It’s not like Peter Geye was flunking, but South High’s magnet program enabled students to learn by pursuing their interests, “and I just wasn’t finding any interests,” he recalled — at least none beyond flirting, ski jumping and being a smart aleck.
Those, he aced.
So when he cracked wise to his English teacher, Mr. Beenken, Geye waited for the smackdown.
Beenken, however, merely observed: “Hey, Geye, it’s a lot easier to be a smart ass if you’ve actually read the book.”
“I should have felt chastened or humbled, but I felt challenged,” Geye said. “Instead of shutting down, I thought, ‘I’ll show him. This is how I’ll become a better smart ass.’ ”
That night, he opened Ernest Hemingway’s “Farewell to Arms,” the better to hone his impertinence.
That, he lost.
Today, at age 46, Geye (say “guy”) vividly remembers the book as “a sort of religious experience. I was smitten. I wanted to create for others the feeling that I was having.
“I’m using adult words to describe what I was feeling as a kid,” he said. “But there’s nothing ambiguous about the moment I decided to become a writer.”
“Wintering” is Geye’s third novel set on Lake Superior’s North Shore. Kirkus Reviews likens Geye to Jack London and Jon Krakauer; Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo calls it “profound” and “menacingly beautiful.”
In ski jumping terms, Geye has “caught air” with this harrowing story. Complex characters in harsh relationships live in often harsher environs — people and settings that recall his “Safe From the Sea” in 2010 and “The Lighthouse Road” in 2012.
But we’re getting ahead of the story.
There was one other thing Geye had to do before becoming the next Hemingway.
You start small and work up
Geye grew up in north Minneapolis, rarely leaving the city save for canoe trips Up North with his dad, a building supervisor at the local YMCA. His dad and uncle both had been ski jumpers, back when every high school had a ski program.
Geye first jumped when he was around 7. “You start going down a slope with a little bump about this high,” he said, holding his hands a foot apart. “Then you go about 6 feet.”
The slopes got steeper and the jumps got longer. Geye loved the sport, but not as an adrenaline junkie. “It was the friendships and the culture I was addicted to,” he said. “It was my entire identity.”
He had Olympic dreams — as did every ski jumper. “It’s such a small community that everyone involved has that aspiration.”
So he moved for a winter to Steamboat Springs, Colo., jumping every day, hundreds of jumps, hundreds of landings. Yet one day, he decided that “it was time to grow up.”
That decision, he says now, “was a huge regret — really the only regret I have.”
Geye looks doleful, but only for a moment. A tall, rangy guy, he fills the leather chair where he sits. Annie Proulx’s massive new novel lies on the side table; he’s almost through its 713 pages, then will tackle writing a review, which bolsters his income. (Look for “daunting” and “genius.”)
And so he became a writer, starting with stories that never went more than 6 feet, it seemed, stories set in Paris and Spain.
“Exactly,” Geye said, with straight-up sincerity. “I was so impressed with him, with what it meant to be a writer. I had such an idealized and romanticized vision of what a writer’s life would be like.”
An endless well of material
This is what a writer’s life can be like:
He got a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota, then a master’s degree from the University of New Orleans, then a doctorate from Western Michigan University. He kept writing.
He cooked in restaurants, worked in bookstores — once managing a Barnes & Noble — tended bar and edited copy. He kept writing.
He worked in a bank at a job of which he honestly has no recollection, only that there was a computer and tall stacks of paper. Oh, wait — he also did something with mortgages for a while. He kept writing.
Geye said it took him 10 years to find his identity as a writer. David Beenken, his old high school teacher, remembered when Geye told him he’d finally followed the advice “that a good writer should plot their own 40 acres.”
Gunflint was born.
“All three of his books are quite different, yet [they are] all of that general area of the North Shore, which is a place that Peter really, genuinely, loves,” said Beenken, now retired, but who still is in touch with Geye. “To be a good writer, you really need to be a careful observer, and I feel like Peter already has observed more than I have in my lifetime.”
“Wintering” is the story of a man and his son, Harry and Gus Eide, whose journey into the Minnesota wilderness north of the town of Gunflint (think: Grand Marais) began as an adventure to spend a winter in the woods, living by their wits like the ancient voyageurs.
The trip is that, until Harry reveals his ulterior motive, a scheme devised to settle an old debt with a bitter foe.
The novel spans generations with writing that is both muscular and poetic. Hemingway may have sought heat, from Spain to Key West. Geye discovered that his milieu has a windchill.
“I thought of all the time I’ve spent on the North Shore in real life, but also in my imagination, thousands and thousands of hours, and never seeing the same thing twice,” he said, whether it’s the shimmer of sun on Superior or a fallen tree on a trail.
“I see something new all the time, and am mystified by it, too,” he said of the region. “There’s just an endless well of material up there.”
Nor is there a shortage of material in his small Minneapolis apartment. Two walls are lined with books. There’s no TV, no stereo. Three beanbags await his kids’ visits; his marriage is foundering, but with grace. He sees the kids on and off the school bus from their home nearby, his 11-year routine of the stay-at-home dad adjusting to the change.
Throughout the day, he’s never without a notebook, jotting down thoughts while in a grocery line or in the car. “Wintering” marks his move from Unbridled Books, an independent publisher in Colorado, to century-old Knopf in New York City, a breakthrough for marketing, money and general mojo. His editor there, Gary Fisketjon, has guided the likes of Raymond Carver, Patricia Highsmith, Cormac McCarthy.
Geye’s next book will delve again into his population of characters, this time with more about Norway, prompted by some old maps of Fridtjof Nansen’s Arctic explorations.
“I just love maps,” he exhaled as he carefully unfolded one with more sea than land. “The farther removed I am from my own life in my writing, the more confident I feel, the more inventive I feel.”