“All of us, all the time, are searching for some order in the world/universe/our lives. We’re searching for guiding principles and explanations. Especially in times of stress, we tend to find sayings, aphorisms, mantras to help guide us.”
Philipp Meyer’s much-lauded novel, American Rust, published in February by Spiegel & Grau, is impeccable in its subject matter and its timing. A character-driven drama about the collapse of American manufacturing and the devastating and violent changes that follow, American Rust is about a country, and a culture, glimpsing itself in the mirror. “Everything about this story seems essentially American,” says The Washington Post, and The New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani calls Meyer “a writer who understands how place and personality and circumstance can converge to create the perfect storm of tragedy.”
Philipp Meyer was born in Baltimore, attended Cornell, and worked for several years as a derivatives trader at the Swiss investment bank, UBS. He left banking to study writing at the Michener Center, at the University of Texas, during which time he traveled to New Orleans to work with the recovery effort after Hurricane Katrina. He currently splits his time between Texas and upstate New York. The Rumpus’s Stacy Muszynski corresponded with Meyer and discussed the novel, its underpinnings, and his attitudes about writing.
The Rumpus: Out of the gate, readers understand this novel will be intense: One epigraph is from Kierkegaard and the other is from Camus. Can you tell us the quotes and why you chose them to lead your work?
Philipp Meyer: The Kierkegaard: “If there were no eternal consciousness in a man… if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair.” The Camus: “What we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”
I chose those quotes because I think they sum up some of the underlying philosophies articulated in the work. Which I probably share. Kierkegaard was strongly religious, which I’m not, and so to some extent I’m taking his quote out of context—I think there is a sort of eternal human consciousness that exists within all of us—an inherent valuing of love, honor, compassion, etc. Maybe that comes from something beyond us (God) or maybe it’s just innate to us.
The Camus quote articulates a few other things I believe about people. One is that, yes, in the end, there are more things to admire about humanity than to despise. The second is that it’s only in the worst times that we see the best humanity is capable of. The fact that we can act morally when our lives are easy, when there is nothing particularly at stake for us, I don’t find to be that important. What’s important is that humans are capable of acting morally, capable of enormous compassion and self-sacrifice, when everything is at stake for us—when our lives are at stake. This, in the end, is the fundamental argument behind American Rust.
PM: That is a good question. Maybe see my answer to [the first question], which is that it’s those sorts of moral choices, in those sorts of circumstances, that most reveal who we really are as individuals, and more broadly what we are a species.
Rumpus: How did your MFA experience inform your work with American Rust? Did you have to sacrifice anything for the experience?
PM: The specific MFA program I was in, the Michener Center, was basically perfect for me. We had three years of funding, which gives you two and a half years of actual writing and a half year of panicking about what you’re going to do after you graduate.
Fully-funded MFA programs are God’s gift to writers, basically the new patronage system. That said, the big obvious problem with any MFA program is that your work is reviewed by a committee. You sit around in workshop and give your unfinished writing to twelve other people and then are supposed to give equal weight to all their responses. The problem, of course, is that few professional writers would ever dream of showing unfinished work to even one person, let alone twelve people, and asking for their opinion. It has a very bad effect on the work… The important thing is that you have to be able to ignore this stuff and write what is true to your vision of the world… You have to always be writing for yourself, and trusting your own instincts.
Rumpus: What is or has been the hardest or best lesson for you to learn in your writing life?
PM: The most crucial one by far came in 2004, when I realized I had to be writing for an audience. Realizing [that] the fact that I’d written something did not make it good. This, I think, is the sort of standard realization you have when you go from the apprentice level to the level of the working artist. Another person who didn’t know me had to be able to pick up my work and be pulled into it and moved, whether emotionally, intellectually, etc. Of course, the work has to remain your own, first and foremost. The way I think about my work now is that Philipp Meyer the writer is writing for Philipp Meyer the reader. If that makes sense.
Rumpus: Your characters have me thinking about adages and aphorisms—how useful they find adages in ordering their lives, making choices and in reconsidering those choices. Grace, for example, catches herself thinking, “Dignity is life.” And Isaac, “Old bones make new blooms” and “Man without a knife is not a man.” And Henry English, “Life for a life.” Do you order your own life according to adages like these?
PM: That’s a tough question. My gut reaction is that those things are primarily tools to shape those characters. But of course all of us, all the time, are searching for some order in the world/universe/our lives. We’re searching for guiding principles and explanations. Partly as a survival mechanism, but partly it’s just as a result of our curiosity about things. Especially in times of stress, we tend to find sayings, aphorisms, mantras to help guide us. They’re both comforting and useful.
As for me personally, other than the standard attempts to try treat people as I would hope to be treated myself, the only real principle I’m conscious of guiding my life by is the following. It sounds fairly simplistic, but I believe in it firmly, so here it is: “Don’t be a coward.” Anyone who knows me and reads this will probably laugh, because it’s almost my pat response to everything, but it’s true. When I think about a problem I’m facing, or if I’m analyzing a decision I’ve made in the past, I always try to figure out to what degree my choices or inclinations are being guided by fear. Fear of failing, fear of not fitting in, fear of what others might think. I’m referring primarily to emotional or intellectual fear, but occasionally to physical fear as well. Everyone is afraid, but it’s the way you face those fears, and how honest you are about them, that makes the difference. Maintaining as strict a self-honesty as you are capable makes it a lot easier to face your failures. And your successes. It goes a long way toward being happy.
As this relates to art, I think a lot of this comes down to learning to trust your own instincts. Are you creating something that is true to your vision of humanity and the world, or are you creating something that is true to someone else’s vision? No matter how other people respond to your work, that’s what allows you to sleep at night.