Philipp Meyer reads from ‘The Son’

20 september 2014

Philipp Meyer’s novel The Son was published in May 2013. It was described in press releases as “an epic of Texas”, with the plot concerning “three generations of a Texas family: Eli, his son Pete and Pete’s granddaughter Jeanne. Each face their own challenges – Comanche raiders, border wars and a changing civilization, respectively.

Philipp Meyer (born 1974) is an American fiction writer, and is the author of the novels _American Rust_ and _The Son_, as well as short stories published in _McSweeney’s Quarterly_, _The Iowa Review_, and _Esquire UK_. Meyer is the recipient of a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship. He grew up in Hampden, a blue-collar Baltimore, Maryland, neighborhood often featured in the films of John Waters. His mother is an artist; his father is an electrician turned college biology instructor (Meyer describes them as “counterculture, bohemian intellectuals.”). Meyer considers his major literary influences to be “the modernists, basically Woolf, Faulkner, Joyce, Hemingway, Welty, etc.”

At age 20, while taking college classes in Baltimore, Meyer decided to become a writer. He also decided to leave his hometown and at 22, after several attempts at applying to elite colleges, was admitted to Cornell University. Cornell was a hugely positive experience for Meyer, who reflected that “All of the sudden I wasn’t alone, […] All of the sudden I had tons of friends who were doing interesting shit, who continue to do interesting shit.” During his time at Cornell, Meyer wrote a 600 page novel that he subsequently decided not to try and get published, later dismissing it as “self-indulgent undergrad nonsense” and a “complete turd”. Meyer graduated Cornell with a degree in English.

Toward the end of composing _American Rust_, Meyer sought to find another subject through which he could explore what he felt was the “creation myth of America”. Meyer’s original vision for _The Son_ was quite different from the final novel; it originally featured “six or seven characters”, was “set in the present day”, and “was conceived […] as a book about the rise of a family dynasty and America’s relationship with war and violence.” After two and a half years working on this version, Meyer realized that “these characters were talking about this legendary guy, and they were commenting on the American myth, in a way. And finally […] it finally hit me that … I needed the legendary character [Eli McCulloch] in the book.”

The inspiration for the revised novel grew out of recalling his time studying for his MFA at the University of Texas, during which Meyer became familiar with the so-called “Bandit War” of 1915-1918. He saw the potential for a novel concerning the Bandit Wars and the “creation myth of Texas” to explore broader historical issues about the development of America as a whole. After _American Rust_’s publication, Meyer began to research Texas history more closely. Meyer has estimated that he read 350 or so books about the history of Texas and diverse topics from captivity narratives to guides on bird tracks in the course of his composition of the novel. To gather historically accurate material for the book, Meyer learned how to tan deer hides, taught himself how to hunt with a bow, spent a month with military contractor Blackwater for firearms training, and shot a buffalo at a ranch so he could drink its blood – giving him a reference point for Commanche rituals.
With _The Son_, Meyer sought to write “[…] a modernist take on the American creation myth. I didn’t want the characters to be mythological figures, the way they’re presented to us as kids in movies and in some books.” The writing took five years.

Meyer has described the novel-in-progress as “[a] partly historical novel about the rise of an oil and ranching dynasty in Texas, tracing the family from the earliest days of white settlement, fifty years of open warfare with the Comanches, the end of the frontier and the rise of the cattle industry, and transitioning into the modern (oil) age. The rise of Texas as a power pretty closely parallels America’s rise to global power, for obvious reasons. And I wanted to write about the parts of America that are growing, rather than declining.”

Meyer has said that he has conceived _The Son_ to be the second part of a trilogy of novels that began with _American Rust_.

The Son was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

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