By Stacey Balkun
Stacey Balkun: How did the story move from a zombie story to a historical novel?
Beth Ann Fennelly: A few years ago, Tommy was asked to contribute to an anthology of stories set in the Mississippi Delta. He agreed but the deadline was looming, and he was running out of juice, so he fished through his drawer of old busted drafts and reeled in a failed story. It was a zombie story that he’d written a few years prior, and he gave it to me to see if I had any ideas. I hate zombies, mainly because I think real humans are weird enough to do anything, so why displace all the anger and passion onto the undead? But the story had something going for it: two rangers were roaming across a zombie apocalypse, and they come across a baby and find someone to be its mother.
Tommy sent it to the editor of the anthology, Carolyn Haines, who was like, um, no thanks. This is awful. But if you set it in the MS Delta. . . She also suggested thinking about the flood of 1927 as a setting. I had been obsessed with the flood ever since moving to MS and hearing about it for the first time. Tommy asked me if I’d work on the story, and I did, and gave the story back, and he wrote some more and returned it to me. We did this a few more times until eventually we were finished and, without exactly meaning to, had co-written the darn thing. Set during the flood of the Mississippi River in 1927, “What His Hands Were Waiting For” is a story about two government agents riding through the flooded Delta. They come across two looters and shoot them, and then realize one was a woman and they’d just orphaned her child. So the agents take it with them and give the baby to a woman they come across whose own child has recently died. The end.
Or so we thought. That little story had some legs, and was reprinted in a few anthologies, one of which made it into the hands of Tommy’s agent, Nat Sobel, who called and said, “You never told me about this story.”
“What’s there to tell?” asked Tommy. “It was just a lark, a quick side project.”
“No, it’s not,” Nat said. “It’s your next novel. And you and Beth Ann are going to write it together.”
Which sounded crazy, and crazily irresistible. Because, although months had gone by, the characters, somehow, were still ghosting around our heads, chatting with each other. And the historical research was so rich that it almost felt frustrating not to do more with it—like opening a vein of gold in rock and pocketing just a nugget. And it was fun to collaborate. Writing can be lonely. Here we were, writing with our best friends.
We agreed to give it a go and promised to have a draft in one year. It took us almost four. (One of our first lessons about collaboration: a novel written by two people isn’t finished twice as fast). We focus on two people whose fates become tied to the flood. We alternate chapters between these two point-of-view characters, a female bootlegger and a male revenue agent, creating a novel that’s about 100,000 words. Ours is a story of a flood, but also a love story, and, bigger, the story of how individuals come together to form a family.
SB: What drew you to this particular flood instead of a more recent natural disaster?
BAF: The flood of the Mississippi River in 1927 destroyed 50,000 homes and was the greatest national disaster our country had ever seen. But when I moved to MS, at thirty, I’d never heard of it. How can this be? A region the size of New England was drowned. If it HAD been New England, the event would be in every history book. But the folks affected were mostly the disenfranchised, poor sharecroppers, black and white.
The literary world is often dominated by the coasts, but this great big Mississippi story begged to be told. We first discussed this after Katrina, which had so many similarities with the flood of 1927, including the fact that the government showed an appalling lack of concern for the affected Southerners. Writing about the flood of 1927 was in a way also writing about Katrina, I suppose.
SB: What are some of the challenges you encountered while writing a historical novel? How do they compare to the challenges involved in writing more modern fiction, nonfiction, or poetry?
BAF: The best part of writing a historical novel is research. That’s also the worst part. Because one can get a little addicted to it. Facing the blank page is scary, but when researching—especially using the internet—link leads on to link leads on to link. And there came a point when we realized that reading more wasn’t going to help us write the novel. Reading more was another word for procrastination.
SB: Could you talk about how the main characters developed, either on the page or in your minds? There are so many fully-realized people in this book: were there any real-life inspirations for Daisy, Ingersoll, or Jesse?
BAF: There’s a female point of view character who’s a bootlegger. The male point of view character is a revenue agent. So you can see the natural conflict. When we began the novel, I was purely writing from the female character’s point of view, while Tommy was writing from the male character’s point of view. It was actually going pretty slowly, partly because Tommy was out on book tour for his novel, <i>Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter</i>. We were making some headway but not a lot. It actually became a lot more fun and started going more smoothly when we started doing what we called dueling laptops. We wrote together in the same room, side by side, each on our own laptop. We’d start with the idea: okay we know we need this scene on the levee, and we know this person has to arrive on the scene, and this conversation has to take place. After a while we’d stop and read our parts to each other. Sometimes we’d take all of one person’s, sometimes we’d combine some, or do something different entirely from an idea one of us had gotten from the writing. When we started doing that, the writing became more fun and surprising things happened.
There weren’t any real-life inspirations for the main characters, though lots of bits and parts of people we know found their way into the book.
SB: I heard that a “Colin” dies in all of Tom’s books. Can you tell me more about the death of the Colin in this book?
BAF: Well, I guess that secret is out at last. Before I met Tommy—and we’re talking 19 years ago now—I had a Scottish boyfriend, whose name was Colin. I adored him but he dumped me, and not too long after I met Tommy and the rest is history (15 years of marriage and three kids!). In Tommy’s first book, he kills a character named Colin, and it became a kind of joke that in every book thereafter a guy named Colin would die, and usually in a cowardly or embarrassing way. So in this collaborative novel, we knew Colin would have to die. The funny thing is, due to the way we apportioned the chapters, the killing of Colin fell to me! So I polished him off this time. Poor Colin. He was actually quite a nice guy.
Beth Ann Fennelly teaches poetry and nonfiction writing at the University of Mississippi and is a contributing editor for The Normal School. Her first book of poetry, Open House, won the 2001 Kenyon Review Prize and the Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award, and was a Book Sense Top Ten Poetry Pick. It was reissued by W.W. Norton in 2009. Her second poetry collection, Tender Hooks, and her third, Unmentionables, were published by W.W. Norton in 2004 and 2008. She also published a book of nonfiction, Great with Child: Letters to a Young Mother (Norton), in 2006. The Tilted World, the novel she has co-written with her husband, Tom Franklin, was published by Morrow on October 1, 2013.