Interview: Philipp Meyer set for 2013 Edinburgh Book Festival
Author of American Rust and The Son appears with Patrick Flanery
This article is from 2013.
With his 2009 debut novel American Rust, Philipp Meyer's depiction of the decline of American industry recalled John Steinbeck's vivid descriptions of the 1930s Depression. In his new novel, an epic named The Son, which follows the fortunes of the McCullough family of Texas from the early nineteenth century to our present day, Meyer again tackles American history and myth. But he wouldn't necessarily call himself a political writer. Rather, the novel as a form can 'gently instruct' insofar as 'you can tell the truth about a situation and do your best to never have the character speak exactly what you mean, but you can show how you think the world works through the structure of the book and the reaction of the characters.' Indeed for Meyer, the characters are central. It is through their experiences that the reader glimpses the world in which those characters act. 'When I see a line or a paragraph that I think is just brilliant and explains the world exactly as I see it I delete it or cross it out immediately,' he says. 'I distrust it. Your job as a writer is to find storylines, narrative structures, and characters to show the things that you believe rather than saying them or telling them.'
The son of artistic parents, Meyer grew up in a working class neighbourhood in Baltimore. Although he dropped out of high school, he eventually studied at Cornell University, after which he went to work on Wall Street before re-training as an ambulance driver and working in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Although he doesn't credit either with influencing his writing directly, he says on Wall Street he saw 'how the other half really lives, spending enormous amounts of money on food and wine. It showed me something I could never have seen in the neighbourhood I grew up in.' When he says he went to Katrina as the result of feeling 'morally compelled to go there,' one detects something of the ethical commitment in his books.
This attention to the realities of people's lives and the exploration of moral choices is something that is common to both American Rust and The Son. Whether he's depicting the contemporary Rust Belt, the old industrial heartlands of the tri-state area where southeast Ohio meets southwest Pennsylvania and the northern parts of West Virginia, or the Texan frontier of 1836, these twin concerns are present. The exploration of moral choices is something Meyer thinks the novel is uniquely suited to. For him, it is 'where the novel shines. Fundamentally all art is about human beings. You're always showing larger moral questions through the smaller moral, philosophical, or political choices through one character in the book. When novels deal in abstractions they generally go off the rails.'
The focus on particularity instead of abstraction is for Meyer the big difference between the novel and journalism, which he has written for the Independent and the Austin Chronicle. Even so, there is a commitment to depicting basic realities in his novels that sometimes approaches that of non-fiction. The opening description of the town of Buell in American Rust notes matter-of-factly how the mill had been closed in 1987, and The Son does not shy away from portraying both extreme violence and racism as regular occurrences on the frontier. 'You do not want to dramatise what is inherently dramatic,' Meyer says. 'If you're describing an act of violence you have to be accurate, but it's important to portray things the way people actually react to them. When people grow up in atmospheres of violence or atmospheres of poverty, they don't normally use hi-falutin' language to describe those things. They would describe some brutal event the same way we would describe getting a taxi or missing the bus.'
The Son is gaining plaudits from critics in the UK and beyond, with some tipping it to win big prizes. What it does showcase is a fiercely moral writer at the top of his game, exploring the reciprocal relationship between national myths and individual choices. One thing that wasn't a choice for Meyer, however, was becoming a writer. 'It's something that's inside of you,' he says. 'It never felt like a choice at all. The choice is how hard you're going to work to get good at it.'