I’m inclined to go far afield with this column, but here I am back in the U.S.A. and back in the South (which admittedly can be as exotic and exciting as anywhere) with American Pop, Snowden Wright’s sprawling saga about a soft drink dynasty. The novel follows a family and an American century, and though it moves across continents and cities, it begins in Mississippi with Houghton Forster, a first-generation American who invents PanCola, a fizzy drink that makes him rich.
Wright, 37, knows his milieu: he has an MFA from Columbia and spent nine years in New York City but was born and raised in Meridian, Miss. He began writing American Pop by getting up at 4 a.m. every morning and working for an hour before going to his job as a grant administrator at Columbia. It wasn’t long before he realized that at that pace, it would take him five years to finish. So he took the modest inheritance from his grandfather—Fred Snowden, to whom the book is dedicated—and, in August 2014, moved back to Mississippi to write the book, his second (his first, Play Pretty Blues, was a novel about blues great Robert Johnson). He arrived home with 50 pages and access to a family camp house—a shotgun shack (“You can fire a shotgun from one end to the other and never hit a door,” he explains) on a farm in Yazoo County.
I ask Wright how he came up with the idea to write about soda. “I’ve always been fascinated with soda,” he tells me. “It’s so American. Soda says America the way wine says France; tea, England; beer, Germany.” Coca-Cola was the inspiration, with a little bit of Dr. Pepper, Wright says, adding, “You can say, ‘It’s only sugar water,’ but it’s sugar water that was made into a product that launched a billion-dollar company.”
Wright says he wanted to write a big book, an “epic story” and cover history through the story of a family whose rise and fall coincided with the rise and fall of the nation; American Pop takes place from the 1870s through to the 1980s. He finished his manuscript in 2016, sent it out to agents “for months and months,” and received “lots of rejections”—until it reached Eve Atterman, a literary agent at William Morris Endeavor. She remembers receiving it right before the 2016 presidential election.
“It was a great pitch letter,” Atterman says, “but it was the opening pages of the novel that blew me away.”
Montgomery Forster, heir to a soft drink fortune, decorated corporal in WWI, newly elected lieutenant governor of Mississippi, is contemplating leaping from the roof of the Peabody hotel in downtown Memphis: “He was calculating the number of stories and windows he would pass—the distance in yards, feet, inches he would fall—if he took a step off the ledge.”
Atterman asked for the rest of the novel and read it a few weeks later. “I was completely enthralled—so in love with this family.” She’s from New York’s Westchester County, although having graduated from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, she says she is “steeped in Southern culture.” But, she adds, “while Snowden is very much a product of his background, this novel is universal, with universal themes: love, ethics, a family over the course of generations, a portrait of America warts and all—as well as just gorgeous.” Atterman signed Wright as a client in November 2016 and submitted American Pop “broadly” in January 2017.
One of the editors in the sweep was Jessica Williams at William Morrow. “It went out to 15–20 editors, which is typical,” Williams says. “But after the 2016 election was a weird time in publishing; that fall had been quiet.”
American Pop landed in January and, according to Williams, everything happened in a few days. “We suspected an auction when the agent phone calls started,” she says. “I read it over a weekend, and that Monday I was able to do a preempt and take it off the table with a strong six-figure offer [for North American rights]. William Morrow has had success with Southern-themed novels. The imprint has a lot of love for Southern stories. There’s a thriving readership in the South and good indie bookstores, but American Pop is ultimately an American novel that’s centered in the South. For being a historical novel, it’s timely and topical.”
Williams thought the novel needed work, and she says that when she first spoke with Wright, she “was tough on him” and wasn’t sure how he would respond. “I only wanted to work on it if he was willing to do the work with me.”
After their conversation, Wright called Atterman to tell her that he had found his editor; he wanted to work with Williams. Atterman agreed, calling the pairing “a perfect match.”
“Jessica struck me immediately,” Wright says. “She had suggestions to add more, to develop the characters. The fact that she wasn’t just a cheerleader impressed me. We worked on it for a year and added 10,000 words. We didn’t add chapters but expanded on what was there.” The finished book clocks in at just under 400 pages.
Williams emphasizes that the vision of the novel hasn’t changed: “Snowden and I had the same vision. While the book is a picture of American history, at its core it’s the story of a family. What hooked me was that I expected a nostalgic romp through the past, but the story kept surprising me. It starts happy and then devolves, so while it’s fun, it’s definitely thought provoking.”
American Pop will be published in February 2019; plans are to target the South and take Wright to regional shows, but the publicity campaign will be national, with an emphasis on events in New York and California—settings that figure prominently in the book.
One stop in Mississippi that Wright expects to make is Lemuria Books in Jackson. “My hometown had no bookstore, but I would go with my father to Jackson, a half hour away from the camp house,” he says. “Back then, Lemuria was on the second floor; the first floor was a sports bar. My father would go in the bar and give me $20 to spend upstairs in the bookstore. We’d be there for hours. So I always say I owe my literary career to Lemuria Books and Johnnie Walker Black!”