08 September 2011

Guest Post: Peter Geye (Safe from the Sea) on Character Development

Last fall I reviewed the brilliant novel Safe from the Sea by Peter Geye, calling it "an exquisitely written story" and "a beautiful, emotionally pitch perfect debut." It was one of my top ten reads for 2010, and it garnered a number of awards:

An Indie Next pick for October 2010
A Publishers Weekly Indie Sleeper pick
A Women's National Book Association National Reading Group Month pick
A Midwest Connections Pick for October 2010
The 2010 Indie Lit Award winner for Best Literary Fiction

If you somehow missed Safe from the Sea, one of my favorite novels, you now have the chance to pick it up in paperback. To celebrate the release of the new edition, I've asked author Peter Geye to stop by and give us some insight into how he develops such believable and sympathetic characters.

Getting to Know You

One of the things I sometimes do if I’m stuck on a character is ask the other characters about their relationship with them. Literally I interview the other characters. Write up questions I’d want answered if I were writing a biography of the stuck character. It gives me a chance to think about them from new perspectives, in ways I might never have considered. It also gives me a chance to think about the dynamics between characters.

There were times when I was writing Safe from the Sea that I felt disconnected from Olaf. Mainly, this was because I didn’t (and don’t) know a lot of men like him. I mean men whose whole life was changed by a single event. Men who suffered such an enormous lot and became something entirely new. So I asked Olaf’s wife about it.

Though she became a smaller and smaller character in the novel during the writing and revising of it, her perspective and observations informed me quite a lot. I always viewed her as the link between Olaf and Noah, as the conscience both men shared.

What follows is an excerpt of one of the interviews I conducted with her, culled from my old notebooks. I hope it sheds a little extra light on the novel.

Can you describe Olaf?

Olaf was the best man I ever knew. Better than I ever expected to find. Of course, any wife would probably say that about their husband, but I really believed it. Those first ten years of our life together, the way he loved me, the way he loved our children, my goodness it was something to behold. He worked hard. He was a good provider. The children adore him. Or did. There was the wreck, you know? Of his ore boat? The Rag? A terrible story, and not just for how it changed my man.

How did it change him?

The easy answer—the cheap answer—would be to say simply that after that night he started drinking. He was never a teetotaler—we’d have cocktails at restaurants, he’d keep a few bottles of beer in the fridge—but he became a proper drunk after his boat went down. And no doubt that was a big part of what changed in him, but it’s not the whole of it. No.

You’ve heard of those folks who find religion, right? One minute they’re raising Cain and the next they’re bent over in prayer every minute of the day? Well, Olaf went through something like the reverse of that. Not that he was a religious man to begin with, but he saw the world as doomed after the Rag went down. It was almost as if he carried the weight of the tragedy in his eyes. Of course, this made it just about impossible to live with him. For me and the children.

How did the children bear it?

Poor Noah, he was such sensitive boy. Always looking for his father’s approval. Olaf used to say that Noah wore his heart on his sleeve, and he was right. Well, that part of the boy didn’t sit well with his father after the wreck. It was almost as if Olaf couldn’t stand it. But then, what could he stand? It was so unfair for Noah, who was his father’s son if ever a boy was. Solveig fared better, I guess. She was so even-tempered, even as a toddler. So unemotional. I think that quality of personality sat better with Olaf, and so he went easier on her.

And what about you?

What about me?

How did he treat you after the wreck?

It’s hard for me to say this, hard because I loved him so dearly for so long, but by the time the children were both in high school—ten years or so after the wreck—I could hardly look at Olaf. As much as I still loved him, as often as I recalled our better years, I could not stand the hard man he became. I could not stand the foolish things he said to me when he deigned to speak at all. He was ugly. He was drunk. He was mean. He was happiest when he was farthest away from us all.

That doesn’t sound easy.

The only thing easy in life is loving your children. I contented myself with that.

What about the fellow across the street? The insurance salesman?

Isn’t it ironic? An insurance salesman? It would be something to laugh about if it wasn’t so tragic. But Phil. What can I say about him that would matter at all? He was a decent enough man. He was very decent. But his whole body and soul would have fit into Olaf’s thumb. Phil meant that I didn’t have to eat alone every night. Phil listened when the only alternative would have meant talking to myself. Even I knew enough to not want to go crazy. Phil kept me from crazy.

Could you ever forgive Olaf?

Could I? Of course I could. I already have.

Then why have you remained apart?

Because he hasn’t ever forgiven himself.
Thanks so much, Peter. You have left me almost speechless (not an easy thing to do); even your writing notes carry an emotional power. The interview reveals the more hidden side of Olaf and explains why, despite his hardness and his distance, we care so much about him. I am fascinated by your interview process, and the transcript drew me immediately back into Olaf and Noah's world. I may need to reread your novel soon.

Congratulations on this week's paperback birthday of Safe from the Sea.

For more information about the novel, check out my review or visit the Unbridled Books website. To learn more about Peter Geye, be sure to stop by his website, his Facebook page, and follow him on Twitter.

Safe from the Sea at an Indie

Published by Unbridled Books, 2011 (paperback)
ISBN-13: 9781609530570
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


Zibilee 9/8/11, 9:07 AM  

What an interesting way for a character to take development! I haven't read this book yet, but reading about the main characters in this way makes me want to rush out and grab my copy from the shelf. The book sounds intensely interesting and now that I know a lot more about the Olaf and his motivations, it seems like I need to read this one soon! Great post today!

bermudaonion 9/8/11, 10:02 AM  

Wow! I'm really anxious to read the book now just to read about Olaf.

Barbara 9/8/11, 11:30 AM  

Like Zibilee and Kathy, I'm very anxious to read this book now. As a writer, this has given me a whole new way to think about the characters I'm working with. They are quite real to me; why not talk to them, see what they think? Such a valuable post, this is.

Serena 9/8/11, 2:22 PM  

I just loved this book and that guest post was phenomenal. Can't wait for his new book.

Meg @ write meg! 9/8/11, 2:45 PM  

So enjoyed this exciting extra from Geye. Safe From The Sea is definitely one of my favorite reads of the year and a book I think about often. A poignant must-read for sure.

caite 9/8/11, 4:44 PM  

Mr. Geye, I must say that I just loved your book.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks 9/8/11, 10:14 PM  

What a neat approach to developing a character. I wonder how it felt for Mr. Geye to return to those notebooks, now that the novel is complete.

Anonymous,  9/9/11, 4:46 AM  

This book is on my wishlist and I hope it'll come off soon and drop in to my hands!

What a great idea to interview your characters.

Dorte H 9/9/11, 2:54 PM  

What an interesting way to create a rounded character - and a really useful post for a newbie writer ;)

Michelle 9/10/11, 8:16 AM  

Sounds so intense and quite interesting. Thank you for sharing.

Robin M 9/12/11, 9:39 PM  

Isn't normally my cup of tea, but your post makes me want to read the book now.

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