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Wintering: Peter Geye's Epic Northwoods Novel

Aug 25, 2017 10:24AM ● By Editor
By SUSAN SCHAEFER - The Southwest Journal

The economic impact of the creative arts in Minneapolis astonishes. Estimated at over $4.5 billion in sales, or eight times that of Minneapolis’ sports sector according to the 2015 Creative Vitality Index (CVI), an economic measure used by the city, it has earned our region a lofty place as a national creative mecca. 

Behind such stunning statistics toil humans whose creativity and innovation fuel this so-called creative class, dubbed by author Richard Florida. Frequently laboring for the sheer love of their craft, many visual and performing artists, directors, inventors and innovators produce from an inner creative core more likely fueled by passion than personal gain. These makers are marked by an almost holy drive to create – and when their artistry and intent collide, it often yields something extraordinary in its wake.

Writing is considered one of the most solitary of the creative arts. Writing literature perhaps takes that solo endeavor to a peak level. Unlike journalists or bloggers who may garner regular interaction with their readers, or playwrights who generally workshop their plays with both audience and actors, a novelist labors in sometimes stifling solitude for hours, days, weeks, months and even years on end.

Writing novels conjures images of cramped writing spaces or private retreats where the author holes up away from distraction to carry out the painstaking deed of putting visions to paper or computer screen. And when your work has become accepted at the top levels in the field — a top-notch New York publishing house, reviews in the New York Times and New York Journal of Books — we imagine ever increasing alone time to forge the next bestseller.

But the Fulton neighborhood author Peter Geye (say “guy”) is scaling new heights by courageously leading aspiring wannabes in the art and craft of doing what he has done with such national acclaim. Geye, who elevates weather to character status in his latest novel, “Wintering,” published by New York powerhouse Alfred A. Knopf, is pioneering a unique and intensive almost one-year-long writing project called simply, the Novel Writing Project, through the Loft Literary Center.

So popular is his work and his undeniable teaching ethic that the Loft has had to run not one but two sections of his novel writing program. Not only is this a colossal time commitment, but the course also comes with a hefty price tag. Studying with our local master is a gourmet, not a fast food proposition. And such a commitment from both teacher and student is rare outside the academic setting where such projects are typically MFA programs.

If anyone is up to the rigors of teaching alongside continuing one’s ongoing serious writing, it is Geye, who is indeed working on the next book.

Geye reflects about the rigors of teaching the course: “I’ve loved every minute of it. My students are an inspiration, and their work is spectacular. The main challenge has been helping 24 novelists write 24 different novels. That’s a lot of stories and a lot of personalities and learning styles to balance. If I’m being honest, I’d say going into it I was worried about keeping so many stories straight, but that hasn’t been a problem. There’s amazing work being done in this class.”

The Twin Cities as a world-class writer’s mecca 

Geye mulls the question about why Minnesota lends itself to such a robust literary tradition, why we produce so many outstanding writers.

“There is so much support here,” he motions to our surroundings. “Take the Loft, for instance. There isn’t any institution like this anywhere else in the country. There are lesser versions, but nothing like this in terms of scope and support.”

“And there are the grants. There’s the McKnight Artist Fellowships administered by the Loft. A Minnesota writer can apply for and win a $25,000 grant. Then, there’s the Minnesota’s Legacy (Arts and Cultural Heritage) Fund, which is unique. Established as a result of building the Twins (baseball team) stadium, it offers exceptional funding for the arts in Minnesota, and I’ve benefited greatly from these.”

Geye continues, “Minnesota is filled with world-class amenities, from wild places and water to an astounding array of arts and cultural organizations. When you have this as an artist, you stay.

“People go to places like California for the weather. They are here for 100-plus colleges and universities, a fantastic metropolitan area, theater, culture and so on. And so we end up with an unbelievably rich community of writers,” he concludes.

From North Minneapolis to Minnesota’s Great North Woods

Speaking of wild places, what about his relationship with the Boundary Waters and North Shore areas that he writes about with such passion, knowledge and authority?

“I’m a professional visitor,” he laughs. “I didn’t grow up with the cabin and a Northwood’s lifestyle, rather I discovered this area of the world through occasional canoe trips with my dad.”

In fact, Geye grew up in North Minneapolis, “to parents of modest means. My Norwegian grandmother lived with us for most of my childhood. There were five kids in my family, and we mostly got along, which is to say we spent a lot of time together. I was very happy as a boy and young man. Went to great schools and had great friends.”

Assuredly, though, he has staked our northern wilderness region as his fictional epicenter.

“Wintering” takes the reader through each blade and grove, each cascade and ravine, until we’re literally hovering above, paddling along or hiking through this mysterious and threatening terrain.

What entrances the reader is the luxury of the book’s every line. Geye’s sentences are carved like fine wooden artifacts, meticulously sanded and polished until each is an object worthy of a spotlight on a shelf.

“Wintering,” just released as a paperback in early June this year, is a holy whisper. Set in the achingly majestic borderlands of Northern Minnesota, Geye’s writing is a paean to the complexity and ultimate triumph of the human spirit that is often as much at odds with itself as it is against the forces of nature. Delving deeply into the human psyche, this book mines universal themes in a unique tale of love, loss and revenge traversing decades and points of view, set in a landscape of ancient and menacing wilderness.

He calls “Wintering” a “sister book” to his award-winning previous two novels, “Safe from the Sea” and “The Lighthouse Road.” “I like that term,” he acknowledges, since his previous works were not published under the Knopf imprint, and the prestigious New York publishing house prefers not to consider the set a trilogy.

His Knopf editor, Gary Fisketjon, who has redlined the likes of Donna Tartt, Annie Dillard, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff and Jay McInerney, has waxed lyrical about how Geye builds his work “line by line,” and such writing is ecstasy for serious readers. “Charlie’s goal was to pillage the wilderness and get rich from the wreckage.” This sparse sentence packs “Wintering” villain Charlie Aas’ lifetime of malfeasance. The book is a cavalcade of such images.

I am typically not a reader of wilderness books or thrillers, nor particularly a fan of Midwestern history. Hailing from the East Coast, I gravitate towards works that blow grit in my eye or existential angst in my chest. But beginning with Geye’s “Far from the Sea,” I became a convert, opening to tortured frozen landscapes replete with themes of revenge and nature’s conquest. I’ve learned that the crust of ice on melted snow often yields to a deep and soft interior.

Northern exterior, southern interior, 100-percent family guy

Geye’s own exterior, sometimes scruffy and slightly unkempt, masks a highly approachable, warm and gracious inner reservoir. Editors, students and fellow writers alike testify to his generosity of spirit, and my personal experience as one of his students echoes the chorus.

Many might not take Geye for a highly engaged, primary caregiver father, but he is. After an amicable divorce, he sees his kids every day.

“Now that it’s summer, we’re with each other all day, which is a pleasure,” he says. “They’re of an age (12, 9, 7) where it’s sort of non-stop fun and adventure. We head up to the North Shore each summer for our annual summer trip to Lake Superior.”

During the school year his routine rotates around them and he basks in the role of ushering them safely off to school, feeding and getting through homework, story and bedtime.

“I have written literally thousands of words with one or two kids between my legs,” he grins.

Regarding the tough tangle between full-time fatherhood and creating literature, Geye sees writing as his “chance to have life outside my family.”

“When you spend 15 hours a day with kids, no matter how much you love them,” he says, writing books, inventing characters and having these characters then invent you, is a monumental release.

Geye admits that the regular transition from inhabiting his fictional world back to his real one isn’t always easy. Like an actual family, he experiences a true sense of grief once his books are complete and his characters, his creations, no longer accompany his days and nights. “It’s a resounding sense of loss” as he returns to his real world.

The creative process unlocks a feminine muse

Writing in longhand, Geye concedes that his writing process doesn’t flow. It’s hard work and he embraces it. He’s a yeoman. Part of his process includes taking those written sheets around with him, reading and rereading, later word processing the longhand, (typically the same night), crafting, editing and re-crafting.

This intense labor shows. As Knopf’s Fisketjon attests, Geye’s work evolves “line by line” with the rare result of producing a literary tour de force “that knocked him sideways” when he first read it.

The character of Berit is the touchstone of “Wintering” — a rock really, one who may acutely strike women readers by her usual and compelling nature. How did a guy like Geye channel this iconic female character who is charged with guiding the reader through the unfolding layers of far past, past and present?

“I knew I wanted a narrator who could help navigate the reader through more than one story,” Geye says. “It takes more than one story to tell our lives. I tried a few points of view and then wrote 50 pages. It was Berit who I ended up wanting in this role.”

He says he became reliant on her in a way he’s “never experienced from a character before. She became my companion. I felt camaraderie. She ended up telling me the story.”

And so, Geye has unlocked the major feat of great fiction writing, which is when the characters share their story from their point of view with the writer. It is then that a writer surrenders to his or her characters, being freed to create the all-encompassing fictional world — a world where none of life’s daily problems or passions interferes with the reading experience. It is a triumph few achieve.

In this time of dramatic distraction that skill in this book is worth a trip to the local bookstore, he encourages Southwest Journal readers to visit Open Book’s Milkweed Book Store and tell Hans that Peter told them to stop by. Then, find yourself a quiet spot in the coffee shop and enjoy a reading journey out of time and mind. Wintering delivers this magic with the punch of a summer storm.

Peter Geye Photo by Susan Schaefer
Peter Geye. Photo by Susan Schaefer