Philipp Meyer was only partway through writing his second novel, a lit-gritty multigenerational saga about a South Texas cattle-and-oil dynasty, when he let two old friends from the University of Texas at Austin’s writing program talk him into adapting it with them. Lee Shipman and Brian McGreevy were busy developing McGreevy’s novel Hemlock Grove for Netflix, and after reading early drafts of Meyer’s work-in-progress, The Son, they “dragged me into” the world of TV production, Meyer says. By the time his novel was published, in 2013, the three were partners in a new company: El Jefe. Meyer was living off his $1 million advance for that novel and an option from Universal on his first book, American Rust, and he turned down a “huge offer” on The Son from a major studio, opting to adapt it with his buddies instead. He thought the process would take one year. It took four.
The Son went on to be a best seller and Pulitzer finalist, and now the TV adaptation is coming to AMC as a more genre-fied and only slightly less sprawling version of the original. Season one focuses on the split between the vicious Colonel Eli McCullough (Pierce Brosnan) and his weaker, more moral son, Pete (Henry Garrett). While Meyer isn’t the first literary author to make the leap into television, he’s possibly the first to double as an enthusiastic prop consultant. The author, who’s 43 and lives in Austin, has talked a lot about his “Method” approach to writing The Son, and in that spirit, he Method-produced the show, too. “Because I had a say in all the scripts, I blocked all the silly things that usually get written into TV,” Meyer says. “Most TV writers are informed by watching other TV shows. I’d actually done the research — whether it was reading 350 books or spending a month [training with] Blackwater or shooting a buffalo myself and drinking some of its blood.” On set, he taught a British actor how to use an antique rifle and demonstrated to a group of Blackfeet actors how to shoot bows in the Comanche style (which he’d learned from a proper Comanche). He lucked out, he says, with Brosnan: “He’s a master horseman, and he’s been handling guns his whole life.” But with others, Meyer didn’t want to take chances. “I knew that the only way for this to be good was if I did it myself.”
Despite this immersion in the process, TV still doesn’t feel like home for Meyer. Unlike novel writing, which is relatively solitary, Hollywood is “a machine that you’re a part of — everyone else’s career is suddenly riding on your project,” he says. “It’s a corporate job where you have grown-up responsibilities. Which I guess I was used to from the old days.”
For Meyer, “the old days” encompass quite a lot: Raised by artists in a working-class Baltimore neighborhood, he dropped out of high school and worked as a mechanic and an orderly in a trauma center before earning a GED, attending a local college, transferring to Cornell, and swapping his pre-med track for another kind of life plan. At 25, he became a derivatives trader at UBS, expecting to retire early to a leisurely life of writing fiction. But Meyer lasted only a couple of years, finding solace in taking numerous “sick days” for writing, hunting, and fixing cars, before souring on what he’s since described as the self-justifying parasitism of finance. The moral subtlety and class-consciousness of both his subsequent fiction and his conversation (he disdains those who disdain Trump’s hillbillies) make it hard to imagine him bro’ing out over credit-default swaps and Château Latour. But his brash personality makes it a bit more plausible. “Both Philipp and myself, just as a fluke of nature, happen to be psychotically Type A,” says McGreevy, explaining their “entrepreneurial” approaches and comfort level with team projects.
In 2001, Meyer started a novel based on his life so far; it was rejected by dozens of agents, and soon he was living back at home, “wondering whether I had made bad decisions out of complete overconfidence.” But he kept writing, moving away from autobiographical material. A few short stories got him into graduate school in Austin, where he polished his debut novel, American Rust, an atmospheric work of hardscrabble noir set in a failing steel town south of Pittsburgh. The book was very well received; he made The New Yorker’s 2010 list of the 20 best writers under 40 in America.
With his self-diagnosed overconfidence finally rewarded — doubly so with the rapturous reception of The Son — Meyer was ready to test it again in the world of show business. It’s turned out to be an excellent asset. “You need to have a couple of very bullheaded people in the process, and in my case it was obvious that person should be me, because I didn’t care if I got fired,” he says. “It’s very important in Hollywood that everyone is nice, and much less important to me.” He says his greatest struggles were with writers who were under “relentless pressure to do what’s been done before. They say, ‘This worked well on this movie project I did.’ Well, it’s still a fucking stupid idea.” Kevin Murphy, the showrunner on The Son and a TV veteran (from Desperate Housewives to Defiance), says their meetings went “swimmingly.” Meyer did insist that any new story elements be grounded in real events, but he was “enthusiastically ruthless,” says Murphy, “about jettisoning things for the good of the show.”
Now that Meyer has added another paragraph to his eccentric résumé, the question remains: What does he want to do with his life? “I’m a novelist first,” he says, and he’s halfway into a new book, a modern reimagining of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Then he might return to the big-picture Americana of his first two novels, completing what he’s called The American Trilogy (a phrase he now regrets uttering in public). Next on El Jefe’s docket is American Rust, which Meyer took back from Universal. But beyond that, he isn’t so sure TV is for him. McGreevy notes, “It certainly has been an unusually fruitful experiment. But in other ways Philipp has been a very trophy-oriented person. A lot of his recreational pursuits have been geared toward that.” Meyer rejects the idea that the show is just another head for his wall (to accompany the boar’s head that already resides there). “What people think of me in public, it simply doesn’t motivate me,” he says. “But I will do almost anything to myself, in terms of punishing myself, working 20 hours a day, to accomplish an artistic goal that’s meaningful to me.”