New novel traces Texas history
Author to read in Fort Greene
Philipp Meyer, author of the critically acclaimed “American Rust” and one of The New Yorker’s “20 under 40,” has recently published his second novel, “The Son”, in which he illustrates a slice of Texas history.
In “The Son,” Meyer follows a prominent Texas family through multiple generations. With time period and perspective shifting between family members, Meyer’s novel unfolds with engaging suspense. On March 2, 1836 – on the same day that the Republic of Texas is founded – Eli McCullough is born. Eli lives to be one hundred, and the book begins with a 1936 excerpt from his recollections of his earlier life. As a boy, Eli and his family were victims of a traumatic invasion by Comanche raiders who raped and killed his mother and sister and kidnapped Eli and his brother. Although the brother died soon after, Eli eventually becomes the admired adopted son of the chief.
Eli’s survival skills enable him to endure the disease and over-settlement that devastate the Comanche population. Eventually winding up alone, Eli must reintegrate into the “civilized” world into which he was born. Bringing with him a tough demeanor and keen instincts, Eli secures enormous wealth and influence through his acquisition of land.
Intermixed with Eli’s accounts are the narratives of two of his descendants. Eli’s son, Peter, expresses through diary entries his apprehensions about his family’s fortune and power. Despite his ambivalence, he is inevitably tied to the land. Peter’s granddaughter, Jeannie, also has a voice in the story. She too feels inextricably linked to her family’s holdings, and opts to diverge from her brother, who lives a comfortable life in the North.
With a backdrop of Texas history that spans a century and a half, “The Son” explores the complex implications of claiming land and privilege, bringing to light racial tensions and inequalities that are deeply embedded in America’s thorny past.
Meyer will appear in Brooklyn on June 19 at Fort Greene’s Greenlight Bookstore to read from and discuss his book. In celebration, Brooklyn Eagle checked in with the author, who tells us about his path to becoming a writer and offers a preview of what he’s working on now:
The shifting point of view in “The Son” makes for an interesting way to tell the story. Did you intend to use that format from the outset?
I did. It’s the same one I used for my first novel, American Rust. It’s a lot more work—you have to figure out multiple styles, multiple rhythms of speech and thought, you have to change the type of language for each character—but I think it represents reality a lot more accurately. Without ever having to say a word, you can show through the structure just how interwoven human lives actually are—present, past, and future. How the life of the father affects the son or how two very smart people can come to completely opposite conclusions, and how sometimes this might be tragic, while other times it might be beautiful.
On a related note, this is a lengthy, comprehensive story that covers an enormous amount of history. When you began writing did you expect to address such a large chunk of time, or did that change and develop once you got started?
That definitely was not my original intention. I knew “The Son” was going to be a longer book than “American Rust”, and I knew I wanted it to take place over a much longer time frame. “American Rust” takes place over two weeks and when I began writing “The Son” I didn’t really understand how to write a story that took place over a longer time frame, say, multiple decades. A lot of my writing is driven by a need to learn things I don’t understand, or do things I don’t know how to do. I originally thought “The Son” would take place over maybe sixty or seventy years. It ended up being almost two centuries.
What sort of research went into the making of this novel?
Much more than I really wanted. I’m interested in writing, not doing research, but the longer I worked on the book the more I realized that to get at the point I was trying to make, it would have to encapsulate the history of the settlement of the west all the way up to the present day.
So, over the course of five years, basically as need dictated, I read at least 350 books on everything from Texas wildcatters to Native American plant use to primitive bow building. I took weeks of animal tracking classes, spent a month at Blackwater (the private military contractor) learning combat skills and soaking up the warrior culture for the sections on both the Comanches and the early Texas Rangers; I taught myself to bowhunt and killed several deer, ate them, tanned various deer hides. I shot two buffalo (whose meat was destined for restaurants and grocery stores) and because the Plains tribes sometimes did it for survival purposes, I drank a cup of warm blood from the neck of one of the animals. And I spent months in the woods, mountains, and deserts of Texas—I slept outside, hiked, or hunted almost everywhere the book takes place, taking careful notes on and pictures of all the plants and animals I saw and then comparing what I saw to the historical record. Texas these days is thought of as a generally dry place, but that was not the case a hundred fifty years ago. It was actually pretty lush: a garden of Eden, though a violent one.
Your first novel, ‘American Rust,’ is also a location- and history-based text, largely shaped by American culture and events. Have you always had an interest in American history?
I don’t know. I have an interest in how things work, generally, whether it’s something like a radio or light bulb or the transmission in my truck, and of course that includes how people think and what shapes our minds and personalities. Of course, history is a part of that. But I’m not really conscious of having an interest in history, per se. I think I’m just generally curious and also I’m not embarrassed when I don’t know things. I’ll pretty much ask anyone anything if I think they have something interesting to say.
Can you talk a bit about your path to becoming a writer?
Sure. I was a pretty bad student most of my childhood, dropped out of high school when I was sixteen, spent a number of years working as a bike mechanic and an orderly in a trauma center. In my early twenties I decided to go to college and during my first semester a switch went off and I knew I was a writer. It was a pretty clear thing. I have never thought about what it means to be a writer or why I became one—it’s just in me and I am baffled by people who spend a lot of time examining what it means. You’re either an artist or you’re not—the only choice is how hard you’re going to work at it.
At any rate, the journey from realizing I was a writer to becoming a published author was fairly long. I wrote a novel in undergrad, which was 600 pages and very bad. I got a job on Wall Street to pay off my student loans, began writing a second novel, quit the job thinking I’d be the next Jonathan Safran Foer or Zadie Smith…then failed pretty miserably. The second novel was better than the first but still basically mediocre, and I couldn’t find an agent or publisher for it.
I ran out of money and moved back in with my parents when I was about 30. I went back to blue collar jobs, working construction and driving an ambulance.
There was a pretty intense period of asking myself questions about my work (how does literature actually work on the sentence, page, and structural levels, how are you actually trying to communicate with the audience). After which I figured out how to write in one voice and tell one type of story and got a few stories published. And got into graduate school. It was in grad school—at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, TX—that I wrote “American Rust”, which took about three years. After that I wrote “The Son”, which took five years. And now…here we are…eighteen years after I decided I was a writer.
What are you working on now?
As mentioned above, I get pretty bored with myself; I don’t want to spend three or five years of my life on something I already understand or already know how to do. So the next book will be magic realism, or my take on it. Subject matter is my take on Homer and Virgil’s take on the afterlife, which is a more mystical and interesting place than the way Dante wrote about it.
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Philipp Meyer is the author of the critically lauded novel American Rust, winner of the 2009 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. It was an Economist Book of the Year, a Washington Post Top Ten Book, a New York Times Notable Book, on Newsweek’s List of “Best. Books. Ever.” and an Amazon Top 100 Book of 2009. In 2010, Meyer was named in the New Yorker’s list “20 under 40” and received a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He is a graduate of Cornell University and has an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin, where he was a James A. Michener Fellow. A native of Baltimore, he splits his time between New York City and Austin.
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The June 19 will begin at 7:30 p.m. Greenlight is located at 686 Fulton St. in Fort Greene.
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