Rethinking Texas myths with ‘The Son’ author Philipp Meyer
by Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer
Not long after author Philipp Meyer relocated to Texas from the East Coast, he had a gut feeling that he’d found the subject for what would become his second novel – a sweeping history of his new state.
It takes more than a little hubris to write any novel, much less an authoritative, cross-generational account of a state like Texas, particularly when you’re not even a native-born son. But as Meyer told Texas Monthly, “I have an outsized ego.”
Absolute confidence, not necessarily ego, is what came through when I spoke with Meyer recently from his second home in Spain, ahead of his April 21 return to the area for a lecture at West Texas A&M University.
Meyer – a high-school dropout who eventually earned a GED, attended Cornell University and the Michener Center for Writers at The University of Texas in Austin – previously visited the Llano Estacado while researching “The Son.” The 2013 epic was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and will be the basis of a new AMC series that begins filming in Texas in June. Meyer is one of the show’s executive producers and has written three scripts for the show with creative partner Brian McGreevy and has rewritten the other seven for the 10-episode first season, which will star Sam Neill and is expected to debut next year.
In writing the novel, Meyer camped in Palo Duro Canyon and along the Canadian River, trying to imagine what life was like for the Comanches who once ruled the Plains with iron fists.
“I hunted when I could. If I didn’t, I slept outside in all of those places,” Meyer said. “You have to. You have to see the way the light is falling. You have to see and smell stuff. Otherwise, it’s just a joke.”
The resulting novel – his second after 2008’s “American Rust” – charts the fortunes and failures of the McCullough family – from Eli, the first male child born in the Republic of Texas, to his great-granddaughter Jeannie, who becomes a 20th century oil magnate, and beyond.
Through their lives, Meyer retells the myth of the Lone Star State – at least, the one told by the white men who conquered the state and wrested it from its Mexican rulers – who took it themselves from the Spanish, who took it themselves from the various Native American tribes that once dominated here.
That’s precisely Meyer’s point: Though the Texan myth – and, in a larger sense, the American myth – is that the country was “a vast, unsettled wilderness with maybe a couple of Indians around,” America and Texas were built by one conquering nation after another.
“The American dream is based on open land and reinventing yourself. The thought that this is here, and I deserve to have a chance,” Meyer said. “But really, what that dream is based on is unsettled land. The hitch was that the land was entirely settled. Every inch of it. If ‘wilderness’ means a lack of humans, every inch of it was claimed back then.”
Unlike some depictions of peaceful tribes roaming the open lands of a pre-American continent, Meyer said his research showed “warfare and war for land had been going on in North America since the Ice Age.”
“Once I began to see this, I began to see it as a mission for the book,” Meyer said. “You don’t want to be politicking in a book, but you want to be telling something – the truth about something that matters.”
It was precisely that ambitious scope that won Meyer’s novel praise: “It’s an enveloping, extremely well-wrought, popular novel with passionate convictions about the people, places and battles that it conjures,” Janet Maslin wrote for the New York Times. “That ought to be enough.”
Meyer, named one of New Yorker’s 20 best writers under 40, will talk about his extensive research process for the book when he speaks April 21 for WT’s Distinguished Lecture Series.
“‘The Son’: Fact, Fiction and the Settling of the American West” begins at 7 p.m. April 21 in the Hazlewood Room at Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, 2503 Fourth Ave. A Q&A and book signing will follow. The event is free; call 806-6651-2457 for information.
“I’ve heard him talk about the effort that he put into capturing the realism,” said Alex Hunt, the WT English professor who is bringing Meyer to the school. “It’s obvious he did a lot of historical research. … He’s writing fiction, not history, but it seems to me he’s very well rounded in his understanding of the various historical periods … that he’s writing about.”
Meyer said he couldn’t imagine writing the novel in any other way.
“You have to learn this stuff yourself,” he said. “You read these things” – Meyer figures he read almost 350 historical accounts of Texas – “and you figure out biases, the contexts of when they were written.
“You figure those out to figure out what the truth is.”