The life of Robert Johnson, a blues musician born on May 8, 1911, has remained a mystery since his death on August 13, 1938. What little is known has been obscured by his own myth. Some reasons for the lack of accurate information concerning Robert Johnson’s life are that he not only had numerous families across the Mississippi Delta but also went by a variety of names. Play Pretty Blues, narrated by the collective voice of his six wives, illuminates the details of Robert Johnson’s life through the use of both fictional exploration and historical research. It attempts to create a broader, more compelling, and denser portrait of a musician most people know only for the legend of how he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for skills on the guitar.
What compelled you to write the book?
Ever since I first heard the story of Robert Johnson, I’ve been interested in writing a book about him. What kept me from doing so was my lack of a fresh perspective on this figure who has been written about by so many others. Then I read somewhere a theory of why there is so little factual information regarding Robert Johnson: He may have used several different names throughout his life, and he may have even had multiple wives who knew him by those different names.
That theory, coupled with my love of third-person-plural narration, gave me the fresh perspective I needed to write this novel. I decided to write about Robert Johnson from the point of view of his many wives.
While working on Play Pretty Blues, I discovered that, even though it’s set roughly one hundred years ago and concerns characters whose circumstances are wholly different from my own, it gave me a new appreciation of my past. Writing about Mississippi in the early 1900s allowed me to use my memories of how it felt growing up there in the late 1900s. The look of red dirt on shoe soles, the smell of cotton, the twang in an old man’s drawl, the feel of thick humidity on a summer day: I was able use my experiences with those kinds of things. This book allowed me to revisit my home.
Did you write any of the book while in Mississippi?
Although most of it was written in New York, where I’ve lived for the past eight years, I did spend a few weeks working on it in Mississippi. I was staying in an old shotgun cottage on a cotton farm. At the time I was so, so close to the end. I knew from previous novels I’d written—“learning experiences” from college and grad school—that I tend to rush toward the end of a book. I can see it just ahead, and I start to sprint to it.
What being in Mississippi for that second-to-last chapter allowed me to do was simply slow the hell down, take it easy, stroll toward the end. It’s hot down there. You kind of have to stroll in all enterprises.
Why are only five of the six narrators in the novel named?
Naming only five of them was a very conscious choice. I had a few reasons for doing so. The first involved a reticence in some readers to buy into the idea of first-person plural. I’ve found that readers on occasion push back against the mechanics involved with the point of view—how can individuals narrate at once unless they’re all, Ouija-board-style, holding the pen to the page at the exact same time?—so by not naming the sixth narrator one can argue that is the person writing on behalf of the other five. Not naming one of the wives also allowed me to take more risks in crafting their voice. If, for example, the narrators say something that doesn’t quite feel consistent with what is known of the five named wives, chalk it up to the sixth one. My final reason for not naming the sixth narrator is so that she can serve as a void to be filled in by the reader. Do you hate Robert Johnson from the very start? She does, too. Do you think he’s a good man who did some bad things but nonetheless deserves devotion? She does, too. Do you think Robert Johnson’s wives are wrong to love him? She does, too.
Was there a reason you made the wives six in total?
How many strings are on a guitar? What’s the number most commonly associated with the devil?
Did any novels in particular provide inspiration or guidance for you when writing this one?
While writing Play Pretty Blues I relied, mostly, on two types of novels for guidance: historical fiction and first-person plural. In regard to the former, the best example, what I consider the peak of all historical fiction, is E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. In regard to the latter, I was at first inspired by Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides but, later, read and learned from the other dozen or so novels written in first-person plural.
What are you working on now?
A lot of writers I know are fearful, understandably, of discussing works in progress. I am not one of those writers. Part of that stems from the sheer excitement I have when working on a new project. Because writing is, by its nature, a solitary pursuit, I love getting any chance, foolish as doing so may be, to discuss what I’m working on. So here goes.
American Pop is a multi-generational saga about a family that owns a soft-drink company called PanCola. The novel follows the Forsters through over a hundred years of American cultural history. In a roundabout way, it can be summarized with a hypothetical question: What would a novel about the Kennedys be like if the Kennedys had made their fortune by inventing Coca-Cola?
Family patriarch and business tycoon, Houghton Forster raises his four children, Montgomery, Harold, Lance, and Ramsey, with the hope they’ll become world leaders. Scrutiny by the media renders each of their eventual downfalls all the more tragic. The eldest son, Montgomery, kills himself just as he is about to be inaugurated as governor of Mississippi. Harold lives plagued by his mental disability. Ramsey becomes involved in a scandalous divorce from a Hollywood mogul. Her fraternal twin brother, Lance, is investigated by the FBI in regard to his dealings with organized crime.
American Pop tells the story of those characters and of the subsequent generations of Forsters. Written as an “unauthorized chronicle” of the family, the novel uses techniques of historical reportage and a disjointed chronology to depict their personal lives, showing how, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s words, “families are always rising and falling in America.”
What do you hope to do—convey—to the readers of your work?
Ultimately—this may sound simplistic, superficial, or just plain stupid—my main goal is to entertain. I mean that in the definitive sense of the word. I try to cause the reader to, according to Merriam-Webster, “keep, hold, or maintain” the story in their mind. The notion of “page-turners” gets a bad rap. What kind of writer doesn’t want the reader to turn the page?
The secondary goal I have is to make the reader feel something, anything, be it elation, sadness, awe, skepticism, goodwill, joy, whatever. I often think of a poem by Jack Gilbert. In “Married,” with something so thin, literally, as a strand of hair, he managed to break me to pieces. If I ever manage to break a reader’s heart as soundly, as absolutely, as that passage does mine, then, by damn, I will die happy.
Given this is an interview conducted by yourself with yourself, you’ve managed to avoid meta-jokes, no wink-winks about the situation. Congratulations.
SNOWDEN WRIGHT‘s first novel, Play Pretty Blues, was published by Engine Books in November 2013. He has written for The Atlantic, Salon, Esquire, and the New York Daily News, among other publications. Author of the e-book “How to Get the Crabs,” Wright lives in New York.