Philipp Meyer's 2009 debut novel, American Rust, earned numerous accolades (including a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship) and marked him as a writer of exceptional potential. With The Son--a 150-year saga of family, oil, and power set against the birth of Texas and the modern West--Meyer has seemingly fulfilled that promise. He took time to answer a few questions about the new book, including some of his unusual things he did during the course of his research, and violence as an inseparable reality of North America's past.
The Son is available May 28.
The Son is an immense novel, spanning generations, a wide swath of Texas (and American) history, and incredible cultural change. Did you always intend for it to be this ambitious, or did it grow out of a more particular idea?
I always knew it was going to be an ambitious book. The problem, when I began writing it, was that I didn’t know nearly as much I thought I did about the history of Texas and the history of the American West. And the more I learned, the more I realized I didn’t know, and the slower the writing became. There were a lot of moments of slapping my head and realizing I needed to research a whole new period of history before I could write the things that belonged in the novel, and at some point I realized that the book was basically going to take place over two hundred years. That was exciting but also a bit depressing—I was thinking I’d finish this book in three years, like my last one. It ended up taking five years.
The Son is thoroughly entertaining (and revelatory) in its period detail and vernacular, especially Eli’s experience with the Comanches. How much—and what sort of—research was required to achieve such a level of realism?
There was so much research that it all became a blur. I know I read at least 350 books, though I likely read more; 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. Not recommended. And I spent months in the woods, mountains, and deserts of Texas—I slept outside, hiked, or hunted almost everywhere the book takes place, took careful notes on and pictures of all the plants and animals I saw, then realized that the ecology of Texas had changed so enormously over the past 150 years that my notes weren’t necessarily valid. So had to go back to the historical and archeological record to research about exactly how and where and why it changed—the plants and animals I was seeing between 2008-2013 were not necessarily the plants and animals that were there in 1850 or 1870 or 1915. Texas used to be a much wetter place—much of what is now desert or brushland was grassland in 1850. The landscape has changed radically in a very short period of time.
There’s a lot of violence in this book, and scenes that
might make some readers uncomfortable. That’s part of the tale, of course,
given both the era and setting. Did you have any reservations about not holding
back? Is there intent to the way you want readers to face that violence?
I’m not sure the book is any more violent than any other book set in this time period, but I made an effort to not glorify it or gloss over it. A lot of books about the American West, about our creation myth, are full of blood and gore but there is no real sense of loss—they are like Quentin Tarantino movies. I wanted to address that tendency. I wanted the reader’s sympathies to shift from one side of the conflict to the other. I wanted the loss on both sides to be real.
That said, the politically correct part of me definitely considered toning it down—especially the scenes of combat between the Comanches and the various settler groups. But doing so would have come at such a cost to truth and accuracy that I couldn’t bring myself to do it—the historical record was too clear. The Native Americans were at war for their very survival and the European-American settlers were at war to make their fortunes and expand their country. Neither side committed any atrocity that has not been committed at some other period in history—whether earlier, during the Spanish Inquisition, or later, during the big wars of the 20th century. And I was careful that whatever violence there is in the book—whether committed by Texas Rangers, ranchers, or settlers, by Comanches or U.S. soldiers—was based on real events. It was not me imagining how things might have been.
It’s important to remember that people have been living in America for 15,000 years; thousands of cultures have risen and fallen here in that time, and, while no one was taking notes, it’s not that hard to guess that most were overthrown by force. In Texas alone, since the Spanish arrived and began writing things down, the Apaches came in and overthrew most of the other tribes and then the Comanches came in and overthrew the Apaches (and to some extent, the Spanish). The land we live on is quite literally soaked in blood; you can’t really understand American history, and what we come from, until you come to terms with that. And equally until you come to terms with the fact that, regardless of the winners or losers, the degree of brutality was basically equal on all sides. I think it’s easy to say that this brutality—the ubiquitousness of it—is the great point to be taken from human history. But that is not how I think of it. The point is that despite all that bloodshed, here we all are, still breathing, still falling in love and having children, still living our lives.
Both of your novels have a strong sense of geographical identity: American Rust in Pennsylvania and The Son in Texas. How does location shape your books? That is, does the story grow out of your experience of a place, or do you start with a story that you want to tell?
With the story. I didn’t grow up in Pennsylvania or in Texas. I just knew that this is where those books were going to be set. So I had to go and learn those settings. The location is crucial—you have to understand the economic history, the natural history, the philosophical history of a place before you can write about it. You have to know how the people look, speak, think, move, what they hope for, how they vote, how they eat, where they sleep, what they do for work. You have to know everything. Not necessarily when you start the book, but definitely before the book is done.
Who are your greatest influences? Do you read for inspiration for your own work, or to take a break from your own work?
Overall my biggest influences, and the people who I see myself as learning the most from, are the modernists, basically Woolf, Faulkner, Joyce, Hemingway, Welty, etc. But I will read anything I find compelling. I’m going through a Vargas Llosa kick and right now and just finished a few books by Lobo Antunes. As a reader, there is nothing more satisfying than coming across an under-appreciated master, or a new book by an emerging master.
As for the way I read, what happens when you cross the threshold after which you are a practitioner, or a working artist—whatever you want to call it—is that you don’t really read the same way. Probably not so different from the way a professional athlete watches a game. You are constantly observing, learning, zooming in and out on what people are doing. You’re not quite as lost in the magic of it, because you’re thinking: “holy ----, how did she/he do that!” Maybe that’s a loss. When I say it out loud, it seems like it. But in truth it doesn’t feel like it. I guess it feels like the natural evolution of my relationship to writing, or art, or the world. Somehow the pleasure of writing has supplemented or augmented the pure pleasure I used to get from reading. The amount of happiness is the same, but it comes from a slightly different place.