Readers and writers: ‘Just you and the air and the landing hill below’

·7 min read

First, you find the hollowing sensation that comes with the leap itself. It was then, as it remains now, the surest sign of a good jump. You are lighter. You’re empty of inhibitions. And it compels you forward, your hips following the emptiness and grace. A twitch of one shoulder, then the other, as you accelerate, as the world simplifies. Just you and the air and the landing hill below. There’s no concentrating now. Only divination. Only weightlessness and yearning, and, for as fast as it always happened, timelessness. The Stall your Pops called it. That moment when you reached the perfect position, when control and calmness met and the speed vanished and you were no longer flying but only suspended there.

In the opening scene of Peter Geye’s much-anticipated new novel “The Ski Jumpers,” Jon Bargaard awakens from a dream of ski jumping when he was a young man.

“I have that dream to this day, once a month or more, exactly what Jon is dreaming about,” says Geye, who first jumped when he was 7 at Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis.

Geye (pronounced guy), earned kudos from critics and readers for his debut novel, “Safe From the Sea” (2010), followed by his trilogy about the Norwegian-American Eide family — “The Lighthouse Road,” “Wintering” (Minnesota Book Award), and “Northernmost.”

In all Geye’s books the atmosphere is made of ice, snow and cold, whether the characters are facing an ice bear in Arctic waters, living in northern Minnesota woods, or standing at the top of a ski jump waiting to push off into thin air.

“When I looked at the finished copies of this book the word that came to mind book was ‘personal,’ ” Geye said. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot. How much I identify with my characters even though they share no relationship to me. Jon does. He’s a writer, teacher, family man. All of those things are characteristics of me that found their way into him.”

Jon also shares Geye’s love of ski jumping.

“When I was a kid, the sport was sort of all-consuming,” says Geye, who’s 52. “From 10 years old to almost 20 it was all I did; trained, traveled for it, aspired to be as good as the great jumpers. But I never quite got there. I skied competitively all over the country, and these memories are imprinted in my mind as nothing else in life really is.”

Geye was a contributor to photographer and former ski jumper Cooper Dodds’ 2020 book “Jumper: Flying in the Heartland,” made up of Dodd’s pictures of jumpers in flight and text by former jumpers. In it, Geye writes that ski jumping is “something devout and as close to a religion” as he could get.

So it’s no wonder he enjoyed writing “The Ski Jumpers.”

“It was such fun to write those scenes of Jon jumping, to lift the veil off my own memories and transport them onto the page,” he says.

“How many of us are lucky enough to have part of our childhood that continues to live in us? It’s still an enormous part of my life as I have the vicarious experience of watching kids do it, recalling the gritty, hands-on time I spent at jumps, getting ready, learning the sport. But when (the writing) became nostalgic I chipped away at it because I didn’t want nostalgia to become part of the story. The book had its story but I had mine.”

Although Geye writes lyrically about the feel of weightlessness and the need to be fearless and take physical risks as a ski jumper, his novel is not only about the sport.

Protagonist Jon Bargaard has been trying to write a book titled “The Ski Jumpers” for years, about him and his younger brother Anton and their father, Pops, once a champion ski jumper who took his sons to the heights. But now Jon, who is nearing retirement age, has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers and he fears he’ll never write the story of why he and his brother were estranged for so many years.

Jon finally begins to reveal to his kind wife, Ingrid, the secrets of his past. He recalls the wonderful early days when Pops took his sons to the small ski jumps in Minneapolis on cold winter mornings. He tells about how their mother ended up hospitalized after Pops went to prison for killing a ruthless gangster in north Minneapolis, a crime he did not commit. With both parents absent, Jon and his little brother were on their own, living for a while in a north woods cabin where they practiced jumping every day. But the brothers eventually parted, coming together only later in life.

Unlike the brothers in the novel, Geye and his five-years-younger brother, Tony, are super-close.

“Tony never left the sport of ski jumping,” Geye says. “His dedication to the sport is amazing. He has given so much to the Minneapolis Ski Club. We run the club’s junior program, coaching our own kids and the other kids in the club.”

Erik Anderson, University of Minnesota Press acquisitions editor and editor of Geye’s book, was eager to publish “The Ski Jumpers.”

“I have been a fan of Peter’s work since I first read ‘Safe from the Sea’ (a novel I read, quite fittingly, snowed in and overlooking an April blizzard coming across a raging Lake Superior) he wrote in an email. “‘The Ski Jumpers’ is a beautifully atmospheric story of ski jumping, of wind, snow, of winter. Of what it means in our lives to find the courage to take the leap and strive to stick the landing.”

Lorna Landvik, author, actress and comedian who will be in conversation with Geye at Tuesday’s launch (and promises no-holds-barred joking), recalled first meeting her friend when he spoke at Wine & Words, an event she’s been emceeing since its inception.

“Peter’s talk was entertaining, enlightening and sincere — always a winning combination,” Landvik recalled. “I’ve been at several events with him as well as a Happy Hour or two. I admire Peter as a writer and as a person and I’m looking forward to the launch — an apt name for a book called ‘The Ski Jumpers.’ ”

Geye admits it took him more than a decade to write this book because he couldn’t find Jon’s voice. Then the COVID lockdown came and he had time to contemplate the way the world used to be.

“Jon didn’t drop out of the pandemic sky, but something about the environment at that time allowed me to access this character,” he says.

Geye, who grew up in a modest household in north Minneapolis, got the urge to write when he was a student at Minneapolis South high school, where he read Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.”

He attended Minneapolis Community College and graduated from the University of Minnesota as well as earning a master’s degree from the University of New Orleans and a doctorate from Western Michigan University.

Besides writing his own books, Geye teaches the year-long Novel Writing Project at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Among his published former students are Kurt Johnson, who partnered with his daughter, Ellie, to write the novel “The Barrens,” and Carla J. Hagen, introducing her second book, “Muskeg” this month. In her acknowledgments, Hagen refers to Geye as “coach extraordinaire.”

Geyes is married to Emily Hamilton, assistant director for book publishing at University of Minnesota Press. They live in south Minneapolis with their blended family — Peter’s two sons and daughter and Emily’s two sons. The kids range in age from a senior in high school to a fourth grader.

After Geye’s publicity tour for “The Ski Jumpers,” he’ll be busy writing his next two books to be published by UMP. He promises his fans that some of the characters from the Eide family in his previous novels will reappear. And there will probably be snow.

‘THE SKI JUMPERS’ BOOK LAUNCH

  • WHAT: Peter Geye celebrates publication of “The Ski Jumpers” in conversation with Lorna Landvik, presented by Magers & Quinn

  • WHEN/WHERE: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 13, Parkway Theater, 4814 Chicago Ave., Minneapolis.

  • TICKETS: $39 advance general admission (includes a copy of the book), $49 at the door; $15 advance general admission (ticket only), $21 at the door. Information: theparkwaytheater.com/all-events/pete-geye-the-ski-jumpers

  • PUBLISHER/PRICE: University of Minnesota Press ($25.95)

  • GEYE’S OTHER METRO-AREA APPEARANCES: Literature Lovers’ Night Out, with Gretchen Anthony, Jillian Medoff and Carol Dunbar, presented by Valley Bookseller of Stillwater, 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 28, Zephyr Theater, 601 Main St. N., Stillwater. $15; 6 p.m. Oct 5, Next Chapter Booksellers, 38 N. Snelling Ave., St. Paul; 7 p.m. Oct. 7, Excelsior Bay Books, Excelsior.

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