Talking with Philipp Meyer
AH – For Radio Readers Book Club, I’m Alex Hunt, Professor of English at West Texas A&M University in Canyon. Today, I’m speaking with novelist Philipp Meyer. In The Son, an important part of the novel occurs on the High Plains of the Texas Panhandle and clearly draws on some legendary types – the cattleman Charles Goodnight and the Comanche leader Quanah Parker. Can you talk about your decision to write about this place and these figures?
PM – Well, I wanted to write about where we come from and the things in our history that make us who we are today, again, for better or for worse. You can’t do that without talking about both Native Americans and the other folks who lived on the frontier. On some levels, you are right – one of the book’s central characters Eli McCullough, is kind of loosely based on Charles Goodnight, but very loosely based. The truth is, he’s really kind of my own invention.
Eli McCullough was born in 1836, the same date the Republic of Texas was born and like Charles Goodnight, he lives a very long life, well into the 1830s. But it wasn’t just Goodnight I looked to. It was also the lives of people like Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, Sam Houston, Willie Smithwick, James Jenkins, Herman Lehman – basically your who range of 19th Century Texan and American frontiersmen.
I actually stopped watching western movies. I stopped reading novels about the west. I wanted to get outside all those myths and those false stories we grew up with about this time. So, I ended up reading about 350 books, all of which were nonfiction. I read all kinds of books on the frontier, on Plains Indians, on primitive medicine, on uses of plants by Native Americans, on oil exploration. It was kind of your whole gamut of Texas history.
At some point, I began to realize that a lot of those history books were written by people who were basically academics who hadn’t lived in those primitive ways and didn’t have any of the primitive skills. For instance, when Charles Goodnight claims that he never owned or used a compass even once in his life. This is a man whose daily life depended on his navigation skills on finding water. He spent every day in the desert hunting and avoiding his enemies and the idea that this man never used a compass is mind-blowing. What I began to realize is that a lot of modern authors didn’t really get the depth or level of skill and connection with the natural world and their surroundings that all these early Texans had, whether they were Anglo, Mexican or Native American.
I decided that if I were going to write about these types of people – the Charles Goodnights and Kit Carsons and Quanah Parkers, I needed to have some basic understanding of the skills myself – at least on some very basic level. So, I taught myself to hunt with a bow, how to fill those black powder weapons. I spent a lot of time hunting and sleeping all over the state. I took a lot of classes in things like animal tracking; how to identify native plants and animals; primitive living skills; how to start a fire with two sticks; how you build a debris shelter that will keep you warm in a snowstorm; how you make a string or rope from plant fiber; and so on and so on.
I killed a buffalo. I got into the butchering of it. I drank some of its blood because that is a thing people would do. I guess I had a need to get down and dirty with all of this stuff because, again, in the end, I did not want to write a fantasy. I wanted the characters in this book to be people who could have actually existed. To do that, I had to understand their lives as best as possible.