On February 26, 2009, Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times of Philipp Meyer: “American Rust announces the arrival of a gifted new writer — a writer who understands how place and personality and circumstance can converge to create the perfect storm of tragedy.” The reviews for this first-time novelist have been rave, with comparisons to Richard Russo, Salinger and Steinbeck. This pressure on a writer brings excitement to readers.
It was the first day of spring and I was excited to attend the event, Fateful Acts: A Fiction Panel, with authors Valerie Laken (Dream House), Katharine Davis (East Hope), and Philipp Meyer (American Rust).
Katharine Davis discussed the difficulties in briefly describing her novels. “It’s the complexity that makes [novels] interesting.” Valerie Laken described how the idea for her novel came from a personal experience. She and her husband had bought a rundown house in an up-and-coming neighborhood in Ann Arbor. Soon after, they learned that a murder had occurred years before in their fix-it-up home. A young man had shot his mother’s boyfriend in the house, then walked down the street to the ice cream shop, set the gun on the counter and asked if someone would please call the police. “Stories come from mistakes,” she said, getting a laugh from the crowd.
American Rust, Mr. Meyer described, starts with a killing in a town where the steel industry went under. “It’s about how much people are willing to sacrifice for their friends.” He said he’s hesitant to call it a crime novel because throughout the book the reader always knows more than the characters.
“It’s set in southwest Pennsylvania, which is very beautiful, and very remote, with a lot of wildlife. It’s a place so depressed that a job at Walmart is coveted.” He described the place as having a “certain sense of loss, both human and material.”
He’s held many unique jobs, including working in a trauma center, driving an ambulance, and doing years of construction work. When Mr. Meyer was 16 he dropped out of high school and got his G.E.D. “I didn’t understand at the time how it would change me. It’s a social handicap. The decision was more significant than I first expected.”
While working in construction he knew several people who had been to jail, and what he learned from them made its way into the novel. “Most had some awareness that people are interested in them as ex-prisoners. When they realize that you’re not afraid of them, they’re willing to tell you anything.”
Researching the novel he “did a lot of walking in the town, and so in the book there is a lot of walking. Sometimes I would go to a bar and buy someone a beer. You’d be surprised, everyone wants to talk about themselves.”
Mr. Meyer admitted that American Rust is the third novel he’s written, but only the first one published. He was writing for eight years before he had a single story published, but now he’s had stories in McSweeney’s and on Salon.com. “I’ve always been a big reader,” he said. “I don’t remember learning to read, I just remember always reading.”