“Soft drinks are to America what tea is to England, beer to Germany, wine to France—the national drink,” Snowden Wright suggests as we stroll through the World of Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta on a chilly November morning. The antique vials and elaborate soda fountain, the mystery around Coke’s “secret formula,” the catchy advertising slogans—all served as inspirations for his new novel, American Pop.
The book is an ambitious attempt to wrestle with American history as a story we tell ourselves, riddled with secrets, romantic missteps, and the consolations of nostalgia. Its protagonists are members of the fictional Forster family, creators of Panola Cola, or PanCola for short. The culmination of years of early-morning writing and sequestered weeks on his Yazoo County, Mississippi, family farm, American Pop has netted Wright a six-figure advance and a robust 25,000-copy first printing by William Morrow.
Wright’s fictional soda company is headquartered not in Atlanta, but in Wright’s native Mississippi. “I wanted to create an alternate world,” he says, “where PanCola became what Coke was.” The third-person narration flashes forward and backward to relate the multigenerational saga of the patriarch, Houghton Forster, who devises the PanCola formula, and the heirs who oversee the company’s subsequent triumphs and tribulations.
Along with Coke and other soda companies, the novel draws on the histories of American dynasties such as the Kennedys, the Vanderbilts, and the Rockefellers. Many of Wright’s characters suffer from a variant of the Kennedy curse, losing their loves and meeting untimely ends.
The book’s twin epigraphs capture Wright’s serious intent and his wry humor. He juxtaposes a quotation from Nathaniel Hawthorne—“Families are always rising and falling in America”—with an aphorism by Nancy Lemann, author of the novel Lives of the Saints: “Southerners need carbonation.”
“I am romantic in that I’m showing the darker elements of the American dream—but I want America to be better.”
Wright likes to say he owes his writing career to Lemuria Books and Johnnie Walker Black.
Meridian, Mississippi, the small town where he and a younger sister and brother grew up, had no bookstore. But the family spent weekends at its cotton farm (now dedicated to soybeans and corn), near Jackson. Wright’s father, whom Wright says was “a country lawyer and a gentleman farmer”—he’s now a circuit court judge—used to take his son into town with him. While the elder Wright sipped Scotch and watched a ballgame at a downstairs bar, the boy, armed with a $20 bill, spent hours browsing the independent bookstore upstairs.
Wright’s mother, a retired schoolteacher, imbued him with a love of fiction. After devouring young adult novels, including C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, Wright moved on to the plot-heavy books she favored by John Grisham, Anne Rice, Stephen King, and Michael Crichton. As a camper at Strong River Camp in Pinola, Mississippi, he told tales around the bunk beds at night and won the Storyteller Award, auguring his future career.
“We didn’t want for anything. It was a very fortunate upbringing,” Wright says. But he underwent an adolescent bout with anorexia, then a largely unrecognized disease in boys. In 2010 Wright published an essay in the online magazine Salon detailing his illness—“the worst two years of my life”—and his recovery.
Wright says he was the first student ever to apply to the Ivy League from the small independent Lamar School, whose website promises a “safe, respectful, Christian environment.” Wright didn’t get into his first choice, Yale, but the rejection, coupled with Dartmouth’s acceptance, was “a sort of blessing,” he says. “After visiting Dartmouth I realized it had everything I wanted and needed: a great English and creative writing department, a beautiful campus, and a friendly, welcoming student body that, I had no doubt, would gladly teach me how to dress in layers come winter.” Dartmouth’s neo-Georgian architecture reminded him of home.
Wright pledged Sigma Alpha Epsilon (whose Dartmouth chapter was recently shuttered) and was an enthusiastic participant in the hard-drinking culture of the time, including inebriated road trips. He also shed his Southern accent: “It faded when I realized that people weren’t listening to what I said—they were listening to how I said it.” (The accent returns, he says, under the influence of “a beer or two.”)
Matt Burgess ’04, Wright’s Dartmouth roommate and still his best friend, recalls that they bonded over their shared literary ambitions and love for John Updike. “He couldn’t have been more different from me,” says Burgess, who grew up in Queens, New York, and is now a novelist and creative writing professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. “He used to wear a top hat—ironically. He had the Young Republican haircut. He was the most Southern person imaginable. I couldn’t even understand what he was saying. He was such an exotic creature to me.”
The two traded discoveries, including the novels of Michael Chabon, and enjoyed a friendly competition. “I wanted to outwork him, and he wanted to outwork me,” Burgess says. “We were pushing each other.” Wright responds in kind: “I’m not sure if I would have become a writer if I didn’t have Matt—someone to bounce ideas off of, to give me support, to give me criticism, to challenge me to write better than him.”
Wright remembers his distress when a professor teaching a freshman seminar on short-story writing suggested he become a poet—not at all his ambition. Yet the comment “really set me off on a path that led to where I am now,” Wright says. “I started off being very language-focused. I cared more about sentences than characters.” Now, he says, “I still care about a clean, tight sentence, but I also give as much care to the story.”
Ernest Hebert, an emeritus professor of English and creative writing who was Wright’s thesis advisor, recalls him fondly: “He displayed a rare quality among undergraduates: patience. When I take on a thesis student, I always ask myself, ‘What does this person need, and what can I do to meet that need?’ I felt that Snowden was already committed to the writer’s life. I thought, ‘This guy doesn’t need me. He’s going to figure it out for himself. My role as his advisor is not to screw him up.’ ”
On the way to an M.F.A. at Columbia University, Wright studied with Heidi Julavits ’90, now a novelist and writing teacher. “Praise from her would give me the gumption to keep going for the whole year,” he says. Wright’s first published novel, Play Pretty Blues (Engine Books, 2013), which gestated at Columbia, is a gorgeously written elegy to Delta blues musician Robert Johnson. Like Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, one of his inspirations, Wright’s novel employs first-person plural narration—in this case, the collective voice of Johnson’s six (widowed) wives.
“I had always been aware of his music,” Wright says, but he was most fascinated by Johnson’s legend—the story of how he supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical success. “He’s a Gatsby figure, a self-made man, a self-made myth. He was doing what I was doing to him: He was creating a story about himself.”
Wright says he has no qualms about labeling himself a Southern writer. “You’re part of a tradition that includes William Faulkner and Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor—that’s pretty good company to be in,” he says.
The idea of a Southern literary tradition is “malleable and, to a large extent, arbitrary,” he says, but two objectives may be key. Southern writers, he says, “investigate what it means to be Southern,” with reference to the region’s history of racism and violence, but also its “sense of community, family, custom, and culture.” They also want to entertain—Wright’s priority. “Maybe that puts me in the Southern oral tradition more so than in the Southern literary one,” he says.
Laboring in the shadow of Faulkner, a fellow Mississippian, Wright says he learned how to be both “the kind of writer I wanted to be and the kind of writer I didn’t want to be.” He prefers “the clarity and elegance” of Faulkner’s shorter novels and short stories to his “shaggier modernist works,” such as The Sound and the Fury. “I’d rather tell a good story than make great art,” Wright says. In the composition of American Pop, he says, he looked to Welty’s “more subtle” take on the South and “less pyrotechnic” prose style.
Wright began the novel in the fall of 2013, “by waking up at 4 in the morning and writing and then going on to my day job” as a grants administrator at Columbia University. He now holds a similar position at Georgia Tech. In the summer of 2014 a modest inheritance from his maternal grandfather, Fred Snowden (to whom American Pop is dedicated), allowed him to quit the Columbia job and return to Mississippi to write full-time. He toggled between Oxford, Mississippi, where he lived down the street from Faulkner’s home, and an isolated shotgun cottage on the Yazoo County farm—“my own private Yaddo.” (He’s building a home there now, in a pecan grove, on land where his grandmother grew up.)
Rooted in the past, with historical characters such as the expatriate singer Josephine Baker and long chapter titles evoking 18th-century picaresque novels, American Pop is nevertheless shaped by contemporary concerns. Deep in Trump Country, where the then-candidate’s pledge to “Make America Great Again” resonated with Wright’s parents and others, the novelist says he wanted to ask: “Was America really all that great?”
“I wanted to address racism, homophobia, women’s rights, nationalism. Nostalgia warps the past,” he says. “If we look back on the past with nostalgia, we’re not seeing the true reality of it—we’re seeing the PG version. I’m romantic in that I’m showing the darker elements of the American Dream—but I want America to be better.”
Inspired by Edward P. Jones’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Known World (2003), Wright employs a complex, nonlinear structure that alternates among characters and moves back and forth in time. “It worried me a little,” he says, “but that was the way it had to be. If I went chronologically, you wouldn’t know it was a book about a soft-drink company until about page 50. Then the story wouldn’t have an overarching arc—it would have these little humps, like the back of a caterpillar. The most elegant solution I could come up with was to braid the narratives together.”
Wright says he sought to imbue the novel with “a wry tone” via a narrator who knows more than the characters. “I would never want to write a totally unfunny book,” he says. Among the themes he sought to explore were “the dichotomy between fate and chance,” and the divide between the country as a whole and the South. There is tragic irony in the fall of Wright’s soda-pop scions. To commemorate the tattered heritage of PanCola, the last surviving Forster opens a ramshackle museum, a “much shabbier, smaller” version of the glitzy World of Coca-Cola—history stripped of glory and reduced to trinkets and fading photos.
Wright loves Joan Didion’s maxim: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” The quote is the first line of an essay that is “her attempt to negate it,” he says. “I actually disagree with her. I think we tell each other stories to live, and that is a good thing. It’s how we not only live but enjoy life and deal with our traumas. What is storytelling? It’s trying to find meaning in the world around us, in our own lives, to give them shape.”
Plus, he says, “it’s just fun to tell stories, to entertain people, and I would never want to write a book that was not entertaining. That’s always one of my primary goals. I want you to want to turn the page to find out what happens next.”
Next for Wright is historical fiction. He’s writing about the Confederados, as many as 20,000 Southerners who fled to Brazil after the Civil War. Seeking modern agricultural techniques for cotton farming, these expatriates were lured to Brazil with “the promise of cheap farmland, tax subsidies, subsidized travel,” Wright says. And slaves. Brazil did not abolish slavery until 1888, the last country in the Western world to do so.
“It will involve a large cast of characters. Where American Pop is the story of a family, this is the story of a community,” says Wright, who’s already written 100 pages. “It’s almost like the [television] show Deadwood—if it were set in Brazil.”
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia. She wrote about Alexander Chee in the September/October 2018 issue.