Bookforum talks with Philipp Meyer

The Son BY Philipp Meyer. Ecco. Hardcover, 576 pages. $27.

I met Philipp Meyer, author of 2009’s American Rust and the newly published The Son, at the bar of Dallas’s Belmont Hotel, which is cut into a hillside between I-35E and I-35W, the approximate reach of the frontier in the 1850s—the time of The Son’s opening events. Meyer’s epic new novel follows Eli McCullough, born in the first days of the Republic of Texas, who as a child is taken captive by Comanches and later returns to found an uneasy dynasty. Among the book’s sentences that could be read as themes for the whole: “There was nothing you could take that had not belonged to some other person.” Meyer also makes useful allusion to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a book that has multiple uses in The Son—at one point, its pages are stuffed into a Comanche battle shield procured by a Texas rancher (a true story, by the way).

When I interviewed Meyer, the Baltimore native told me that the copy of The Son—a reviewer’s galley—I had read was not the real one. The Son’s last third was significantly altered in the late stages, after the review copies were sent out. I said I would read the revised book; he said not to sweat it. We forged on, talking about the mythology of the West, old cowboy novels, and Virginia Woolf.

Bookforum: The Son has been getting some great critical attention, and there’s been a lot of talk about your research: How you gained first-hand knowledge of your characters by learning to track, hunt with a bow, tan hides, drinking buffalo blood. Do you think that background research is important to you as a writer or to an understanding of your writing?

Meyer: The thing is, unless I’m really sure about what I’m seeing, what the environment is, how the people actually are, their psychological and emotional states, it’s very difficult for me to write a word. So I would write up to the limit of my knowledge, realize what I had to learn, and then go learn it. There were parts of the research that were fun, but what I actually care about is doing the writing. The research is not work—it takes up time and it costs money. There’s this guy who just came out with this Chechnya book, his name is Anthony Marra. It’s a debut novel. He was talking in the Times about how he liked doing the research for his book. I felt the complete opposite. I resented all of it. I’m very lucky to have been able to do it, but I always felt guilty.

Bookforum: Texans are a hard group to please. Many of us are very knowledgeable about the land and history, and we’ll pick you apart if we think you’ve gotten our state wrong. But you went for it.

Meyer: Yeah, I was very intimidated. First because I was beginning to realize how little I knew—I’d taken a couple history classes and I’d read all the novels about Texas, all the big ones, anyway. And I was worried about being condemned by native Texans. But that never happened even once. People were very friendly. They were like, “Boy, all right, you know what you’re getting into.” There’s a certain pride of place here, but there’s no snobbery. I was never anything but welcomed.

Bookforum: Well, a friend of mine was upset about what might go down as one of the great Texas novels putting more deeply into the popular consciousness outdated or stereotyped ideas about Texans for decades to come: the outlaw Rangers, Mexican massacres, cattle rustling, and so on.

Meyer: Had he read the book, or just read the reviews?

Bookforum: He hadn’t read the book.

Meyer: If someone who’s a native Texan thinks it’s unfair, then they should go write a book. It’s just going to help all of us. If you don’t like the existing literature, go make new literature that is what you think. The selling points, what people are talking about, all the violence in the history—I think there’s an accurate amount of violence for the various time periods, but that’s not all there is. I think now that the book is out I’ll probably hear a lot more of that, like, why do you get to write about my hometown?

The thing is, it’s easier to write about someplace if you’re not from there. I’ll probably never write about Baltimore. I don’t trust my impressions of it: I don’t know which ones are real, which ones are sentimental, which ones are tied to experiences I had as a child or teenager or whatever point of my life. I don’t know how to parse those things out. When I’m writing about a foreign environment or a slightly foreign environment—I’ve learned the stuff and I do trust my judgment. I’ve read three hundred and fifty books on this stuff. At a certain point I was like, there’s some way in which you’ve figured out a context for the settlement of Texas and of the West that hasn’t been put out there.

Bookforum: What about the lives of captives, such as the Eli character? What is the context there?

Meyer: In the 1850s, I-35 was the frontier. Two hundred years earlier, the frontier was I-95, basically running through the East Coast region of the US. That’s where the frontier was, just a sliver of the coast, cities like what would be Philadelphia and east of that. But no matter where they were, the experiences of settlers were basically identical; captives were taken nonstop and the treatment of captives was pretty equal.

The only study I know of this is called “White Into Red,” which is this guy’s graduate thesis. He looked at every instance of Native American captivity from early settlements, like Jamestown, to the very end. The interesting thing is that after captives had been with Native Americans for a few years, no matter what band they were in and what area, they had a really hard time reintegrating into their society. That’s what the data show. It was harder to come back from that than to adjust to it.

Bookforum: How did you choose your form, with its multiple time periods and narrators?

Meyer: Examining the creation myth was a fundamental part of my original conception of the book, but there were eight or ten characters—I killed them off one by one. It was more set in the modern day, those early versions of Texas ranching, but there were a lot of characters talking about what it meant to be from Texas and the philosophical occasions of the settlement of the West. About two and a half years into it I realized I was going to have to engage in some amount of mythmaking or the structure was not going to hold, it’s just me talking. It’s like me pulling a Don DeLillo: Here’s a sociological narrative in the guise of fiction. Most of his books are like, “Hi, I’m going to tell you about this thing, which could easily be a nonfiction tract, but I’m going to bury it in this fictional work.” Maybe I’m just sensitive to it, but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted the structure of the story to carry the message much more than the words people are speaking, and I didn’t want the characters to be saying something that I really agreed with.

Bookforum: Growing up here you learn a lot of Texas history, and much of it turns out to be incomplete or obscured in some way. Is it like that coming from other places? Do you grow up with a sense of yourself, true or not, based on where you come from?

Meyer: Oh God, no, that’s Texas. I think hardly anyplace else, except maybe the Western states like Wyoming or Montana, have this mythology.

Bookforum: A lot of the talk has been about the violence, the problematic history, but I didn’t really think The Son was about that. There’s actually a lot of humor, tenderness. I take it you don’t think of yourself a fatalist.

Meyer: No, I don’t at all. I’m pretty optimistic. I never realized that until now, but yeah, I’m very optimistic.

Bookforum: That’s what I thought, but what are the things in your book that you think show that?

Meyer: There’s no one on earth that understands just how much killing and butchering has actually occurred even in the last one hundred years. You sort of know it but push it out of your head. But despite all of that, here we are, living, breathing, falling in love, having kids, and that is what matters. What matters is your existence. The killing, butchering, all of that is not the point of life, it’s just a point of fact. The world is actually getting better. It’s still fucked up, but it’s getting better, and two hundred years from now it’ll be even better.

Bookforum: In terms of your novels, in content and style, people have brought up first Steinbeck, Faulkner, now McCarthy, those heavy American references. I’m wondering what you would say has been influential to you?

Meyer: The person I was reading a lot during the writing of The Son was Woolf. The last book, weirdly, it was Faulkner, and Ulysses, Joyce but specifically Ulysses. I’ve read Blood Meridian like twenty times. I used to walk around reading it aloud, getting the rhythms and the mouth feel of the language. The textures are so nice. But I think McCarthy is a much narrower writer than Faulkner was. I don’t think you can compare them. Stylistically McCarthy’s a genius, but in terms of what they’re saying about humanity, his view was very narrow. Faulkner you can argue was dark but he was not, he was a fairly optimistic guy. Despite the violence there’s a broadness and a hopefulness that does not exist in McCarthy. I think that’s self-indulgent on Cormac’s part, but I don’t know, I never met him. I probably never will.

Bookforum: What about Woolf?

Meyer: Woolf is amazing. The older I get, the more I get into her work every year. She was really getting inside the minds of her characters, like, I’m going to try this way, I’m going to try this way, I’m going to try this way. There’s an amazing book of her short stories. The book’s done chronologically and you can see what she’s trying in this decade, what’s she’s trying in this decade. You’re like, this is a great writer—she’s pushing herself.

Bookforum: In The Son, some of the cowhands are reading cowboy novels (Comanche captive turned Texas Ranger turned Confederate colonel turned cattleman turned oilman Eli rues “the moment his cowboys began to read novels about cowboys”). Did you read any of those?

Meyer: Sure, but they’re crappy, like bad romance fiction. But it was more the idea about how mythologizing starts. The mythologizing was happening as the real events were taking place. You have Buffalo Bill and his Wild West shows going on as the frontier was open. It’s the same with these cowboy novels. You have cowboys in large numbers and novels mythologizing them at the same time. In truth the cattle industry lasted twenty years; the idea of Cowboys versus Indians essentially never existed. Cowboys might have fought Indians occasionally, but mostly, cowboys were like long-haul truck drivers. They gave any Native American–held lands a wide berth.

In fact, this country was subjugated by local militias that would spring up—the frontierspeople and the army to a small extent. That is combat in North America: people willing to risk their lives and their children’s lives to live on good land. And that’s who first settled the country, the poor people.