As soon as my husband and I are done with our joint reading, the Q and A begins, and each time the first hand shoots up, the person attached to it asks, "How did you two write a book together—" and then pauses before adding, with a smile, "and stay married?"
Sometimes, I sense the person's hoping for an answer that confesses marriage counseling, a 12-step program, maybe a citation for domestic disturbance. The truth is far less scintillating: My husband and I collaborated on a novel and we didn't fight. We fought more while "collaborating" on the assembly of an IKEA baby crib (that crib almost did require marriage counseling). We fought so terribly once on a trip to Nebraska that we decided, immaturely, to blame Nebraska. We've never returned, a vow we've taken seriously—last summer we drove to Wyoming from Mississippi the long way to avoid crossing over onto Nebraska soil.
But we didn't fight while writing The Tilted World. Although collaboration was scary, it was fun. Writing is so lonely: after writing four books solo, I was suddenly writing a novel with my best friend.
Not that it was easy, mind you. It took us a long time to find our way. In fact, it took me a long time to agree to even try the collaboration with Tommy—prior to this novel, I'd written nonfiction and poetry, and I liked to tease Tommy that "I'd never stoop so low" as to write fiction. But despite myself, I got lured in.
The hook was set when we co-wrote a short story, "What His Hands Were Waiting For," a small thing really that began as a lark—but the story had legs, was reprinted in a few anthologies, such as Best American Mystery Stories. Not long thereafter, Tommy's agent and my agent (who are also husband and wife, incidentally) encouraged us to turn the story into a novel, and we agreed because the characters we'd created for that short story were still hanging around our brains. They had more to say. Also, the research we'd done for the short story, which was set in the flood of the Mississippi River in 1927, was so interesting that it was almost frustrating not to use more of it.
We agreed to expand the story and promised to have a draft in a year. Our expected due date was a delayed by an unexpected due date—our third child. He inspired the novel in so many ways because the female character, Dixie Clay Holliver, is given an orphaned baby, and it was so fun to have a baby sleeping in my arm and to study him and type one-handed while writing of Dixie Clay holding her sleeping baby and making moonshine one-handed.
But even beyond the chaos of adding an infant to our already chaotic house (our two other kids were 10 and 6), the novel was coming together very, very slowly. The way we put together the short story draft—one of us wrote, then emailed it to the other, who added and revised, then emailed it to the other, who added and revised, etc.—was cumbersome with this much longer project. And our timing didn't sync up. Our plan, when beginning the novel, was that Tom would write from the point of view of the male character—Ted Ingersoll—and I'd write from Dixie Clay's. But Tommy was on book tour for his previous novel, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, and there were frustrating delays. We couldn't get our mojo working. One day, Tommy out of town, I realized I couldn't push further with Dixie Clay until I knew what Ingersoll was up to. I wrote an Ingersoll scene, and it was liberating to give myself permission to get to know this character too. Thereafter, we started mucking about in each other's pages, coloring outside the lines. Gradually things started coming together, and our pages were surprising ourselves and each other.
And then we took our collaborating further, because we began crafting scenes together, kneecap to kneecap in my tiny office, talking and writing together, stringing words into sentences. That's when the novel really started cooking—and finally became fun to write—when we adopted the method we termed the "dueling laptops," writing side by side on the same passages at the same time, then reading aloud and discussing and jointly moving forward. This is clearly not the most expedient route—we learned that writing a collaborative novel doesn't amount to doing half the work, but rather, doing twice the work—but it was a wild new kind of work, a work which takes the other's half, and raises it by half. This felt intimate—showing each other not polished drafts but messy, unfiltered half-cooked sentences—and it felt exhilarating.
So much so, in fact, that now that The Tilted World is out in the world, we've talked about maybe collaborating again on another novel. Will we fight this time? Maybe. Probably. And if not about the novel, well, our baby, no longer a baby at almost three, needs his crib disassembled. And bunk beds have arrived, the box proclaiming "Some assembly required." I fear we are headed for the kind of fight they'll hear all the way in Nebraska.