in conversation with Alex Shephard

Set in a small, Rust Belt town in Western Pennsylvania, Philipp Meyer’s debut novel, American Rust, which tracks the relationship between two 20 year old friends, is propelled by a question that is central to understanding life in the Rust Belt: do you take off or do you stay put? On the side of getting out, there is the slight and bookish Isaac, who has grown to resent his ailing father, whom he has remained in town to care for, and his older sister Lee, who he blames for forcing him to stay with his father after she left home for Yale and has decided to ride the rails to Berkeley, California, where he’ll begin anew. On the side of staying put is Poe, Isaac’s best friend, is a towering ex-football star who could have gone to college on a scholarship but instead spends most of his time poaching, fighting, or falling down drunk. Poe agrees to travel with Isaac — but only to Pittsburgh.

They don’t even make it to Pittsburgh. Almost immediately, Poe is attacked by three homeless men in a shell of a building they’re using as shelter; Isaac, who was outside, returns and, perhaps accidentally, kills one of the men then, panicked, flees the scene with Poe. The next day, Isaac finally breaks out, hitting the rails by his lonesome. And not long after that, Poe is arrested and sent to prison, charged with the murder Isaac committed.

What begins as a geographical question — to stay or to go? — quickly becomes something greater. Poe, Isaac, and, before long nearly everyone in the novel’s orbit are forced to grapple with the question that haunts the novel: do they go, abandoning someone they love in order to save themselves or do they stay put, sacrificing their livelihoods and, perhaps, their lives for friends, children, or lovers?

There’s a palpable human cost to every decision in American Rust. A character’s intentions are hardly relevant: every choice ends with someone suffering. While rightly billed as a novel that explores the cost of violence in blue-collar areas, American Rust is also a meditation on the nature of sacrifice and, not only an exploration of the curious qualities that define male friendship but a moving testament to the deep, complicated bonds felt between people. I corresponded with Philipp Meyer over e-mail about American Rust, his upbringing in a blue collar Baltimore neighborhood and his work as a derivitives trader, and what he’s working on now.

A number of critics have referred to American Rust as a piece of “Recession fiction,” despite the fact that it’s about a very different economic crisis than the one we’ve experienced for the past two + years. How do you feel about that distinction?

Hmmmm. Labels are funny things, often handy, but mostly disposable.  So I guess I do not really think about them much. For the most part, I am not even sure what to call myself—I think we’re seeing the beginnings of a strong movement away from post-modernism, but no one knows what to call it yet. At one point, a poet friend and I decided we would call ourselves “New Modernists,” but after we sobered up it seemed pretentious so we just went back to writing. If you spent a lot spend a lot of time worrying about how others think of you, or thinking about how you ought to be thinking of yourself, you are in serious trouble. You pretty much need to sit down and do the work, and do it without self-consciousness.

Many of the disappointingly few novels set in the Rust Belt revolve around acts of violence (the most recent example being Cara Hoffman’s So Much Pretty.)  Why do you think the connection between violence and blue-collar life is so central to novels (and films, for that matter) about the region?

Well, the region is quite poor these days, and with poverty often comes violence, and desperation, and folks without much to lose. That is, of course, not the only story of the Rust Belt, there are people who are loving life just like anywhere else, but there has been an awful lot of loss there over the past few decades, of jobs, of people, and of hope.

How did the structure of the novel develop? Did you always plan to rotate between a half-dozen voices or did that come later?

The idea of a rotating POV came in pretty early, but more characters kept being added to the rotation. At the very beginning, the first few months of sketching it out, it was mostly Isaac and Poe’s POV, and also Grace and Poe’s father Virgil. Virgil was actually a major character when I first conceived the book. But after about 18 months of working on it, he wasn’t pulling his weight, so I cut him out, somewhere between 80 and 100 pages worth. Meanwhile, other characters began to develop, earned their own POVs, especially in the case of Harris, who did not start out as a main character at all, and was in fact the book’s main antagonist as I first conceived him. That changed in mid-December 2005. I actually do remember exactly when it occurred to me, I was driving a rented pickup truck on I95 in Virginia, and I was right in the middle of some other thought, when it hit me that I had completely misunderstood Harris, or that he needed to serve another function in the narrative, a pretty major one. Naturally I swerved all over the road trying to scribble down a note to that effect, so I wouldn’t forget it.

Your writing in American Rust has drawn some pretty heady comparisons — Cormac McCarthy not least among them. What books or writers were you thinking of when you were working on it?

Joyce’s Ulysses is the book I read and re-read a ton while I was writing it. Mostly for the Isaac sections. But also Faulkner’s Light in August (which for me was a measure of how many POVs I could follow as a reader, and still remain vested in the characters), Sound and the Fury, Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, a lot of James Kelman books. And I was reading a lot of poetry as well.

Perhaps it’s because of my relative youth (I’m 23) but I was struck by the importance you place in the novel on decisions you make between 17-23. Every character (with, I think, the exception of Henry English) thinks back to some moment in that period that essentially put them in the position that they’re in at the present.

Well, I think a lack of choices, or at least many hard choices, are what defines contemporary blue-collar life. Those years around age 18 and just after are usually when you leave or don’t leave the place you grew up, when you decide if you’re going to go to college (or stay in college), or try to get the job your father or mother or uncle had, and for many people, it might be when you end up starting to have kids. If you come from a background where there is not much margin for error in those sorts of choices, the patterns you set in those early years can follow you the rest of your life.

That said, I’ve found that the decisions at later stages in my life to be just as important as those made before age 22 or 23. But I tend to take pretty big risks, and that might be different for someone who was a little more conservative about things.

Finally, I do remember thinking quite clearly when I was twenty or so that one day, I was suddenly going to grow up, like a dog or something, I would reach “maturity” and that would be it. I think a lot of people believe this around that age—when actually, nothing could be further from the truth. About every five years you can look back at your life and be stunned at what an idiot you were five years previous. At twenty-five, you think you were an idiot at twenty, and at thirty, you think you were an idiot at twenty-five. One nice thing is that by your thirties, know you will continue to change. You know yourself much better and you begin to take the fact of your continuous change for granted.

In older novels about rural, blue-collar life (pre-Reagan, at least) religion is often a major factor, but in American Rust it’s fairly peripheral (or at least it revolves around non-denominational questions of impermanence and probability). But, despite this “non-denominational” quality, I was struck by how complex and deeply felt these questions were voiced in the novel. Did you struggle at all with the role of religion in the novel? Did it evolve?

Well, I think that your sense of a character’s relationship to God or religion develops as the character develops. Nearly all people have some relationship to religion, even if that relationship consists of rejecting it. And so you are simply not going to be thinking about questions of morality, or mortality, without getting religion involved, simply because it claims to be part of the context for those questions, and even if you decide it has no authority in those matters, you still have to address it first.

How did you research the novel? I’m thinking particularly of the scenes in prison and on the rails, but also life in rural PA as well.

I did most of the walking that Isaac and Poe did in the book, jumped coal trains, spent a lot of time along the river, just sitting with people, in bars, just talking to whomever wanted to talk. I did about 15 formal interviews with former steelworkers, as well as some government employees who wanted to remain anonymous. I walked and drove, drove and walked. Some close friends are ministers in the Mon Valley, and they were invaluable, as they saw the collapse and dealt with the aftermath, and one of my closest friends grew up in Charleroi.

For the prison stuff, in the neighborhood I grew up in, certain folks were in and out of prison, and then working as an EMT and in a trauma center, you are just dealing with a fair number of police officers and often prisoners, and at various jobs I had I worked with some ex-cons. At one point in my life, a friend of mine did seven years for armed robbery, and another guy I knew did ten for attempted murder. I also taught a writing class in a prison.

I was surprised that, for a novel with a plot so bleak and intense, American Rust is, I think, remarkably optimistic about people — or at the very least, you seem keenly aware of our ability to make sacrifices for others and to persist with dignity through difficult times. Is that fair?

I don’t think that the decisions we make when we are not under any pressure, when our lives are going well, really say very much about us. It is easy to be generous at times like that. What matters is the decisions we make when everything is at stake, whether our lives or our futures are at stake or maybe someone else’s life. That is when you start to see into people. As Camus said (which I quoted in the book’s epigraph): “What we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than despise.”

In an essay published in The Independent you wrote about living a “split-existence” growing up — between the left-wing, intellectual ideas of your parents and the blue-collar life you were surrounded by in Baltimore. How did that affect you?

My parents were both artist and bohemian types, though they hate that phrase, and inside the house, we had tons of books, my parents listened to classical music, and my brother and I were encouraged to do whatever creative stuff we wanted. Outside the house, those things were not acceptable unless you wanted to get punched in the mouth.
We lived in a old textile mill neighborhood called Hampden, which some will know because John Waters sets most of his films there. The neighborhood was on a downward trend, Baltimore’s industrial base was collapsing, same as every other city like it. There was guy was stabbed to death in the bar a few doors down, another guy beaten nearly to death in front of our house, and a few of the neighbors were known to have killed people. There were always cop cars and ambulances parked on our street. Now, there were also lots of neighbors who looked out for each other and had lived there forever, who remembered when things had been much better, but despite that, if you wandered too far out of your home turf, you’d get beaten up, not with a lead pipe or anything, but you’d get your nose bloodied, or your eye blackened, and that was pretty much what I took for granted about life until I was about 18 or 19, that wherever you went, there was probably an ass-kicking waiting just around the corner. I dropped out of high school, which sort of continued this a little longer than it might have gone on otherwise.
Once I got into Cornell (at 22) the slate was basically wiped clean. It did not matter anymore that I had a GED. But definitely I felt a small chip on my shoulder, mostly because I felt like I’d earned the right to be where I was, I’d had numerous people telling me along the way that I would never make it, that I was setting goals that were too high (never my parents, who were patient and amazingly supportive the entire time). I remember going into the admissions office at Johns Hopkins University, talking to a dean, telling him my story, which was that I was a high school dropout, but I’d re-evaluated things in my life, and wanted to make some changes—I wanted to apply to Johns Hopkins. He literally laughed in my face. Not in a mean way, but he could not help himself. That is something I will never forget. There were plenty of other incidents like that, good friends telling me to set my sights lower to avoid disappointment.
That was the context I was coming from when I got to Cornell, versus most of my classmates, who had come from wealthy families and would never have been allowed to fail, even if they tried. Of course, after a while, I realized I was just projecting my own insecurities on people. No one cared where I came from, except me.

Was your experience at Cornell anything like Lee’s experience at Yale?

For the most part. Cornell is a bit more working class than Yale, but it was where for the first time, I realized that I was not quite alone in the world. Where I realized that there were tons of other people like me.  It was a life-changing experience, all for the better, one of the happier times of my life, I lived in a big co-ed house with 25 people and we would sit up until 4 am discussing philosophy or physics or politics or literature whatever seemed interesting. It was a pretty amazing time. I grew enormously as a person, it opened me up quite radically. It was what college is supposed to be like, which on some levels was like living in a beat novel, except we didn’t feel self-conscious about it.

How did your experience as a derivatives trader (which you wrote about in the aforementioned essay in The Independent) affect the way you wrote about money and class in American Rust?

Well, it showed me that plenty of folks in the upper class have literally no idea what it is like to be anything but upper class. It is true to such a great extent that it is a cliché, but there are good reasons for it. I met a lot of people born into money who were half as bright as some of the kids in my old neighborhood, half as emotionally intelligent, and ten times as lazy—but who genuinely believed that social and economic status is distributed primarily according to merit. And why wouldn’t they—that is the easiest thing to believe when you are at the top. It answers a nearly infinite series of questions you would have to address otherwise. It is basically a psychological defense mechanism—the vast majority of us are hard-wired for compassion and empathy, and if you are eating Steak au poivre while people are freezing to death in alleys, you need a way to explain that to yourself. Because otherwise it would just be too horrible.

What are you working on now?

A partly historical novel about the rise of an oil and ranching dynasty in Texas, tracing the family from the earliest days of white settlement, fifty years of open warfare with the Comanches, the end of the frontier and the rise of the cattle industry, and transitioning into the modern (oil) age. The rise of Texas as a power pretty closely parallels America’s rise to global power, for obvious reasons. And I wanted to write about the parts of America that are growing, rather than declining. I’m thinking of this new book as the second of a trilogy, with American Rust being the first.

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