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Author Interview: Peter Geye

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I recently had the sincere pleasure of conducting an email interview with Peter Geye, author of Safe From the Sea. His novel was not only among my own humble picks for best books of 2010, but it was also honored by bloggers with The Indie Lit Award for Best Literary Fiction of 2010. The icing on the cake is that it was published by my favorite small press: Unbridled Books, which I featured here in a Small Press Spotlight last year.

It was great to "talk" with Peter and get his thoughts on writing, publishing, The Great Lakes and more. Read on for our conversation and more information about his phenomenal book. By way of introduction, here is Peter's bio from Unbridled Books' Safe From the Sea product page:

Peter Geye

Peter Geye received his MFA from the University of New Orleans and his PHD from Western Michigan University, where he was editor of Third Coast. He was born and raised in Minneapolis and continues to live there with his wife and three children. [Safe From the Sea] is his first novel.

Dayton Books Examiner: I love to read authors’ bios and make note of the diversity that often lies there. “Bartender, bookseller, banker, copywriter and cook” is exactly the sort of thing I mean. I remain privately convinced that those with the most diverse life experiences make the best writers. How did your experiences in that variety of settings influence your writing… or even your decision to become a writer?

Peter Geye: I knew I wanted to be a writer before I ever had any of those jobs, and I certainly never spent a day at work thinking about the ways in which the drudgery was teaching me how to understand people, much less how to write a novel. I worked those jobs because they were the best I could get and I needed the loot. I never felt less like a writer than the days I spent writing ad copy, or slinging beers, or moving numbers around bank ledgers. And I’ll certainly never write a book about a copywriter or banker, at least I don’t think I will.

What those jobs did for me was make me work harder at becoming a writer. They helped me realize how valuable and deep and life-sustaining a good imagination is. Come to think of it, maybe the way I learned to daydream at those jobs was instrumental in my becoming a writer.

DBE: Now we must move on to Safe From the Sea’s bio. Talk about impressive! Glowing reviews, a favorite amongst critics and book clubs alike… and also winner of the 2010 Indie Lit Award for Best Literary Fiction. Congratulations. How has Safe From the Sea’s success changed things for you?

PG: First of all, thank you. The response Safe from the Sea has garnered has been truly wonderful. I never dared hope for it, much less expect it. Having said that, and in answer to your question, I have no idea how it’s changed things for me. I suppose I won’t know until it’s time to sell and publish the next book. I wish that having some success with a first book guaranteed a second, but I don’t think that’s true anymore. And certainly having published one book to some small praise hasn’t lessened my own self-doubt. I’m constantly worrying over the new work I’m doing.

What the accolades and reader responses do mean, though, is that ten years of my life wasn’t wasted on this book. I’ve touched some people, and that’s the real and biggest reward of all this. I hope I’m able to do it again and again.

DBE: And something I have to point out here is that Safe From the Sea is your debut novel. Wow! Tell us about the process of writing your first novel and getting it published. What did you learn from that process?

PG: I’m a pretty slow worker. This is partly because I have (and always have) had too little time for writing. Nowadays, I’m lucky to work thirty hours a week. When I was writing Safe from the Sea, I’d work mostly in the middle of the night, after my wife went to bed. It seemed to take forever. And I learned that there had to be a better way. I’ve been more organized with my work recently, more intent on making the most of the time I do have to work. That efficiency is paying off, I’m definitely working smarter, getting more done in less time.

Where publishing and the nature of this business is concerned, I’ve actually learned quite a lot. First, be persistent and hopeful, even on the worst days, the most discouraging days. You can beat yourself to a bloody pulp worrying about who’s going to represent you, who’s going to publish your book, and the reality is, for unconnected writers like me, it’s absolutely out of your hands. You just have to be professional and patient and trust that you’ve written a good book. Otherwise, you’ll go crazy.

DBE: I have sung the praises of Unbridled Books here ever since I started The Lit Witch. I feel that they represent the best of what small presses do and have to offer. I know that they also pride themselves on sticking with their authors for life. Can you tell us more about Unbridled Books and your experience with them?

PG: I was really lucky to have Unbridled pick me. My editor, Greg Michalson, worked wonders with this book. And the rest of their team is fantastic. I hear and read a lot of publishing horror stories. You know, books that get lost in big publishing houses, books that don’t get the editorial attention they need or deserve, books that are released and no one knows about them. My experience with Unbridled was the exact opposite. I hope Safe from the Sea was only our first partnership.

DBE: Many books centered on relationships – particularly fractured relationships – come off feeling like they were pulled from the pages of a Psych 101 textbook. You, on the other hand, managed to write an entire novel around a complex relationship that felt absolutely real, genuine and untainted by “psychobabble” as I put it in my review. How difficult was it to maintain that delicate authenticity in Olaf and Noah’s relationship? Were these characters or their relationship based at all on anyone in real life?

PG: Though some of the characters in Safe from the Sea bear some resemblance to people in my own life, the character of Olaf is strictly a figment of my imagination. One of my favorite stories about the book is that when I first finished it, the first draft, I brought it over to my parent’s house and sat down with my old man and said, “Listen, I want you to read this book and tell me what you think, but I want you to know before you do that you’re not Olaf, not even one little part.” My father is one of the most important people in my life, he’s one of my best friends. He was the best man at my wedding, after all.

You ask about the authenticity of the tension in their relationships and I’ll actually give myself an ounce of credit here. In early drafts of early chapters I was not at all satisfied with the strain between them. These characters were arguing all the time and the truth was I didn’t even know what they were arguing about. I realized there wasn’t enough at stake between them. I asked myself all kinds of questions about how to amplify their relationship and just couldn’t get to the right answer. Finally I figured out that I had to write about the thing that scared me more than anything in life: my father dying. Their relationship and the tensions between them became so much more authentic, so much more organic when I realized Olaf had to die, and it was from that moment that the story really grew, really took on its full figure.

DBE: I also grew up on the shores of The Great Lakes (Lake Erie, in my case) and hearing the tales of Great Lakes shipping and disasters. In recent years, I’ve noticed that influence is seemingly fading – the predominantly Finnish neighborhoods populated by industry workers near the harbor have given way to low-income housing and more than one maritime museum has closed its doors. Do you think that the Great Lakes shipping heritage is being lost, or is it simply changing with the times?

PG: I make no claim to being an expert on this subject, though its one that interests and concerns me deeply. I know Duluth is a city that has changed a lot in my lifetime. Whether those changes are the result of new industrial realities or the natural ebb and flow of American cities, who can say? Certainly I can’t. What I do know is that Duluth is still a city whose very heart is the harbor, and the heart of the harbor beats with the engines of the freighters that come and go.

I was there right before Thanksgiving last year, and I can tell you that the two boats sitting at anchor outside the harbor, waiting out the gale that was sending waves over the lighthouses on the tip of the breakwaters, were there to collect freight that would be brought down to the steel mills on Lake Erie or Lake Michigan. Those mills would make metal that would in turn make America and the world new. Those boats—and the harbor they sat outside of—are timeless. Though they’re changing, though they’re aging and lived in by a new demographic, they’re still working hard.

DBE: And of course, I must conclude by asking this: What’s next for now-award-winning writer, Peter Geye?

PG: Between peanut butter sandwiches and diaper changes for my three kids, I’m working on another book set up on the North Shore. This one takes place at the dawn of the twentieth century and it concerns a young woman who has just arrived from Norway to find that the family she expected to meet is gone. What happens to her, and what happens to her misbegotten son, inform a broader canvas of what the settlement of that part of the world looked like. At least, what it looks like in my imagination. It’s a little darker and a little more tragic than Safe from the Sea, but I think people who like one will like the other. I hope to be finished with a first draft in the next couple months. After that, I’ll keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best.

***

More about Safe From the Sea:


SAFE FROM THE SEA tells the story of Olaf and Noah Torr, a father and son whose long estrangement began after Olaf survived a shipwreck on Lake Superior. More than thirty years after the wreck, Olaf believes he is dying of cancer and asks his son to come home to his isolated cabin on the lake in order to help him die. Over the course of two weeks in November, against the backdrop of the dramatic upper Midwest landscape and weather, the men reconsider each other's lives, finally summoning the courage to confess, understand and forgive.

Noah's father finally tells his son for the first time the harrowing account of the wreck of Olaf's ore boat, the SS Ragnark, a horrible secret from that night, and the survivor's guilt that has dogged Olaf ever since and caused him to abandon his family. Noah's own struggle to make a life with an absent father finds its real reward in his relationship with his sagacious wife, Natalie, whose complications with infertility issues mark her husband's life in ways he only fully understands as the reconciliation with his father takes shape.

***

Many thanks to Peter for taking the time to share his thoughts with us here. Safe From the Sea is available from your favorite bookseller or from Unbridled Books' website HERE.

This interview was originally publishes on The Lit Witch: A Book Blog.

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