When acclaimed local novelist Peter Geye was working on a book in his south Minneapolis home, his mind was somewhere else entirely. As the eventual 2017 Minnesota Book Award-winning story came to life in his imagination, it also emerged on a map of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Unfurled on his desk, bleached by the sun spilling through a nearby window, the map provided a guide for Geye as he tracked his characters across the region. Day after day he followed them into the wilderness, helping him create an epic North Woods drama, “Wintering,” that has been compared to adventure writing by Jack London and Jon Krakauer.
The images in the book — the bears, ice floes, frozen lakes, waterfalls and wilderness — weren’t difficult for Geye to conjure. A north Minneapolis native who grew up venturing into the BWCA with his dad, he is familiar with the cold, solitude, wonder, and fear that can accompany such a trip.
Geye, 47, is fresh off research in the glacial archipelago of Svalbard, Norway, not far from the North Pole, for his next book. And just last week, he won the top fiction prize from the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association. In a recent conversation, Geye spoke about his outdoors passion and the ways it influences his life as a father, writer and human.
On developing a love for northern Minnesota
Some of my earliest memories are from trips up to the North Shore to camp or stay at the Split Rock Cabins. I still recall that early sense of awe in how big the lake was. When I was 10 years old I went on my first trip to the Boundary Waters with my dad. Even at that age, I knew to appreciate the grandeur of it all and the scope, as well as the danger due to the potential of getting lost or getting caught in a storm. Those things made an impression on me. I loved it and I’ve continued to go back ever since. Even still if I’m hiking on the Superior Hiking Trail or watching the sun rise over Lake Superior or watching the falls at the Cascade River, man, am I happy and at peace. It’s where I feel most myself.
On honing his skills of observation
I often take a notebook into the woods with me. I think of it like sketching, even though I’m writing rather than drawing. You have to be a good observer. Anyone who sits and watches a sunrise on the North Shore this summer will appreciate it, but the writer’s job is to find a way to re-imagine it and express it. To do that you have to be humble when capturing the atmosphere or ambience of a place. I am always respectful of a place and realize how totally insignificant I am in it. We are all just these little specks of stardust racing across the sky.
On getting in his characters’ shoes
When you’re Up North in the woods and you stop and look around, there’s a quality of timelessness. If there are old trees around you and you’re away from the trail, it might as well be 1890. Then the imagination translates that experience. I think about what it would have been like for people back then — what would they be thinking? What would they be afraid of?
On environment and identity
Nature shapes our identities whether you live your whole life in Brooklyn or the Arizona desert or Minneapolis or northern Minnesota. There’s no getting around it. Not everyone realizes it the same way or is as conscious of it, but you can’t be from a place and not be of that place. I feel that strongly in my own life. Some days it’s lovely and the birds are chirping and some days it’s raining like hell — those things affect who you are.
On his affinity for maps
Right as “Wintering” was coming out, my dad gave me the map we used on our first Boundary Waters trip. It was highlighted and there were penciled stars where we camped. It was wonderful. I remember first getting that map and talking around the kitchen table about how we were going to go on this trip as soon as school let out. I recall thinking, OK, now this is where we are on the map and this world around me is represented on this map.
In my writing, especially “Wintering,” the maps take on a whole metaphorical meaning, operating on levels that I don’t even completely understand.
On instilling a love for the outdoors in his kids (12, 9 and 7 years old)
One of the reasons I think my kids love being Up North — hiking in the woods, traipsing up and down the shore, skipping rocks on Lake Superior — is because they’ve been doing it since they could walk. It’s not exotic to them — it just feels like a part of our DNA. When you go to places like that and do fun things and make positive memories, it’s not difficult to get kids really into it.
Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.