Here’s an excerpt of UM English major Phil McCausland‘s Oxford American magazine interview with Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly about their new book, The Tilted World: A Novel. Read the entire interview online>>
You would think that it would be difficult to write a novel with another person, let alone a spouse. But spend a little bit of time with Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly, the married authors of The Tilted World, and it becomes quickly apparent that this feat was less a challenge for the pair than a natural progression. It will also make many readers very happy—those who enjoyed Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, Franklin’s best-selling novel, and Great With Child, Fennelly’s intimate collection of letters to a pregnant friend.
The Tilted World is a historical novel centered on the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, a time period that adds natural tension to a story filled with danger, murder, moonshine, sabotage, love, and the blues. In it, a man and a woman are on both sides of the law, struggling and in want of family. There are gripping action scenes, beautiful sentences, and clear, distinct images. An excerpt from the novel appears in the Oxford American‘s Fall issue.
The two writers, both professors at the University of Mississippi, sat down with me on the balcony of Square Books in Oxford, MS, and told me about the experience of writing a collaborative novel.
PHIL McCAUSLAND: How did you decide to write a book together?
TOM FRANKLIN: The idea first came from my agent. We had co-written a short story called “What His Hands Had Been Waiting For” that was published in Delta Blues and published in the Normal School out of Fresno State. That’s where my agent saw it, and he called me one day and said, “What about this new story?”
And I said, “Well, you know, we wrote it for this friend.” He said this should be my next novel, and we should write it together. And I said, “Interesting, I’ll talk to Beth Ann about it.”
Beth Ann said, “No way. I don’t want to write fiction, it’s the lower art. I’m not interested at all.” But I kept needling her. She had liked the research of the story and liked the characters, so once she got on board, she really got on board. And that’s where it started. It was his idea, oddly.
The book is dedicated to him and his wife.
PM: I was wondering about that—because this is your first foray into publishing fiction, Beth Ann. What’s this new field been like for you?
BETH ANN FENNELLY: I have to say, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed doing it. I don’t know why I never really thought about writing a novel before, but I just hadn’t—it had never appealed to me. I would always joke with Tom, “I would never stoop so low.”
Writing the short story together was fun—I really did love the research and there was so much there. So as crazy as it is to ever see a third-party suggestion that something we’ve written should be our next novel, this felt right immediately because I was still thinking about the history and the research and some of the characters we had started.
Actually, the short story is completely different than what we ended up with. The names of the characters are the same and there was a flood and there was a baby—that’s about all that’s the same.
But I really loved writing the novel because there was so much room to expand. After chiseling with poetry—chisel, chisel, under the microscope—I just thought, for example, writing backstory was really fun. All of the physical details . . . what would it be like to make moonshine? What would it be like to ride a horse in mud? It was just fun to be able to think on this broader canvas.
TF: Beth Ann said something interesting to me a few weeks ago. She said that she doesn’t like the short story as a form as much as the novel. She reads novels every night and reads novels voraciously, one after another—loves novels, way more than I do. But not short stories so much—and she thought, Well, because I don’t like short stories I don’t want to write fiction because I don’t want to write these. She thought you had to learn to write fiction by writing short stories and she had no interest in that.
BAF: Well that’s what all our friends did. That’s what workshops are; they’re short story workshops.
TF: That’s what I did. That’s how I learned, because you write beginnings, middles, ends. You practice the whole arc. And who practices on a novel? Nobody really. But you did.
PM: What drew you to the 1927 flood? Was it the history or the tension that the impending disaster created?
TF: It was both. One thing about the flood—a good thing about the flood—is that it does create tension. You know the levee’s going to break at some point, and that often can be bad because you know the levee is going to break. We have the gift of history, but we also are confined by history. So it did create a natural tension, but we had to adhere to it because it actually happened.
BAF: One thing I really love about Tommy’s novels is that, to me, they do both things a novel can do. For example, Crooked Letter is a page-turner. I read it because I wanted to know what happened and what fate the characters were in for. But there were also really beautiful sentences, so I also read it for the art. I think that because I admire that suspense in Tommy’s work, I also wanted to have something that was driving people through our novel. The flood naturally provided that.
Every day there’s more rain, more worry, weakening levees, more danger, and more saboteurs. That’s what was going on. So to have that as a backdrop against which characters are leading complicated lives—to have them thrown against the natural tension of this situation—provided a structure that had its own momentum.
TF: One thing that Beth Ann said to me at some point in writing this novel was: “What I like best about novels is when you put more and more and more on the character.” So here you have the characters with the flood impending, trying to find missing people, and . . . “Did my husband kill these guys?” So we keep putting more and more and more on these characters on both sides.