Philipp Meyer presents his highly anticipated second novel, an intensely researched saga about a boy captured by Comanche in 1850s Texas
He has been compared to John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy and Ernest Hemingway. As you might imagine, the burden of expectations Philipp Meyer shoulders is mighty, indeed. In 2009, Meyer published his first novel, American Rust, to great acclaim. He parlayed that success into a reported $1 million advance for his second novel, The Son, which has already earned a great deal of buzz. Some even say this book will win the Pulitzer.
"If someone is killed, I want it to be seen as a loss of a human being. The simplest thing is, don’t make it too beautiful."
The Son is a sprawling, violent epic spanning 175 years of Texas history, told from three generations of a Texas family across three eras. Meyer was trying to upend the American creation myths of popular imagination, where either Anglos arrived at an unpopulated wilderness and just happened to be attacked by Indians or that Indians were essentially peaceful people who were morally, physically and spiritually superior to the evil Anglo. “Both of these mythologies reduce these people, who were actual human beings, to characters,” Meyers says. He was careful, in the writing, to focus on humanity, particularly when depicting the violence of people fighting for land and life and liberty. “If someone is killed, I want it to be seen as a loss of a human being. The simplest thing,” Meyer says, “is don’t make it too beautiful.”
Before the buzz, though, many wondered if The Son would fall prey to the so-called curse of the second novel. “Everyone told me the book is going to suck,” Meyer says, matter-of-factly. He did not let those warnings intimidate him. In the fourth of the five years it took to write The Son, Meyer realized, “This book is actually better. It’s a much broader book, there’s humor in it, it’s philosophically wittier.” Now that the book has been released, Meyer is happy with what he’s written. “I feel like it’s right, it’s correct, it’s the way the book is supposed to be.”
Meyer comes across as a very confident writer who trusts in his craft. He writes the books he wants to read, as he believes all writers should, and considers himself his ideal reader. Meyer has a certain swagger, both in his assured prose and his demeanor, and if his writing wasn’t so damn good, that swagger might seem like arrogance. He attributes that confidence in part to parents who always supported his decisions and, in part, to knowing, “Your first draft is going to be crap, your second draft is going to be mostly crap, your twentieth draft might even be mostly crap.” Such perspective has, seemingly,
made it easier for Meyer to believe in what and how he writes. Meyer has bad days, but says, “That’s when you fake it. The point is to keep working. Whatever you say to yourself to keep you productive and actually writing is the right thing to say.”
Focusing on the work is a touchstone for Meyer, who keeps the lavish praise he receives in perspective. “That kind of praise is artistically just as damaging as really intense criticism, and equally useless. I’m much harder on my work than anyone else is,” he says. “As long as I keep doing that, my work will continue to be considered on its own merits.”
He also uses the writers he is compared to as guides. “When I’m reading my own work, I’m thinking, how does this measure up?” In the quest to measure up as best he can, Meyer completely rewrote The Son several times, even after galleys had been released.
Despite his successes, Meyer isn’t afraid to challenge himself. As he considered his second novel, he realized he didn’t know how to write a narrative that takes place over 50 years, let alone 175. It was a conscious choice, he says. “I don’t know how to do this. Let’s write a book where I am forced to learn how to do this.” Meyer was also rigorous in
his research, reading at least 350 books, mostly nonfiction, on everything from Texas folklore to Native American medicinal plant use. All the while, he was mindful about negotiating the fine balance between research and creativity. “I wrote until I hit the limit of my knowledge and wasn’t comfortable doing it anymore, then I’d stop and go off and research for a few weeks and come back and write for a few months until I ran out of knowledge again.”
If early reviews are any indication, Meyer is a fast learner. Ron Charles writes, “What a pleasure it is now to see Meyer confirm all that initial enthusiasm with a second book that’s even more ambitious, even more deeply rooted in our troublesome economic and cultural history.” Readers and critics are always in search of the next “Great American
Novel.” If Philipp Meyer has anything to say about it, they may not have to search much longer.