Philipp Meyer's second novel is The Son.
The Son, Philipp Meyer’s second novel, after American Rust (2009), has the kind of encompassing historical scope that leads readers to think “Great American Novel.” The characters include seven generations of the wealthy, dynamic McCullough family. They serve as witnesses to, and participants in, the Americanization of Texas, wresting it first from Native Americans and then from Mexicans, turning it from cattle land to oil land. In the process, readers are drawn into a family secret that might partially exonerate the McCulloughs from their familial sins. We caught Meyer after his book’s May release.
OXFORD AMERICAN: Your latest book, The Son, is a multigenerational novel with a historical backdrop of massacres and lynchings. Both of your novels employ multiple points of view, which I found to have a particularly fascinating effect in The Son. What do you think multiple perspectives bring to a novel? Is it difficult to fully inhabit such a range of characters?
PHILIPP MEYER: It’s a lot of extra work. You have to figure out three or six voices and ways of thinking and behaving instead of one, you have to figure out different styles. But what you get as a result is much closer to the way that the world actually works—it’s a bit of an interlinking web—the actions of one person affect everyone else. No one is as independent as they think. And you can show through narrative—without ever actually saying it—how two very smart people can have directly opposing views on things. And how sometimes this might lead to tragedy, while other times it might lead to something beautiful.
OA: You have had quite an assortment of jobs: bicycle mechanic, Wall Street trader, EMT, writer. How does writing compare with the others? How have some of these life experiences informed your fiction?
PM: The major difference is that writing is who I am. It is not a job—it is something I would do regardless of whether I was getting paid for it. I don’t think many people chose to be writers or artists—you simply chose how hard you are going to work at it.
As for how they informed my fiction, that’s a tougher answer. Nearly everything you do in life informs your fiction. I think my experiences as an EMT and working as an orderly at a trauma center gave me a view of life—specifically, what it looks like when it ends—that probably informs my writing. It hopefully puts a damper on any inclination I might have to glorify violence or to make violent scenes “pretty.” And I think having seen a wide range of people die—from old to young, rich to poor, innocent victims to actual murderers—probably makes me a bit more egalitarian about it. Just about everyone wants to keep living.
The Wall Street job definitely helped me understand the hard-driving, Type A people who end up shaping our economy, for better or worse—for a brief time, I was one of them. As for the bike mechanic job, I’ve always been a tinkerer, I’ve always loved mechanical things, whether bikes, motorcycles, cars, or trucks. I once took a week’s vacation from the Wall Street job to drive my car to a friend’s shop, remove and rebuild the engine (replace the piston rings, hone the cylinders) and then put it all back together. Even now when my truck needs work, my first inclination is to fix it myself, though I’ve tried to stop doing that stuff. The last major thing I did to my old Chevy 4x4 was put in a new transfer case. But I’m trying to get away from that to give myself more time for writing, as the book promo stuff is now eating up a bunch of time, which of course, is a blessing, though it leaves me less time for tinkering.
At any rate, this need to understand the mechanisms of the world—whether that means rebuilding a carburetor or how and when you dig wild potatoes or how the tracks of a red fox differ from a coyote or domestic dog—is crucial to my art. If you’re writing about a car mechanic, you better know your carburetors. If you’re writing about a person living on the frontier, you better know your animal tracks. And not just from a book. You better be able to look at a track and take a solid guess at what it is.
I am not comfortable writing when I don’t know how things work—when I don’t know the minutiae of the world I’m writing about. The reason there is so much detail in The Son about life in the old days is that I think you need to know this stuff to understand that world. How, exactly, are people spending their days? What does it mean to spend all day tanning hides? Or stalking deer? Or cooking, gathering wood, food, and water all day? How does your body feel afterward and how does your mind feel? Unless I understood those things, I felt I wouldn’t understand the characters, and I guess I felt the reader might not understand them, either.
OA: American Rust had a more contemporary setting than The Son. What are some of the unexpected challenges or pleasures of writing a historical novel?
PM: The unexpected challenge was the enormous amount of time it took to write and research the novel. Almost exactly five years. Some of the research was definitely fun, especially the experiential stuff—learning to track animals, identify native plants, shoot bows—but I did resent it most of the time, because it was taking me away from my work. Writing is not researching and every day I was in the field or reading history books was a day I wasn’t writing.
OA: Were there any books that especially inspired you as you wrote The Son?
Meyer: I stopped reading Western fiction completely, because I didn’t want the book to be a reflection of a reflection. I read a lot of Virginia Woolf, a lot of Faulkner, a lot of Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty. Hemingway and Melville. Just things to inform style and ways of portraying human thought. I did not want to be reading fiction for material—I was trying to take that from nonfiction only.
OA: Why did you choose to center on an Anglo family, the McCulloughs, in a story that generally portrays Anglo contributions to history in a less than flattering light?
PM: The American Creation Mythology, at least for the past three centuries, has been centered on Anglos. Even non-Anglos grow up with this mythology. I am not sure the book portrays Anglo contributions to history as less than flattering. It simply portrays the truth about how most of the land in America was acquired—whether by Native Americans, Anglos, or other modern Europeans. I wasn’t trying to be flattering, unflattering, or anything else. I was trying to be truthful and accurate. I was trying to show the history of the frontier from the three major angles—Anglo, Spanish/Mexican, and Native American.
We tend to grow up with a sense of good guys and bad guys—this side was morally right and this side wasn’t. In a few cases, say, in the case of Nazi Germany, this is true. But for the most part, when you start digging into the history, you start seeing how arbitrary it is to draw moral lines. People, for the most part, are just people.
OA: Living in Austin, you must be aware that this history is generally not what the state acknowledges, or teaches in its schools. How did you become interested in it? How did you find your story within it?
PM: I moved to Texas for graduate school and have lived there almost a decade. I fell in love with the state pretty quickly. But, because I didn’t grow up in Texas, I was never subjected to the seventh grade history class everyone has to take, and I didn’t grow up with one-fourth true, three-fourths mythological stories about my ancestors. Which in some ways was an enormous handicap—I had to go learn all that stuff from the historical record, which took forever. On the other hand, it was enormously liberating. I had no baggage, no voice inside my head saying “don’t say that.”
There are a lot of really smart people from old Texas families—especially those who have relatives on both the Anglo and the Mexican sides—who understand pretty well the ways that Anglos came to dominate the state—which, it bears mentioning, is no different from the way that any one culture on earth comes to dominate another culture. Every inch of this continent—from New York to California—was claimed when we landed here; we took every inch by force or coercion. And while it’s crucial to realize that, it’s equally crucial to realize that this is how humans, or cultures, almost always acquire land. It’s how we took it from the Native Americans and it’s also how the Native Americans took it from each other. I’ve noticed that when you say this, people on both sides tend to get mad at you, but unfortunately, it’s true. People are just people.
As far as the official state line, there are certain Texas historians, most of them fairly senile by now, who have a John Wayne way of looking at things that is completely disconnected from reality. If you say anything honest, you are “bashing Texas.” And, hey, I love my adopted state. But that is not going to stop me from telling the truth about it.
And I guess this is the reason I don’t trust autobiography very much. I doubt I’ll ever write about Baltimore, where I grew up. It’s too hard to figure out what’s real and what’s not.