In The Tilted World, award-winning poet Beth Ann Fennelly teamed up with her bestselling author husband, Tom Franklin (author of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter), to write a gripping historic novel set against the backdrop of the catastrophic flooding of the Mississippi River in 1927. A tale of murder and moonshine, sandbagging and saboteurs, and a man and woman who find unexpected love, The Tilted World is rich with historic detail. In this guest post, Beth Ann reflects on her research habits, collaborating with her husband on plot details, and trying not to get swept away by the details.
The Tilted World is on sale today in hardcover.
I’m not a big believer in writer’s block. Philip Pullman seems sensible when he writes: “Plumbers don't get plumbers' block. Heart surgeons don't get surgeons' block. Why should writing be the only profession that gives a special name to the difficulty of working?" Ann Patchett, one of my favorite writers (I got a sneak peek at her new book of essays, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, coming out in November, and it’s great) also believes writer’s block to be a myth. She writes, “If it were a complicated math proof you were wrestling with, instead of, say, the unknowable ending of chapter seven, would you consider yourself ‘blocked’ if you couldn’t figure it out right away, or would you think that the proof was difficult and required more consideration?” Hey, I grew up Catholic. The idea of hard work now for a later reward? I get it.
So while I say I’m not a big believer in writer’s block, let me also confess that I’ve had bereft bouts of frustrating inactivity. Sometimes these are just the natural arid periods between projects (my former professor Miller Williams once told me, “You can’t get pregnant when you’re pregnant.”) But sometimes I’ve simply made the decision to do something other than write, and I called myself blocked—as opposed to calling myself a procrastinator.
For a former honors student and a lover of history, research is my personal Sargasso Sea—that notorious bog of rust-colored seaweed in the Bermuda triangle that traps ships. The ship of the novel I was co-piloting with my husband, Tom Franklin, would be sailing merrily along when I would veer into the dangerous territory of enthralling research and have a hard time resuming the journey. Our novel is set in the flood of the Mississippi River in 1927, a flood so large that it destroyed one million homes and submerged an area the size of New England, but most of the folks who were affected were poor Southern sharecroppers, so the flood never engaged the national imagination as it should have. Now, that disaster is largely forgotten.
When Tommy and I first started talking about writing The Tilted World together and discussing how we’d split up the work, I suggested that I’d do the research, because it fires my imagination. (I always feel like I don’t need to write books about zombies or aliens: real people have done anything and everything imaginable). Tommy made no bid to do the research: he was a C student, as he’s quick to tell you. So while he came with me when we visited the Flood Museum in Greenville, MS, and when we inspected the levee where the breach actually occurred, the paper research was all mine to do. I read old newspapers and reports. A former student shared with me her grandmother’s photos of the flood. A friend of a friend lent me her great aunt’s letters describing the water coming down the sewer toward her house “like a silver snake.” When people in our home town of Oxford, MS, found out we were writing on the flood, they waylaid me in line at the bakery or coming out of church to tell me stories of relatives trapped in an oil mill or rushing out of town on the last train before the tracks were washed away.
The research was so fun, in fact, that even after I’d learned the answers to the questions I’d been seeking, I kept researching, kept listening to stories, looking at more photos. And eventually I had to admit that there was a word for what I was doing, and the word isn’t a pretty one: procrastinating. Research is fun. Writing is hard. Hard, and sometimes scary. “High stakes poker” is what my husband’s cousin said when he heard we were writing a novel together. After all, if things went poorly, if the novel were abandoned like one of those ships mired in the Sargasso sea in the 1800s, termed a “derelict” and discovered adrift, crewed by nothing but skeletons—well, that would be bad. Bad for business, bad for romance, bad for family, bad for our three kids who continue to make unreasonable requests, like food and shelter. Bad, bad, bad.
So I’d wrench myself out of research and get over the terror of the blank page and Tommy and I would talk about what needed to happen next and pretty soon the story would capture our imaginations again. We had the flood, and two fun main characters to work with. Dixie Clay, local moonshiner with a violent, unfaithful husband, lost a baby to yellow fever a few years before the novel opens. The heavy rains that eventually bring the flood bring also two revenue agents to town. They are hot to catch the area moonshiners but also to get rid of a baby they discovered after a shoot out in a looted store. One of the agents, Ted Ingersoll, gives the baby to Dixie Clay, not knowing she’s a moonshiner. So with a natural disaster and a bit of intrigue and a love interest, we had plenty to engage us, and the pages would click along. Until, that is, I’d find another thing I needed to research—how is moonshine cooked? What kind of training did revenue agents need? —and our ship would veer toward the seaweed again, though each time we’d extricate ourselves a little sooner than the last.
There came a point when no more research needed to be done, and then the point when no more writing needed to be done, and then when no more rewriting needed to be done. And now the novel is coming out at last. Both Tommy and I have published solo books, but this pub date seems even more exciting than usual, as we celebrate together. Our little ship, back home in port! After our hard work, I’m in the mood to take a vacation. I‘m thinking a cruise, or an island. I don’t know our destination yet, but I know one thing for sure—it will be nowhere near that dreaded Sargasso Sea.
Beth Ann Fennelly has won grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and United States Artists, as well as a Fulbright grant to travel to Brazil. Her honors include the Kenyon Review Prize and three inclusions in The Best American Poetry. She has published three volumes of poetry as well as a work of nonfiction, Great with Child. She directs the University of Mississippi's MFA program, where she was named the 2011 Outstanding Teacher of the Year.