Interview with Philipp Meyer

Philipp Meyer, one of The New Yorker's "20 Under 40" and a recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, is the author of the much-lauded American Rust. The debut novel was named The Economist's "Book of the Year," one of The Washington Post's Ten Best Books of 2009, and one of Newsweek's "Best. Books. Ever" to name only a few of its awards. American Rust is a snapshot depiction of a declining steel town, told from the perspective of six very different characters. Meyer intricately crafted their unique voices and seamlessly wove their narrations to create this haunting story. In February 2011, Meyer visited the campus of Kansas State University and read excerpts from his novel, providing glimpses into the points of view of his various narrators. He spoke with Touchstone in the following e-mail interview about how he manages his complex plots, how writing is like being an athlete, and his experiences before American Rust:

In your novel American Rust, there are many twists and surprises. Does your work ever surprise you while you write?

Constantly. I always have an outline or sense of direction when I write, but the stuff that comes from your subconscious, or your muse, or whatever you want to call it, is always more trustworthy than the stuff your conscious mind plans out. Occasionally, of course, you can go off track a little. So I'd say for me the process of writing is mostly trusting my subconscious mind, or instincts, with my conscious or rational mind occasionally coming in to put order to things, if need be.

Your novel also frequently shifts between different characters' points of view. Where do the characters come from? How do you manage the changes?

The characters all come from your subconscious. From a thought fragment, or sensory impression, or feeling - some thread that takes you inside the mind of another human being. And what you find there is generally not what you thought you would find.

You manage the changes between points of view by not writing in order. Once you have a working draft, and you are pretty sure of the arc of the story and the arc of each character, you go back and re-write the entire book, but in sections, only working on one character, or point of view, at a time. After I had a pretty advanced draft, I wrote Isaac from start to finish, and then Poe start to finish, and then Grace, etc. Otherwise the characters and voices all blend together. Their voices become indistinct. Which you can see in plenty of other books - the characters might say different things, but they all sound the same. They speak, think, and emote in the same ways, with the same rhythms. I wanted to avoid that.

On top of that, it is nearly impossible to truly immerse yourself in the minds of multiple people at the same time. You have to take them one by one. Of course, it's a lot more work, and takes longer this way.

Which is your favorite character? Which was your favorite to write?

For the reasons I mentioned above - that I was fully immersed in each character as I was writing their sections, my favorite depended on who I was working on that month.

You've been featured as one of The New Yorker's "20 Under 40." What has that experience been like?

It was really nice. I am extremely fortunate and grateful. But you cannot let the opinions of other people affect your work in any way. Whether they say good things, or bad things, you always have to trust yourself. When it's praise, sure, maybe you let yourself enjoy it for a minute or two. But then you chuck it into the box of unimportant stuff and throw it into some back corner of your mind, never to be thought about again. Doesn't matter whether it's good or bad. It's no different than some sportscaster telling a pro-athlete that they are the greatest thing since sliced bread. The athlete still has to stay focused on actually playing the game, on training and practicing. Everything else is just talk. Always be gracious and smile politely, but you have to learn to ignore every single comment that comes your way.

You were an EMT during Hurricane Katrina. What was that like? Did it influence your writing?

It was pretty intense. Probably a little too long to describe here. Disasters, wars, etc., reduce people to their animal elements pretty quickly. You realize that if people don't have food, water, and shelter, the rest is all BS. And medical treatment, of course. You don't really have a functioning civilization unless people are physically healthy.

I am sure it influenced my writing, but no more than anything else. I did it to help people, not to write about it. From my point of view at that moment, I was driving into a hurricane, not knowing what was going to happen. I thought it was pretty likely I'd get hurt, I gave myself a small but real chance of getting killed. On the way there, I called a buddy of mine to tell him what I was doing in case something happened to me. I didn't call or tell my parents because I didn't want them to worry. I figured if I got hurt or worse, they could deal with it then. Anyway, it was one of those situations where I knew I could help people, and I knew I would not be able to live with myself if I didn't make an effort. Don't be a coward. As I've said before.

From a writerly point of view, it was another experience, another lesson on human nature. But you can get those sitting in a bar and just listening to people talk.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Write, write, and write. Trust your instincts. That is all that matters. There are more minor things, like making sure you read great writers, but you are probably doing that anyway. There are million minor rules that are sometimes true and sometimes not true.

All that really matters in the end is making sure you keep writing, and making sure you trust your own opinions and feelings about your work over the opinions of all other people. At some point you will look back over your career and realize that what other people have told you about your work was 99% BS.

It really is like becoming a pro-athlete. Coaching helps, but unless you're putting in the hours - day in day out, year in year out - you'll never make it. You have to actually do it, not just think about it.

If you could be one of the Village People, which one would you choose and why?

The Cowboy. Obviously.