Out this month, Philipp Meyer’s second novel, The Son, is equal parts generational epic and ruthlessly unsentimental creation myth. Tracing the ascendency of a Texas family begat by Eli McCullough, a man kidnapped in his boyhood and raised by his Comanche captors, the only constant in the lives of his descendants, through decades of frontier poverty to eventual oil-baron opulence, is violence. I spoke to Meyer in his New York apartment.
The Millions: Before starting American Rust, you wrote a few novels that were never published.
Philipp Meyer: Yeah, I wrote one, started in my undergrad and finished it my first year. Quickly realized it was a turd. Then I began writing a second book, which kind gave me the balls to leave this banking job. I was unreasonably confident. I had been reading about all these young writers who were making it, and so I thought, “Shit, if they’re doing it, I can too,” which, you know, was completely delusional. Once I finished that book, I had run out of the money, moved back in with my parents, was working these blue collar jobs. I applied to grad schools and got turned down by all of them. That was the most dark and depressed period I’ve had. That was around early ‘04, and by September ‘04, I had written maybe two stories that were working, and sent them off to some magazines. When I got a call from the Iowa Review, they told me right away that they were taking my piece. I actually broke down and cried for a few hours after they called. It’s been a consistent climb from that moment.
TM: Now that you’re established, do you feel like you write for the same reasons now as you did when you were a struggling, unpublished author?
PM: Yeah, nothing’s changed. If I had one worry, it’s that when you start getting told “Yes” constantly—and you see this in all great artists—you get worse. Maybe you run out of juice. I don’t think you do; I think your standards just drop with time. For now, there’s no doubt in my mind about my standards: I’m harder on my own work than anyone else on earth is. When this book sold in June of ’11, there was a huge bidding war. Most people I talked to were like, “I know it needs work, but not too much. Maybe a month or two.” Meanwhile, I’m thinking it needs a year of work, but I didn’t want to fuck anything up. So I sold it thinking it had another year left of work on it. I was wrong. It had eighteen months. I did three more passes on the book, complete rewrites. I worked on it full time non-stop, and that’s the final version.
TM: When you’re writing just for yourself, you’re filled with ambitions and aspirations that are private and intimate and wildly delusional. But when anyone can read your work, and tells you what they think about it, do you internalize their comments as you start writing the next book?
PM: You fight that – tooth and nail. It’s usually just when you’re most unsure and insecure about the work that those voices of doubt get amplified. I remember my roommate back at Michener had won this enormous literary prize the first year we were there. It was like $90 grand. I wasn’t even a finalist, and that summer, I kept reading his book that had won this prize, comparing it to mine, reading the book, comparing it to mine. Finally, when I was at an artists colony, I was fucking miserable. I told this person there what was happening, and she said, “Throw that thing away immediately. You can’t even think about him. You have to flush this out of your mind. Throw it away. Really throw it away.” I did, and she was right. I felt better immediately.
MFA workshops can be really destructive for that. There was a lady I was in workshop with – she has a really big book out –she used to take tranquilizers before workshop. And I developed my own way to work around them: people would be talking, and I would have a pad in front of me, and I’d be making grocery lists, a list of hunting gear I needed for some hunting trip, and I’d look like I was writing – “Oh, yeah, oh great” –because I didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings, but I’d really be working on something else, something mundane that really pulls your mind out of it. I did that constantly.
Even early on when I was writing this book, I was feeling unsure of it, wondering, “Well, what’s Michiko Kakutani going to think of this?” But then as the book developed and I understood what it’s actually about, those voices went away. It’s when you’re feeling the most lost and you’re feeling the most need for approval that’s when you can’t show shit to anyone. When you most need to show it to someone because you need to be told it’s good and that you’re a genius, you can never fucking show it to anyone. Now, that’s very clear to me.
TM: Eli says, “There’s no point being a small man.” Once you reach that point where you’re happy with the work, you know it’s good, are you already thinking about legacy?
PM: Yeah, of course. I was thinking about legacy when I sucked as well. Salman Rushdie gave a talk to my class at Michener. It was great because he had two failed novels. He said, “Of course I thought my early works were works of genius. And they sucked.” I think that delusion is crucial.
TM: Martin, the only writer in The Son, a young poet, after acting a coward for his entire appearance in the book, is suddenly emboldened in the face of death: he accepts death standing. The last thing he speaks about before being carried off to die are all the poems he’ll now never be able to write. Is that what he’s thinking about as he’s being killed? What is it about that thought that gives him courage?
PM: Yeah. Of course this guy knew he was going to die for a long time, so he’s gone to that place from his disconnection of reality and pure ego. Though I remember once when I was on this plane that lost power—this is when I was working on my second novel—and the engine noise just stopped. We were plummeting. The stewardess comes on and says, “We can’t help you. Stay in your seats.” Everyone looks around – this is right after 9/11, a year after – and everyone’s getting their cellphones out cause they’re like, “Oh shit. This is actually it.” I just remember watching the ground get closer and closer and closer. I was sitting next to my then-fiancée, but all thought was, “Oh my God, I haven’t finished my book; I haven’t finished my book.” It felt so unfair. I wasn’t even thinking about this woman next to me.
Ten years ago, I thought that this book was my way into immortality. A buddy of mine who’s had a pretty huge, fucking beautiful successful book—we were drunk and talking a couple of years ago, and he said, “Fuck all man, you live forever because of these things.” For some reason, I’ve stopped thinking that way now. At some point all literary works begin to lose relevance. Something comes along that’s better; it captures the vernacular or the method of storytelling is better, and it will last a hundred, two hundred, five hundred years.
TM: In one of the most disturbing scenes in the book, a white buffalo poacher is kidnapped by the same band of Comanches and is publically tortured in their camp, much to the delight of everyone but Eli. Does his compassion indicate that he’s a better person than the rest of his tribe, or simply that he’s been schooled in different notions of right and wrong? Can one locate a moral compass of any kind in The Son?
PM: Hopefully. I wrote that scene the way I did because that is the way that Eli would react. But how much of that is Eli’s “whiteness”? To all of these people the buffalo poacher is the Other, he’s pure enemy. But to Eli, he can’t be. There’s a much later scene in Peter’s section, which I removed probably because it was a too gratuitous, where Eli hangs a guy. (This is when Eli is an old man.) Eli basically does the same thing [as the Comanches]. It’s something that both sides did.
If there’s a moral purpose to the book, it’s to put our history, the history of this country, into a context. We butchered and killed our way across the continent and took every inch of it by force, or bought it for seven bucks. But on the other hand, the Native American tribes in Texas, like all humans across the entire earth, butchered and conquered and attacked their weaker neighbors and took land. In Texas, the Apaches come in and wipe out all of the other native tribes except for a few. A hundred years later, the Comanches come and do the same thing to them. And if there’s any point to the book, in the sense of having a moral direction, it’s to contextualize our creation myth.
TM: The most troubled characters are the ones most intimately tied to the land. Often they comfort themselves by naming local wildflowers, discerning animal tracks others had missed. Is there something more valuable in living in a place you’ve helped settle than living in, say, New York City?
PM: In theory no. But if you look at the narratives of captivities in the region, there were hundreds of thousands of Indian captivities along the frontier, and hundreds of thousands of Indian children forcibly raised in white society. One thing consistent across both those storylines is that modern Europeans folks who were taken into Indian captivity pre-puberty, often did not want to go back. On the other hand, the reverse is not true at all. Native American kids who were raised as white were almost always unhappy and often did want to go back to their tribe. No matter what the Indian tribes are and no matter what European group you’re talking about – Scotch, English, Swedish, German – it’s always the same: the people who are going and connecting with the land don’t want to come back, and people who are forced to live in structured modern society do want to go back.
TM: What do you think of American fiction today? What’s the state of things?
PM: I think this is a very, very, very good time for fiction. As writers, we’re always reacting against the artistic movements or our forefathers. The one we’re coming out of right now is hardcore, post-modern deconstructionist stuff. It is a useful tool in the toolbox, but as a way of expressing human life, human relations, the human condition, it is the most narrow and awful movement that has ever fucking existed. None of that stuff moves me. The artistic movement that best reflected human existence were the Modernists, and unfortunately, all the post-modernists were reacting against Woolf and Hemingway and fucking Joyce. I’m so happy to be comparing my stuff to Barth and Gass and Pynchon. Fucking bring it on!