beautiful regional parks, the San Francisco Bay, the Pacific Ocean, and the wondrous diversity of people here. But I will always long for more space between the people and the places, more green, more two lane country roads, and sweet tea.
After completing a wretched first novel set in Oklahoma in my mid-twenties, the germ of an idea about a boy like my father who had been “the one” everyone thought would surpass his small town upbringing but, unlike my father, finds himself rooted there still at middle age, began to grow. I was 30, had a three year old daughter Georgia, and a full-time job as a university fundraiser.
With the support if not full understanding of my wife and the financial backing of our appreciated home (what a quaint idea considering the current home market), I quit my job after learning I was pregnant again. For one year, I devoted myself to raising our oldest daughter, growing a baby, and working on the book that would become Lost Saints. On February 24th, 2003, my second daughter Grace was born and the almost completed first draft of the book sat stacked neatly on my desk in the office/nursery.
I went on to revise Lost Saints in between mothering and full-time fundraising work. On January 10th, 2007, I received a certified letter from the Elizabeth George Foundation notifying me that I had been awarded a substantial Emerging Writer grant to finish Lost Saints. Fifteen days later, my third daughter Giovanna was welcomed safely into the world. It was, to put it mildly, a miraculous month.
In the end, The Lost Saints of Tennessee is a love letter to my grandmother and to the place that felt most like home to me.