You’re Either Born an Artist Or You’re Not
Philipp Meyer on The Son, Hollywood, and his long path to the page
Philipp Meyer’s 2013 novel The Son, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, is a multigenerational saga of the American Southwest, and a brutal creation story: of a man, of a family, of Texas itself. Oil is involved, obviously, as well as corruption, sex, violence, cruelty and sure, why not, a bit of love. If that sounds like an adventure of grand proportions to you, then perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that it makes for epic television. Meyer’s adaptation of The Son premieres on AMC this Saturday.
Yes, that’s Meyer’s adaptation—the author is multi-talented, as it turns out. After completing the novel, Meyer teamed up with former Michener Center classmates Brian McGreevy, the author of Hemlock Grove and the forthcoming The Lights, and Lee Shipman (both of whom already had literary adaptation chops) to produce the project. Eventually, the show was picked up by AMC, with Meyer, McGreevy, and Shipman all on board as writers and executive producers.
And this isn’t the only unconventional thing about The Son. Meyer may be a Pulitzer finalist, a recipient of a Guggenheim, and one of the New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40,” but he’s also had a fascinating road to literary prominence: he was a high-school dropout, a trauma ward orderly, and even a Wall Street suit before he found his way to being a famous novelist.
Wondering how? I was too. So in advance of The Son‘s premiere on AMC this weekend, I asked Meyer a few questions over email about the book, his unconventional adaptation, and his long journey to becoming a writer. Turns out it isn’t necessarily who you know—sometimes it’s who you don’t know.
Emily Temple: First off, I’m really interested in how this show came to be—it’s pretty unusual to see three literary writers successfully gang up and develop a prestige drama based on one of their own books. I suppose I just want to know more about this: How did you get started? How did you sell it? What was it like to translate your novel into a TV series?
Philipp Meyer: My first experience in Hollywood was when my novel American Rust was optioned by a movie studio back in 2009. They attached a director and a screenwriter, wrote a script, and I began to meet people and get a sense of how the system worked. As is normal for an author, I had no say in adaptation of my book. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder why the system worked that way.
To be blunt, it’s pretty obvious that while some brilliant stuff gets made in Hollywood—Moonlight, Hell or High Water, The Night Of—those things tend to be the exception rather than the rule. Once I started turning on the closed captioning during some of the shows I liked, it became obvious that some of the novelists I know could do a lot better.
So as I was getting near finishing The Son, I realized that A) it was too long to be a movie and B) I was not going to lose anything by trying to adapt it myself. The worst that would happen was people would say no. So when it came time to sell the project, it wasn’t much trouble to say okay, if you want it, my friends and I are attached as writers and producers. AMC was willing to give that a shot. They took a big risk on us and I am very grateful for that.
Translating the book into a show, at least in terms of the writing itself, was also not that difficult. If you understand structure and can write dialogue, writing screenplays is much easier than writing novels. A lot of structure, a bit of dialogue and bam… you’ve got a script.
The hard part starts when other people begin to attach to the project. There is a night and day difference between people from the bad old days of TV (pre-Sopranos, basically) and people who got into TV because of The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, shows like that. You will be surprised at the random folks who get attached to projects in Hollywood, who very conspicuously should not be there. In publishing, you wouldn’t have a romance novel editor working with Cormac McCarthy, but in TV, that is often how it works.
And because so many people’s jobs are riding on a TV show, everyone needs to have an opinion, so you spend most of your time trying to make everyone comfortable, trying to win people over to your side. A typical conversation goes something like: “Yes, Mr. __, I know you did it differently on the A-Team and Malcolm in the Middle, but we are making something very different now.” Sometimes you win those arguments; other times you lose. On The Son, the creators had a lot of control, but plenty of other people had a say as well. So compared to a novel, it really is apples and oranges. Even if you’re Stephen Spielberg, there is no such thing as total creative control in Hollywood.
ET: Unless I’m getting this wrong, Pierce Brosnan returned to TV after a 30-year hiatus to do this particular show. I have no question about this really, except: what does that feel like?
PM: It would have been very intimidating, but when Pierce signed onto the project, we were in a bit of a crisis. Our original lead, Sam Neil, had left very suddenly for personal reasons right before we started filming. We’d hired 400 people, built all the sets, the other actors had moved into their apartments in Austin… and suddenly we had no lead. We were burning up a huge amount of money just sitting idle and I was wondering if the show might get canceled. Then Pierce came out of nowhere. He’d read the novel and knew the material and we were off to the races.
So there wasn’t really much time to be intimidated. There was a very intense download with Pierce, talking about the character he was playing and what makes him tick… and then we were filming.
Pierce and I ended up getting pretty close, talking every day, and very quickly, I realized why he is so famous. He’s insanely talented and he works really hard, but there is something else, just total grace under pressure. We started filming so quickly after he signed on to the project, he’d barely had time to unpack his suitcase, he’d barely had any time to prepare, and he was getting bombarded by a million things, learning the character, the Texas accent, doing a lot of stunts on horseback (he’s an excellent rider). And doing this all in 105 degree Texas heat. And still, he was a perfect gentleman on set, he quickly learned the names of all the assistants, everyone fell in love with him. It really set the tone for the entire production.
ET: You may have one of the most interesting paths to writer-dom—derivatives trader, ambulance driver, dropped out of high school but wound up in the Ivy League… well, I don’t have to tell you. How did you wind up a writer?
PM: I really do think you’re either born an artist or you’re not. The only real choices are: A) how hard you are going to work and B) how much rejection you’re willing to suffer before you quit. When I realized I was a writer, I was a high school dropout who’d just started college. My world was about an inch wide. I’d grown up in a poor neighborhood in Baltimore, quit school when I was 16 and spent five years working as a bike mechanic. By the time I was 21, I was a freshman in college and working as an orderly in a trauma center. I loved it—it was blood and adrenaline and saving people’s lives—to me it seemed as good as a job could get. But the professor in my English comp class kept giving me interesting writing assignments and then… click. It felt like a switch turning. I suddenly knew I was a writer. It was like hitting puberty or something.
Pretty soon, I’d given up the idea of being an ER doctor and was thinking about a career that would allow me to support a writing habit. At the time, I didn’t know any writers. It didn’t even occur to me it was a job you could have. Meanwhile I’d gotten it into my head that despite being a high school dropout and a bit of a juvenile delinquent, I belonged in the Ivy League. So I was also applying (as a transfer student) to all the Ivies. Eventually Cornell let me in, and my world got a lot bigger. After I graduated, I got a job on Wall Street, thinking I’d put aside some money so I could live in a rickety cabin and write. As it turned out, the call to write got stronger and my desire to work at the bank got weaker and finally I quit the job. I’d only worked at the bank a few years, so I’d only saved up a little bit of money. But it seemed to me that if I could just finish the novel I was writing, I’d get an agent, get a publisher, and have a job as an author.
To be clear, in terms of writing, I’d had no success at that point. I had not published a single thing. Still, I decided to quit the banking job. I basically figured: well, how hard can this really be?
Years of failure followed. My second (still-unpublished) novel was rejected by dozens and dozens of agents. I ran out of money, briefly considered returning to finance, then realized there was no point in being alive if I was going to voluntarily return to a job I hated. So… I moved back in with my parents. I took jobs driving an ambulance and working construction, writing at night, on weekends, whenever I could.
All in all, in terms of my artistic development, there was a ten-year apprentice period which lasted from the time I was 21 until I was about 30. During those first ten years, I wrote dozens of unpublishable short stories and two unpublishable novels. But in the meantime, I made sure I worked at jobs that seemed interesting. I always made sure that my day job did some work feeding my mind, or at least giving me new perspectives.
When I look back at that period, it’s clear that several lucky things happened. The first is that I had absolutely no success until I’d really found my voice. Today, I look at the people who made it in their twenties—all the people I used to feel very jealous of—and I wonder if they were really all that lucky, because they had to do most of their artistic development in the public eye. That is a very heavy burden. It’s much easier to figure out who you are when no one gives a shit—when no one is paying attention.
The second lucky thing is that I didn’t know any other writers, or agents, or editors, or anyone. That saved me the anguish of comparing myself to other people, thinking: “oh, XYZ is ten years younger than me and Granta just published her story.” That stuff can destroy your spirit very quickly, and, incidentally, I think that is the double-edged sword of living in a place like New York. The trick is always to maintain enough confidence to keep writing, to ignore all the facts that show that you aren’t good enough.
The third thing is that I was always honest about who I was. I knew I was a writer. I think this is the hardest thing for young artists and writers to come to terms with. You have to admit that you’re an artist. Maybe you haven’t made it yet, but that really doesn’t matter. Being published is not what makes you a writer. You are a writer because it’s in your soul, whether you’ve been published or not.
ET: Both of your novels are very much about America—I wonder what it is that particularly fascinates you about the topic.
PM: At the basic level, I’m fascinated by people, how we end up the way we are, what makes us who we are. And you can’t figure out who a person is unless you know what they come from, which means understanding their history. So my interest always begins in the present. Why are we like this today? What systems are in place, intentional or otherwise, that got us here?
Of course there is free will, but like it or not, we’re all products of our environment. And broadly, our environment is this country. So that is probably why I am so interested in America. I don’t think of myself as writing social novels, but my books have a definite point of view on why we’ve turned out the way we have.
ET: What do you think is the function of the Western in contemporary America—or perhaps, why does it enjoy such enduring appeal?
PM: The American West was the last wild place in the northern hemisphere (or at least the last place that was inhabitable). When it was conquered or settled by Europeans, it marked the end of tens of thousands years of human mythology, this idea that there was always—somewhere—some vast mysterious land. That is a hard concept to understand today. But for 99.999 perecent of human history, no matter where you lived on earth, you really didn’t know what lay on the other side of that ocean or mountain range or desert. Human existence was defined by a huge sense of mystery. That mystery came to an end in the late 19th century, and to a large extent, the American West was where it ended.
The mythology of the West, and the Western, is also inextricably linked to the mythology of the American Dream. From the perspective of Europeans landing in North America, they’d found a vast unexplored continent, pure and open and full of possibility, unspoiled by man, ungoverned by laws or religion. A place in which you could reinvent yourself, discover yourself, make a new beginning, a place where—compared to Old Europe, anyway—your history and social status were not going to limit you. Of course, by modern standards, there were plenty of limitations—race and gender, obviously, but also social class (as late as 1856, even white males could not vote unless they owned property).
The reality, of course, was that North America was neither unexplored nor open. Every inch of land was claimed; ten million people already lived here. But the North Americans were very susceptible to European diseases, and most of them were killed shortly after contact by things like the flu or the common cold. The North Americans who survived the assault on their immune system could not survive an assault by cultures that were, technologically speaking, a thousand years ahead of them.
Because of this, America really was a place in which people from other continents could come and reinvent themselves. Because the people who lived here before us were unable to hold onto their land, the land and all its wealth were there for the taking. For better or worse, that is the root of the American Dream. It’s a bit splattered with blood.
Last but not least, there continues to be a strong profit motive to idealize the American West. The lone cowboy wandering a vast range, pioneers crossing the continent to build new lives and new names—these things speak very loudly to the theory that the most important thing about America is individual freedom and individual rights. The idea that we should always privilege the rights of the individual over the rights of the community, the collective good, or the poor huddled masses. This way of thinking has always been very profitable for big business, from Jacob Astor to Andrew Carnegie to the Koch Brothers. The ideals of the American West are ideals that are very heavily subsidized, and probably always will be.
ET: What are your favorite Westerns—books, films, comics, etc?
PM: This will sound strange, but I really never cared about westerns that much. Yes, I wrote The Son, but I really did not intend for it to be a western and I don’t really think of it as a western. Originally the book was mostly set in the present day. And then I realized I could not tell the story I wanted to tell without turning to the past. But to answer the question… favorite western book: Blood Meridian. Favorite western movie: Unforgiven.
ET: What is your favorite tv adaptation (of any novel) and why?
PM: Hum…I really do not know. But I will tell you my favorite TV show, which is The Wire. Obviously! [Ed. note: Obviously.]