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Midwestern Gothic staffer Rachel Hurwitz talked with author Peter Geye about his new book Wintering, the evolution of his writing process, choosing the right narrator and more.
Rachel Hurwitz: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Peter Geye: I was born and raised in Minneapolis, and with the exception of a year being a ski bum in Colorado and three years at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, I’ve lived here my whole life. Two of my children were born in the same hospital I was. So my roots here are pretty deep and native. And I love this.
But I believe there’s more to my connection than simply having come and lived in this place. I think of it in what can only be described as parallel ways. I’m no biologist, but I understand that most animals thrive in an ecosystem particular to their physiology. Minnesota has its share of these animals — moose, wolves, lynx — and I simply count myself among these beasts. This place is my natural habitat. I’ve evolved to love it, and thrive here. The other line running parallel to this is a little less scientific, and I can only think of it like this: I have a psychic connection to the place I’m from. So much of my identity is marked by this landscape, by the seasons, by the water.
To say this part of me is what drives my writing would be an understatement. Where some folks might talk about how they conceive of their characters, I think of how my characters conceive of me. I learn more about the world from them than I ever could ascribe to them. Which is another way of talking about the way my psychic connection to Minnesota and the Midwest is a part of my daily life.
RH: You spent some time as a professor at the Creative Writing program at Western Michigan University. What do you think this experience taught you about your own writing, or writing in general?
PG: I taught at Western, but was never a professor there. In fact, I was a student. But still, my years at that university were extremely informative. I read voraciously while studying there. And I wrote a lot about what I read, which required me to think deeply. Of course, reading and thinking about it were two things that I already did with quite a lot of frequency (I have an English degree from the University of Minnesota, and an MFA from the University of New Orleans), but something about studying for a PhD required me to take my thinking to the next level. This in turn taught me to think about my own work in ways I might not otherwise have ever been able to. For that I’m everlastingly grateful.
But I also taught at Western, and this was an equal part of my education. If my studies were teaching me how to read critically, my teaching was showing me how to read empathetically, which is indeed the more important part of the transaction between writer and reader. Academia is, to my mind, essential. But the more essential — I might even say most essential — part of why we read and write is to find commonalities with each other. I learned most of what I know about that teaching undergraduates how to be honest with themselves — how to tell their stories honestly — and for this I’m always grateful.
RH: Are there any necessities in your writing process — such as being in a certain location, using a specific type of pen or creating an outline beforehand?
PG: There used to be! While I was writing my first novel (Safe from the Sea) now some fifteen years ago, I required absolute silence and absolute darkness. Every night I would make a pot of coffee at nine or ten and adjourn to my little office with my certain pens and notebooks. If the house creaked or the wind blew too hard, I lost my mind. It’s crazy to think about that, because by the time that book was published about six years ago, I had three kids, and the closest I got to silence was when only two of them were crying.
My second and third books were written in coffee shops and at the kitchen table, often with one hand in the peanut butter jar. I write on bar napkins and on post-it notes and when such a thing as quiet time exists, in my notebooks. Some things I outline and some things I don’t. Sometimes I work for eight hours a day, sometimes for eight minutes. Many days I don’t work at all.
What’s important to me now — what is indeed essential — is that I’m fully in love with my characters. That I treat them like I do the people closest to me. And of course, that I always remember what I’m really working toward is introducing these people and their lives to readers, so that I should be careful to make that meaningful when it happens.
RH: Your latest novel, Wintering, follows Gus, whose father has just been pronounced dead after disappearing from his sickbed, retelling the story of how he and his father had vanished into the Minnesota wilderness thirty years earlier to a close family friend, Berit. Where did the idea for this story arise?
PG: I’ve been traveling to the part of Minnesota and Canada described in this book since I was a young boy, and from my earliest memories of this wilderness, I’ve been aware of how easy it would be to disappear (or to make someone disappear) there. I mean, we’re talking about almost two hundred thousand acres of utter wilderness. A place with nothing but trees and water and the occasional fellow canoeist. It’s a perfect place to set a story, especially a story about getting lost and found, and about retribution of a violent sort.
On top of all this, it’s just quite simply the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. This beauty makes me want to describe it, to show it to those in the world unlucky enough to have never been there. That’s a not small part of my ambition with all of the books I’ve written — to show people this place I call home.
RH: What made you chose to start the novel from Berit’s point of view? What do you think her opinion and voice brings to the opening of the novel?
PG: I spent so many hours toiling over who ought to tell this story. Honest to god, I must have written the first fifty or a hundred pages of this book half a dozen times. I knew I wanted it to be told from a woman’s point of view. I’m comfortable writing in the voice of a woman for all sorts of reasons, but for this particular story I wanted there to be a sort of counter-balance to the masculine part of the story that takes place in the woods. I also knew I wanted the voice to be laconic and reflective and for the character who owned the voice to have a long view. I tried writing it from Gus’s wife’s point of view, and from his daughter’s, and from a few other versions of women like Berit. But none of them really accomplished what I wanted the voice to do.
And then Berit came along. The first scene I saw her in was when she’s a young woman, having just arrived in town to work for the mad hatter, Rebekah Grimm. Berit is on the shore picking flowers and she meets Harry, and as soon as they started talking to each other, I knew she was my voice. I felt so much like her. I understood her so instinctively. Those are a couple of pretty good barometers for me. And I was right about her. She impressed me every day, and I continue to live very happily with the memory of her.
RH: The beautiful and brutal setting of a cold winter in the river-filled woods of Minnesota plays a huge role in the plot and power of this novel. Why did you choose the town of Gunflint and the backwoods of Minnesota rather than any other span of wilderness?
PG: The short answer is that it’s a territory I’ve known my whole life. I was ten or eleven the first time I went into the Boundary Waters, and much younger than that the first time I visited Lake Superior. For all the places in the world I’ve traveled, I still prefer this cold and quiet place. And this might be reason enough to choose it as a location for my fiction, but it has another quality that bears mentioning. If I’ve been up there a hundred times in my life, I’ve never seen it the same twice. Between its temperamental weather and seasons, and a landscape that seems to be evolving in real time, the mood and light and way this area feels is never redundant. It’s a new world every day. And this is a tremendous ingredient for fiction. The nature of this place — of its changeability — well, it makes the characters who inhabit it seem larger and more complicated. This, above maybe all other qualities, is what I love about it.
RH: Wintering, like your other novels Safe From the Sea and The Lighthouse Road, seem to grapple with the relationships between generations of family members. How does this theme resonate with you and why is it prominent in your work?
PG: I wish I had a good answer for this question. I mean, on the one hand, I’ve always been interested in my family’s past. But by the same token, I’ve not once visited any of the ancestry websites. Perhaps there’s a part of me that would rather just imagine their lives. And maybe that wonder is what drives me to write about families and their long pasts in my novels.
When I wrote Safe from the Sea, I did so from the point of view of a son. I was confronting the relationship from my role as my father’s child. In the Eide family books, it’s been more from the point of view of the parent. I guess this is natural, since I went from being a son to being a father and son. But now when I think of these relationships, they’re much more complicated and daunting, and one of the best ways to make sense of them is to take the long view. To consider hundred year old blood as meaningful even now. It’s almost cosmic, to my way of thinking. And certainly this consideration has become a preoccupation for me. In my life and in my work. And I’m likely to keep on exploring it, knowing, of course, that I probably won’t find any satisfactory answers.
RH: What author or individual has had the greatest influence on yourself and your work — either literary or personally?
PG: Well, no doubt my family has had the greatest influence on me. Both in terms of my daily life and my work. But that’s probably not the answer you’re looking for.
With respect to folks who have influenced me, there’s a long list. First there was my high school English teacher, Dave Beenken, who turned me onto the joy of reading and the idea that a book could be a pleasure. The first books he showed me were Hemingway’s — A Farewell to Arms, the stories, For Whom the Bell Tolls — and I still count them as essential, even as out of vogue as they’ve become. Find me a story I like more than “Big Two-Hearted River” and a wonderful story it will be. After Hemingway came a whole flood of American novelists. Willa Cather. Zora Neale Hurston. Alice Walker. William Faulkner. Toni Morrison. Thomas Wolfe. Then a bunch of Russian novelists. Then several courses in Scandinavian literature. Ibsen, Strindberg, Vesaas, Hamsun, Lagerkvist. I went through a period of time when I read an awful lot of Henry Miller. I thought it was sexy and exotic and I liked the idea of living the sort of life he recorded. But I haven’t read Henry Miller in twenty years. I read Philip Roth with a lot of pleasure, and because he recommended her, I’ve read most (if not all) of Louise Erdrich’s novels and stories. She’s a national treasure, and another person who calls the Midwest home. And all of this reading was, I like to think, a kind of preparation for the books I count among my very favorites. These include Gil Adamson’s The Outlander, Annie Dillard’s The Living, John Casey’s Spartina, Robert Stone’s Outerbridge Reach, Annie Proulx’s Postcards, Amy Greene’s Long Man, Danielle Sosin’s The Long-Shining Waters, Ben Percy’s The Wilding, Richard Russo’s Empire Falls. And my favorite novelists, Kent Haruf and Cormac McCarthy and Joseph Boyden.
It would be ridiculous not to mention my teachers, also. Jaimy Gordon, Stu Dybek, Patricia Hampl, Richard Katrovas. And my editors, two of the all-time best: Greg Michalson and Gary Fisketjon.
All of these books and people have influenced me in ways I could never begin to measure. Still, I can say that every single one of them has been instrumental. Looking at this list is a pretty great reminder that writers don’t do everything in isolation. I’ve been surrounded by so many great influences, and my work wouldn’t exist without all of them.
RH: What’s next for you?
PG: For the first time in my life I’m working on two projects simultaneously. The first is a book of non-fiction called Laurentide. It’s a book about my relationship with the North Shore of Lake Superior, about time and memory, about being a father, about being vulnerable to life’s vicissitudes. It’s a book about writing.
I’m also hard at work on another novel of the Eide family, the last of this trilogy. It’s called Northernmost and it takes place in Gunflint, of course, but also goes back to Norway. It’s about marriage and longing. It’s an Arctic survival story. It’s a story about fathers and daughters. It’s about love, losing it and finding it again when you least expect it, when you’ve given up on it, when you’ve stopped dreaming about it, in one deep breath.
Peter Geye is the award winning author of Safe From the Sea, soon to be a major motion picture, The Lighthouse Road, which was a World Book Night 2014 selection, and Wintering, just published by Knopf. He holds an MFA from the University of New Orleans and a PhD from Western Michigan University, where he was editor of Third Coast. He was born and raised in Minneapolis, where he still lives.