Philipp Meyer's second novel, The Son, is one of the most anticipated literary releases of the year. A true epic that encompasses generations and traces 200 years of Texas history, it challenges our own creation myths and explores the costs of survival. We asked Meyer a few questions about the book and how far he'd gone in the name of research.
To reduce it to its most basic, The Son is a creation story—the creation of a family dynasty, a state and even a country, since as Jeanne argues, America would not be what it is without Texas oil. Versus your debut, American Rust, which is the story of an America in decline. How do you see the two books in relation to each other?
When I started writing The Son I wanted to do something that was the opposite of American Rust—I didn’t want to be seen as a guy who only wrote about one class or one group of people or one set of problems. I was interested in the American creation myth, the story that we all believe about how our country (and by extension, ourselves) came to be. The more I read and researched the more I realized that almost everything I’d believed about our creation myth or national narrative or whatever you might call it—was wrong. The John Wayne version we all learn as a child (noble Anglo goes into the wilderness, fights off vicious Indians, etc.) was clearly wrong, but the version I’d learned in college, which I might roughly summarize as: “Europeans all bad, Native Americans all good” was also wrong. The truth is actually much simpler, which is that regardless of their race or cultural background or skin color, people are just people, and they mostly act the same—for better and for worse.
If I didn't trust the book knowledge I would go out and do the real thing. For instance, because the Comanches and other plains tribes depended so heavily on the buffalo, I knew I needed to understand what the inside of a buffalo actually smelled like, what the blood actually tasted like, etc.
You grew up in Baltimore, and now live in Austin, Texas. Was your move what drew you to write about the state's history?
When I was doing an MFA at the Michener Center I took a Texas history class. The more I learned about the state, the more I saw that the history of Texas is like a very compressed version of the history of America as a whole. I did not, and do not, really think of this as a “Texas book.” It’s a book about the way our country was founded and settled.
This is a novel that truly deserves the description "epic." Each of the three main narratives could have been a novel on its own, and Eli's captivity story in particular contains an incredible level of detail about Comanche customs and culture. What sort of research did you do for this book?
In total I read between 250 and 350 books, of which I still have about 250. Of course I interviewed dozens of people as well. And I walked and camped and slept out in most of the places I describe in the book, took careful notes about flora and fauna, read archeological studies about how the flora and fauna have changed over time. I read every single first-hand account of early Texas I could find. From an environmental or natural history standpoint, Texas has changed enormously over the past 150 years, and those early narratives are crucial for figuring out how. One very obvious thing is that back then, nearly the entire state was a grassland.
I also took several weeks of tracking classes and spent a lot of time in the woods learning how to track and study animals. I taught myself how to hunt with a bow and arrow, killed (and ate) several deer and tanned their hides, helped a rancher with his buffalo harvest (which meant dispatching buffalo with a hunting rifle—when you buy grass-fed buffalo steak at your local supermarket, it comes from ranches like that one). I also drank a cup of warm blood straight from the neck vein of one of the animals, which I would not recommend to anyone.
For some of the battle stuff I took a bunch of classes at Blackwater, the private military contractor. I wanted to know how do you actually win (or lose) a gunfight, how do you clear a house, what happens to your mind in those situations and how to people who kill for a living (professional warrior types) deal with it. Most of the philosophical stuff about combat—"you have to love other people's bodies more than your own"—comes from these retired Special Forces guys, particularly one guy from Seal Team Six who I became friends with.
In terms of my process, I would basically write and write and every time I hit a gap in my knowledge I would stop writing and go and read everything I could on that subject. If I didn't trust the book knowledge I would go out and do the real thing—learn the actual skill or sleep in the actual place. For instance, because the Comanches and other plains tribes depended so heavily on the buffalo and used the animal so completely, I knew I needed to understand what the inside of a buffalo actually smelled like, what the blood actually tasted like, etc. I learned how to start a fire with two sticks, to twist cordage from plant fibers and sinew. I became friends with some Comanches and they made me a traditional bow and arrows—which turned out to be much harder to shoot than even a modern bow. I went hunting with blackpowder rifles and acquired some old blackpowder pistols to figure out they worked and how reliable (and unreliable) they were. I’d ridden horses a few times before, but didn’t know much about them, so I hung around horse people and took lessons until I felt comfortable enough to write about horses.
Texas was built on the destruction of two previous cultures, the Native Americans and the Mexicans. At one point, Eli says that "There was nothing you could take that had not belonged to some other person." Is it possible to create without destroying?
It is not just Texas that was built on the destruction of other cultures. It is every other single state in America. There were likely about 20 million people living in North America when modern Europeans began to arrive in the 1500’s. In New York State alone, there were dozens of native American tribes and nations. Of course a few individuals survived here and there, but for all practical purposes, we (of European descent) wiped them all out. We have this national mythology that our ancestors carved out a country from the wilderness, but in fact there was no wilderness. The entire continent, every square inch of it, was already claimed. There was no “free” land—the whole place had been settled for 10 or 15 thousand years.
The book is told mainly from three different perspectives, always in the Eli-Jeannie-Peter order, rather than in the order those characters appear in the family genealogy. Why did you choose to order the chapters in this way? Do you see Jeannie as being more of a direct descendant of Eli than his own son?
Most of the reason you do that is because you want to alternate the sound and tones and rhythms for the audience—the same way a composer might. And of course you also have to make sure you are telling the story in a sensible way. But this was not something I decided on at the beginning. I changed the chapters around constantly as I wrote the book. It’s useful to make plans and outlines, but you have to be willing to discard them as soon as you see the truth of what comes out on the page.
What was it like writing from a female point-of-view? Did Jeannie's position as a woman in a man's world—and a woman who doesn't particularly identify with other women of her time—make it easier for you to imagine her inner life?
I think with any character, male or female, young or old, modern or historical, you know almost nothing about them when you start writing and you always looking for some commonality you have with them. When you find this, it becomes the thread you use to pull yourself inside them. To paraphrase Eudora Welty, our job is to inhabit the skins of all our characters, whether they are saints or serial killers. I think actors go through a very similar process, though of course they are working with a character who has already been invented.
Your work has been compared to a lot of literary greats—Steinbeck, Faulkner, Hemingway, just to name a few. Were any of these authors a particular inspiration to you, and if not, who is?
I think the people I mostly look to for inspiration are the big modernists. If I had to pick three, it would be Woolf, Faulkner and Joyce. Of course there is a lot to learn from Hemingway and Steinbeck, from Welty, from Flannery O’Connor. But I’m pretty omnivorous. I’ll read the postmodernists. I’ll read detective fiction. I’ll pretty much read anything until I see I’m not going to learn from it.
What are you working on next?
I think it’s time for me to take a break from this modernist stuff, so the new book is leaning a lot more toward magic realism.
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Read our review of The Son.