Write Your Biggest Idea: Smith Henderson and Philipp Meyer

Nothing better than spending a summer day with a roaring good read, a book that delivers a powerful, well-paced story and arresting characters, written with incredible verve and indelible imagery, like The Son by Philipp Meyer — an unforgettable American epic, a national bestseller and finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Add Smith Henderson’s debut — and Summer 2014 Discover Great New Writers selection — Fourth of July Creek to the list of thumping good, smart novels to spend a summer day (or two) with.  It all starts with a single man, trying to do right for a young boy in trouble in this expansive, ambitious novel set in Montana in 1980, at the start of the Reagan Revolution.

We’re terrifically pleased to present Philipp Meyer and Smith Henderson as they riff the art of writing, on finding one’s territory, and having no choice but to write (and not rushing), among other things in this far-ranging conversation for the Barnes & Noble Review. ~ Miwa Messer


Smith Henderson: Philipp, I thought I’d start by asking whether or not you said something to me.

Trudy’s patio near the University of Texas. Several margaritas deep, we are talking what we are doing with our portion of James Michener’s largesse. You correctly sense some ambivalence on my part and insist that I work on my novel above all else. It’s not like I want to scrimshaw haikus on whalebone…but there is an urgency to your argument that I recognize within myself.

Which brings me to my question: did you say “write your biggest idea” in that conversation? Because that was how your words crystallized in my mind. We don’t need to write in miniature (what we “know”) or wait to be good enough to explore something big. In fact, we cannot become good unless we go for broke.

And so it was a thrill when American Rust came out, to see that it was being taken for the totality of its story, craft, and ideas. Your debut wasn’t a “meditation” or “lyrical exploration”…it was an honest-to-God novel that readers had to reckon with on every level.

Proof. Pudding.

God, I love that program.

Philipp Meyer: Well…when drinking margaritas I have tendency to say and do a lot of awesome stuff, most of which I forget immediately. So, while I have no recollection of saying that, I am going to go ahead and take credit anyway.

To expand a bit on what you were saying, I think that there is two-fold problem with all young artists when it comes to this subject, the first of which caused by society’s ignorance, the second of which is caused by their own fear. In terms of society’s ignorance, there is a very common sentiment which is basically along the lines of: “don’t put everything you know into your first book.” This could not be more wrong. You have to put EVERYTHING you know into EVERY book. Of course this will slow down the process. Of course this will make the time between finishing books much longer. But we’re never quite as smart as we think we are, and usually the one thing you leave out will be the thing that lifts the book from average to good, or from good to great.

On top of that, all artists have some inclination, to greater or lesser degrees, to play it safe. I occasionally fight this feeling in myself, and I will be the first to admit that it’s cowardice, pure and simple. You think, well, if I don’t entirely commit, I can’t entirely fail. If I hold something back, I am protecting myself (if/when other people don’t like it). This is literally the opposite of the truth. When you hold things back, when you don’t commit completely to your ideas and trust completely in your own instincts, you are guaranteeing your own failure—even if you end up having commercial success. You have got to trust yourself and only yourself, and while of course you have to trust your intellect, you have got to trust your instincts even more, which are always more artistically pure than your conscious thoughts. Of course, the vast majority of artists do not do this at all. They say the same shit everyone else does, they write what’s fashionable, they write what they know will be approved of (even if it looks “experimental” on the surface). In short, they let themselves be lead by their critics and by their contemporaries. What a pointless fucking existence. Succeeding at this, or at any art, is about the hardest thing a human can do. But taking the coward’s way out not only leads to bad art; it’s habit forming. It becomes the way you approach life.

Now, on a slightly warmer note, your book has really stuck with me. I’m wondering how you originally conceived of it. Where did these characters come from? Are they composites or just completely of your own invention? And structurally your book is very daring, a very serious balancing act (that you make look effortless). Did you know immediately that all these stories belonged in the same book?

SH: I knew I wanted to write about a man who was going insane in the wilderness, waiting for the end of the world with his young son.

I also had this other idea about a social worker. You got cops, doctors, and lawyers in literature and entertainment, but no social workers. Social workers do investigations, go to court, and conjecture and diagnose. They’re always dropping into these little Tennessee Williams plays and have to become detectives of dysfunction and figure out how to help. So I knew that I’d have carte blanche to write about some crazy shit in my “social worker” novel…but I had not the first clue that the social worker and the crazy woodsman were in the same book for at least two years.

But once I did realize these characters were in the same novel, then I started to see how my story was more broadly about these tensions in America between community and freedom, government and liberty. I started to see how that stuff was playing in our national politics, living in Texas during the Bush presidency.

As I got rolling, everything else I wrote—the short stories I published or the film I co-wrote in Texas—were set in the novel’s world or exercising themes, images, scenes, ideas, and language that informed the book. I was always working on the book, sometimes through other work. A novel is a black hole that way. Eventually it swallows up everything else.

As for balancing all the threads in Fourth of July Creek…I know I wanted to do something that was aesthetically compelling as I felt the ideas and the story were. So I played with different narrative styles. I’m not a post-modern writer, but I do have a soft spot for things like the Q&A that Joyce employed in the penultimate chapter of ULYSSES. I adore Faulkner and Woolf’s high modernism as much as blunt, tactile prose of Hemingway and all his decedents.

I was also studying screenwriting when I was writing the novel, so I made sure that I was restlessly pursuing a strong plot line as well. I just threw everything I had at it.

Where I ultimately come out on it, though, is this: you’re not obliged to work on anything. I’ll quit reading a book that isn’t happening for me, and I’ll certainly quit writing one. That to me, is also a powerful instinct, probably the result of looking at your work as dispassionately as a reader and learning to trust yourself as a reader of your own work.

Certainly you have to have deep affection for your story if you’re going to put everything into it and complete the task. But you also need a cold heart if you’re going to write anything worth reading. A cold heart armors you against critics and allows you to properly evaluate the critiques of trusted readers and editors and do the heavy lifting of revision. There’s no guidebook to consult, except maybe the voices you’ve inherited over the years (though I think it’s our lived lives that tell us more about what to write than things we’ve read) and the courage to listen to that.

So it’s an interesting psychic balance: you have to put everything into your work, and at same time be able to look at it dispassionately. When you’re starting out, you’re just glad to get something down. I must’ve rewritten the same short story for two years. Just ground out draft after draft because I was just unable to make it behave. I simply could not let it go. Now my orientation to the work is much more critical. I thought that completing a novel would feel like a triumph, a birth…or something. But you go through so many drafts and polishes that by the end it feels more forensic than natal. Which is fine with me;   I just didn’t know that the most fun would be had in the early days, when the thing is all potential and your head is on fire with it.

Does any of that sound familiar? I’m curious if American Rust or The Son felt like any of this for you.


PM: I guess I also used to think that finishing a novel would feel like a triumph, but…mostly for me it just feels a little empty, or sad, like the end of a long relationship. Which, of course, is exactly what it is. When I finish a book, I get extremely restless; I have to aggressively find ways to occupy myself; going off into the woods alone, doing things that are physically or mentally demanding to keep myself busy until the next big idea comes. I don’t remember ever experiencing a lingering feeling of pride over work I’ve completed or of any career accomplishment I’ve had. Artistically, intellectually, of course I’m aware of what I’ve done. But emotionally, it’s not like that at all. It’s always about five seconds of This is an awesome goddamn book. Followed by Whoa, it’s really done. Then a few seconds of shock, followed by: Alright, what’s next? I should say that generally I’m a pretty happy person, but as soon as I’m done with a project, I’m usually not happy at all. I feel a little empty and strange. I begin to think about how I can get better, stretch more artistically and intellectually. My biggest worry is getting complacent.

In terms of the number of projects I work on at any given time, I am generally only working on one big fiction project. But I usually have lots of other things going on. Right now, as you know, some friends and I (and you, Smith) are adapting The Son as a show. We might soon be adapting American Rust as a show for another network and we just started a production company called El Jefe.

But it doesn’t really feel like those things compete with my novel writing time. They’re more filling in the rest of my day. I can only write fiction four, maybe five hours a day before that part of my mind is exhausted. And, given that I usually start working at 7am, I’m always left with a fair number of hours to fill each day.

But in terms of fiction, it’s just one project at a time. I’ve always been like that. And I’ve always been drawn to writing novels instead of short stories. I started writing my first (unpublished) novel in college, finished it a few years later, realized it was terrible and started a second one. Halfway through the writing of the second one (still-unpublished), I quit a job on Wall Street to enter into what I thought would be immediate literary stardom. Fast forward a few years and that book had been rejected by maybe a hundred literary agents. I was broke and living in my parents’ basement. But after a brief period of writing short stories (mostly to get myself into graduate school), I began to write my third novel, American Rust, which was the first one to be published. Then I spent five years writing The Son. I’m hoping this next one will come a little quicker.

How ‘bout you? How are you feeling now that your book is about to hit the shelves? What’s the inside of your head look like right now?

SH: I’m in uncharted waters, man. I’ll just be honest—I’m really proud of the book, proud of what says, the issues it grapples with, and I can’t wait for it to find its readers the way my favorite books found me. I’m so pleased that the initial reaction has been so positive. Tweets, emails. I recently had a great exchange with Antonya Nelson about it—questions coming from her craft class, on whom she’d foisted galleys.

So things like that are pretty good for the soul. And I have the best agent, publisher, editor, publicist…it’s nice to feel the wind at your back. I highly recommend it.

But I know it’s all fleeting. Someone will piss in my shoe about the book at some point. More importantly, I’ll have to answer to my own gnawing dread at the prospect of figuring out another book. Don’t get me wrong about this: I love my job. I love the work and talking about the work and reading and researching and all of it. And I have had incredible luck in landing collaborative gigs in the last year, but like you, I just don’t feel complete unless there’s a novel to write.

But I know that the process with the next one will be different. It’s just a new relationship. I’m avoiding expectations about how writing a new book will go or what it will be like. I’ve given myself room to wander a little bit. I’m into collaborating lately. As I said, it’s important for me to dabble. You don’t churn out books on a whim or even just will yourself into enthusiasm about it. I need to be mixing it up. It needs to feel fresh and like something I haven’t done before.

I think that’s how I battle the complacency you’re talking about. Go fuck around for awhile. That said, I’m thiiiink my next book is an historical novel—it competed with Fourth of July Creek for my imagination, and I’d really like to go after it.

Did you have The Son in mind while working on American Rust? How much of the The Son was a result of living in Texas? The place just crackled with creative energy when were there. Did that play into the book’s creation at all? Having written so compellingly about the Rust Belt, what was it that drew you to Texas creatively? And what kind of madness has you saying, “You know, I think I’ll just write about 175 years of Texas history”?

PM: I think about halfway through American Rust I knew my next novel would have something to do with Texas. I’d been living in Austin for a few years by then; it was becoming clear to me that Texas was an important lens through which you could view all of American history, the entire American creation myth.

Now at that point I had no idea how, or why; I just knew it was true. And for me, that’s all I need. All my good ideas come from thoughts or instincts I don’t understand at first. But when I feel them strongly enough, I know I should follow them. As far as the book’s structure, at first I thought it would only be fifty or seventy five years. But as the writing progressed, it became clear to me that if I was going to be saying something about America more broadly, if I was actually going to be addressing our mythology, I would have to go back further. And that is how the book ended up covering such a long time span.

But yeah, in terms of starting a new book, it can’t be rushed. Especially after your first book, there is this enormous pressure to get another one finished. One of the best pieces of advice I got on that subject was from the actor Jeff Daniels, who read American Rust and could see I was under a lot of pressure to get The Son finished. He basically just sat me down and said: “Don’t rush it, and don’t let yourself be rushed, no matter what.” And he was one of the only people saying that—whether it’s a reporter, your editor, your agent, even your friends and family—everyone is always asking you about the next book.

I think things will be easier the third time around. I knew in advance that it would be maybe eighteen months between the time I finished The Son and the time I was able to meaningfully begin work on this new novel—there’s a period of shock after you finish the writing itself, followed by book tour/promotional stuff in the U.S. and abroad, followed by a long period in which you have to remember how to be an artist, i.e., how to actually make stuff, rather than someone who just talks about art.

What about Fourth of July Creek? Why did you place the story (mostly) in the remoteness of the northwestern part of Montana? And why did you set it in the year of Reagan’s first election?

SH: It wasn’t until I’d left Montana in my 20s that I realized how it appears to outsiders, that it has this reputation of being very beautiful (which it is) and wild (which it is) and full of armed militias and libertarians and so forth. That last bit isn’t entirely untrue, but Montana is more complicated than that. It’s a state that voted for George Bush, put a Democrat in the governor’s office, legalized medicinal marijuana, and outlawed gay marriage—in the same election.

So when I got to see it from the outside, I was struck by what a strange place it is, but also how it’s such a microcosm of the larger American socio-political problems. The Supreme Court recently overturned the state constitutional limits on campaign finance, for example. These limits were informed by Montana’s long history of abuse by the extraction industries, and were put in place as an entirely logical reaction to wholesale purchase of judges, elections, and state bureaucracies. I despair for what’s in store for that state. So much of its local independence was taken away. And this Supreme Court decision, of course, traces back to the Reagan Revolution, and the profound rightward shift this country underwent since 1980.

Anyway, one doesn’t set out to write a novel thinking about the Supreme Court (unless, you know, you’re Grisham), so a big motivation for setting the story in Montana is was rather simple: it’s a place and people I know really well. And when I realized that I could write about the extremes—the people who live on the outskirts of the already remote logging towns—it wasn’t much of a stretch to create a character like Jeremiah Pearl drawing on first-hand knowledge and then creatively going to town with inspiration from guys like The Unabomber, Randy Weaver, David Koresh, Eric Rudolph and Timothy McVeigh.

Creating Pearl was one of the great pleasures of writing the book. I read Emerson and Nietzsche to create his voice. And I researched the aforementioned real people, in particular Eric Rudolph, who spent five years hiding out in the Appalachian wilderness after bombing the Olympics. The thing is, a guy like Pearl is more common than most people realize. I don’t want to hazard at the actual numbers, but there are a LOT of people who would, in the right circumstances, fire at a cop or a federal official almost entirely based on abstractions, on philosophies, and religious beliefs. That’s as troubling as it is interesting, and a crucially important thing for us to think and talk about.

Which brings me back around to your work. I’m re-reading The Son and imagining how we’ll adapt it for the screen, and I can’t help wondering about Eli, the mythic center of the book. Did he come out of research or a dream or some literary source or type? In general, how does “character” happen for you? How much are they your creations? Do you feel them creating themselves, as I sometimes do?

PM: Eli is definitely a mythic type; there are a lot of people like him in American History. I knew there had to be a character like him in the book, given the history of Texas in particular and of our frontier more broadly, but it took me about two and a half years to find his voice.

It’s hard to say what comes first for me: a character or the need for a certain type of character in a narrative. Regardless, the character and the narrative/story are always in dialogue with each other (obviously) with the overall story arc and its needs changing or bending the character and the unexpected things the character does on the page (which is nearly everything) to some extent creating the story itself. Most of the time when I’m writing I’m tapped directly into my subconscious and so yes, the things that happen on the page are not planned, really, they are certainly unexpected, at least in a small way. But not in a macro way. But I always know what I want and need from my characters. I always have at least a rough sense of the type of things I need them to do.

MM: Interesting to know that you’re both writing for the screen, a collaborative process (most of the time), and one which demands that the story be stripped down to plot and dialogue, when you both have a thing — call it an ear, a love, whatever — for language.  Where did that come from?  Not enough writers can balance taut, muscular prose with poetic imagery and then imbue those words with deep emotional resonance (without having a deep abiding love of words, in my opinion).  So what was it that set you off on the written word?  Another writer?  Wanting to be heard? What?

PM: I think for many or most artists, you sort of wake up and realize you’re an artist. Not exactly overnight, but close. For me it happened in the fall of 1995, which was my first year in college. It was not a conscious decision, it was like discovering a part of myself that you didn’t know was there. It’s almost like puberty. You thought of yourself in one way and all of a sudden you realize there is another thing inside you. I did not particularly want or ask for it—but there it was. I have never once thought about “why” I am a writer. It would be like asking why I have to eat or sleep.

For me, the only conscious decision was how hard I was going to work at getting good, how much I would sacrifice and how much I would shape my life around it. Gradually I came to realize that to reach the level I needed to reach, my entire like would have to revolve around writing. It’s no different from being a pro athlete. There will come a point at which you realize, okay, this is going to have to be my life, or I will never be as good at this as I want to be.

Similarly, I’m not sure why I’m drawn to long form fiction, instead of being a visual artist, or composer, or poet, or something. It’s just how I’m wired. My younger brother, who is a music composer, is the same way. He just knew music was what he was going to do. The only fiction he really reads are my books.

As far as wanting to be heard—I think I’d be suspicious if I heard that was someone’s primary motivation. You do it because you need to. Of course, eventually, you cross some threshold at which you realize that everything you are do, you are doing for an audience. But that comes much later. At first, for many years, you spend a long time just making noise, delighting in your own words, loving them just because you made them. It’s like a child discovering the sound of his own voice. But at some point you have to move beyond that. You have to realize you are singing for other people. The way I think of it is that Philipp Meyer the writer is performing for Philipp Meyer the reader.

Of course on some level we all want to be heard and paid attention to. But this is not something I have ever been aware of when I wrote. I began writing because I had to; it was an animal compulsion. And that is the reason I still write today.

As far as an ear for language, that is just how I see and hear the world. I am trying to get at the truth of things when I write, and so whatever language I am using is being used with one goal, which is to reproduce the truth of the things happening in the story. You’re making the reader see, think, and feel, and so you use whatever language is going to accomplish that goal.

For a screen or teleplay, it’s completely different. For one thing, there are hardly any words per page; for another it’s really only the dialogue that needs to be good or “literary.”  The rest is just stage direction, notes to the crew and cast. The difference between writing a novel and writing a screenplay is like the difference between building a cathedral and sketching out a blueprint for one. Sure, the blueprint is crucial to the movie, but so is the work that everyone else puts into the final product—actors, director, lighting, director of photography, and of course the people who build the set and do the makeup. And so while it’s become standard practice for a director or show runner or actor to take most of the credit for how a movie or show comes out, in reality, every single person involved—from the lighting guys to the guys doing the makeup—has a meaningful impact on the result. You can’t really compare it at all to writing a novel. A movie or television show is the result of the collaboration of hundreds of people—it is never one person’s voice. Whereas a novel, poem, painting, sculpture, is the opposite. It’s single person’s vision of life, a single person’s voice.

SH: For me, the impulse to write goes way, way back. I just always knew it. I wrote serialized shorts every week in Mr. McHugh’s sixth grade homeroom. I literally got up in front of class every week and read another chapter in what was, in retrospect, something of a cartoon.

After that, I wrote through high school, usually seeking an audience—columns for the school paper and such, and poetry to share with girls I was in love with…but by college, I dropped it. I knew I’d get back into it, but I felt like I didn’t have enough life experience or something. I didn’t really “get” the fiction scene at college, though I knew I was supposed to. I went to MFA readings and things and just thought that whole scene was so effete and boring. I realize now that I wouldn’t have known a good story if I’d been reading it. Too busy doing drugs and playing music and trying to have life experiences, I reckon. Such are your twenties.

But I always read. I did the “great books” in high school. Didn’t understand The Sound and the Fury but tried really hard to get it. In retrospect, I might’ve have been transformed by As I Lay Dying, which is considerably easier. I like to wonder what I would have made of my favorite books if I’d read them younger.

Anyway, I read a lot of Hemingway and Steinbeck and even took passes at Moby Dick and Ulysses until I enrolled in Latin and Greek for my Classics degree and all my time was taken up trying to read Homer and the Bible and Plato and Euripides. Those four years taught me a great deal of discipline. It was about impossible to study declensions when there are perfectly good-looking girls lazing on the quad getting spring-time tans. I don’t think I ever seriously entertained being a classics professor. I think my family thought I was insane for taking such a dead-end degree, but I knew that it was right, that I needed some kind of grounding in ancient writing to be a better writer. I looked at it like important foundational work. And I thought the English classes were a bunch of nonsense and theory and very little was about beauty and craft and aesthetics. It was (and largely remains) politics. I could not get into that at all.

I agree with you, Philipp, about not being aware of an audience when I’m writing. I have this thing—a habit more than a talent, per se—where if I’m reading something it starts to infect the cadence of my thinking. Language has always been sticky stuff in my head. So when it comes time to do your own work, it’s really a matter of getting your influences down to a few voices that you can work with, that you can make into your own. I think of it is creating psychic space. Where you have enough raw materials to work with, language-wise, but not so much that your own voice is subsumed. I guess that’s the first collaboration—the one with all your voices in your head.

But I’ve been fortunate that my creative collaborations have been a pleasure. Working on a script with another person is really, as Philipp observes, just the beginning of the process. I remember my mentor, Stephen Harrigan, writing “THE SCRIPT IS NOT THE THING” on the chalkboard, which is the correct mindset. The script is the idea, it’s the football play scratched out in the dirt. It’s the plan. And like a schoolyard football game, it is an incredibly fun experience because it’s shared. And after spending a few years locked up in your own head, it’s a joy to bang out something—even if it is blueprint for a larger collaborative effort—with someone else.