Ask An Author: Peter Geye, author of The Lighthouse Road (Unbridled Books)

photo credit: Matt and Jenae Batt

Three Questions and Three Book Picks

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my3books: Peter, I sold Unbridled Books to bookstores for a number of years, including your first book, Safe From The Sea. As your rep at the time, I read the ARC and as we say in the book trade, I fell in love. Shortly before Safe From The Sea came out, we met at the GLIBA and MIBA trade shows over the space of a couple of weekends. I recall sharing drinks with you and a crowd of booksellers and authors at both shows. Given our fairly long & amiable history, I'm glad that you are the first author to go under the microscope in the Three Questions series. Let's begin!

my3books: What impressed me on first reading Safe From The Sea was your natural ease and handling of Nature and History.

You seem to have doubled-down in The Lighthouse Road – there is no contemporary setting at all. This is a book that starts in 1896, in a northern Minnesota logging camp, jumps ahead to 1920, jumps further back to 1893, and then to a fourth time, 1910.  Meanwhile, in the Nature column, you're writing about logging camps, a particularly frozen winter, starving wolves, the logistics of smuggling liquor by boat on Lake Superior, and boat building.

Can you talk about how you came to use your books' settings in time and place as such rich backdrops for your writing?

Peter: There’s a long and complicated answer to this question, which I’m often asked in one form or another. I’ll start at the beginning.

When I decided to write a novel, I knew only one thing: that I wanted to set the book on the North Shore. There are, I suppose, many reasons for this. One, it’s a place I’ve always gone to—in my mind and in reality—when I’m looking for peace. It’s a place that overwhelms me with emotion and memories. It’s a place that begs, with its natural beauty and mystery, to be written about. And, frankly, I thought it was a place underrepresented in fiction. I thought I could stake my claim to it, if I was willing to take a chance that my rendering of it might yield some interest. So, I began writing Safe from the Sea.

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As I said, all I knew was that I wanted to book to be set on the North Shore. In a way, the whole narrative design and all the characters were secondary to the setting. At least everything was secondary at the outset. That may seem like a strange way to start a book, but for those of us who are lucky enough to be familiar with this part of the world, it’s not so strange at all. One of the feelings I’m always trying to put into words is how the landscape along the shore, and the lake itself, can make you feel pretty insubstantial. Pretty diminished. Because the landscape and lake are so dominant in real life, I guess it kind of makes sense that they’d be capable of dominating a story, too.

What I’ve learned writing two books about the place is that the more I think about it, the more I puzzle over its grandeur and immensity, the more uncanny and unknowable it becomes. Thank God for this, as to start making sense of it would surely diminish its allure. 

The Lighthouse Road was born from a photograph of a woman at a logging camp circa 1870-something. She’s standing there, in a world I know to be bitter and unforgiving in winter, surrounded by men, many of them pretty rough customers, no doubt, and I thought: What would it be like to be her? Can you even imagine? Well, I started doing exactly that. Imagining what her life might be like. What I discovered was that the same scenery that in Safe from the Sea was doing its job of diminishing two strong men in the late twentieth century was even more potent and dangerous to a young immigrant woman—one without family, without the ability to speak the language, without any discernible skills—in the late 1890s. The canvas (that is, the North Shore in winter) became even more dazzling to me. It became even more of an inspiration. More of a muse.

In this respect, it was even easier to incorporate the natural world in the second book. What’s also true, though, is that that historical distance is like a blank check. Going back to a time when the North Shore was truly a frontier, when the only way to get there was by dog sled or boat, when the only people who lived there were essentially castaways, well, it honestly felt like cheating sometimes, the ease with which I could conjure up the world I was creating.

None of this is to say that I haven’t tried to be true to the historical record. Though everything about the book is fictional—every town, every road, every lumber camp, every character—any part of it is possible. This required some research, and of course that research yielded even more fodder for broadening the role of the natural world. It was like finding money buried under the tree.

What I’ve discovered since finishing The Lighthouse Road is that, at least for now, I require the North Shore to function as a storyteller. That is, if I don’t allow myself that canvas, then I suffer mightily from a lack of imaginative powers. I suppose this will change someday (certainly, I hope it does), but for now, my storytelling only works with that natural world as the backdrop. And until that part of the world stops mystifying me, I’ll keep writing about it. 

my3books: One more question about the detail work – the fine craftsmanship, you could say – in The Lighthouse Road. There are a number of passages that focus incredibly closely on Odd and his boatwork. When we first meet him, he's in a too-small boat, making a dangerous passage to smuggle liquor in defiance of Prohibition. Later in the book, partly as a result of that early journey, he's building his own, larger boat. Later still, there are some scenes in a boatyard. I'm no expert, but it felt quite real to me. And in fact, you made me feel like I now know secrets of the trade.  How much of this came from research and how much from your own life?

Peter: I’ve never built a boat, unless you count the canoe I whittled for my boys while I was in the boundary waters last summer. But I have always loved working with wood. This goes back to grade school, when once each week we got to go to woodworking class. As hard as that is to believe. And someday I will build a boat, time willing. 

Boatbuilding seems to me about the most humble and honest of occupations, and so it fit with Odd’s character.(Odd is one of the protagonists of The Lighthouse Road.)  Also, there’s a motif running through the book that I only recognized after I finished it and read it a couple of times. It’s this notion of building things: boats, towns, a business, a life. Each of them requires a kind of craftsmanship, to use one of your words. I must have known subconsciously that all these elements were coming together.

Of course, because I’m not a boat builder in real life, I had to research. But what a pleasure to learn about something so beautiful. I swear, reading some of those books was like reading ancient poetry. The words are stunning in the boat building business. The names of tools. I find it so much easier to write of a subject when I love the vocabulary.

my3books: One eye at my3books is always on the book trade, and in particular indie publishing and indie bookstores. From my own experience selling Safe From The Sea to stores, and then, this summer, watching many of my bookstore friends get excited about the imminent arrival of The Lighthouse Road, it's clear that you are a true son of indie bookstores. You toured extensively for Safe From the Sea and I see that you've got a long tour lined up for the new book. 

I know this is an easy pitch, but take a swing anyway. What have you learned from your time spent in indie bookstores? Do you have any particular favorites – or if you don't want to play favorites with stores, do you have any favorite moments from time spent in bookstores?

Peter: I don’t think it’s possible for me to overstate this: Without independent booksellers, I wouldn’t have a career. Without them, the only people reading my books would be my family and friends. I don’t think it’s possible for me to adequately express my gratitude for this fact alone.

But my admiration and thanks is for more than this fact alone. What independent booksellers do for me, they also do for countless other writers whose work I love. I’ve never read a book by John Grisham or Danielle Steele or Tom Clancy, and part of the reason that’s true is because independent booksellers have been helping the careers of lesser known, more literary writers for decades. Having great books to read is literally as important to me as being able to write books. I couldn’t write books if I didn’t have books to read. 

There’s a third part to this answer that is, without doubt, the most important, and it’s this: on top of all the things independent booksellers have done for my career, on top of all the wonderful books they’ve put in my hands to read, many of them have also become close friends and literary confidants. Folks like Chris Livingston at the Bookshelf in Winona, Minnesota, Stacie Michelle Williams at Boswell Book Co. in Milwaukee, Liberty Hardy out at River Run Books in New Hampshire, Kristen Sandstrom at Apostle Island Booksellers in Bayfield, Wisconsin, Hans Weyandt at Micawber’s here in the Twin Cities, Jennifer Geraedts at Beagle Books up in Park Rapids, Minnesota, and Bess and Jessilyn up at McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Michigan – these are folks I communicate with on a regular basis. We talk about books and our families and baseball. We’re having an ongoing conversation about things that matter to me. And to them. What could be better than that?

my3books: And finally, three book picks - three that you're loving right now? Or books that you are most excited about coming out soon?

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I’ve fallen in love with Amanda Coplins' The Orchardist. I finished the book a couple weeks ago, but I keep picking it up and reading passages. As though I were reading a book of poems on my bedside table. Speaking of poems on my bedside table, I’ve been reading Louis Jenkins’ North of the Cities and Bill Holm’s Playing the Black Piano piecemeal over the last couple months. There’s no denying either of them their wisdom or their way with words. And, like just about everyone else I know, I can’t wait to get my hands on the new Louise Erdrich novel (The Round House). It doesn’t seem fair that she should have so much of the market on beautiful novels cornered. 

The Lighthouse Road

by Peter Geye

Unbridled Books / PGW | 9781609530846 | $24.95 | Oct 2012

More, Elsewhere:

The Lighthouse Road at Unbridled Books (lots of great indie bookseller reviews of the book here)

Peter Geye: Twitter | web site

Ask A Bookseller: Hans Weyandt from Micawber's Books

photo credit: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

Three Questions and Three Book Picks (that was the plan, anyway.)

Last year, Hans Weyandt’s journey from bookstore co-owner to book editor began when a customer at Micawber’s Books in St Paul, MN asked Hans for a list of his Top 100 book recommendations. As he pondered his list, he cut the size of the list down to a more manageable 50, and posted it on the store’s blog. Then he started asking other booksellers around the country for their comparable lists, and posted them to the Micawber’s blog. That series got a lot of attention in the book trade, and soon he made a deal with local indie publisher Coffee House Press to do a book of the lists. That book – Read This! Handpicked Favorites from America’s Indie Bookstores – is out now.

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Read This! Handpicked Favorites from America's Indie Bookstores

edited by Hans Weyandt

Coffee House Press / Consortium | 9781566893138 | $12 | Aug 2012

Despite all the attention for Read This!, Hans is, first and foremost, a bookseller. So we’re talking about bookselling in this Q&A.

my3books: Hans, you’re one of the first booksellers I thought of when I wanted to start this series of Q&As. Thank you for helping to test drive this new series. We started talking about this last year – I think this might go on record as one of the very slowest short conversations ever. Anyway, we started at some point in the past, and we're wrapping it up here in the present. Let's see what we've learned.

Will you talk a little about the current and changing face of your bookstore - curating the store selection, hosting events, building community, keeping your store interesting to customers in person and online?

Hans: This question could go in so many different directions – which, I suppose, is part of the problem and an exciting thing to tackle. I'm not sure if it's any more true now than before but a store has to accomplish a few things at the same time: 

  1. Have the books people are looking for. The bestsellers and the hot new titles and books people are reading for their bookclubs. 
  2. Have books people didn't know they wanted. 
  3. Keep those two things constantly moving and changing.

A store that looks the same for too long looks bad. So curating and display and the choosing of stock is one of our biggest jobs. Curating stock is a term that is everywhere now but is something I didn't hear much of even five or six years ago. That comes from constantly reading reviews (print and on-line) and listening to what customers are talking about. It also means relying on sales reps and other book industry people to help you. Our reps help shape our store in ways very few customers think about but we're cognizant of it always.

Hosting events is also a part of a store claiming some kind of identity and working its way into the direct and larger community. It involves outreach to other organizations and thinking outside the box. For us, as a store that has nowhere near the biggest reading series in town, it's about choosing events that fit us and can work for the publisher, author and our customers. We, generally, do better with a book that has some kind of local angle. That could be with the author or with the publisher or something that is topically relevant. We've struggled mightily getting consistent audiences for first-time novelists or books that don't have some kind of hook for us. We've tried. And we will keep trying in certain ways--yet the facts are that I can't take on events for books(even ones I really like) when I think we'll draw ten to fifteen people. It's wasteful in a lot of different ways.

The community bookstore is, I think, doing about as well as any type of store right now because lots of consumers are looking beyond simple ideas of the cheapest product or the largest selection. The idea of shopping locally has become pervasive in a good way. Small, focused, stories are doing well across the country. Butcher shops, wine shops, shoe/clothing stores, etc. Bookstores have to be a part of that to keep it going. Community, however, cannot be limited to a small geographic space. We're a part of the Twin Cities book community as well as the St. Anthony Park community. We partner with all kinds of non-profits, schools and other businesses. That's a necessary part of the deal.

As far as on-line goes we have a fairly split-personality. I've often stated that we operate in about 1945 A.D. Yet that's only partially true and partly a joke. We don't sell books on-line. Or e-books. We take a large number of special order requests via e-mail. We do have a store blog and a Facebook page where we list events, new releases and other random book info and ideas. Our electronic presence, if that's what one calls it, is mostly as a reminder to people. It is to inform them and possibly amuse them. Mostly, I see it as a way for them to keep us in mind and visit our physical space which is the place we do our jobs best. Keeping it interesting in the store is a matter of new displays and new remainder books as often as possible. Our front tables change constantly. It's something people remark on frequently and it keeps all of us on our toes. When a customer asks for a book we walk them to it. Because the reality is that where it was two days ago is often not where it is now. It forces browsing in a gentle way.

my3books: What are you doing differently from when you and Tom first bought the store? Have you changed the store's mix?

Hans: We bought the store just over eight years ago and due to how the store was structured it changed radically for the first 2-3 years. There's no hidden source of capital behind us so we had to grow organically and as we could. We found the sections that were working and beefed them up. We reduced others. The store is basically split into three rooms and, at first, we only had 2/3's of the store open. That quickly changed and now the portion that was closed is our kids/YA room and is something we've done pretty well with. Especially since Dara Dokas came on board and has taken over a majority of the buying for those sections. We also tried to limit the amount of vendors we had at the beginning. We gradually learned that in order to have the kind of store we wanted we had to open it up a bit so we order directly now from places that we didn't in the beginning.

Sections like mystery and fiction (in general) have gotten significantly bigger. We've added a historical fiction section and one on sustainability. We rotate a smaller selection of titles in series. The impetus for that was that The Best American Series has always done well so why not other small groupings? We have the entire NYRB collection (or what we currently have in stock) shelved together. We've had great success with the Persephone Classics and several of Melville House's like the Neversink Library.

The neighborhood itself hasn't really changed. It is fun to see kids who were little when we started (like 5 or 6) who now come in and choose their own books. Kids drive by who could barely ride bikes. It's fun to be a changing part of a neighborhood. And I'd like to say that the people who are always talking about kids and how they can't pry themselves from all the electronic screens around them are always adults. Kids are in our store all of the time. With friends, with their parents or babysitters, by themselves. We have kids who spend an incredible amount of time here. That pleases me to no end.

my3books: Your store is pretty much "set" in terms of square footage and layout, barring a move to a different location or a radical reinvention. But for someone thinking about opening a new store now, somebody thinking about stepping into the Borders gap, what IS the right size for an indie bookstore today?  What advice do you have for a hypothetical eager, moderately funded, book-loving newbie bookstore owner?

Hans: It's doable. It depends on finding the right location with either a favorable lease or option to buy but it still can be done. It seems to me that smaller stores have fared better in the past five years. Being small allows for quick changes and an inventory that doesn't get out of hand in terms of cost. The biggest thing is to come up with some rules and then decide which ones are flexible and what needs to be written in stone. Small businesses get themselves in trouble when they extend themselves beyond what they told themselves they could/would/should. I've seen a lot of places get into some trouble and it becomes like a person who is drowning. They will grab onto anything to stay afloat.

More concrete advice would be to talk to the ABA and IndieBound and any kind of regional bookstore group. Talk to stores that are in the area and see what is working for them. On the whole, I'd say that most stores are very willing to give advice and warnings. One thing I do hear a lot from prospective owners is, "Well, this would work for sure because there are no other bookstores around." That could be true or there could be some pretty good reasons why there aren't stores in a given area.

my3books: And three books that have knocked you out lately?

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Hans: Three books I've read recently and really loved are J.R. Moehringer's novel, Sutton, which is heavily based on the real bank robber (and heister of all sorts) Willie Sutton. His life story is one of those instances where truth is much stranger than nearly all fiction. The novel covers the day following his final release from prison as he shows a journalist and photographer some of his old haunts. Fun reading which pushed me to read Quentin Reynolds' biography of Sutton (I, Willie Sutton). Pairing the two together brings a heightened experience to both books.

Joan Wickersham's The News From Spain was called 'the best collection of short stories I've read in some time' by Jason Gobble (one of our Random House reps) and I have to agree with him. The stories are linked – though mostly through the title popping up in each one. Various locales and characters are handled in the same manner – great attention to details large and small paired with great writing. Again, I went backwards and read her heart-shattering account of her father's suicide entitled The Suicide Index.

And I'm totally cheating by finishing with a trio of war novels. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain and Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya's The Watch all take different looks at war and war(s) but they share more than heavy emotional weight. If good fiction helps us to better understand the world we live in these books all helped me understand the current world in deeper ways.

  • Sutton
  • by J.R. Moehringer
  • Hyperion Books | 9781401323141 | $27.99 | Sept 2012
  • The Yellow Birds
  • by Kevin Powers
  • Little, Brown & Co | 9780316219365 | $24.99 | Sept 2012 
  • The Watch
  • by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya
  • Hogarth Press | 9780307955890 | $25 | June 2012

my3books: You, sir, are a cheater and a rogue – I count seven book picks. But how can I begrudge you the opportunity to talk about a couple extra books that you love? Thanks for coming by my3books and talking books and bookstores.

More about Read This: a great article from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune

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Micawber's Books

2238 Carter Ave

Saint Paul, MN 55108