Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Snowden Wright

Snowden Wright is the author of the novels Play Pretty Blues and the newly released American Pop. He has written for The Atlantic, Salon, Esquire, and the New York Daily News, among other publications. A former Stone Court Writer-in-Residence, he lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

Recently I asked Wright about what he was reading. His reply:
The other day, as I sat down to work on my next book, I didn’t draw a blank so much as draw blankly. Everything I wrote came out as simultaneously functional and bland as grocery-store sushi. The sentences did not sing. The language did not effervesce. Even the dialogue with exclamation points seemed to be spoken in monotone.

Cue my usual solution to that kind of problem. I stood from my desk and wandered around my apartment, browsing my bookshelves, pulling down books at random, and reading the sentences I’d check-marked and underlined on first reading them. Rereading select passages from books I love rarely fails to jog my creativity. Here’s a sampling of what I perused that day.

“Sleeping in a cabin beside Henry in the first weeks after the sale, Moses had thought that it was already a strange world that made him a slave to a white man, but God had indeed set it twirling and twisting every which way when he put black people to owning their own kind.” Edward P. Jones, The Known World

I’m such an evangelist for this novel. As you can tell by that line—which artfully introduces the central concept of the novel via a character’s interiority—it concerns a black man in pre-Civil War America who owned slaves.

“Like most people who are anecdotal, he told me nothing.” Susanna Moore, In the Cut

Looking for a taut, beautiful literary thriller? Here you go. Sentences that I check-mark and underlined often veer toward the aphoristic. This novel is full of gems like the one above.

“Alex came out swinging, but was always hoping, or so she thought, for someone to wrestle her arms to her sides. She was a character in a screwball comedy searching in vain for a serious moment… She bought red shoes and only wore them when it rained because she liked how they looked on the wet pavement. She was a perpetual-motion machine that wanted to talk philosophy. When Alex wasn’t dancing, she was standing on her head.” Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces

How do you make a character summary fresh? You stand it on its head. You let it dance. You make it a perpetual-motion machine that wants to talk philosophy.

“He felt the embarrassment press into his face like the summer sun.” Pete Dexter, Paris Trout

Everyone should read this somewhat-forgotten masterpiece. I also recommend Dexter’s novel Deadwood, which focuses on its titular town but was not the basis for the HBO show of the same name.

“It was genuine because he himself was a character also, a living sturdy weed of gossip and laughter, of racing confessions about nights of fun and errors, of cooking recipes with unexpected olives, of fish sprinkled with chocolate.” Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights

The same way characters are made of characteristics, novels are made of sentences, each unique to itself, a tiny part of a whole, all of them combining to become the amorphous “thing” bundled between two covers. Every sentence is a living sturdy weed of gossip and laughter. Every sentence is a recipe with unexpected olives.

I love how those racing confessions about nights of fun and errors can inspire a writer to create racing confessions of his own.
Visit Snowden Wright's website.

The Page 69 Test: American Pop.

--Marshal Zeringue