Festival of Books: author Philipp Meyer
First-time novelist Philipp Meyer will be at the Festival of Books on the Saturday panel, Fiction: Lives Unraveling. It was a long road, as he describes, to get his book "American Rust" to shelves. Now it is one of five finalists for the L.A. Times book prize, the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction; the prizes will be awarded in a ceremony Friday night. Meyer answered Carolyn Kellogg's questions via e-mail.
Jacket Copy: You spent time in and out of school, working at all kinds of jobs, before publishing "American Rust," your debut novel. Do you think spending time away from school helped you as a writer?
Philipp Meyer: Definitely. Probably the more defining factor, though, is that I’ve always had a pretty strong drive to follow my own instincts and curiosity. When I dropped out of high school at age 16, I didn’t know I was going to become a writer -- I just knew I’d never been happy in school and I had this strong suspicion I’d be happy doing other things. I was just following my instincts. I ended up spending five years working as a bike mechanic, about two years of which I also volunteered nights at a trauma center in downtown Baltimore. From society’s point of view, I was a complete failure -- a kid in his early 20s with a GED. But from my point of view, my life was perfect.
Eventually, I ended up going to college and getting a job on Wall Street. That [the Wall Street job] lasted about two and a half years. At the time I was working on another novel (the one before "American Rust") and thought I’d be able to get published without too much trouble. Most of my friends thought I was insane, of course.Obviously, by that point, I’d begun to self-identify as a writer. All of my big decisions revolved around one question: How is this going to affect my writing? This was 2001. I thought it might take maybe a year to get a novel published, but by 2004, I was broke and my book had been rejected by every publisher and literary agent I could think of. So I threw that novel away (which was actually the second novel I’d written) and started fresh.
By then I was living in my parents’ basement, working jobs in construction and driving an ambulance. It was a bit of a dark period, probably the most intense I’ve had as a writer. I basically threw everything out that I thought I knew about writing and started fresh. I began to ask myself the sort of foundational questions: Why am I really doing this? What is art/literature? How does art/literature actually work? What makes it so?
I’d certainly thought about those things in college, but for me, anyway, there was a big difference between thinking about them theoretically and thinking about them as a practitioner. I don’t think you can be taught how to make art. You can be coached, but on a fundamental level you have to figure it out for yourself. You have to learn how your own mind works, figure out your own relationship to the art, you essentially have to invent it completely for yourself. Any theories you learned in college should probably be thrown out.
It’s probably different for everyone, but it took me about 10 years of writing to get to the point at which I was willing to question all those things, to get to the point at which the clearest voice in my head was my own. That was when things began to turn around.
JC: What are you currently reading?
PM: Been doing a lot of research for my current novel, a multi-generational story about the rise of a Texas oil dynasty. In terms of fiction, I’m reading some Jose Saramago and the new Yann Martel. Good stuff. And, of course, I’m back to the usual suspects --"The Sound and the Fury," "Ulysses," things like that.
JC: What are you looking forward to at the festival?
PM: Off the top of my head, being on a panel with Christos Tsiolkas,
whom I met at last year’s Sydney Writers Festival. His novel "The Slap,"
which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize, is well worth reading.
JC: What do you hope to see or do in L.A. apart from the festival of
PM: Catch up with some old friends. Maybe get up to the Griffith Observatory. I know it’s super touristy, but I’ve always liked it.
JC: "American Rust" is set in former steel country, now bereft of industry, and the characters' economic hardship has been compared to the work of John Steinbeck. Was Steinbeck a touchstone for you? How about other authors?
PM: Steinbeck has always been important to me, but more in terms of content than style. I think I share a certain curiosity with him about the fundamental nature of America -- who are we, what are we and how are we changing? What is happening right now that people 50 years from now are going to think is important?
That said, if you’re going to explore those things in your work, you need a light touch. Character and story have to be primary. Everything else has to follow quietly, organically, and in service of the story itself. For instance, while I’m editing, whenever I read a section I wrote and think -- "Brilliant speech! That’s just what I meant to say!" -- I will then immediately cut that section. It seems to me that in art, whenever you’re saying exactly what you want to say, you’re probably saying it about 50,000 times too loud. And hence, not really saying it at all. When you look at "Grapes of Wrath," the weakest moments are those in which Steinbeck is spouting a political idea directly at the reader. The book’s real power comes from its slower, broader movement. It’s like the difference between getting kicked by a horse and moved by a tide -- you are not going to notice that the tide has moved you, but it has.
But back to your original question: in terms of style and form, I don’t think of my influences being Steinbeck so much as Faulkner, Joyce, Woolf and the Scottish writer James Kelman. I’m interested in getting deep into a person’s consciousness and doing so in ways in which the narrator is secondary to the character’s own thoughts.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Philipp Meyer. Credit: A. Seifert