It’s not often that you spend New Year’s Eve discussing the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Yet that’s what I found myself doing on December 31, 2013, while seated around a firepit with friends new and old, sipping sparkling wine. Guests at an intimate outdoor gathering, my husband and I chatted with others about football, home brewing and politics–not necessarily in that order. One of the guests, a native New Orleanian, asked if I’d read John Barry’s Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America. The book had made a great impression upon him because it details the flood’s influence on the southern and U.S. political landscape.
Feeling pleased with myself, I said that I was familiar with Rising Tide, but not because I know anything about politics. I first learned of Barry’s book and the Great Flood because of zombies and one of the trickiest acts of diplomacy to take place in the Mississippi Delta–a husband and wife writing a novel together. To explain, I have to revisit another night in 2013.
On October 9, Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly visited the Georgia Center for the Book to talk about their novel, The Tilted World. Novelist Franklin and poet Fennelly are creative writing instructors at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. They’re also husband and wife. The Tilted World began as an assignment that Franklin gave one of his creative writing classes and himself: write an original short story about zombies. That kernel and a series of events led to Fennelly getting involved in rewriting the zombie story into a tale set in the time of the Great Flood. Exit zombies. Enter moonshiners.
When asked how they collaborated on the novel, Fennelly said that she and Franklin sat laptop to laptop in the same office, reading aloud to each other and swapping ideas. She equated the experience to dueling pianists performing on stage together night after night. The idea of spouses working together in close proximity under a looming deadline seems precarious, but Fennelly said it was a wonderful experience. She and Franklin met on the first day of their MFA program in Arkansas, and have been each other’s first manuscript readers ever since. Besides, as Franklin humbly said more than once, “Beth Ann did most of the research and writing. That’s why it’s a great book.”
A cornerstone of that research was Rising Tide by John Barry, which Franklin and Fennelly duly acknowledged during their talk in October. You’ll also find Barry in the Acknowledgements of The Tilted World. Another fictionalized account of the Great Flood published last year was William Cheng’s Southern Cross the Dog. I recommend any of these three books to people who are interested in Mississippi’s Great Flood of 1927 or just great writing.