WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Snowden! I am very excited to talk with you about your new book,American Pop. I have to ask: how does moving around, seeing the North, the Deep South—even writing about Europe—how has this affected your writing, and this novel?
Snowden Wright: Thanks, Matthew! I’m excited to talk about it with you. Moving around gave me a greater perspective—of culture, of people—as well as a wider range of experiences. That in turn allowed me to explore more perspectives and experiences in my fiction. I like to think I have a fairly strong imagination, but experience is the imagination’s fuel. Seeing the North, the Deep South, and other parts of the country filled the tank.
MT: What about this novel made you decide to base it around a “pop” or “soda” company? I always am asked by people from other states, other regions, if I call something pop or soda. How do you feel the title, and the industry the novel concerns, has been developed by your writing?
SW: So funny you should ask this question. Lately I’ve been asked by people, to paraphrase, “How can you name this book American Popwhen in the South, where it’s set, nobody calls soda ‘pop.’”
I’ve answered them by explaining that the second word of the title has multiple meanings and subtexts, all of which I intended: soda, popular culture, popularity, explosion, “pop” as in “goes bust.” In other words, American Popisn’t just about soda. It’s about America and all the myriad ideas wrapped up in the concept of it. It’s about a family and all the myriad elements wrapped up in the concept of one.
That said, the soft-drink industry is, of course, a major part of the novel. It’s the mechanism by which I tried to explore, providing as much entertainment as possible, the ideas of America and the elements of a family. “Why read fiction? Why go to movies?” I quote in the novel from an issue of Beverage Digest, “[The] soft drink industry has enough roller-coaster plot-dips to make novelists drool.”
MT: What books and authors have truly influenced you? What books and authors do you return to time and time again? What book helped you with creating and executing this novel?
SW: Got a couple hours? Because I could go on nearly forever answering this question, there are so many books and authors I proselytize.
The authors and/or books that influenced my development as a writer: Michael Chabon, my favorite living author; Edith Wharton, my favorite dead author; Elmore Leonard, who talk me to write dialogue; Amy Hempel, who taught me to love sentences; Barry Hannah, who taught me to loosen up; Joan Didion; Toni Morrison; and so, so many more.
The novel that most influenced this one is Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, which uses a fluid, shifting timeline, as I do in American Pop. I was also influenced by multigenerational family sagas: Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Crowley’s Little, Big, and Boyle’s World’s End, to name a few. For the use of nonfiction techniques in a work of fiction, I was inspired by novel’s such as Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.
MT: Who were your favorite characters in the novel?
SW: My favorite characters are all the women in the Forster family. I try to fill my work with as many strong female characters as possible, doing whatever small part I can to rectify the deficiency of them in a lot of fiction by male authors.
So, my four favorite characters in the novel are four women, each of a different generation of the Forsters: Fiona, saucy and strong-willed and never without a gin rickey; Annabelle, haughty but sensitive; Ramsey, independent and stubborn and resilient; and Imogene, perhaps my #1 favorite, who is wheelchair-bound but walks tall. I like to think if Fiona, Annabelle, Ramsey, and Imogene were somehow able to join forces at the same time, they could take over the world.
MT: We have soda/pop, a family saga, crime and loss—what do you think, concerning all these issues, makes this book work and why did you decide to connect all of these things in a family saga?
SW: To me the notion of genre is malleable. You could call this a family saga, but it also has elements of crime novels, historical fiction, soap operas, comedies, and war novels. I wanted to fit as much as I could into it. I didn’t want it to fall under one single label.
Take my dad. He calls any movie that isn’t a comedy “a murder mystery.” Die Hard? A murder mystery. Philadelphia? A murder mystery. I guess American Popis my own murder mystery—but with plenty of comedy as well.
MT: How do you feel this novel plays into issues with our nation, and if you had to reach out to your neighbors, acquaintances, or even just people in the Deep South, what would you hope they would learn or gather from this novel? What is the most important thing you learned when writing this?
SW: America is a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. These days, I think, people have come down with a nasty case of nostalgia. Nostalgia warps the truth of the past, stripping it of conflict, guilt, faults, weakness, and sin. Nostalgia is, in other words, bad literature. I’d like people from the South as well as from the rest of the country to gather that idea from American Pop.
MT: What does it mean for so many children to disappoint their parents? At what point do we do what our parents want, and how do we separate ourselves from their dreams and ideas? Do you have any experience with this?
SW: I’m fortunate to have very supportive parents. Despite some obvious reservations about the difficulty of success, my mother and father have always supported my goal of being a professional writer, whether by taking me to the bookstore whenever I wanted as a kid or allowing me to attend an expensive college with a great writing program. I realize not everyone has that.
I think it’s important and necessary for children to “disappoint” their parents, so long as we truly consider what that verb means. Children have to disappoint their parents by following their own dreams. Children have to disappoint their parents by having their own successes and failures. Ultimately, too, the disappointment in parents can and should become pride.
MT: My paternal grandparents were pretty vicious, although not as determined as the parents in American Pop. In many ways, like with my father and his brothers, a reader might argue that in many ways the parents do destroy their children, and create this competition and chaos in their hopes for a better future. What is this disappointment like, and how do parents generally inspire hate between their children, and how do we separate the good will of the family matriarch and patriarch and how they have damaged the relationships and futures of their children?
SW: To paraphrase Philip Larkin: Parents, they fuck you up. The patriarch of the Forsters, Houghton, is not, to put it lightly, a good father. I modeled him loosely on Joseph Kennedy, Sr. Houghton has the irrational idea that by creating competition among his children and grandchildren he can make them each better equipped to survive and succeed.
You could argue he’s a metaphor for America. His treatment of his children is like free-market capitalism. Throw them to the wolves. Survival of the fittest. He’s trying to equip them, however perversely, to achieve the American Dream. His intentions are decent, but his methods are fucked-up. Larkin was spot-on.
MT: What was ending this book like for you, without spoilers? Often I see critics write about how difficult endings are, and I think for a lot of writers it is a struggle, especially when writing such an epic like this. How hard was ending the book for you?
SW: I knew how the novel would end fairly early into the writing of it. The elegiac montage, an evocative revisiting of the book’s major events: All of that I had in mind early. I also knew I wanted a subtle revelation—in this case, of the novel’s MacGuffin, PanCola’s secret ingredient. Many novelists might not have revealed the secret, considering it more “literary” to leave it a mystery, implying the book was all about the journey, not the destination. American Popis all about the journey, I think, but I would never deprive readers the satisfaction of finding out the secret ingredient.
MT: You write about homosexuality, the military, and loss. These themes together have been very taboo to write about until recent years, and I wonder what influenced you write a story like this, or at least this part of the novel’s story. Why did you decide to address the sexuality of one character through the military, a section that occurs really near the beginning of the novel?
SW: Addressing sexuality through the military came about organically. I knew I wanted Monty to be gay. I knew I wanted him to be a war hero. And I knew I wanted his lover to be British. How do I combine all three? World War I.
I remember when I first came up with last line of the scene when Monty’s lover dies. One morning I was out for a run along the Hudson River in New York. For the past few weeks I’d been thinking about the scene jotting down notes, lines, and phrases for the death scene. I was about four miles from my apartment when suddenly the last line popped into my head. It was simple, only a few words, and it had an almost children’s-book syntax. I knew without a doubt it was the perfect way to end the scene.
Even though the line was short, I got so paranoid I would forget it that I immediately turned around and ran home so that I could get it on paper. It’s my favorite sentence in the book.
MT: Toni Morrison has written about how even without black characters in a novel, we still see the presence of the marginalized and minorities in the novel who are really ghosts, not there? How do you feel this family, the main characters who act out with privilege and sometimes success, reflect upon Morrison’s thoughts and what do you think each character brings into this discussion in the novel?
SW: Although the main family in the novel is white and privileged, I wanted to include as many marginalized characters and characters of color as possible. Sometimes they play large roles (Josephine Baker has a fairly big secondary part), and sometimes they are on the periphery. One chapter takes place in the Mississippi Delta and concerns a group of wealthy planters discussing how to disenfranchise black voters while accepting cocktails and hors d’oeuvres from black servants.
Of course, I’d have to be an arrogant idiot to think I handled the issue perfectly or, for that matter, well. I can only hope I handled it adequately. Morrison’s take on the issue seems especially pertinent to this sort of novel. American Popconcerns a wealthy, white family in a region, the South, riddled with economic disparity and racism. I hope the Forsters’ privilege draws attention via contrast to families without privilege. The Forsters are an illustration of the American Dream, but the American Dream, however idealistic and well-intentioned, is hampered by racism, sexism, and so many other issues in our society.
MT: I really enjoyed being able to discuss things with you, Snowden. Can you tell us if you’re working on anything new, and if you have something new coming out anytime soon? It was really great talking about American Pop and really getting to know more about the novel and you. Feel free to leave with any comments, thoughts, etc. It was great talking with you!
SW: Ever heard of the Confederados? They’re a real group of people from American history: the 5,000-20,000 Southerners who, after the Civil War, immigrated to Brazil, enticed by cheap farmland, tax breaks, subsidized travel, and the fact that, down there, slavery was still legal. I’m currently writing a novel about a colony of Confederadosand the lives of its many residents, all of whom are dealing with their “exile” from America and the repercussions, figurative and literal, of having been on the wrong side of history.
Thanks so much for this interview, Matthew! It was fun chatting with you.