My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today's guest is Peter Geye, author of Safe from the Sea which came out last year from Unbridled Books. It's a story about a son, his estranged father, the Great Lakes, and a shipwreck which both men are trying to come to grips with. Library Journal said the novel is "inspiring, wise, and enthusiastically recommended for all readers." Geye received his MFA from the University of New Orleans and his Ph.D. from Western Michigan University, where he was editor of Third Coast. He was born and raised in Minneapolis and continues to live there with his wife and three children. He is available to meet with book groups. His website is www.petergeye.com
My First Book Club
About twenty years ago I decided to be a writer. When the notion first occurred to me, I was inspired by thoughts of Hemingway sitting on the boulevards of Paris, drinking who knew what sort of cocktails after a solitary day spent at his typewriter. Though I loved Hemingway’s books, loved the idea of telling stories the way he did, I only ever considered the exchange between a writer and a reader from the writer’s point of view. That is, I never really (or at least seriously) thought about that solitary person holding my creation, bringing to it their own life experiences, their own emotional and intellectual proclivities.
Even after I finished writing Safe from the Sea, after it was sold to a publisher, after it was out in the world, after I was, finally, the writer I had for so long imagined myself becoming, even after all this I hadn’t given much consideration to the idea of the solitary reader. Reviews started coming in, along with kind words from booksellers, even interviews with television and radio hosts, and though these exchanges were in a way proof that my book was being read, they seemed also to be part of the business of publishing rather than an intimate exchange between the words on the page and some impartial and unknown reader.
The fact is, I didn’t fully appreciate the idea of a solitary reader until I accepted an invitation from a book club and spent my first evening with a room full of people who had read the book and came armed with their list of disarming questions and insights. I remember arriving, being shown my seat in the living room, being offered a bottle of beer. I was exceedingly self-conscious, and not at all prepared for the exchange that was about to take place. That exchange went something like this...
There were pleasantries all around, a few softballs lobbed up to get the conversation started, and then, wham! The real business of reading showed up all at once. People talked about how their own difficult relationships with their father came back to life while they read Safe from the Sea. They talked about how difficult it was to watch their mother or father die while so many questions or unresolved issues went unattended. They talked about their own struggles with infertility, or of their daughters or sons in such struggles. They talked about how hard it was to watch someone they loved battle alcoholism. In other words, they talked from the point of view of the solitary reader. They brought to the book the other half of the equation that exists in every book’s life.
I don’t know why this surprised me. Maybe it’s simply that I never allowed myself to see the book’s life through to the end for fear of jinxing it. Maybe it’s that there seemed to be such an unreal quality to a life’s dream coming true (publishing a book) that it was beyond my capacity to anticipate the fact that people would read Safe from the Sea in exactly the way that I read books, with their own experiences as the foundation of their understanding. Whatever the case, I was awake, aware suddenly that the writer’s life doesn’t only involve the time he or she spends at their computer. Aware that the writer’s life has virtually nothing to do with sitting at café tables, whether in Paris or Minneapolis. On the contrary, the writer’s life is validated only after the reader gets her own imagination involved.
I’ve been to dozens of book clubs since that first one, and each time I marvel at the thoughtfulness of the discussion. Every time, I relish the notion that here is a group of people—sometimes it’s fifty people, sometimes it’s eight—who have brought my book to life. And every time I experience the huge feeling that accompanies that realization, I think back to the first book club I visited and realize what a profound evening it was.
Photo by Jeff Fifield