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February 5, 2019

Snowden Wright's Playlist for His Novel "American Pop"

American Pop

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Snowden Wright's American Pop is both cleverly told and greatly entertaining.

BookPage wrote of the book:

"In the vein of To Kill A Mockingbird and more recent classics like The Twelve-Mile Straight and Miss Jane, American Pop explores the South’s dark side. A probing cultural history, the book is also a literary innovation."

In his own words, here is Snowden Wright's Book Notes music playlist for his novel American Pop:

With a novel like American Pop—which concerns, among other things, cola, family, the South, America, fate, chance, narrative, homophobia, racism, sexism, classism, and a three-legged dog named Hellion—the influences, musical and otherwise, are as sundry as they are legion. Here are a few of the songs that helped me get the book on its feet.

“Fancy” by Bobbie Gentry

Tales of rags-to-riches are as American as strip-club chicken wings. This song tells the story of Fancy, a woman who goes from “living in a one-room, run-down shack on the outskirts of New Orleans” to pouring tea “in a five-room penthouse suite,” until, finally, she becomes someone who “charmed a king, a congressman, and an occasional aristocrat” and who owns “an elegant Georgia mansion and a New York townhouse flat.”

She ain’t done bad.

Gentry is wonderful at writing songs that tell a story. I’d almost venture to place her next to Flannery O’Connor and John Cheever as one of this country’s best short-story writers. Take “Ode to Billie Joe,” her most famous song. How many pop hits have spawned an entire movie? American Pop, a story about storytelling—aren’t all stories, in a way, about storytelling—owes a great deal to artists like Gentry.

“Walking Far from Home” by Iron & Wine

Sam Beam, aka Iron & Wine, grew up in South Carolina, and it shows in this gorgeous benediction of a song. It describes a long walk, one full of metaphor and contradiction, religion and irony, the mundane and the sublime. I think all Southern literature tries to be that kind of walk.

“Bad Religion” by Frank Ocean

The unrequited love that’s the emotional crux of this song helped inspire Montgomery Forster, a character whose requited love of a fellow soldier in WWI is the emotional crux of his life.

“Our Hearts Are Wrong” by Jessica Lea Mayfield

While writing the novel, I went through a tumultuous, on-off relationship with a woman I’ve had a tumultuous, on-off friendship with since college. She and I are so much alike we’re terrible for each her. Listening to this song during one of our “off” periods felt as though a record needle had been placed on my heart. Fortunately, the pain she and I caused each other fueled parts of American Pop, and for that I’ll always be grateful. The only time I miss her is every single day.

“Sound & Color” by Alabama Shakes

I first heard this song playing over the credits of a television show. Because the show had ended, I was puttering around my living room, picking up an empty glass, resituating the couch pillows, when the bass line kicked in. I immediately stopped what I was doing and did not move for the entire song.

Given their retro-soul sound and the first half of their name, the Alabama Shakes are unmistakably a Southern band, but this song, as well as the album it appears on, has something more, something fresh but unpretentious, something that is the “new” type of fangled and yet also the “low” type of falutin’. I was going for a similar effect in American Pop. The novel is fairly old-fashioned, written in third-person, with characters in conflict, adequate backstory, historical context, occasional epiphanies, and dialogue denoted by quotation marks.

In addition to those elements, though, the book uses literary techniques that, to some, may seem more modern. I diced the timeline to create a mosaic in which multiple generations of a family, not unlike how Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan experiences time, feel as though they are all alive at once. I moved between character perspectives without the use of space-breaks, the way a film camera would. Overall I was trying to achieve a vibe similar to that the Alabama Shakes: retro-soul meets neo-soul to create, well, soul.

But first I had to figure out the name of the band. That night I heard “Sound & Color,” I went to my laptop, closed the Word doc for American Pop, opened my browser, and Googled, “awesome song end credits mr robot season finale.”

“What Are You Going to Do When You Are Not Saving the World?” by Hans Zimmer

For morning writers, sometimes a cup of coffee doesn’t provide enough fortitude to shake off a night of sleep, collect their thoughts, and stare down a blank page. I often have to stifle my own self-doubt as much as I do my frequent yawns. This song helps. In Man of Steel, the Superman movie from 2013, “What Are You Going to Do When You Are Not Saving the World?” plays at all the key moments, in particular when Supes first learns to fly. The song is so over the top it’s like an aural fist-pump. On mornings when I’m having trouble bolstering my confidence, I listen to it and, addressing future readers, think, “All right, ladies and gents. I’m here to put you folks in awe.”

“J’ai Deux Amours” by Josephine Baker

Historical fiction is often criticized for including appearances by famous people in the lives of characters who would not likely encounter them. Would a small-town farm girl in Iowa really share a dance with Charlie Chaplin? Would a lost puppy in Toledo really be found and returned to its owner by Eleanor Roosevelt? With American Pop I wanted to circumvent that criticism. The family at the center of the novel is similar to the Kennedys. They’re American royalty. So, when a member of the family goes to Paris in the ‘30s and becomes romantically involved with Josephine Baker, it’s no less likely than, say, Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to JFK.

“I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke”

How could I not list this in regard to a novel about a company inspired in large part by Coca-Cola?

“Man I’m Supposed to Be” by American Aquarium

Although I’m from the South, I’m not much of a country-music fan—the genre’s preponderance on this list is a bit of an anomaly—but this song is so simple, lovely, and sweet. I first heard it in Oxford, Mississippi, where I lived while writing much of American Pop.

“Reunion” by Bobbie Gentry

Another Bobbie Gentry song? Yuh-huh. As exuberant as Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” and as theatrical as the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper,” this song from Gentry’s album The Delta Sweete, her masterpiece, is a polyphonic depiction of a Southern family reunion, in all its chaos and hilarity. You’ve got little boys pulling little girls’ hair. You’ve got uncles claiming they can fix anything with the right tool. You’ve got kitchen gossip among the grown-ups. In American Pop, essentially a 400-page family reunion, I tried to combine humor and poignancy as deftly as Gentry does in this song.

Snowden Wright and American Pop links:

the author's website

BookPage review
Publishers Weekly review

Georgia Public Radio interview with the author
Jackson Clarion Ledger interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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