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."
Meyer attended the Baltimore City Public Schools system, including Baltimore City College High School, until dropping out at age 16 and getting a GED. He spent the next five years working as a bicycle mechanic and occasionally volunteering at Baltimore's Shock Trauma Center.
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.
After several years at UBS, decided to pursue his dream of becoming a writer. He wrote a novel that he couldn't get published, a book he has called "an apprentice-level work". Meyer took jobs as an emergency medical technician and construction worker, and was preparing for a long-term career as a paramedic when, in 2005, he received a fellowship at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas, where he wrote the majority of American Rust. Random House bought American Rust at the end of 2007. During his time at the Michener Center, Meyer met fellow writer Kevin Powers, who later wrote the 2012 Iraq War novel The Yellow Birds.
The bulk of American Rust was written during Meyer's time at the Michener Center (2005–2008). In December 2007 the novel was acquired by Spiegel & Grau, a Random House imprint. American Rust was acquired by publishers in 16 countries and scheduled for translation into 11 languages. It is a third person, stream-of-consciousness narrative influenced, according to Meyer, by writers such as James Joyce, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and James Kelman. While a reviewer in The Baltimore Sun compared the novel to the work of Faulkner, other reviewers, including Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times, Ron Charles of The Washington Post, and Taylor Antrim writing in The Daily Beast, have compared Meyer to more traditional writers, including Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger, and Dennis Lehane.
American Rust was a winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize (2009). Reviewers in the UK's The Telegraph, The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and Dayton Daily News have suggested it fits the category of "Great American Novel."
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.
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." 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.
Awards and recognition
- 2009 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize shortlist for American Rust
- 2010 Dobie Paisano Fellowship
- 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship
- 2010 New Yorker's "20 Under 40" list of upcoming writers
- 2011 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award longlist for American Rust
- 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist for The Son
- John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Site "Philipp Meyer Bio"
- New Yorker "20 Under 40: Q & A Philipp Meyer" June 14, 2010
- Official Website
- "20 Under 40" interview in The New Yorker
- 2010 Los Angeles Times interview
- The Rumpus interview