Interview with Indie Lit Winner Peter Geye
By: Lyndsey (Lit Fiction Co-Judge)
There’s been an incredible response to Safe From the Sea – it must be the kind of reception that every debut novelist dreams of! What was the process from initial idea to seeing it the shops like for you?
No doubt the reception has exceeded all my expectations. As a first-time novelist, it was impossible to predict what the book’s coming to life would look like, and as a skeptical person, I was hardly willing to even imagine it. I decided, as I was finishing the book, that I would consider it accomplishment enough to write the last page. Of course, I hoped the book would be published, hoped that if it was, people would enjoy it. But what’s come to pass has made the reality better than the dream.
Is there a hero in this book? And is it Olaf or Noah?
In my life experience, heroes are hard to come by. People are certainly capable of heroic actions, but it seems those actions are almost always couched in a pretty mundane daily life. I find those mundane moments infinitely more interesting and complex than instances of greatness, of heroism. Maybe I feel this way because my own life is so ordinary, because the accomplishments I consider most sensational in my life have less to do with winning wars or climbing mountains than with loving my children and sitting at a desk with a paper and pen.
One of my favorite moments in the book comes about midway through the story of the wreck. Noah is trying to reconcile the story as he’s always imagined it with the story Olaf is telling. One of the notions Noah has carried throughout his life is that the men who worked on the boats with his father were larger than life. He says as much to his father, who corrects him by saying that in real-life there aren’t “Gods and giants” but “Men and boys.” When Noah accepts this truth, his whole life changes. His father becomes his father again. The prospect of becoming a father himself enlivens Noah, which for years has not been the case. Perhaps most importantly, the story his father is telling—the story of their family, too—becomes something powerful enough to rebuild his life around. In a strange way, stories are the great heroes, not individuals.
You tell the story of the Rag’s shipwreck through a conversation between Olaf and Noah. What made you choose to tell it this way – and did you find it difficult to write?
This was the most difficult decision I had to make. I wrote almost the whole scene in the third person before I realized the consequences of that tense. Without Olaf’s voice, without his pauses and expressions, the story would be no different to Noah than what he already knew from reading and thinking about it his whole life. Leaving it in the third person would have defeated the larger purpose for the story of the wreck.
I have to say, though, that it did take me a while to get Olaf’s voice right. I mean, he’s a strong, silent type. At one point Noah observes that he’d never heard his father say so much at one time, that he’d never heard him say half as much. I had to take into consideration Olaf living alone in the woods, without friends or family, and how a man so used to the silence of his own life would react to becoming so suddenly garrulous. I also had to make sure the voice of Olaf didn’t just blend into the more general voice of the narrative, the voice I was using to tell the rest of the story.
You ask was it difficult to write and the answer is no, though it was difficult to discover all the implications of the choices I was making. Once I was aware of those implications, the scene came easily. Of all the chapters in the book, the one that tells the story of the wreck has gone through the least revision
One of the issues that you deal with very powerfully is infertility and the way it affects relationships, which you convincingly look at from both the husband and the wife’s perspective. It’s not a subject that many male writers have addressed. Were you nervous to explore the issue, or afraid of what the reaction might be?
Anyone who knows me would tell you I’m a guy’s guy. I like to watch baseball and drink beer and build stuff with hammers and nails. But even as that’s true, I’m a very emotional man as well. When my wife and I decided it was time to have children, and when we were unsuccessful for many years, I was sad in a way I’d never been before. We went through five years of infertility treatments, miscarriages, surgeries, and dashed dreams before we finally had our first child. If we hadn’t gone through that, if I hadn’t experienced the frustration and sadness first hand, if I hadn’t seen how desperate my wife became, I suppose it would have been difficult to write about. It was difficult enough as it was.
When I did decide to include that thread of the story, I knew there would be readers who didn’t believe a woman would act the way Noah’s wife acts. I knew there would be people who doubted Noah’s ambivalence. And though it’s not necessarily true that what happens in real life translates well to into fiction, I believed that the story of their struggles to have a child would amplify Noah’s relationship with his father and their past. I knew also that the experience my wife and I had gone though gave me a kind of authority that would allow me to ignore the inevitable criticism.
This is not to say, of course, that you need real life experience to make fiction. I mean, I’ve never survived a shipwreck on Lake Superior but managed to write convincingly about that. Still, there are delicate issues where experience sure doesn’t hurt.
All of us commented on your ability to evoke a very particular, very unique setting. What’s your connection with this part of the world?
The part of the world I write about in Safe from the Sea is very near to my heart. It’s an intimacy goes back to childhood, to some of my earliest memories. We used to pack our family into the back of our station wagon and drive up north for our summer vacations. Actually, calling them vacations might be a bit of an exaggeration. We’d pitch a tent in a state park or rent a cabin on the water and swat mosquitoes for the weekend. But I loved it. I loved the sense of awe I experienced looking out at the waters. I loved the wilderness, the quiet, the temperament of the whole region. I knew even as a boy that this landscape was special.
As an adult, I’ve come to think of it as the place where I feel most like myself. Whenever I’m up on the shore—and I try to get up there at least four or five times a year—I find a peace that I don’t find anywhere else. And it’s such an easy place to evoke. I knew it would be my setting for a book before I had any idea who the characters were or what the story was. I know, also, that I’ll continue setting my fiction along the lake.
What/who were you reading while writing Safe From the Sea?
The book that influenced me most in the beginning was Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing. Though it shares very little in common with Safe from the Sea, it does utilize a landscape not unlike northern Minnesota to enlarge its characters’ lives. I also read Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road, which likewise relies heavily on landscape to evoke meaning. Two other books that taught me a lot around the time I was writing Safe from the Sea were Richard Russo’s Empire Falls and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
And what are you reading now – old favourites or new discoveries?
This is my favorite question. I read as much as I can, though with three kids it gets harder and harder all the time to find the space and quiet to do so. Some of my favorite writers are Cormac McCarthy, William Gay, Annie Proulx, and Knut Hamsun. But I could easily go on to list twenty more. Some recent favorite books are Bruce Machart’s The Wake of Forgiveness, David Vann’s Caribou Island, Gil Adamson’s The Outlander, and Shandi Mitchell’s Under this Unbroken Sky. What these books have in common is a great attention to voice, they’re all set in remote places where the landscape is as important as the people. And they’re all terrific stories, they’re all paced with precision and told in gorgeous prose.
The panellists are dying to get their hands on your next book – please don’t disappoint us….
It’s so strange to hear that. One thing publishing a first book has taught me is that there’s a side to this business that doesn’t have anything to do with putting one word after another. I realize now that it’s an industry, one that’s changing daily with technology and the struggles of so many brick and mortar booksellers.
Though these facts of life haven’t changed the way I write, they have made me realize that I can’t just sit around with my head in the clouds. I have to work hard to build a career. To that end I am nearly done with another novel, at least with a first draft of one. It’s a story I’m really fond of, one I think fans of Safe from the Sea will enjoy. Having said that, I know how perilous these times are for writers of literary fiction. I just hope the next book will see the light of bookstore windows.
Thank you to Peter Geye for answering our questions.
2010 Short List for Literary Fiction
- C by Tom McCarthy
- Great House by Nicole Krauss
- Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson
- Room by Emma Donoghue
- Safe from the Sea by Peter Geye
If you have a book that you would like to nominate for the 2010 Literary Fiction Entry List, you may add it below in the comment section.
In order to nominate please refer to the following:
- You must be a literary blogger; and a link to your blog must be provided so we can verify this. (You may not be the author, publisher, or publicist of the book you are nominating).
- Books nominated must have a 2010 release date.
- You may nominate a book that has already been listed (the books with the most nominations will be what we add to the Long List).
- You may nominate books in more than one genre, but only one per genre.
- Nominations close December 15, 2010.
Thank you for your nomination!
*Please remember, only one title per category.
*****UPDATE**** As of December 15th, comments are closed to nominations. The short-lists will be announced by December 31st.