Philipp Meyer is not answering his doorbell. Standing in front of his apartment building, balancing the cup of coffee I said I’d bring him, a cell phone (oddly not working), and the rest of the interview detritus, I panic. Do I have the wrong day? The wrong time? Is he gone? He had said he was leaving town soon and that there was an excellent chance I wouldn’t be able to interview him about The Son, his epic American multigenerational second novel, out this June from Ecco. I’m leaning against the counter of the bodega next door when Meyer arrives. His buzzer, he explains, is broken. He’s clean-cut, handsome, and completely calm.
The confidence of his writing replicates his confidence in person. Meyer is focused, serious, completely aware, present, but also he laughs easily and smiles often. His personal history is compelling. “I have an extremely high risk tolerance,” he tells me. This is evident from his back story; Meyer is living proof that taking risks can indeed pay off.
If luck is a factor in success, Meyer’s luck seems to have come from effort, extreme discipline, and a total belief in himself and his work. “Now that I’ve rewritten it [The Son], it’s perfect,” he says. He also describes his first book, American Rust (Spiegel & Grau, 2009), as “perfect,” but he’s humble and gracious when he clarifies this statement: “I would never write in that style again, so it was perfect in the sense that it was within the aesthetic that I was working in according to my abilities at that moment—that was the best thing I could create.”
Meyer was born on May 1, 1974, in New York City, where he and his family lived until he was five. They then moved to the blue collar neighborhood of Hamden in Baltimore. Hamden originally came into being around the textile mills in the area and thrived until after the WWII. In the ’60s and ’70s, many people in Hamden lost their jobs with the closing of the mills and the collapse of the economy. “Crime was high,” Meyer says. “It wasn’t the kind of place where you thought you’d be shot, but it was rough. I got jumped constantly.” His parents were intellectual, artsy people “who never had or cared about having money,” he says. His mother is a painter, his father a sculpture and photographer who “drifted toward doing biology” in his 30s, working at Johns Hopkins until “things fell apart.” Meyer says his home life was wonderful, his parents are wonderful, and he feels like he grew up in a kind of protective shell: “inside we listened to classical music, and all my early reading came from my parents’ bookshelf. I was always reading 10 years ahead, understanding very little of it, like Crime and Punishment.” Despite the literature, Meyer was a self-professed terrible student who was bored and “failing everything” at the public school he attended. He dropped out at 16 and earned his GED. “I couldn’t understand what was important about school,” Meyer says. “Dropping out was the first adult decision I made. If I ever have kids, I would hate for them to drop out. But I wasn’t a rebel. I never cared to be against school. I just wanted to do what I wanted to do.” Not your typical truant, Meyer cut class to escape to the Johns Hopkins library, where he would sit in the stacks for hours reading.
Meyer also worked several years as a bike mechanic. “I like mechanical things; my first book was a mechanics guide—that was what my parents couldn’t pry away from me, that was the blanket,” he says. He attended a local Jesuit college, and then got accepted to Cornell University, where he studied English. But not before he was rejected by nearly “every ivy school.”
“Cornell changed my life, getting in there was one of my pinnacle moments,” Meyer says. He loved college—the fact that he was accountable for himself—and he wanted to work. He remembers a faculty member at Johns Hopkins laughing at him when he was applying. “It wasn’t out of spite or meanness, it was just his first, natural reaction to this kid from Hamden,” he says. “There is a stigma, and people do judge you. Luckily, those things are just fuel for the fire. Those things make me furious rather than breaking me, and make me work 50 times harder, which I did.” Meyer gives his parents much of the credit for instilling in him the sense that everything works out in the end. “I was never afraid, ever—I always thought I would be awesome. Not in a way that excludes anyone else, I’m just very optimistic.”
Writing came to Meyer in a way that he describes as very cliché—while he was taking a freshman composition class. “It was like a switch turning; it wasn’t intentional, it was very sudden, and I thought, ‘I’m a writer, this is who I am.’ I knew: this is what I do.” At 21 he began writing short stories, and a 600-page “self-indulgent, very bad” novel. “That is what you do when you’re young at making art. Nothing prepares you for making art except making art. You have to do it to get better.” At 31, Meyer says he got to the point where “every word was intentional, every thought, and I became completely aware of everything the reader should be thinking. You have to understand every single beat before you can declare the thing finished.” He also says he never thinks about why he’s a writer. “I just do it. Writing is who I am; it’s not a choice. The choice is how good you’re going to be at it. The art does choose you, but you have to choose how good you are going to be.”
After graduating from Cornell, Meyer worked in N.Y.C. as a derivatives trader to pay off his loans. “When you grow up without money you want the opposite. I became obsessed with not being poor and my kids not being poor. It took a couple of years of working on Wall Street to realize, though, that I really don’t care about money.” Meyer enjoyed the adrenaline rush of the job, the pressure, and the intelligence of many of his co-workers, but ultimately had trouble with the “amoral” nature of the job, and the idea that profit is all that matters, regardless of the costs to society. By this time, he had finished a first novel, which he felt was “very crummy,” and began writing another while riding the subway, on weekends, and at night. Eventually he was calling in sick to work to write. That’s when he knew it was time to leave the bank—which he did.
Two years later he was broke, he had written a novel that was rejected by almost every literary agent in America, and he had also been rejected by every graduate school writing program he applied to. Meyer moved back to Baltimore and worked at a series of blue-collar jobs, including as a construction worker and ambulance driver. He lived in his parents’ basement. He had made the decision to write, to be a writer: “I thought it would take a year; it took eight.” Meyer kept going. “All art is so labored over, then you work to erase the marks of your own labor.” His belief in the merits of hard work persevered. “If you have a certain amount of talent and self-honesty, you can become a good writer. The filter is not talent; it’s hard work. Rejection will not be tolerated.” Meyer admits, “I told myself little lies along the way: if this doesn’t work by the end of the year, I’ll do something else. Then I just kept going. The only thing that really matters is making art. Whatever it takes, you beg, borrow, and steal to do that.”
The good news is that his hard work paid off. He sold some of his stories and was accepted to the M.F.A. program at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Tex. It was there that he began writing the first novel he would publish—American Rust, an acclaimed book about two 20-something friends, bookish Isaac English and former football star Billy Poe, living in a depressed Pennsylvania steel town, who get tangled up in an act of violence that has devastating effects. The book received rave reviews; PW said “Meyer has a thrilling eye for failed dreams and writes uncommonly tense scenes of violence” (Reviews, Sept. 15, 2008). Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times compared him to Richard Russo and Salinger. In 2010, the New Yorker named him one of the 20 best writers under 40. American Rust had taken Meyer three and a half years to write. “You have to be willing to risk everything, putting something on the page, making yourself vulnerable, you can’t be afraid of being judged.” Meyer believes that the writer must completely repress his ego. “Praise that you internalize, as an artist,” he says, “is just as destructive as criticism.”
After American Rust, Meyer was “terrified.” He says he wondered, “Will I just gradually improve on this same voice? I didn’t want to do that book, that voice, again. I would be bored, I would stop learning.” Thinking about his next work, he felt something was important about the West, about Texas, in the context of American life and mythology. He dove in and spent the next five years writing The Son, a saga about the settlement of the American West and the rise of one Texas family over 200 years. “The myth is that Europeans arrived in the South, starting in Mexico, and it was untamed wilderness. You could go in and have the freedom to reinvent yourself. But that’s complete hokum. The entire continent was full of people who we slaughtered and forcibly assimilated and displaced.” Meyer estimates he read and studied over 250 books.
He says he has to fully understand something in order to feel comfortable writing about it, so for The Son, he hunted buffalo, used a bow and arrow, and tanned deer hides. He describes this book as a “difficult birth” but is totally satisfied with the outcome, and is confident, as always, of the final work. “It’s exactly the story I wanted to tell, and every word is exactly the one I wanted. I write for the audience of me. I feel the only honest opinion on art is your own.”