Franklin and Fennelly dive into the raging world of the Flood of '27
Unspeakable murders. A marriage gone flat. Illegal rotgut whiskey. Two infernal revenuers, one with a heart of gold. A lost baby, orphaned and bereft in the coming storm.
Working with those story elements, Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly could have written a pretty good yarn in which most readers would find something to like: romance, danger, heartbreak, corruption, unrequited longing, unexpected tenderness. Instead, the two authors unleashed a raging deluge in The Tilted World, set amidst the devastation of the Mississippi River flood of 1927—a near-forgotten historical nightmare comparable to Hurricane Katrina.
The husband-wife team—both on the creative writing faculty of University of Mississippi, Oxford—drift into Chattanooga next Tuesday for events sponsored by the Southern Lit Alliance.
Franklin is the author of four previous novels, while Fennelly has written three award-winning volumes of poetry, numerous nonfiction articles, and a unique volume titled Great with Child: Letters to a Young Mother, based on Fennelly’s correspondence with a former student.
In this first-time joint effort with her husband, Fennelly says she “found myself writing about motherhood again, this time in fiction.” For all its swashbuckling adventure, deceit, and criminality, the story’s heartbeat resonates around the innocent baby, rescued by the revenue agent Ingersoll and adopted by the protagonist Dixie Clay, whose moonshiner husband is a dashing scalawag.
The authors set various clocks running, as in most fine plot-driven novels, and a desperate search for the imperiled infant coincides with the survival struggle of the eclectic citizens of Hobson, a fictional Mississippi Delta town. The historical details of the flood ring true and stark. The story is a torrent of narrative with many parts in motion all at once, but the high-water mark comes when Ingersoll and Dixie Clay find common purpose and commitment in a world gone crazy-tilted off its axis.
To Fennelly, the book’s title conveys “not only the unsettling, destructive nature of the flood, but also the unsettling nature of love—both events have the power to alter lives.”
Speaking of life-changing love, the mother-and-child scenes evoke the smell of a newborn’s scalp, the skin-to-skin contact, the constant awareness of a baby’s fragile hold on life. “Dixie Clay has lost her own child to fever a few years back and hasn’t been able to conceive again,” Fennelly explain. “And into this desperate life comes an orphan for her to love. Again my writing life and my life aligned, as I wasn’t steering my gaze but following its natural direction.”
By “alignment,” Fennelly refers to a romantic trip with her husband to the south of France, which resulted in “the delight of my old age—sweet baby Nolan—who re-immersed us into the joys of the hands-on, every minute parenting of an infant,” just in time for the co-writing of The Tilted World. “I never imagined I’d be breastfeeding at my fortieth birthday party, that’s for sure.”
Daily rhythms of infant care informed and inspired her writing. “The physical rituals of feeding and bathing and diapering Nolan synced me with Dixie Clay’s bodily rhythms,” Fennelly says. “Things from my history of motherhood—the miscarriage of our first pregnancy, and later, a terrifying night of high fever in our infant daughter—seemed to rise in my recollection and, though alchemized to suit the novel’s own urgencies, find their place.
“Mothers, I think, are hungry to see motherhood portrayed accurately in books. I know I am,” she says. “I wanted our novel’s baby to seem like a real baby, the mother a real mother.”
The twosome are often asked: How can married authors write a book together? Although the more experienced novelist, Franklin gives credit to his wife for pushing the collaboration to completion. “She wrote most of that book,” he says. “Although we sold it together, I had the original idea and roped her into the project. We began to divide up the work: I would do the Ingersoll parts; she would do Dixie Clay. But then she would have all her work done; I’m more of a binge writer, I’ll wait till the last minute, and in a panic I’ll get something out.
“So then we worked together on my part of the book—like dueling laptops, composing aloud to each other—unlike most writing, which is an intimate act by yourself, for the most part. I don’t think it would have worked with any other writer.”
For a lively read that will make your straight-world problems seem trivial, grab ahold of The Tilted World and float on down to this Southern Lit Alliance’s SouthBound event; and drift down to see Claire Vaye Watkins on April 21, and Harrison Scott Key on May 20 at the SoLitAlliance.
Southern Lit Alliance “SouthBound” event with Franklin and Fennelly, Tuesday at The Arts Building, 301 E. 11th St. VIP reception, 5:45 p.m.; general admission and seating, 6 p.m.; reading and authors session, 7:30 p.m. Details at southernlitalliance.org
Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly photo by Andy Anderson