Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel

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Southern Discomfort: The Millions Interviews Snowden Wright

On Feb. 5, William Morrow will release Snowden Wright’s second novel, American Pop. Early reviewers have called it “supremely entertaining,” “not only excellent Southern Gothic fun but a panoramic tour of the American Century.” Snowden and I were college roommates, where we dreamed of one day becoming novelists and then manufacturing a public feud to help drum up book sales. We talk pretty much every day, about nothing and everything, but we have never been as formal as we are in this interview:

The Millions: So, what’s the book about?

Snowden Wright: I’ve always enjoyed describing American Pop with a hypothetical question: What would a novel about the Kennedys be like if they’d made their fortune by inventing Coca-Cola? Of course, the imprecision of that question often leads people to ask, “So it’s about the Kennedys?” and I have to say, “Well, uh, no.” Then they ask, “But it’s about Coca-Cola, though?” and, breaking out in a sweat and wrenching an imaginary necktie, I say, “Not exactly.”

More precisely, then: American Pop is a multi-generational saga about a family that owns a soft-drink company named PanCola. The novel follows the Forster family through more than 1000 years of American cultural history. It uses techniques of historical reportage to depict the Forsters’ personal lives, showing how, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s words, “families are always rising and falling in America.”

In an article on Coca-Cola for a trade publication, a journalist once wrote, “Why read fiction? Why go to movies? The soft drink industry has enough roller coaster plot-dips to make novelists drool.” My immediate thought after reading that was, “Challenge accepted.” American Pop is the result.

TM: Where did the original idea for the novel come from?

SW: My first novel, Play Pretty Blues, is primarily set in the 1920s, focused primarily on one central character, and takes place primarily in Mississippi. With American Pop I wanted to do more. I wanted it to span a longer period of time. I wanted it to explore more characters. I wanted it to have a broader setting and scope. Why not, I thought, take on the incredibly easy task of writing a novel that encapsulates a century of culture, popular and personal, in America?

I honestly can’t remember whether that ambition came before or after the peg on which to hang it. Soda has always seemed to me such an American drink. It is to this country what wine is to France, tea to England, beer to Germany, or toilet water to misbehaving dogs. Soda is especially pervasive in the South, where I’m from and the region I love exploring, scrutinizing, praising, and criticizing in my work. As Nancy Lemann wrote in the sublime Lives of the Saints, “Southerners need carbonation.” Soda, I figured, would enable me to wed the national and the regional, America and the South, and examine the relationship between them.

TM: Can you elaborate a little on that? What makes a Southern story Southern, both in fiction and on a porch in the middle of a day? Is it a genre, with certain characteristics?

SW: Southern stories require at least one dog, but it does not have to have four legs. Southern stories know how to whistle but not necessarily “Dixie.” Southern stories are never served without a cocktail napkin, must own at least two pairs of duck boots, and always remember to return the casserole dish.

Honestly, though, what makes a story Southern, in my experience, is that it’s a story. That’s the only criterion. I grew up in a family of regalers, the type of people who love when a new girlfriend or boyfriend visits over the holidays because it allows us to repeat the same nuggets, buffed to a high shine, of family lore. And they are, in fact, typically told on a porch.

If I had to give a response that’s a bit less of a tautology, I’d say that Southern stories tend to involve a reckoning with the past, give a strong sense of place, feature colorful characters, and try, first and foremost, to entertain the reader. There are many Southern writers out there, myself included, who appreciate tightly constructed sentences and beautiful language, but I’d argue there are many more Southern writers, myself also included, who appreciate an engaging narrative most of all. The art of storytelling, I always try to remember, is just that: an art. Writers should give it as much of their attention as they do the more seemingly highbrow aspects of their craft.

TM: I want to force you to get a little more specific on this, so I’m going to follow up with a two-part question. Part one: What’s your Mount Rushmore of Southern fiction?

SW: George Washington, respected, somber, and not, in fact, wood-toothed, would be Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! Thomas Jefferson, renaissance man about town, would be O’Connor’s Complete Stories. Teddy Roosevelt, that quotable rapscallion, would be Hannah’s Ray. And Abraham Lincoln, emancipator and proclaimer, would be Morrison’s Beloved.

TM: And part two: Do you see those books having anything in common?

SW: The past’s persistent intrusion into the present. From Ray Forrest confusing memories of his time in Vietnam with those of Jeb Stuart’s Civil War campaigns, to the spiteful haunting of 124 by what won’t stay buried, to Quentin Compson yelling, “I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!” after recounting the story of Thomas Sutpen, the past, in all four of those books, refuses to stay put.

Think of Faulkner’s most frequently quoted line, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” I’ve seen that used as an epigraph for probably a dozen books—Ace Atkins’s White Shadow, Willie Morris’s North Toward Home, and Tiffany Quay Tyson’s The Past Is Never come to mind—and most of them, from what I recall, are by Southern writers. Why? The line is universally applicable. It’s the O negative of epigraphs.

TM: I suppose, yes, the line is universally applicable, but it seems particularly so in Southern fiction. Can you talk about why? And perhaps how American Pop wrestles with that? 

SW: Freshman year of college, I had two roommates, one from New Jersey and one from Maine. They used to joke about how nervous they’d gotten when they found out they would be living with some guy from Mississippi who lived on Confederate Drive. That really was the name of the street I lived on.

I don’t blame them for having been nervous. The South has, to put it lightly, a fraught past, with slavery and the Civil War and, more recently, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and anti-intellectualism. We have a perpetual BOGO sale on social issues. In American Pop, I tried to grapple with those issues, not only as they relate to the South, but also as they relate to the country as a whole. There’s a reason I didn’t title the novel Southern Pop. The South’s problems are also America’s problems, and that’s never been clearer than it is in our current political situation.

TM: I’m glad we’ve finally gotten around to the issue of race. As a Northerner myself, as an outsider, when I think of the South I automatically think of the legacy of slavery, and the way it seems to permeate every aspect of Southern culture, from the food to the music to the laws. You’re publishing a novel in 2019 about a rich white family in Mississippi. How does this book grapple with the legacy of slavery?

SW: With empathy and honesty, I hope. Although the main family in the novel is white, I made a point of including many characters of color, characters who are also not defined solely by their race. Sometimes I tried to address racism overtly, such as a chapter in which wealthy Mississippi farmers brazenly discuss how to disenfranchise black voters, and sometimes I tried to address racism more subtly, such as a chapter that involves Josephine Baker, a black woman who enjoyed immense success after she left America for the more racially tolerant France. The key, I think, to addressing any social issue, be it race or sexism, homophobia or nationalism, is to keep it character-based. Make the issue universal by making it personal. Don’t stand on a soapbox. Stand in someone else’s shoes. Stand in the characters’ shoes. Let the reader feel what they feel.

TM: Empathy’s such a tricky concept. A friend of mine, James Dawes, recently published a brilliant book, The Novel of Human Rights, in which he argues that exercising so-called empathy is not only performative but potentially destructive, but then Obama says we need to cultivate more of it. I don’t know. When people ask me questions like the ones I’m asking you, I feel ill-equipped to answer them. That’s why I write fiction. For the most part, I think novels are probably more articulate than novelists—and yet here we are, in an author interview, a genre I legitimately love. The first thing I bought after selling my first novel was a collection of out-of-print Paris Review interviews. Do you read a lot of these things? What do you get out of them?

SW: The first thing I bought after selling my first book was The Clapper, which ever since I was a kid I considered the peak of luxury. Fancy people don’t even have to get up to turn out the light! I could not get it to work. Maybe I clap weird.

Which is to say, yes, absolutely, I love author interviews. Even though I agree that novels are more articulate than novelists—lovely way of putting it, by the way—interviews not only humanize authors (“Her French bulldog has the same name as mine!” “He can’t afford anything nicer than Bustillo either!”), making a writing career feel attainable, but they also, oftentimes, provide a unique, insider perspective on craft. You get a sense of writing as a job. To hear an author recount how agonizing a copyedit was makes you realize writing takes work. It also makes you realize writing is work.

I’m especially fond of hearing bits of trivia. Alternate titles. Hidden allusions. Want to hear one from me? Every novel I’ve written, published or drawer-filler, has included an indirect reference to the movie Die Hard.

TM: I recently found out that a friend of mine used to work in the actual Nakatomi Plaza, and it blew my mind. While we’re here, talking about craft and being meta about author interviews in general, can you talk about your decision regarding the metatextual elements of American Pop, the ways in which the book seems narrated by a real-life scholar of this fictional cola company?

SW: My first conception of the book was for it to be the opposite of Capote’s “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood. I wanted American Pop to be fictional nonfiction. To achieve that effect, I used certain techniques of nonfiction, such as source citations, quotes from interviews, and the use of specific dates and times, similar to what Michael Chabon did in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay and Susanna Clarke in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

Aside from the playfulness that allowed me—I get an absurd thrill out of making readers wonder if a metatextual source is real or made-up—it also allowed me, I hope, to create a greater sense of verisimilitude, to heighten the readers’ suspension of disbelief, to make them feel that this really happened.

Brimming with Curiosity: On Philip Pullman’s ‘La Belle Sauvage’

1.
It was my then-girlfriend (now wife), G, who spotted the unassuming flyer by the door of the Church of St Mary the Virgin, just a few steps away from the elegant dome of the Radcliffe Camera. There was something about Philip Pullman giving a talk, and it was the next day, and there wasn’t anything about an admission price. We had to go.

G and I were studying abroad in the U.K. that year and visiting Oxford for the first time. G would later go on to study at Oxford, which was a longtime dream. We’re part of the generation that grew up with great fantasy series: the Harry Potter books came out when we were Harry’s age, and we both read The Lord of the Rings voraciously as children, snubbing those who only saw the movies (which we also loved). Oxford, as the home of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and the filming location for many scenes in the Harry Potter movies, held a special magic for us. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, with its reimagined version of Oxford, was also part of that magic.

What we should’ve realized about Philip Pullman’s talk that morning in Oxford, and the fact that he was giving it in a church on a Sunday morning, was that it was in fact a sermon. Which meant we had to sit through mass in order to hear him speak. The place was packed, and we heard some local ladies mention that they noticed many young new faces in the pews. I’d never attended an Anglican mass before, and I was glad to find out that much of it consisted of listening to beautiful singing.

Pullman is an outspoken agnostic, so it’s a credit to the Church of England and to this church in particular that he was invited to give the sermon. He climbed up the pulpit in his trailing black robe, wisps of white hair framing his round head, rimless glasses around his eyes. Philip Pullman has said that if he had a daemon—a kind of animal companion the characters in his books have, a physical manifestation of their souls—it would be a raven. He certainly looked like one that day. Instead of talking about God or analyzing a quote from The Bible, Pullman used his mellow storyteller’s voice to talk to us about the motivating force in his own life: intellectual curiosity.

2.
Pullman has been promising his readers a sequel to His Dark Materials for a long time. We’ve even known the title for several years: The Book of Dust. The Dust in question is a mysterious substance, conscious matter that clusters around human ingenuity, that is a driving force behind the plot of the original trilogy. Pullman, as if to help us wait for his new opus, has published two short stories and an audio story in the intervening years, but these amounted to pleasant collectibles that excited briefly but could not fully satisfy.

Now, finally, with the publication of the new trilogy’s first volume, La Belle Sauvage, Pullman’s readers are seeing the fruits of his work these last 17 years, and I’m happy to say that the wait has been worth it.

Authors do well to limit the scope of the first book of a trilogy. With the exception of a few short scenes, The Golden Compass sticks to the point of view of Lyra, a scrappy orphan with a knack for lying, as she travels north from her home in Oxford, in search of her kidnapped friend, Roger. She befriends witches, armored bears, and a Texan aeronaut along the way, and, of course, learns who her real parents are. At the end of The Golden Compass, Lyra crosses into another world, using a bridge in the sky opened by her father in a horrific scene in which he sacrifices Roger, tapping into the energy that connects Roger to his daemon to wrench open the heavens. In the second book, The Subtle Knife, Pullman puts his omniscient third person narrator to greater use by expanding the cast of characters and the setting. That book begins by following Will Parry, a young man from our own world, as he runs away from home. The change in perspective is so stark that I remember wondering if I was really reading the sequel to The Golden Compass when I first opened it or if there had been some kind of printing error. Eventually Will meets Lyra and they become close friends. As The Subtle Knife progresses and leads to The Amber Spyglass, the action gets bigger and madder, introducing a defrocked nun physicist, angels split into two warring factions, tiny knights who ride dragonflies, creatures from another world who get around on wheels made of large seeds. All the action drives towards a cosmic conflict, a moment of redemption, and a heart-wrenching scene between our two protagonists.

Pullman has certainly kept things (relatively) intimate for the first volume of The Book of Dust, which takes place exclusively in Lyra’s world, and largely in and around its alternate version of Oxford. La Belle Sauvage recounts the (mis)adventures of Malcolm Polstead, about a decade before the events of The Golden Compass, with Lyra present as a baby. Malcolm is a capable boy, quiet, sensitive, serious, and crafty. He’s equally at ease talking to adults, repairing broken windows, or canoeing out onto the river to watch birds. He’s the perfect young hero, very much in the mold of Will Parry, although Will had an inner darkness because he grew up without a father and had to take care of his mentally ill mother, whereas Malcolm lives with loving parents. The darkness in La Belle Sauvage comes from Malcolm’s unexpected ally Alice, a withdrawn girl who’s capable of defending herself when necessary, and who, because she’s older than Malcolm, is also more aware of what the adults are up to. Tellingly, though, her daemon hasn’t fixed into its final form yet, which suggests that she still hasn’t quite figured out who she is.

The villain, once again, is organized religion, which takes the form of a powerful, dogmatic, and politically implicated Catholic Church and its tentacular agencies, such as the ominously named Constitorial Court of Discipline. In Pullman fashion, everyone who’s associated with the church is automatically suspicious, with the exception of a few good nuns across the river. Yet the one character who actually stalks our heroes and endangers their lives isn’t an agent of the Church: he’s a psychopathic, manipulative, relentless French scientist called Bonneville, and he’s out for revenge. Bonneville’s daemon is a horrendous, maimed hyena that symbolizes his violent impulses, and it’s telling that he’s often in conflict with her, at one point even striking her. I was reminded of a scene Pullman wrote for the film adaptation of The Golden Compass, in which the character of Mrs. Coulter hits her golden monkey daemon. As the characters keep saying in La Belle Sauvage, only the very deranged would hurt their own daemon.

3.
After a pleasant but slow-moving first half, La Belle Sauvage climaxes with a dramatic flood, not of biblical proportions—although several characters refer to its scriptural precedent—but rather of biblical implications, since it unexpectedly carries away Malcolm and Alice, along with baby Lyra, and we know that Lyra’s survival will lead to the world-changing events of His Dark Materials.

Journeys are an essential element of Pullman’s original trilogy: to the north, between worlds, even to the land of the dead. But whereas the travels in those books took their mythological underpinnings from the Old Testament, along with a smattering of Nordic imagery and a sheen of science fiction, here the fantasy elements are decidedly folkloric. The journey itself is less epic in scale, and even a little rushed as Malcolm, Alice, and Lyra paddle from island to island in a changed landscape. The flood strips away the veneer of modernity and unleashes the magic of old Albion. Malcolm becomes an Odysseus-cum-gallant knight who encounters, in quick succession, vicious nuns in their fortress-like priory, fairies that must be tricked like Rumpelstiltskin, enchanted riverbanks where a thick fog causes adults to forget their past, and a pagan river god who guards his tributary of the Thames. Finally, we reach a “quiet rode” inspired by Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, a figurative place of rest that is both a pause in the journey and a break in the story. In these dreamy, feverish scenes, Philip Pullman is tilling the same creative soil at Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. It’s the soil of English myth, and of English country folklore. So less high fantasy, and more of what Neil Gaiman would call English fantasy.

In earlier chapters the novel flirts with other genres, especially thanks to the character of Dr. Hannah Relf, an Oxford scholar who works with the Bodleian’s alethiometer, a mysterious truth-telling device that Lyra will eventually use herself. Careful readers will recognize Dr. Relf from short scenes in the original trilogy when she enquires about Lyra’s education early in The Golden Compass, and then offers her a place at a boarding school and the chance to study with her to read the alethiometer at the very end of The Amber Spyglass. In La Belle Sauvage, Dr. Relf works for a secret service agency that protects democracy against the agents of the Church, who are bent on stifling free speech and personal freedom. We’re plunged into a light spy novel: there are secret levels of government at war with each other, tradecraft, double-dealings, spy masters ready to do the very worst to bring about good—right out of the pages of the world’s most famous spy novelist, another Oxford-educated writer, who happened to study at a college on the same street as Lyra’s beloved Jordan.

There’s also a more sinister undercurrent, whiffs of an Orwellian brand of dystopia. In dispiriting early chapters, one of the Church’s organizations called the League of Saint Alexander takes over schools in the Oxford area, with the aim of having children snitch on parents and teachers who don’t follow the church’s dictates. Pullman was inspired by the kind of tactics used in Soviet Russia; I was reminded of the terrifying children in 1984 who are trained to spy on their parents and report them as bad party members. Pullman, who worked as a middle school teacher before writing full time, has an excellent ear for schoolyard arguments.

4.
The prerogative of the curious protagonist of a YA novel is to observe and half understand the world of adults. Think of the number of scenes in which Harry Potter overhears an interesting conversation from underneath his cloak of invisibility. In La Belle Sauvage, Malcolm is rather conveniently always at the right place and time to witness important events and talk to the right people. That convenience could be explained on the one hand by the fact that he lives and works in a pub his family owns, The Trout, and so gets to meet and talk to many adults who frequent it, and on the other by the fact that greater powers—Dust, perhaps—bind him to the task of protecting Lyra, just as Lyra herself will one day be nudged into action by the alethiometer and the prophecy that foretells her role in replaying humankind’s fall.

Yet I was somewhat bothered by the role Pullman has Malcolm play within the larger story. Although Malcolm is the protagonist of this book—his precious canoe even gives the volume its title—we know that his place is inevitably at the fringe of the greater drama of Lyra’s story. Lyra’s parents, Marisa Coulter and Lord Asriel, who both have arresting cameos in La Belle Sauvage, are powerful, charismatic individuals. They’re also beautiful and noble. So it seems almost inevitable that their daughter will grow up to become someone important. Similarly, Will Parry’s father, unbeknownst to Will, is a world-crossing scientist and shaman. Will’s story is entangled with Lyra’s, but as the bearer of the subtle knife and, later, as the figure of Adam, he takes his place as Lyra’s equal.

What about poor Malcolm? Well, he’s a publican’s son, and for all his craftiness and courage, and the fact that Dust appears to play some role in guiding his actions, he will always be subservient to Lyra. When he meets baby Lyra for the first time, his immediate thought is that he will be “her servant for life.” Before the end of the book, he will have risked much to make sure that she’s alive to fulfill her destiny in a decade’s time. I can only hope that Malcolm will return in the next volumes of The Book of Dust to get some credit for everything he’s gone through, and that he’ll grow up to be more than a servant. He deserves a story of his own.

It’s only with the publication of the second and third volumes of The Book of Dust that we’ll be able to recognize the figure in the carpet, and to see if Pullman has been able to create a story that holds together in his new trilogy. From the information Pullman and his publishers have made public, I assume that it will be a baggier series than His Dark Materials because it has to cover a longer time period. The second volume, The Secret Commonwealth, will apparently be set 20 years after the action of La Belle Sauvage, with Lyra as an undergraduate student. Pullman has the opportunity to correct some of the mistakes he made in The Amber Spyglass, whose plot, though enthralling, hung together only with an added dose of suspended disbelief.

At least with La Belle Sauvage Pullman has avoided the biggest pitfall: by expanding his cast of characters and nodding to his past books while keeping this novel different in tone, he’s avoided sounding as if he was writing his own fan-fiction. Pullman’s novels communicate big ideas, and some have criticized him for the relentless dogmatism with which he pursues them, but for all the god-killing and evil priests, Pullman is first and foremost an extremely skillful storyteller—the warmest, fuzziest kind that takes readers by the hand and guides them with sharp prose and a fast moving plot. There was some violence and some fairly dramatic moments in His Dark Materials, yet I found La Belle Sauvage more mature because it explores psychological darkness as well. There are whispers of pedophilia and sex crimes at the fringes of the story, which heightens the sense of danger, and underscores the theme of innocence and experience, which plays an essential role in Pullman’s books.

The Amber Spyglass ends with Lyra declaring that she will build “the Republic of Heaven” on earth, in a celebration of the physical world and its joys. That’s exactly what Pullman is doing with the universe he’s expanding with each new book, except he’s building his republic with words, with stories, with human characters brimming with curiosity.

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