When Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin visited our store last fall as part of their tour for The Tilted World, I mentioned in my introduction that they were the first husband-wife writing team we’d ever hosted. In fact, they were the first writing team we had ever hosted. Sure, we’ve organized events for pairs of authors and illustrators. But two people who collaborated on a novel? That was a first.
Not many novels have been written by co-authors, and very few by co-authors who are married to each other. The only work of fiction I could think of that was written by a married couple is The Crown of Columbus by Michael Dorris and Louise Erdrich. A little Internet research showed me that I am hopelessly out of touch and that there are a number of couples writing fiction together. Many of them combine their names and write under a shared pseudonym: Nicci Gerrard and Sean French write crime fiction under the name “Nicci French”; Alexandra Coelho and Alexander Ahndoril write novels together as “Lars Kepler”; and Michael Jacob and Daniela De Gregorio are “Michael Gregorio” in the literary world.
Swedish authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who wrote a series of ten police procedurals about detective Martin Beck in the 1960s and 1970s and are considered the forerunners to Stieg Larsson, are common-law spouses. Maybe that’s why they didn’t come up with a joint pen name?
These collaborative novels all have one thing in common: they are plot-driven and suspenseful. The Tilted World is no exception. The book grabbed me from the first page, when the protagonist, bootlegger Dixie Clay Holliver, finds what she believes to be a baby’s coffin in the swollen creek near her home in rural Mississippi. The stream was called “Gawiwatchee” (“Place Where the World Tilts”) by the Indians — “or so Jesse’d said”. Jesse, Dixie Clay’s husband, is not known for his honesty.
Dixie Clay is a bit of a stock Southern female character — she’s plucky and determined, doing what needs to be done in the face of hardship. Remember Scarlett O’Hara? She saves her husband from two federal revenue agents who are investigating the moonshine operation:
Now she aimed the Winchester . . . She remembered the years of hunting alongside her father, remembered shooting a panther out of a pin oak. She visualized that shot, and visualized this one. She squeezed the trigger. The pie plate rang and danced on its cord and the birdseed exploded, then bounced on the floor and rolled still. She used the diversion to scuttle behind the sassafras, the last shelter before the downhill slide to the front gallery forty feet away.
I found myself more interested in Dixie Clay’s nemesis and eventual love interest, Prohibition agent Teddy Ingersoll. Ingersoll’s history as an orphan and World War I soldier brings texture to his character. Jesse, and his girlfriend, Jeannette, are villains through and through. Jesse has one blue eye and one green eye, hinting that he has two sides to his personality: one charming and smooth-talking, the other ugly and violent.
The Tilted World takes place in 1927, during Prohibition and the Great Flood that decimated the South. In the authors’ note at the beginning of the book, Fennelly and Franklin comment that the flood, “largely forgotten today . . . is considered by many to be the worst natural disaster our country has endured.” Certain disasters — the sinking of the Titanic, the Chicago fire, the San Francisco earthquake — have taken hold of the popular imagination, while others — the Peshtigo fire, the sinking of the Eastland in Lake Michigan, the Galveston hurricane — have become footnotes to history. It’s interesting to contemplate why that is. In the book’s acknowledgments, Fennelly and Franklin cite John M. Barry’s Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America “as an amazing work of research and journalism, to which our novel is indebted”. I’m adding it to my reading list.
Revenue agents, bootleggers, murderers, and abandoned babies, all set against the background of a flood of Biblical proportions, create a dramatic page-turner filled with tension. It’s also a literary novel, filled with enough religious imagery and symbolism to satisfy this aging English major. The Tilted World, like all the best historical fiction, leaves the reader with the gratifying feeling of having learned something new about a particular time and place. The novel also places the flood in context, showing how this massive disaster would shape American politics and race relations in the 20th century.
Fennelly and Franklin are both enormously talented writers.They met as MFA students at the University of Arkansas, and, says Franklin, “We both teach in the Ole Miss MFA program, which Beth Ann also directs. In other words, she’s my boss.” Franklin has written several other novels and a collection of short stories, all set in his native Deep South; Fennelly, a Northerner, is the author of three poetry collections and a nonfiction book, Great With Child: Letters to a Young Mother. Franklin’s evocation of the Southern atmosphere and Fennelly’s poetic depiction of maternal love combine beautifully in The Tilted World.
How did Fennelly and Franklin write the book? Did they write alternating chapters, or did they actually sit and write together? When we hosted our reading with the two authors, that was the first question that was asked in the Q and A session. In an essay that’s reprinted in the paperback version of The Tilted World, Fennelly addresses this question at length. The short answer is: they did both. They started out with Tom writing from the point of view of Ted Ingersoll and Beth Ann writing from the point of view of Dixie Clay. But things changed:
One day, Tommy out of town, I realized I couldn’t push further with Dixie Clay until I knew what Ingersoll was up to. I wrote an Ingersoll scene, and it was liberating to give myself permission to get to know this character, too. Thereafter, we started mucking things about in each other’s pages, coloring outside the lines . . . And then we took our collaborating further, because we began crafting scenes together, kneecap to kneecap in my tiny office, talking and writing together, stringing words into sentences. That’s when the novel really started cooking– and finally became fun to write — when we adopted the method we called “dueling laptops”, writing side by side on the same passages at the same time, then reading aloud and discussing and jointly moving forward.
Will Fennelly and Franklin collaborate on a novel again — perhaps a sequel? I want to know more about Dixie Clay’s father. And maybe this time Fennelly’s name will come first, since she is her husband’s boss . . .
To read more reviews of The Tilted World, check out the stops on TLC Book Tours.