I interviewed Philipp Meyer in 2009 when American Rust was first published (and before my blog existed). It is a book about the people and towns our modern-day economies leave behind. The book takes place in Pennsylvania, in a town where mills and factories have been closing for over a quarter of a century and one generation can’t remember them ever being open. Two friends, twenty-year-old ‘boys’, make a bad decision and must deal with the consequences.
Philipp Meyer has been hailed as the new John Steinbeck and compared with the greats of American literature. With his latest novel, The Son, it is time to stop comparing him with the greats because he has joined them. I tipped it as my book of the year back in January and still stand by it (although A Constellation Of Vital Phenomena is pretty damn close)
Philipp Meyer is in Australia in September for the Brisbane Writers Festival and we are lucky enough to have him speaking at Mosman Library on Monday September 9 at 7pm for his only Sydney appearance. This time I’ll get to interview him in person so don’t miss our event, you can book online now!
1. You grew up in Baltimore, a city that has had its share of economic hardship, what inspired you to set American Rust in Pennsylvania?
That’s a good question. There are several reasons—not necessarily in order of importance, I think. Baltimore has a more complicated story than the Mononga- hela Valley. There were many different larger industries that began to go under at similar, but not exactly the same, times—textiles, steel, ship-building—and there were also a myriad of small factories and shops, light and medium manufacturing, that began to go under as well. Baltimore also has this series of complex migrations—African Americans moving from the South into the city and later the so called “White Flight” that occurred from the 1960’s-1980’s. Whereas the Southwestern Pennsylvania area was devastated by the collapse of a single industry (steel), in a time period most people agree on (the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties being the most intense periods of job loss). Of course, the fallout continues even now—the steel mill at Allenport, which was open at the time that Isaac walked by it in the novel, was just shuttered a few months back.
Another big reason is that I find it much easier to write about places I’m not from. Something about the rhythms of daily life makes it difficult for me to be as observant about my home as I am about other places. Writing well is all about nailing those precise two or four details that describe a place or describe an emotion and transmit that feeling to the reader. The places I’m most comfortable and familiar with I tend not to observe as closely as other places. Some deep-seated animal instinct, I imagine—you get comfortable, you feel safe, you stop observing.
Also, a third reason is that it’s just what I felt—I think 99% of writing (and probably living) is about trusting your instincts—I just knew the story was set in southwest Pennsylvania, not Baltimore. Maybe another way to say it is that the story I needed to tell could not have been set in Baltimore.
2. As a trained EMT you volunteered to help in New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina. Were you ever tempted to write a novel about the political and social fallout of what happen in New Orleans?
Not yet. But hopefully life is long—who can know? I’m a pretty meticulous writer—it seems to take me three to four years to write a book. I guess what I’m getting at is that because a book is a long commitment for me, a long relationship, I just have to have strong feelings when I ought to enter into that relationship. I haven’t felt that way about New Orleans. My next book will be set in Texas and will deal with a different segment of American Society. I don’t know why, but it’s giving me the same feeling I had about setting American Rust in Pennsylvania, so off I go…
3. What is it like to have your first novel compared to Steinbeck?
Extremely flattering. It feels pretty darn good, frankly, which is exactly why I don’t let myself think about it. I’m flattered and I feel extremely grateful, but I think the way I have to deal with whatever success (or failure) I have is to remind myself that any comparisons folks make right now are no more or less true than they were when I was writing in comparative anonymity two years ago—this entire book was written before I had an agent or publisher. My reasons for writing—which is that I want to write good books, but that they have to be judged by my own measures—have to remain my own. I can’t overstate how grateful I am that people like American Rust, how flattered I am that anyone would want to spent time with it, but in some way I need to protect whatever it is inside me that feels compelled to hole up and spent 3 or 4 years writing a book.
4. You have worked as a derivatives trader, a construction worker and an EMT. How have these experiences shaped you as a person and as a writer?
Enormously. Like any life experience, those experiences have shaped me so enormously that we would have to sit down on a beach with several cases of beer to really cover it. Working as a derivatives trader showed me a very different side of life and society than I was used to—I’m grateful for that. Working construction gave me skills that I just appreciate having—if I had to, I could build and plumb and wire a house, though not very quickly—and exposed me to a very interesting set of people, quite different from the Wall Street crowd. In some sense the construction job also brought me round to my roots—after going to Cornell and working on Wall Street I was suddenly back in Baltimore among working-class people, the sort of folks I spent my time with when I was outside the house. I feel compelled to point out here that despite the fact that I grew up in this blue-collar neighborhood, my parents are more artsy intellectual types—my mother is an artist, and my father, though he worked manual-labor type jobs throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, got a job teaching at a university in the 1985 or so and kept it until quite recently. So I’ve never really been quite sure who exactly my people are, and what class I’m from.
Being an EMT was in some sense the most enlightening experience, it gave me some sense of the way different people deal so differently with mortality—we all have these complex relationships with the idea of the end of our lives. And having people die in front of you—this is a very ancient and frankly normal experience, or at least it was until about 100 years ago, in the industrialized world. I have complicated feelings about it, but I feel at peace with it. I half-suspect that this clinical distancing from death, at least in the first world, has been bad for our collective psyche.
5. What advice would you give to a young person wanting to be a writer?
The same advice some writer gave me about a dozen years ago: “keep writing, keep writing, keep writing.” I don’t even remember who told me that, just that they were famous enough to be giving a talk at some college auditorium, and I was a student and I asked them that question, and that was their answer. It’s the right answer. It’s the only answer, really.
I’d say from the time I was 21 until I was maybe 27, I wrote 3-4 times per week. With some exceptions, of course. By the time I was maybe 27, I was sure I wanted to be a novelist—I was writing nearly every day, at night, in the morning, on the train. But I didn’t yet know what I was willing to give up for it, other than all my free time.
A year later, by age 28, I was willing to give up a very good job on Wall Street. I convinced myself that I’d be successful right away, which was incorrect, and probably a lie necessary to tell myself so I’d quit that job. I think that speaking generally during this period, I often made the right choices (about my writing) though I didn’t understand the reasons. Leaving that job, which was fairly demanding, freed up an enormous amount of emotional and intellectual energy that I then devoted to my writing. Which was still at the apprentice level, though I couldn’t quite admit it to myself at the time.
I guess what I discovered about myself in the end, for reasons that I still don’t quite understand, is that I was willing to give up everything to write, as long as I was still able to treat my friends and family with dignity and respect. But it took seven or eight years to come to that conclusion. Before then, it really was just about writing as much as I was able to. Which is just what that guy told me thirteen years ago—keep writing. That’s all that matters. The rest will fall into place.