AUTHOR INTERVIEW with Peter Geye
Peter Geye is the award-winning author of Safe from the Sea, The Lighthouse Road, and Wintering (Knopf, 2016), which won a 2017 Minnesota Book Award for fiction. He holds an MFA from the University of New Orleans and a PhD from Western Michigan University, where he was editor of Third Coast. He was born and raised in Minneapolis where he still lives. petergeye.com
Runestone’s interview with Peter Geye took place on November 15, 2017, and was conducted by assistant editor Charlie DuBois and editorial board member Courtney Yokes, and then opened questions up to the audience.
Charlie DuBois: Wintering is told through the voice of Berit, a female character. Do you ever find it difficult to write characters you feel are otherwise different from yourself? How do you embody your characters?
Peter Geye: Regarding your first question, the answer is no. In fact, I find it virtually impossible to write a character that seems anything at all like myself. I think that the first job of a novelist, or certainly any creative writer, is to engage with their own imagination, regardless of the subject. Imagination is the most interesting and enjoyable part of the process, so I think of it not only as a challenge as in it’s difficult to write from the point of view of a woman, but a challenge to write about someone I can’t possibly know, because they’ve never existed.
I think it’s a fair question, and a question a lot of people are curious to know the answer to, but I prefer to write from the point of view of a woman, or from the point of view of someone who lived a hundred years ago, or from the point of view of someone who’s a much bigger asshole than I could ever hope to be. That said, you can’t just go about it cavalierly without thinking about the implications, and without thinking beyond fascination with your process.
When I write from the point of view of a woman, to get to the second part of your question, I have to imagine being a woman, and I have to imagine what it would be like for that particular woman, in this case Berit. I never start that process of imagination with anything other than total awe and mystification, and hope that as I spend time with her, and as I imagine having her thoughts, that we form a kind of relationship. That I get to know her in a way that makes it feel natural and organic when I write a story from her point of view.
All of this sounds kind of airy, like you’re calling these things from the mist or something, and partly that’s true, but there’s also the fact that I wanted to tell this story from a woman’s point of view. That was a very calculated, thoroughly vetted choice. I wanted an alternative sort of perspective to the rough and tumble, “manly” part of the story. I could have written a novel about a couple of guys going into the woods, and that would have been interesting on some level, but it wouldn’t have accomplished the subtler things that I wanted to accomplish with this book.
Courtney Yokes: There were some really great scenes with Berit. I’m curious, based on what you just said, about how you arrived at Berit as your protagonist?
PG: As I said, I knew that I wanted a woman’s voice to tell the story–or to translate it, as I thought of it– but I didn’t know whose, at first. I thought I could tell the story from Gus’s daughter’s point of view, or from Gus’s wife’s viewpoint, or from Rebecca’s–any number of characters–and I tried those characters out.
The first effort of this story was told from Lisbet’s point of view. Her voice sounded bitter, and angry, and I didn’t want that tone. Then I tried Gus’s daughter’s voice–Greta’s–but it was clear to me that as a character, she wouldn’t be up to the job. She didn’t have the age or the wisdom to convey the things Berit ultimately conveyed. I also thought about Rebecca, but that wasn’t going to work for all the obvious reasons. Last, I thought about characters picked from the background, from the crowd. Berit is probably an amalgamation of all those characters that I thought of.
By the time I settled on her, I knew through the timbre of her voice, and through her sensibilities, that she was an incredibly patient person. I knew what she looked like, and had imagined walking across the room as though I were a woman her age, with all the weight of her own personal history. Once I understood these things about her, I knew she was my character, and there was nothing difficult about writing her scenes. Of course, some of the sadder scenes, the scenes that are more emotionally resonant, were harder to write, because it was harder to think about those things as a human being. But as an author, it wasn’t difficult to write her scenes.
The protagonist could’ve easily ended up being someone else, but I do think there’s a kind of a level, again, to pull from the mists, a level that this character had to meet, and the story wasn’t going to work until I stumbled on someone like Berit. This is true in Wintering, and in all of the books I’ve written. The discovery of the point-of-view character takes time and patience.
CY: It would’ve been a completely different book if it was told from Rebecca’s point of view.
PG: You know, it’s difficult, because Berit is like everyone’s grandma, right? She’s sweet and she’s kind and she’s thoughtful. She’s all the things, that, if you’re lucky, you have in a grandma. And that makes her interesting to me. I really learned a lot from her, but I learned just as much from Rebecca. Rebecca was the main character in The Lighthouse Road, the book before Wintering, and as you know, not a very likeable or grandmotherly sort of character, but just as fascinating. Maybe even more fascinating in a lot of ways because I could never imagine being her, but I could imagine being Berit.
CD: Well, Berit was the rock. Without her, the story would lose its connections. The fact that she’s opening the historical society is a testament to her patience and dedication to Gunflint and the people that she loves. Or maybe instead of “loves,” in some cases we’ll say “respects” or “admires.” It’s smart that you go through multiple steps to find out who should tell the story, because you stumbled on the right one.
PG: It takes a year for me to figure out who’s going to tell the story, never mind what the story is going to be about. One of the things I always tell students is to be adventurous, and to be experimental in your point of view choices. If you’ve already limited yourself to a character whose personality you’ve neatly defined… you can’t imagine the opportunities lost there. It seems like the most important part–the most difficult, inevitable part–of the process is to spend that time wondering about who’s going to tell the story.
CD: In an interview with Midwestern Gothic, you spoke about being from the Midwest and the northern forests, and about how they influence your work. Do you think you could elaborate on what your sense of place has taught you? Why do you choose the North Shore as your setting?
PG: This is probably going to be a long answer, but to begin with, everyone learns at some point that you have to write what you know. You’re told to write about the place that you’re from, and the people you’ve met. You’re supposed to write about the pain you grew up with, or the job that you had working in a restaurant, or whatever the hell. I think that can be terrific advice, but it can also be horrible advice.
I’ve spent a ton of time on the North Shore, more time than most people who don’t live there, but it’s never been my home. I grew up in North Minneapolis, now I live in South Minneapolis, and I’ve lived in the city–except for graduate school–all my life. So, if I was writing about what I really know then I should probably be writing about the city. But it’s not interesting to me. Part of the reason that it’s not interesting to me is because I’ve lived it already. I don’t want to relive my life; it hasn’t been that interesting. At the start of the interview, you heard in my bio a list of jobs that I’ve had. There was a reason I went from one to the other–it was because they all sucked. I didn’t like any of them. I was just biding my time until I could be a writer.
At the same time, when I think back to the first stories that I tried to write, they were set in Paris, or on the Spanish coast of the Mediterranean…places I had been on vacation for a week. I couldn’t possibly know enough to write about those locations. I saw a week of eighty-degree sunshine–that’s not what life is like there all the time.
It took me a while to figure out what my place or setting would be–which is to say the North Shore–and what has happened over the course of my writing life, or at least in the last fifteen years that I’ve been writing these books set on the North Shore, is that the place has become, for better or for worse, my twenty acres. Now, the prospect of writing about a place that isn’t the North Shore is almost impossible to think about. I’m not sure why that’s true; I’m sure there’s a psychological reason that I don’t understand, but it’s also because it’s where my imagination resides.
One of the things that I’m always worried about is going up to the North Shore and reading for folks who live there. They’ve come to listen, and I read something about the shore of Lake Superior, where these people have lived all their lives, and I’m afraid that I might have written something false. Maybe I’ve misrepresented a character trait, or I’ve misrepresented an aspect of the wilderness, or the weather, or the lake. That is the thing that nibbles at the back of my brain while I’m working. I believe though, that if you do your research and are thoughtful about it, it’s unlikely that whatever the critique, that someone’s going to say, “I don’t buy this,” or “that just couldn’t happen.”
It’s also important to remember that we’re not that different. People who grew up Minneapolis are not that different from people who grew up in Duluth, for example, or people who grew up in Grand Marais.
CY: Let’s focus on Gus specifically, and what you learned from him. You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that it’s important for you to be in love with your characters. What about his character was important to you?
PG: Gus… I love Gus. As I’ve said, I have to love all my characters, but I really love him. He’s the kind of guy I wish I could be. I often end up writing that sort of character. Odd, the character from The Lighthouse Road, was another of those characters. I mean, we’re all deeply flawed people, right? We make terrible decisions, we hurt the people we love, and, you know, eat too many cheeseburgers. We have so many things to work on. And one of the things that’s terrific about writing fiction is that all of those doubts that you have about yourself, the self-recriminations, you can sort some of that out in the characters that you write.
With Gus, I saw a character who was put to the test in a way he never deserved. His father, for reasons that could never be clear, even to him, took him on an adventure, knowing what was going to come after them, knowing what he was leaving behind, and Gus had to pay the price for it throughout his life. The way that he paid that price is by never being able to make sense of it. Not, at least, until he told the story.
I didn’t realize while I was writing the book that so much of this novel was about Gus telling his story. It was about the way the stories we keep bottled up in ourselves, or live in fear of, or that have scarred us in ways that we can’t really know, need to be told. The very literal answer about what I learned from Gus is that we’re not always in control of the things that we have to do.
I didn’t just learn this from Gus, but he reminded me: the way we treat the people we care about, either when we’re face-to-face or when we’re confronting our memories of them, that’s who we are. The act of forgiveness is long and difficult and not necessarily an easily identifiable act. It can take a lifetime. I think that part of what Gus is discovering in this novel– and I didn’t really discover it myself until I got to the end of writing it–is that he wants to forgive his dad for this misadventure, and he wants to understand why his father did what he did. He couldn’t have done it himself though. He needed Berit’s perspective to help him understand.
I learned a ton from Gus, but I probably learned even more from Berit. Talk about aspiring to be like someone! I’ll try to say this exactly right… I mentioned how flawed we all are and the secrets that we keep. Everyone has them whether they admit it or not. Berit was the sort of person who was willing to wait for her happiness to find her. I realize that there are readers who might say it’s misogynistic to put a woman in the Northwoods, and have her wait half her life for the man that she loved. And maybe it’s not realistic, but symbolically I think that it is, and I think that there’s a valuable lesson there. I don’t mean that the lesson is about finding the person you love, but about finding the real meaning of your life.
CD: Do you have a character or characters that show up in multiple pieces before you find the piece they belong in?
PG: Most of them do! Maybe a good way of talking about this is to talk about the story of the wilderness.
I was a junior in high school when I decided that I was going to become a writer. It’s a story unto itself, but I had a terrific high school English teacher who inspired me and motivated me to become a better student. He also showed me what a pleasure great books can be. And I thought, I’ve never had any idea about what I want to do, but I want to do this. I wanted to write stories like the ones I was reading, to make people feel things and see the world in ways that they hadn’t before. I thought, okay, well, if you’re going to write stories you’re going to have to figure out what to write about.
The first story idea I ever had was to put a couple of characters in the Boundary Waters and have them get lost. I’d spent a ton of time there as a kid, and thought of it as a magical and mysterious place. It’s also a place that it would be really easy to get lost in. If you wanted to kill someone a great place to get rid of the body.
For thirty years now I’ve been thinking of this story. And really, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I would spend weeks at a time working on it without having the right characters for the job. I knew when I was writing The Lighthouse Road that I wanted to tell the stories of other generations in this family. So I thought, Ok, here’s a family that’s from this part of the world, that would be inclined to this sort of activity. I can put the story there. Which sounds so simple. And of course you need characters to go into the wilderness to live the tragic and dangerous story. But it’s not that simple.
In the same way that I describe coming to Berit, I had to come to Harry and Gus. I didn’t know much about them. I mean I knew Harry’s past. I knew he’d been an orphan from a young age and I knew that he spent most of his life eking out his own living and providing for himself and that eventually he had this son. I knew those sorts of “family tree” items. But I didn’t know anything else about them. Were they funny? Serious? Were they happy? Sad? In the same way I have to imagine writing from the point of view of a woman, I have to imagine experiencing the story from the point of view of these particular characters. Building characters is a long, joyous, and sometimes difficult process. Some of that process happens before you start writing, but much of it happens while you’re writing, and much of it changes as you’re writing. And that, again is fiction. Did I answer that question?
CY: Now I’m curious…were there any characters that you had in the book that you took out because they just didn’t fit or didn’t mesh with the other characters?
PG: The character who underwent the most scrutiny was Charlie. I always thought he was too big of an asshole. But rather than take him out, I decided to amp him up, and see what heinous things he could say and do. Almost always, the most heinous thing was the thing that stuck.
There’s a scene in the book when Charlie goes to intimidate Berit, and he brings his big dog. This dog is a descendent of the dogs I introduced in The Lighthouse Road. He’s standing at the counter and he’s being an utter asshole. A psychopath. I wrote that scene, and for months afterwards I thought about it. Was it complete? And usually I had the sense that it didn’t feel quite finished. I knew I could sit there for three days and bang my head against the wall, or I could wait and hopefully have an idea occur to me. In the early drafts of that scene, the dog comes in growling, but is mostly a non-character. I didn’t put a ton of thought into why he would bring his big dog, except maybe to intimidate her little dog. The scene was marinating for months until one day, I had a thought. What if he uses the dog as part of his intimidation tactic? I started playing around with this idea, and what ended up happening is what you see in the book. To my mind, it’s his worst moment. It’s threatening in so many ways, which is horrible, but good for the book. It becomes a more memorable scene rather than one where he’s just yelling at people.
I suppose that’s not really answering your question about taking a character out. Except for the process of finding my protagonist, the answer is no, I didn’t remove anyone from the cast of characters. If you’ve spent a year making notes for something and imaging it, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve figured that part out.
CY: You said you have to love all of your characters. How do you love your antagonists? How do you humanize them?
PG: Think about it like this – you’ve had relationships and friendships with people that you kind of hate. Whatever the reason that’s true. It’s probably because there’s some quality about them that’s intriguing to you. Maybe they have great taste in music and you go to a lot of shows together, but really, you want to scream every time you talk to them. We’ve all been there to some extent. That’s how I think about characters that are vulgar and horrible like Charlie.
I’m a really nice guy, truly. That’s the number one thing people say about me. The thought of behaving the way Charlie behaves is unfathomable to me. I’ve never not held the door open for somebody, you know? This is not to blow my own horn–I’m trying to make a point. There’s a part of me that is attracted to a character like Charlie, because he’s my exact opposite. He’s just a dick. There’s nothing redeeming about him. It’s the first time I’d ever written a character like that. In The Lighthouse Road there’s a character sort of like Charlie, but he’s what I think of as morally ambiguous. There’s nothing morally ambiguous about Charlie. He’s just a bad person. Part of that is fun–I get to behave badly when I write Charlie. I get to say all the vulgar things, bring my big dog into the store and harass people… there’s a pleasure in that, just like there is in having relationships or friendships with people that are awful. There’s nothing else to say about it. I’m not taking moral cues from Charlie, but in fiction you need the counter point. You need the tension and pressure. You need people to disagree, have fights, or hate each other as much as you need them to love each other.
CD: I don’t know why, but I wanted to see him eat a muffin or something. I wanted to see what the guy does when he’s not being a jerk.
PG: He’s never not being a jerk.
CD: Do you have any stories from being in the wilderness that you could share? Was there anything from real life that made it into Wintering?
PG: All of the time that I’ve spent up north inspired Wintering to one extent or another. All of the physical descriptions of the wilderness are culled from memory or were arrived at after revisiting places for the purposes of research. So though the settings in my books are fictionalized in terms of names–of the lakes and rivers for example–they’re all inspired by the real wilderness.
For example, there’s a place in the Boundary Waters called Johnson’s Falls. It’s a very strange place between Pine and Caribou Lake. There’s a river that runs between two lakes in the middle of the woods–it’s a relatively popular destination. That’s a real place and the description of it is drawn from my life experience. But I never had misadventures like these guys do. I was never in the sort of trouble these guys are in.
I mentioned earlier that I was aware from the first time I went up, when I was ten or eleven years old, that you could get lost there. Really truly lost. It’s happened that I’ve missed a portage or had to take a good long study of the map because I wasn’t quite sure of where I was. I was never, on the wrong lake or anything like that. But it’s a strong feeling of fear knowing how lost you could get. That said, if you had to hide from somebody, it would be the best place in the world, especially if you knew what you were doing. It was more that quality of the wilderness that drove me.
I’ve come nose-to-nose with moose on a river, big bulls with antlers. Those sorts of things put a jump in your step for sure. But that’s life in the Boundary Waters or life in the North Woods. It’s exciting, it’s wonderful, but it’s not the same kind of exciting as the misadventure in the book. I know that’s kind of a boring answer. I probably should have just made something up about it. Had to wrestle a bear, you know.
CY: In what ways do you see the work of other writers you admire appearing in your own work?
PG: That’s a terrific question. I read as a religion in the same way I try to write as a religion, and so these books are not just stories that I love, they’re stories that teach me how to be a human being. My debt to them is enormous. I’m in awe of the power of other people’s imaginations and their ability to manipulate language. The challenge for me isn’t to be inspired by them—I’m wildly inspired by them—it’s to avoid copying them.
I can see it, as an example, in the book that I’m writing now. One of the books that we read in my novel writing class was Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night. Kent Haruf writes about rural Colorado in some of the ways I write about rural Minnesota. I read the book a couple times over the course of a month because I was getting ready to teach it, and now, when I’m reading my own novel, I can tell the passages I wrote when I was reading Kent Haruf. It just happens inevitably that some of the music of the sentences infiltrates me.
I’ve had that experience in the past with Louise Erdrich and Annie Proulx and Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner and Michael Chabon… I can go down the list of writers that I admire, and I can see it. It’s inevitable. All those books are just part of who I am now. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, by the way. Great writing begets great writing. I’m not suggesting I’m a great writer, but part of the reason I’m able to write novels is because I’ve read 5,000 books. You don’t have to read 5,000 books to be a writer, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. You have to be careful, of course–learning to identify your weakness for mimicry is not a bad skill to have as a writer.
CD: A lot of the descriptive words you use when painting your scenes are lovely and unfamiliar. Beyond the context of the sentence, they’re not defined…skirls, sundogs, gloaming. Was that a nod to people who live there? Are those common words on the North Shore?
PG: I don’t know that I’ve ever heard someone say “gloaming” on the North Shore, but I think I understand your question. I’ll work backwards.
A novel is a hundred thousand words all strung together, and each one of those hundred thousand words is like a piece of sand in the mortar holding the bricks together. If you have porous rock, you’re not going to have a strong foundation. Part of my job is to know a lot of words. If I don’t know the right word, it’s my job to learn what it is. In the last revision, I have to make sure that every word is the best word it can be. I mean that literally. During the last revision, I might read: “He was standing there at twilight looking into the sky.” There’s an opportunity there to be finer, and to be more respectful of the language. What is he looking into? That might mean using the word gloaming which is, incidentally, one of my top ten favorite words.
I also respect the natural phenomenon that is happening there. If you’ve ever been cross country skiing on a really cold morning on the North Shore and seen the sun come up over the hills, you’ve probably seen a sundog. Maybe a lot of people–or maybe even most people–don’t know what it’s called, but if you live up there you know what it is. You’ve seen it a hundred times. Rather than describe it as a halo of light, my job is to be as specific as I can be. It’s my job to know what it is that I’m describing.
You know, in my experience of folks, although there are plenty of poets up there, for every poet there’re a hundred guys that plow the road, you know? I doubt that they would describe it as a sundog. But that doesn’t change the fact that they’ve not only seen it a hundred times, but they’ve had emotional or psychic reactions to the sundog. Maybe it reminds them of the early mornings when they have to get up and leave their families. They stoke the wood stove, they make their coffee, they pour it in their Thermos, they get in the plow, they go up and they clear the road, and they see it. And in the moment, even though they’re not recognizing it as a sundog, it serves as a reminder of their beautiful wife and children who are back home sleeping. It means something particular to them. As an author, it’s my job to describe the sundog in a way that could attach meaning to that feeling.
One of the challenges that I have in the book I’m working on now is that part of it takes place in the Arctic, and I don’t have the right vocabulary for it. So I’m learning the vocabulary. I’m also reading books in Norwegian so I can learn words to use. I don’t speak Norwegian, but it’s part of the process. It requires a lot of work, but that might be the difference between a book that gets published and a book that doesn’t get published.
As I said, there’s a hundred thousand words in a novel, and I need every one of them to be exactly right, or as close to exactly right as they can be. Part of that means broadening what it is that I know. The thoughtful reader who doesn’t know what a sundog is will go and look it up. But it’s a fine line at times. If you’re not careful, it can seem like you went to your thesaurus and started pulling out new words, and I’m not in favor of that. What I am in favor of is precision, and of continuing to learn words.
CY: In terms of research, what’s the ratio between elements you’ve investigated and products of your imagination?
PG: Those two things aren’t actually separate. I’ll use an example from The Lighthouse Road. One of the two protagonists is mauled by a bear and loses his eye. I knew from the first time I put that character on the page that he’d have a glass eye. I didn’t know why at first, but eventually I realized that he was going to be mauled by a bear. Once I figured that out, I knew I was going to have to repair his eye. I didn’t know how to surgically repair an eye. I didn’t even know the anatomy of an eye. I started by Googling the human eye, and then Googled glass eyes. I got a general sense of what I needed to know, but none of it taught me about the scene I had to write.
There used to be a bookstore over in Dinky Town called the Bookhouse. It’s not there anymore, it’s a Target store, I think. But I went into the basement of that shop back then, and there in the corner was a stack of books as tall as I am, all antique ophthalmology textbooks. I took one of them and I opened it to the anatomy of an eye. I bought the book and went home, and over the course of a month, I read about eye surgery, as would’ve been taught to an eye surgeon in 1910. I made notes and wrote the scene as I went along. Of course there was vocabulary – of instruments that would be used, etc. – that I didn’t know. I just barely remember some of them now, but when I was writing the scene, I had the words that would’ve been appropriate at that time according to the textbook. That’s another benefit of that authenticity–something even more interesting is happening on the word level. That happens all the time with research.
What I got from Google was the basic the anatomy of an eye, and how the names we use for that anatomy have changed over time. But what we now call an element of the eye used to be called something else… and that something else was the word that I needed. A level of authenticity had to be reached. I remember clearly the night I finished that scene. I closed the textbook and put it on my bookshelf and I thought, If my son came home right now minus his eye I could take care of it. I could literally do the surgery to the 1910 standards. I could remove his eye, or at least what was left of it.
That’s the kind of detail that an authentic scene requires. It’s authentic to the time and place. The depth of that research, to go back to your question, is what informs everything about the scene. You need to have a type of imagination that’s just as vivid for the purposes of research as you do for describing the emotions between two people in love. Or two people who want to kill each other.
CD: Shifting gears a bit, I was curious about what you’d have to say about certain studies about fiction that are being reported. Researchers at the New School in New York City, for example, discovered that fiction improves or increases capacity to understand what others are thinking or feeling.
All of your stories involve immigrants, especially different generational aspects of immigration. Being that novelists and readers are practicing at empathy, would you say that embodying these characters changes how you understand or empathize with new immigrants in our country?
PG: Wow. I’ve never had that question. I remember reading that study – fiction improves your capacity for empathy. Thanks for doing the most obvious study that has ever been done! But I guess now we can say that science proves it. Not that science matters anymore.
The book that made me want to be a writer was Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms. Hemingway doesn’t hold up in the same way after reading five thousand books, but the feeling that I had reading that book for the first time was powerful. The feeling of identifying what it feels like to be terrified and at war, or terrified and in love. To be terrified and pregnant, or terrified and in a foreign country. The feelings were what I was identifying with. Someday providing those feelings for others was exactly my motivation for wanting to be a writer.
I know there are immigrants in my work, and the impetus for the whole family saga is that a young woman comes from Norway, but I’ve never thought about it in the context of contemporary immigration, the events and policies and realities of which are interesting and often horrifying to me. My own grandmother was an immigrant from Norway. She came to the United States when she was a young child. I’m only a couple of generations in on my mother’s side.
That said, I think of the advantages that I have. Partly because I’m a man. Partly because I’m a white man. Advantages related to those identities are not lost on me. And what’s even less lost on me are the struggles that people of color and women endure, whether they’ve been here twenty generations, or whether they’ve just moved here from Somalia. What’s been called the melting pot –I think it’s definitively what makes this a great country. The fact that immigrants are under attack now is probably the most vulgar and vile thing that this administration is doing.
My understanding of situations surrounding immigration have almost nothing to do with my work. But probably they ought to. I have to be aware though that a girl from Norway coming to America back then is going to have a whole hell of a different experience than, for example, a girl from Somalia or Iraq or Syria. It’s not at all the same story because of the repugnant hatred many of these new immigrants experience.
CY: I recognize this is huge shift in subject matter, but as we get to the end of our time with you, I’d like to take the opportunity to ask about graduate programs. Many of our audience members are almost finished with their undergrad degrees. How important would you consider it to be for a writer to earn their MFA? Is it worth it? What, in your opinion, is the benefit?
PG: That question is probably more complicated than it seems. I have an MFA and a PhD in creative writing–all the learning in that area you could ever hope to experience. I’ll say this about it–I loved getting those degrees. I read a ton of great books, I learned some things about writing, and I met some good people.
After I finished my PhD and started revising my dissertation, which eventually became Safe from the Sea, which was my first book, I spent a couple of years unlearning all the bad things I’d been taught. I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but not everything is square. You don’t write a novel by putting one square on top of another, and by hook or by crook, that’s what my experience was in my MFA and PhD program. It was as if there was one way to write a story, and if you didn’t write the story in that way, the story was a failure.
I was not the star of my program; my work didn’t fit in the right category. But I ended up publishing better than anyone in my program. That’s not a boast–what I mean that to say is that I suspect one of reasons I was successful is because I started thinking about my work outside of a classroom workshop. All of a sudden, I could see the problems with my work. And the problems weren’t that it didn’t have the “right amount of symbolism” or whatever.
Jesmyn Ward won the National Book Award for fiction last night. She has an MFA from Michigan, which is a really good program, and if you’ve read Jesmyn Ward’s books, you know there’s not a better writer in the world right now. Presumably she learned some things, getting her MFA, and she’s probably unlearned some things as well.
It’s a hard choice, and it can be an expensive choice if you don’t go to a program with funding. It can be terrible to get into a situation where no one on the faculty likes you, or you don’t like anyone on the faculty. Talk about being in a shitty relationship. That said, maybe it’s different now. It’s been ten years or twelve years since I was in a program, and maybe they do things differently now. Maybe now that faculties are diversifying a little bit there’s fewer white dudes up there saying “this is how you write a story” and that’s all for the better.
None of this really answers your question. I think for the right person, an MFA program is a terrific way to go. A PhD can be a terrific way to go too. You can learn a lot especially because you’ll be forced to read so much. But you don’t have to have an MFA to be a writer, and my point is that it might work against people in some cases. I’ll say this: I wouldn’t go back and undo my degrees. There were enough positives that I would still do it, even knowing what I do now. I would have done it differently while I was there though. I would’ve approached things differently.
Now, the publishing institutions, I can tell you this: don’t give a shit whether you have an MFA. They care if you’ve written a good book. That’s all they care about.
Corva León: Hi Peter. In an interview, you talked about working on two projects simultaneously for the first time, and also about your process (you said you need absolute quiet—which is really hard to find.) Did your process change at all, shifting from a sole project to jumping between canvases?
PG: The answer is absolutely. What I learned is that I can’t do it. I had just started two projects then, and thought that I’d be able to navigate both, because they were such different things. What I quickly learned was that if I sent half of the energy I’d reserved for my art in one direction, and half of it in another, both projects were going to be half as good. It was painful. When I stepped back and looked at it, I could see that.
Now all my attention is on one of the projects, and I’ll do the other project once I’m done. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think about the other one, you know. It’s like having a friend who lives out on the West Coast or something. Every couple months, I’ll give them a call. I’ll make some notes about that project, because of course I’m thinking about it. But I’m not actively working on it. For me, work is having your ass in the chair, as I preach all the time. The work is actually writing, not just thinking about it, because that’s what’s required to get stuff done.
As far as that requirement of absolute silence–I still need that when I’m doing the work. I carry a notebook all the time. I fall asleep with a notebook, I have one next to me when I drive, and I go to the grocery store with a notebook in my pocket. I’m constantly thinking about my projects, but that’s different than working for me. Working is that time between five and seven when there’s not a sound anywhere and I can actually do the writing.
CY: Well we’ve really enjoyed your book, and we’ve been fortunate to have had you in to talk about craft.
CD: Thank you for being here – you given us a lot to think about.