Philipp Meyer is an avid outdoorsman—he’s a skilled hunter, and says he's comfortable camping pretty much anywhere, as long as he has a rifle, a sleeping bag and a tent. So he thought he’d have a leg up when he set out to write his second novel, The Son, a highly anticipated multi-generational saga spanning most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, each of its narratives in some way tied intrinsically to the physical land of Texas. He bought more than 350 books, on everything from Texas folklore to Native American plant usage, and thought that might be enough.
“I presumed I could just read about it,” he says. “I figured I’d probably have a huge advantage over someone who was writing about this stuff who hadn’t spent a lot of time in the woods, someone for whom the way of life 150 years ago had actually no relation to their current life.”
Plus, Meyer is a writer highly attuned to sense of place: his debut novel American Rust was praised for its realistic depiction of the decaying American Rust Belt. But it didn’t take him long, he says, to realize he was wrong about conquering Texas by reading about it. Meyer found himself distrustful of written sources, both historical and fictional. He worried about all of the mythologizing already done about Texas by historians and novelists alike. So he embarked on a different, more immersive kind of research. Instead of reading about bows, he learned to shoot one. Instead of researching horses, he took riding classes. And instead of wondering what buffalo blood might taste like—the Comanche often drank the blood as a water substitute and for its nutritional value—he drank it himself.
Meyer spent a few days with a buffalo rancher who supplies organic meat to restaurants. He shot and killed a buffalo. And then, as the animal was bleeding out, he says, “I sort of realized, ‘Okay, I actually have to taste this.’ So I got an old coffee mug and filled it with blood and drank it. And it was just disgusting.”
It sounds extreme, and it is, but that kind of research translates to incredible authenticity and authority on the page, allowing Meyer to write convincingly about the many uses of each part of the buffalo, or the Comanche method for preparing a human scalp. The details serve a page-turning plot following three members of the McCollough family across time—readers are presented the WPA recollections of Eli McCollough, who is taken captive by Comanche raiders after they’ve killed his family; the diary of his son, Peter, who participates in a raid on neighbors that haunts him for years afterward; and the memories of Jeannie, Eli’s great-granddaughter, who singlehandedly preserves the family’s significant power, money and land. The McColloughs’ stories are tightly woven and interwoven, and the details Meyer worked so hard to perfect contribute to the tremendous movement and power of the book.
It took Meyer five years to write The Son, and he says he never stopped researching, not till the last second. “It was extremely inefficient,” he says with a laugh. “It probably added a year and a half, and the whole time you’re running out of money.”
The research took other forms: using a bow and arrow to kill several deer, taking classes on animal tracking, and spending time at Blackwater, the private military contractor, doing what he calls “hyper-realistic” gunfight training. To participate, he had to round up a conceal carry permit, a gun (he bought an M-4 rifle) and a letter of recommendation from a minister attesting to his good character. “I thought I was going to get thrown out when they found out I was a writer, so I just decided I would fess up about it right away,” Meyer says. “And I did, and they were cool about it.”
Meyer went to Blackwater in order to immerse himself in a warrior culture, like that of the Comanche people by whom Eli is essentially raised. As for the violence that permeates the novel, including the decimation of the Comanche and the 1919 massacre of thousands of Mexican-American ranchers by Texas Rangers, Meyer has some hands-on experience with that, too: For years, he worked at a shock trauma center in Baltimore and later, even while enrolled at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, he worked as an EMT. He says he lost count pretty early on of the number of people he’s seen die.
But while he acknowledges that this experience likely informs his work in some subconscious way, he says he made a conscious artistic choice about the way to portray violence and death in The Son. “There’s the sort of Quentin Tarantino, sometimes-Cormac McCarthy type of aestheticization of violence that makes it sort of beautiful, and I didn’t want to do that,” he says. “When you see a few people die, you begin to understand that it’s a way of life almost like eating is. It’s not a part of life that you want to experience or that you want your loved ones to experience, but it just seems very natural, and Quentin Tarantino doesn’t make it seem that way. Cormac makes it seem too pretty. You’re not thinking in metaphors when you’re watching someone die of a gunshot wound or stabbing.”
He adds, too, that early settlers of Texas and the Comanche had a different, more personal relationship with violence than most of us do today. Which brings up, again, historical authenticity. “There is a responsibility to represent these things accurately and to not neutralize or reduce their power by making them beautiful,” Meyer says. “This country was founded on an enormous amount of violence. We took an entire continent that was full of people and, mostly by disease, but also by plenty of bullets, wiped those people out. And without having done that, there would be no America. And I think it’s very easy to not see the natural, real deaths in books or in any sort of art form. I try to be really careful about that.”
Jaime Netzer is a writer and freelance journalist living in Smithville, Texas, as the L.D. Clark Writer-in-Residence.