A roundabout road to literary success for Austin’s Philipp Meyer

10:30 p.m Saturday, June 1, 2013 Insight and Books

Austin’s Philipp Meyer took an unusual route to becoming one of America’s most acclaimed new writers.

The 39-year-old author of a new Texas epic called “The Son” dropped out of school at 15; worked as a bicycle repairman; realized he was “getting dumber”; got his GED; applied to the Ivy League; was accepted at Cornell; graduated with an English degree; interned as a derivatives trader on Wall Street and then was hired full-time; grew tired of high finance; moved back to his parents’ Baltimore home to live in their basement; and worked on his writing but thought he’d end up as an emergency medical technician.

Then, in 2004, he received a big gift: He was accepted as a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas and came to Austin in 2005. He used the time well, writing the majority of “American Rust,” his novel about the decline of the American steel industry and its effects on two young men in Pennsylvania.

It received rave reviews and led to the New Yorker’s naming Meyer in 2010 to its “20 under 40” list, which is compiled once a decade to highlight 20 young writers who capture the inventiveness and the vitality of contemporary American fiction.

By that time, Meyer was also working on “The Son,” which follows the rise of a Texas ranching and oil empire from the 19th through 21st centuries. And with its publication last week, Meyer is no longer just a writer of great promise. He’s a hot new literary star whose highbrow fictional history of a Texas family has already received glowing reviews and has the potential to become a best-seller.

Meyer acknowledges he took a circuitous path to becoming a writer. “I don’t know how to classify myself,” he says of his early years. But critics and people who know him don’t mince words about him now. Jim Magnuson, director of the Michener Center, says that Meyer worked like “a demon” while he was a fellow and thinks that Meyer has written “one of the best Texas novels ever.”

In 2010, Meyer was compared to a young Ernest Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner after the publication of “American Rust.” Like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha tales, “American Rust” was steeped in a particular place, and it evoked the ache of moral complexity stemming from a fatal incident at an abandoned mill.

“The Son” has even higher ambitions, with a narrative that draws on “The Odyssey” and other classics. The vast majority of the nonlinear epic is told by three characters: the awe-inspiring Col. Eli McCullough, who was captured by the Comanches during a raid on his family’s Texas ranch and went on to build an empire after leaving the Indians; his son Peter, who serves as the moral compass amid a multitude of frontier murder and mayhem; and Peter’s granddaughter Jeanne Anne, who idolizes the colonel and attempts to steer the family into the 21st century.

Of the three, Eli stands out as the most compelling — surviving an attack on his family in which his mother and sister are raped and killed. And when he is taken captive by the Comanches, he becomes adept in their ways. He builds bows, makes his own arrows, hunts deer and buffalo, tans hides and learns how to track. Most importantly, he learns how to kill people — a skill that he puts to use repeatedly.

But Eli wasn’t even a narrator in Meyer’s early versions of “The Son.”

“There were six or seven characters originally,” Meyer says over lunch. “It was set in the present day. I originally conceived it as a book about the rise of a family dynasty and America’s relationship with war and violence. But I realized that these characters were talking about this legendary guy, and they were commenting on the American myth, in a way. And finally, about two and a half years into the book, it finally hit me that … I needed the legendary character in the book.”

Meyer says he resisted writing a historical novel for quite a while. “Faulkner didn’t do it. (Eudora) Welty didn’t do it. They wrote mostly in the present. … But the book would not have worked narratively unless it had an engagement in myth-making, coupled with the running commentary. One didn’t work without the other. I think if there’s anything special about this book, one of those things is that you get this character of Eli who was completely mythical. … But you get a clear-eyed running commentary on him from his son Peter.”

But there was a pesky problem of writing realistically about Texas history and the life of the Comanches, especially for someone who grew up in Baltimore. So Meyer immersed himself in books about Texas and native Americans. He took lessons in tracking animals. He went to a buffalo ranch and drank the animal’s blood. (“It tasted musky,” he says.) He disappeared into the woods for a month every year to hunt and clear his mind.

And all of this effort helps make “The Son” a startlingly realistic look at life during the frontier days.

“I think he did an amazing job of capturing Texas history,” says Don Graham, who teaches UT courses about Southwestern literature to Michener Fellows. “The range of his novel, from the mid-19th century through the 20th century, is impressive. In fact, I think it’s the most ambitious Texas novel in a long time, going back to 1985, the year of ‘Blood Meridian’ and ‘Lonesome Dove.’ “

Graham adds that Meyer “has written the best Texas captivity narrative ever, in my opinion. …. In the last four or five years, he seems to have inhaled Texas history and found original voices through which to tell the story of the Lone Star State.”

Meyer was born in in 1974 in New York, the son of what he calls “counterculture, bohemian intellectuals.”

“My mother was an oil painter, an artist. My father was also artistic. He was a photographer. And they lived in New York in the 1970s.” But the couple raised their son in Baltimore, where Meyer’s father enrolled in graduate school at Johns Hopkins to study biology.

Meyer describes his neighborhood, Hampden, as “crumbling and blue-collar.” And he says he would lie about where he was from, telling folks he lived in a better neighborhood to the north.

In school, he says, “I always had some problem with authority, and I was bored, and I dropped out at 15, which was very upsetting to my parents. My parents wanted me to stay in school, but they didn’t know how to make me do it.” When Meyer would leave home under the pretense of heading for school, he would instead go somewhere else, frequently to the library at Johns Hopkins. He had a card to check out books because he was in a summer scholarship program there — an unlikely scenario for someone who nearly flunked seventh grade.

After dropping out, Meyer says, he “was happy working on bicycles, because I was always a tinkerer. I finally earned enough money to buy a crummy car, but I realized I was getting dumber because I wasn’t using my mind. … Then there were a couple of customers who were doctors, and they said, ‘What are you doing here? What are you doing with your life? You seem too smart for this.’ One of them had me hang out at the trauma center, where they treated people who were shot or stabbed or in a car accident. That doctor was sort of my first mentor. And that’s when things began to change in terms of the view of my future. I wanted to be a doctor at that point, and I immediately realized, oh crap, I’m a high school dropout. So I decided to try to get back on track.”

To improve his lot, Meyer decided to get his GED and entered a Jesuit college in Baltimore. He got straight A’s. And then he began to apply to transfer to schools in the Ivy League, finally being accepted to Cornell, in Ithaca, N.Y.

“That was transformative,” Meyer says. “That got me out of the neighborhood mentality, and I finally realized I wasn’t alone. … At Cornell, there were lots of people like me. And they were all doing interesting things. … I was beginning to sense that I could do anything and that the world was huge.”

While at Cornell, Meyer had a composition professor “who guided me but let me run where I wanted to go, and that’s when I knew I was a writer.”

The big problem: Meyer had a chip on his shoulder about having grown up relatively poor. “And I didn’t think I could make a living being a writer. … And then I met these guys who knew all about Wall Street, and they were telling me about these guys who were 26 years old and making a half-million dollars a year. And that sounded like winning the lottery every year. So I decided whatever this takes, I’m going to do it. I didn’t even know what a trader was.”

In his sophomore year at Cornell, Meyer started researching Wall Street traders. “All the big investment banks recruited at Cornell, and only at the Ivys,” he says. “I sort of conned my way into an interview for a summer internship. And I got an interview at Salomon Brothers that spring.” After meeting with the human resources staff, he ended up on the trading floor. “And there’s this trader, and he asks me a math problem: What’s 17 squared, what’s 19 squared? I said I could figure it out on paper if he’d let me. And he said, ‘No. Tell might right now.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know.’ And then he turned away from me and said, ‘You’ll never be a trader, kid.’”

Humiliated, Meyer went back to Cornell and started studying logic puzzles. “And then I made index cards with the squares of every number up to 25 or 30, and I memorized them. And then I started making cards with the answers to 100 divided by various numbers. Like what is it divided by six or seven.

“So the next year I went back to Wall Street for another round of interviews, and they asked all these questions again, and I ended up getting an internship.” And when he graduated, he had a job with the Swiss bank UBS on Wall Street as a derivatives trader. “All of that was because we had no money growing up, and I didn’t want to be poor again,” Meyer says. “I just wanted to figure out any way I could so that I could write.”

But after a couple of years on Wall Street, Meyer says he was “really unhappy. I had finished one novel in college, and it was really mediocre. … So I started another book, and I was halfway finished, and I had enough money saved that in theory I’d be able to write for another year. And I thought, I can just leave New York, finish this novel. … So I quit the bank in 2001, and by 2002, I thought I could finish it up, get a huge advance and be on my way to being a famous literary novelist. But when I finished it, it was rejected by every literary agent in the country, all the big ones. So then I was out of money, back in debt and feeling bad, and I was completely stunned. So I moved back in with my parents, because I knew I didn’t want to take another white-collar job. White-collar jobs take from the same engine that you need to write, whereas the blue-collar jobs leave you physically exhausted, but they don’t drain your mind.”

He applied to graduate school, but the rejection letters started rolling in. “That was when it really hit me that things had gone wrong. I thought I’d be good at whatever I tried, and that was not true. Sometime during the second year at home, I realized I had been writing for 10 years, so I started thinking about why it wasn’t working. So I started thinking, how does art actually work, how does it affect the mind? What are you trying to communicate and how? It was sort of a six-month epiphany, and things finally came together. … The stories that came out during that period were published. I started applying to graduate schools again, and I got into about 20 of them, and one of them was the Michener Center.”

“I figured out a voice, a style, a way of seeing things. It was not very sophisticated, but it was functional,” he says.

After the publication of “American Rust,” Meyer was still having money troubles. Having finished his studies at the Michener Center in 2008, he received a one-year Guggenheim fellowship in 2010, and that bought him the most precious of commodities: time to write and finish work on “The Son.”

He was trying to refine his writer’s voice yet again with “The Son.” He wanted to close the distance between reader and narrator and moved from the third-person narration of “American Rust” to a modified first-person approach, sometimes using the word “I,” especially in the early Eli sections, and framing Peter’s narrative as journal entries.

He was also moving away from his original agent, Esther Newberg, a New York powerhouse, and eventually signed up with Eric Simonoff at William Morris Endeavor.

Newberg apparently wasn’t amused. She sent Meyer a rusty steel spike, an image of which was featured on the cover of “American Rust.” And when Meyer wrote a letter of apology to her, she ripped it up and sent it back to him, he says.

Newberg did not respond to an email request for comment but has declined to directly address the controversy, which was first reported by the New York Observer.

Whatever the case, Meyer made what most people would consider to be a good move. “I sold the book because I was out of money, in the summer of 2011,” Meyer says. And it turned out to be quite a sale. A huge bidding war erupted, and the rights were bought by Ecco for about $1 million, he says.

Meyer is reluctant to discuss the money, and he isn’t boastful. Nor is he a mercenary. He didn’t take the money and run. Quite the contrary. He kept working on the book, way past deadline.

The publisher understood that Meyer wanted to make revisions before publication and said it would give him two months. “I figured it would take a year of work but said I’d try,” he says. “After four months, I wasn’t even close.” In August 2012, he finished the advance reading copy version that was distributed to critics. But he still wanted more time. “They were really mad by then,” he says.

Meyer worked on revisions through New Year’s. “I didn’t sleep for weeks,” he says.

“Running out of time and money is a dominant theme in literature,” Meyer says. “The publisher says it’s good enough, but it’s your name on it, and I’m greatly uncomfortable with some of that.”

Meyer thinks the final version is a big improvement, especially in the later chapters. The plot hasn’t changed, he says, but the characters have been fleshed out, especially one of the last characters introduced, Ulises, a spurned relative of the McCullough family. “His character was completely rewritten,” Meyer says. “The new version is much more detailed.”

Meyer’s dedication to making “The Son” better doesn’t surprise anyone at the Michener Center. “No one ever worked harder than Philipp did,” says Magnuson, the center’s director. “He and his roommate Brian Hart — another wonderful novelist, by the way — would sit for eight hours at a stretch, goading one another onward.”

Magnuson adds that Meyer was also “generous with other writers here, and was a huge help to Kevin Powers, whose ‘The Yellow Birds’ was a National Book Award finalist this year.”

This week, Meyer begins a long book tour in support of “The Son.” He’s splitting his time these days between New York and Austin, but he’ll be here at 7 p.m. Thursday at BookPeople.

If sales go well, maybe his publisher will forgive him for taking 14 months to complete a two-month revision. Whatever happens, “The Son” appears destined to be a contender for 2013’s top literary prizes.

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