When the heat of summer starts to feel oppressive, pick up Peter Geye’s latest novel, Wintering, and experience the bracing cold of snowshoeing across a frozen lake. Geye’s much-lauded third novel has elicited comparisons to Cormac McCarthy, Jack London, and Jon Krakauer. This finely crafted story of fathers, sons, patience, risk, love, and adventure unfolds with a quiet intensity, alternately meditative and suspenseful. Peter took time out between bookstore events in Minnesota to answer a few questions about the book and his writing life.
EA: The cold silence of the north woods feels like a character in the novel. How did you capture the atmosphere? Have you taken winter trips like the one Gus and Harry took?
PG: The place in the world I write about in Wintering—the Minnesota-Canada borderlands known now as the Boundary Waters and the Quetico, respectively—is my favorite place. It’s a desperate and beautiful and remote wilderness that’s full of all the things I love best. Quiet. Solitude. Danger. Strangeness. In winter, these qualities are most pronounced, and so most interesting. I’d say it’s easy to capture, but maybe that’s not true. It is easy to imagine, which I know is not the same thing. Somewhere in the translation of the thought and the written line is where the atmosphere gets captured, as you say. But I’m as likely to recognize it happening as I am to boast about it after. Which is to say, I don’t know how it gets captured. I only hope that it does.
And though I don’t think you need to live through an experience in order to write about it, I have spent a lot of time in these woods in winter, though not on a trip like Gus and Harry’s. I’ve done my share of hiking through the winter days, but never with the intent of finding an apocryphal hut to live in for the coldest months. My winter days on the North Shore are usually spent skiing at the only facsimile of a ski resort in the Midwest, a place called Lutsen. This is maybe the most important place in my own family’s history, and I get there as often as I can.
EA: The taciturn Scandinavian characters will feel familiar to readers in Puget Sound. Did you grow up in a similar community? Are your characters based on real people?
PG: Would it be coy to say I grew up in Minnesota, where most people are taciturn Scandinavians? We’re famously (and wrongly) labeled Minnesota Nice, but though we are generally kind, our main characteristic is something like taciturn. Maybe reserved? Generally quiet?
The less coy answer is that I had a Norwegian grandmother who lived with us for most of the years of my childhood. She taught us how to hate lutefisk and how to love lefse. She was sweet and kind and not even remotely brooding, even if she had cause to be. I learned an awful lot from her, and not just how to make krumkake or drink my coffee black. If any of my characters are based on anyone, it’s likely she’s had a hand in it. Though the truth is I try to do the real work of a fiction writer, which is to lie about everything and just make up stories and characters to suit my purposes. In fact, as soon as I start identifying a fictional character with a person in my life, I jump ship. I want my characters and my stories to be the product of my imagination. I think most of them are.
EA: I love the role that the hand-drawn map plays in the story, both holding the story together and tearing it apart. What inspired this blend of fantasy and reality?
PG: I have a totally unnatural fascination with maps, and have since I was a kid. Maybe this is because we didn’t travel to many exotic locales as a family, and I was often left to imagine what places on the map were like, which is something I did all the time. I wasn’t a great reader as a kid, but I was a great reader of our family atlas. I spent a lot of time trying to chart my way around the world, and just as much time wishing I were going. This was a kind of storytelling, I see now. But I didn’t know that then. It seemed then to be a simple case of wanderlust, and though it was that, it was much more too.
In Wintering, the maps work in all sorts of ways, not least as a sort of fool’s guide for a fool’s trip. Harry has spent years of his life copying these maps. It’s been what I think of as a kind of relief for him, venturing into the borderlands by way of these old maps. And he wants to put them to the test. This is not something I would ever do—that is, go into that wilderness with the sort of maps he does—but those maps seem to me to be a part of the story he wants to live, and I definitely understand that part of his motivation.
EA: Do you have a strict writing schedule? Are you a creature of habit, or do you write whenever inspiration strikes?
PG: I’m a stay-at-home father of three young kids, so any notion of a strict writing schedule is but a dream. I have habits, and I try to stick with them (not always successfully), but even the simplest of them have to be flexible. I’ve learned nothing if not that.
I do have what I think of as ideal conditions. Maybe I can describe those? I would be at my desk early in the morning. Perfect quiet. Coffee. My notebooks and my pens. The day before would have found me in the middle of a scene, so I can begin this ideal morning by reading back the first half of the scene I’d written the day before. I would know how it was going to end, that scene. I would spend three or four hours handwriting the scene, immersing myself in it, acting it out, saying the lines of dialogue over and over in the voices of the characters. Then I would translate the handwritten pages into typewritten pages. This would take another hour. I would give them one more pass and read them out loud one more time, making edits as I go. Then I would head to the park with the kids, or out to lunch. Later that day, maybe not until bedtime, I’d read the pages over again. Each time I’d read them, I’d mark them. And the next day, I’d incorporate my changes. That’s an ideal couple of days. And I need to fulfill some version akin to this, though what I describe happening in two days is much more likely to happen over the course of a week or two, given the demands of fatherhood.
What I do manage is a sort of constant thinking about things. I carry a notebook in my pocket and I make notes frequently, as my characters and stories are frequently living with me. I jot dozens of notes each day, and sometimes fill a whole pocket-sized notebook in a week. So much of my last two books have been written this way. And I guess you could call it a habit, those notebooks.
EA: The novel strikes a perfect balance between the serene quiet of a snow-blanketed landscape and heart-pounding suspense. How did the structure of Wintering evolve?
PG: The hardest part of structuring this novel had little to do with architecture. I knew how it was going to look and fit together from the word go. What I didn’t know is who would be telling the story. I wrote the first fifty or so pages of this book about five times, from five different points of view, before I settled on Berit’s (the narrator’s) voice. Once I found her, it was actually a pretty seamless process.
I think often of how lucky I was to cross paths with her. I mean, without her calmness, her patience, her love of these men, the story would not work. The rugged wilderness part of the story needs her voice to temper it, to sing alongside it. Leastways, I wanted it there, her voice, for those purposes. But I also wanted her character. I wanted a sympathetic audience for the story Gus is telling. I wanted the fact of her love for Harry to have made that season of madness meaningful for him. All of which is to say, Berit is the structure of the novel. Her voice is the harmony being sung alongside the adventure story, and she’s the arbiter of the meaning of that season.
PG: I went from one of the best editors in the country—Greg Michalson at Unbridled Books—to another of the best editors in the country—Gary Fisketjon at Knopf. Both of them were a joy and pleasure to work with, and both of them are brilliant. What’s more, they both treated me like an old pro, even as a still-young author. It’d be impossible to say who I learned more from, because they both edit in such different ways, with such contrasting emphasis. In my experience, Greg is a mover of scenes and a seer of holes, whereas Gary is a meticulous line editor. They both have fabulous bullshit detectors. And they both value the symphonic movement of a novel in a way that’s both beautiful and sophisticated.
I guess if there’s a difference in the experience, it comes more from the reputation of the presses. Knopf is a part of Random House, which is one of the most established publishing houses in the country. Unbridled is a small, literary publisher without the same resources. There’s a certain cache that comes with the Knopf colophon on the spine of a book, and I respect and admire it. But Unbridled is doing work that’s imperative to the literary health of our country. I’m talking about their willingness to take chances on new writers (such as myself). Of course, Knopf publishes new authors as well. But they rely less on them. I’ll be eternally grateful to both presses for as long as I’m around.
PG: I could turn this into a very long list. Amy Greene, Emily St. John Mandel, Lance Weller, Joseph Boyden, Richard Russo, Cynan Jones, Gil Adamson, Annie Proulx, Richard Ford, Louise Erdrich, Elizabeth Strout, Chang Rae Lee, C.E. Morgan, Joy Williams, Donna Tartt, Richard Flanagan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ron Rash, Toni Morrison, these are just to name a few.
But I’d say my two favorite writers are Kent Haruf and Cormac McCarthy. Haruf’s laconic style and high but soft-spoken morality are perfectly paired. His books are the only ones I’ve ever read that have made me want to be a better man, and every single one of them does that. Plus, I aspire to write about a simple place that not many other folks know about, and he set the bar on that one with his fictional Holt, Colorado. McCarthy couldn’t be more different, both in subject and in style. His novels, especially the Border Trilogy and Blood Meridian, are pretty much perfect in every way, according to my sensibility. Between their subject and their style, I think they mark McCarthy as not only the finest writer of this time, but of pretty much any other in American History.
EA: What question do you wish people would ask?
Would you like some time to take a nap? Can I bring you a plate of steamed mussels? I can’t finish this bottle of Pappy Van Winkle, want it? I have extra tickets to the Stanley Cup Finals, they’re yours if you want them? Would you like to stay in our home on the Norwegian coast? Those are some questions I could get behind.
Emily Adams is a bookseller at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park just outside Seattle. She would also enjoy extra tickets to the Stanley Cup Finals, if you have them.