Lives of the Saints (Voices of the South)

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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.

We the Narrators

On a desert plain out West, the Lone Ranger and Tonto are surrounded by a band of Indians, all of them slowly closing in. Sunlight reflects off tomahawks. War paint covers furious scowls. “Looks like we’re done for, Tonto,” says the Lone Ranger, to which Tonto replies, “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”

That old joke raises a question other than its own punch line. Why would anyone decide to write a novel in first-person plural, a point of view that, like second-person, is often accused of being nothing but an authorial gimmick? Once mockingly ascribed to royalty, editors, pregnant women, and individuals with tapeworms, the “we” voice can, when used in fiction, lead to overly lyrical descriptions, time frames that shift too much, and a lack of narrative arc.

In many cases of first-person plural, however, those pitfalls become advantageous. The narration is granted an intimate omniscience. Various settings can be shuffled between elegantly. The voice is allowed to luxuriate on scenic details. Here are a few novels that prove first-person plural is more of a neat trick than a cheap one.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

Prior to the publication of The Virgin Suicides, most people, when asked about first-person plural, probably thought of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” This novel changed that. A group of men look back on their childhood in 1970s suburban Michigan, particularly “the year of the suicides,” a time when the five Lisbon sisters took turns providing the novel its title. Most remarkable about Eugenides’s debut is not those tragic events, however, but the narrative voice, so melancholy, vivid, deadpan, and graceful in its depiction not only of the suicides but also of adolescent minutiae. Playing cards stuck in bicycle spokes get as much attention as razor blades dragged across wrists. Throughout the novel, Eugenides, aware of first-person plural’s roots in classical drama, gives his narrators functions greater than those of a Greek chorus. They don’t merely comment on the action, provide background information, and voice the interiority of other characters. The collective narrators of The Virgin Suicides are really the protagonists. Ultimately their lives prove more dynamic than the deaths of the sisters. “It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling.”

Our Kind by Kate Walbert

This title would work for just about any book on this list. A collection of stories interconnected enough to be labeled a novel, Our Kind is narrated by ten women, suburban divorcees reminiscent of Cheever characters.
We’ve seen a lot. We’ve seen the murder-suicide of the Clifford Jacksons, Tate Kieley jailed for embezzlement, Dorothy Schoenbacher in nothing but a mink coat in August dive from the roof of the Cooke’s Inn. We’ve seen Dick Morehead arrested in the ladies’ dressing room at Lord & Taylor, attempting to squeeze into a petite teddy. We’ve seen Francis Stoney gone mad, Brenda Nelson take to cocaine. We’ve seen the blackballing of the Steward Collisters. We’ve seen more than our share of liars and cheats, thieves. Drunks? We couldn’t count.
That passage exemplifies a technique, the lyrical montage, particularly suited to first-person plural. Each perspective within a collective narrator is a mirror in the kaleidoscope of story presentation. To create a montage all an author has to do is turn the cylinder. Walbert does so masterfully in Our Kind.

During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase

“There were the four of us — Celia and Jenny, who were sisters, Anne and Katie, sisters too, like our mothers, who were sisters.” In her New York Times review, Margaret Atwood considered this novel, narrated by those four cousins, to be concerned with “the female matrix,” comparing it to works by Anne Tyler and Marilynne Robinson. First-person plural often renders itself along such gender matrices. This novel is unique in that its single-gender point of view is not coalesced around a subject of the opposite gender. Its female narrators examine the involutions of womanhood by delineating other female characters. Similar in that respect to another first-person-plural novel, Tova Mirvis’s The Ladies Auxiliary, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, taking an elliptical approach to time, braids its young narrators’ lives with those of the other women in their family to create a beautifully written, impressionistic view of childhood.

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

Novels written in first-person plural typically have one of four basic narrative structures: an investigation, gossip, some large and/or strange event, and family life. The Jane Austen Book Club uses all four of those structures. The novel manages to do so because its overall design is similar to that of an anthology series. Within the loose framework of a monthly Jane Austen book club, chapters titled after the respective months are presented, each focusing on one of the six group members, whose personal stories correspond to one of Austen’s six novels. The combinations of each character with a book, Jocelyn and Emma, Allegra and Sense and Sensibility, Prudie and Mansfield Park, Grigg and Northanger Abbey, Bernadette and Pride and Prejudice, Sylvia and Persuasion, exemplify one of the novel’s most significant lines. “Each of us has a private Austen.” Moreover, such an adage’s universality proves that, even when first-person plural refers to specific characters, the reader is, however subconsciously, an implicit part of the point of view.

The Notebook by Agota Kristof

If one doesn’t include sui generis works such as Ayn Rand’s Anthem — a dystopian novella in which the single narrator speaks in a plural voice because first-person-singular pronouns have been outlawed — Kristof’s The Notebook, narrated by twin brothers, contains the fewest narrators possible in first-person-plural fiction. Its plot has the allegorical vagueness of a fable. Weirder than Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters, another first-person-plural novel narrated by siblings, the brothers in The Notebook are taken by their mother from Big Town to Little Town, where they move in with their grandmother. In an unidentified country based on Hungary they endure cruelty and abuse during an unidentified war based on World War II. To survive they grow remorselessly cold. Kristof’s use of first-person plural allows her to build a multifaceted metaphor out of The Notebook. The twins come to represent not only how war destroys selfhood through depersonalization but also how interdependence is a means to resist the effects of war.

The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

In the same way narrators can be reliable and unreliable, collective narrators can be defined and undefined. The narrators in this novel include both parts of that analogy. They’re unreliably defined. Sometimes the narrators are the people who find the corpse of the titular patriarch, an unnamed dictator of an unnamed country, but sometimes the people who find the corpse are referred to in third-person. Sometimes the narrators are the many generations of army generals. Sometimes the narrators are the former dictators of other countries. Sometimes the point of view is all-inclusive, similar to the occasional, God-like “we” scattered through certain novels, including, for example, Jim Crace’s Being Dead, E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, and Paul Auster’s City of Glass. Even the dictator, periodically and confusingly, uses the royal “we.” For the most part, however, the collective narrator encompasses every citizen ruled by the tyrannical despot, people who, after his death, are finally given a voice.

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

What about first-person plural lends itself so well to rhythm? Julie Otsuka provides an answer to that question with The Buddha in the Attic. In a series of linked narratives, she traces the lives of a group of women, including their journey from Japan to San Francisco, their struggles to assimilate to a new culture, their internment during World War II, and other particulars of the Japanese-American experience. “On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall,” the novel begins. “Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves.” Although the narrators are, for the most part, presented as a collective voice, each of their singular voices are dashed throughout the novel, in the form of italicized sentences. It is in that way Otsuka creates a rhythm. The plural lines become the flat notes, singular lines the sharp notes, all combining to form a measured beat.

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

For his first novel’s epigraph, Ferris quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Is it not the chief disgrace of this world, not to be a unit; — not to be reckoned one character; — not to yield that peculiar fruit which each man was created to bear, but to be reckoned in the gross, in the hundred, or the thousand, of the party, the section, to which we belong…” The line nicely plays into this novel about corporate plurality. At an ad agency in Chicago post-dot-com boom, the employees distract themselves from the economic downturn with office hijinks, stealing each other’s chairs, wearing three company polo shirts at once, going an entire day speaking only quotes from The Godfather. The narrative arc is more of a plummet. Nonetheless, Ferris manages to turn a story doomed from the beginning — the title, nabbed from DeLillo’s first novel, says it all — into a hilarious and heartfelt portrait of employment. Ed Park’s Personal Days, somewhat overshadowed by the critical success of this novel, uses a similar collective narrator.

The Fates Will Find a Way by Hannah Pittard

Define hurdle. To be an author of one gender writing from the point of view of characters of the opposite gender investigating the life of a character of said author’s own gender. The most impressive thing about The Fates Will Find Their Way is how readily Pittard accomplishes such a difficult task. Despite one instance of an “I” used in the narration, the story is told in first-person plural by a collection of boys, now grown men, pondering the fate of a neighborhood girl, Nora Lindell, who went missing years ago. Every possible solution to the mystery of what happened to the girl — Heidi Julavits’s The Uses of Enchantment works similarly, as does Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods — becomes a projection of the characters affected by her absence. In that way this novel exemplifies a key feature of many novels, including most on this list, narrated by characters who observe more than they participate. The narrators are the protagonists. It can be argued, for example, that The Great Gatsby is really the story of its narrator, Nick Carraway, even though other characters have more active roles. Same goes for James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Nancy Lemann’s Lives of the Saints, to name a few. What’s more important, after all, the prism or the light?

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