Writers are by definition obsessed with words. And when it comes down to it, unless you’re really plucky, there are two or three words you’re stuck with for life: your name. Every other week I’ll ask a different writer five or so questions on the subject. This week I talked with Peter Geye. Peter is the author of Safe From The Sea and The Lighthouse Road. He used to be a ski jumper. He’s thinking of changing his name to Gunnar. He has three kids, none of them them named Bjorn. He lives in Minneapolis with his family.
I have a feeling there have been a number of savage beatings you’ve parceled out upon the mispronunciation of your last name. At the risk of joining that club, how do you pronounce it? Not that there’s anything wrong with either way it’s said, of course.
I wish I was as tough as I look, or that I could lay claim to being some ass-kicking-take-no-prisoners-for-those-who-mispronounce-my-name pugilist. And indeed given my stature (I ain’t no twerp), I ought to have inspired endless fear in the mispronouncers. Alas, I have not. On the contrary. I have sat back, endlessly bracing—on the first day of school—for the inevitable, puzzled pause during roll. Catherine Donaldson? Joseph Erlandson? Missy Gant? Peter… Gay? Gee? Geeie?
To this day people (usually bookstore employees or librarians introducing me at readings) make the same mistakes. Seriously? You wouldn’t think to ask before introducing me? Because believe me, you’re more uncomfortable than I am when you call me Peter Gay.
For the record, it’s pronounced Guy. Like big guy. Like nice guy. Like that guy.
There have been, I imagine, some lame nicknames. Any prize winners, or have they all failed to go beyond the obvious?
Oh, there were some doozies, to be sure. One asshole in high school, thinking himself clever for capitalizing on both the common mispronunciation of my last name and the idiomatic use of “Peter” called me Dick Gay for a few days while I was a freshman and he a junior. (What were we doing in the same class? Good question.) But my favorite nicknames had nothing to do with my tortured last name.
The best was “Six-pack”, because, well, even in high school it didn’t take more than a six-pack to turn me into a whooping idiot. The next best was “Squirrel”, so assigned because, to my ski jumping brethren, I flew with the grace of a rodent falling from a tree.
To whom do you feel more connected: Peter Gay, Buddy Guy, or William Gay?
I’d like to be as prolific as Peter Gay, as groovy as Buddy Guy, and 1/100th as lyrical as William Gay, whose books I count among my favorites of all time. Seriously, have you ever read The Long Home or Provinces of Night? I do share one common denominator with William Gay: the same man, Greg Michalson, edited both of our debut novels. If I die tomorrow, I’ll always have that.
Peter versus Pete. Do you strongly identify with one or the other? Who wins the cage match?
If you’re going to call me Pete, you better be in it for the long haul. My best friend Bob calls me Pete, my brother and sisters call me Pete, my old man calls me Pete, and that’s about it. But listen, if you feel like we’ve got staying power, then pony up and call me Pete. Just know that if you do, then you’re stuck with me.
As for the cage match, I’ve already blown my cover. The only cage match either Pete or Peter has a chance in is the one against the other. Or maybe—maybe—we could take the parakeets, too.
To what—if any—extent has your name been instrumental in your becoming a writer? Was there any boy-named-Sue factor involved, or am I projecting?
This is really complicated. You see, we’ve already established that my father calls me Pete. He was a good and loving man. He still is. Plus, my mother’s name was Sue. So even if he’d been an ass, there would have been complications. To compound this, my father and I share a favorite song (“Tangled up in Blue”) in which a woman named Timmy makes an appearance. Quite a sexy one at that. Add all that together, and what you’re left with is a boy-named-Peter (Geye). And since the letter E is the most frequently used in the English alphabet, I thought I should be a writer, because people would at least recognize so many Es.
To go back to your question and whether or not you’re projecting, I think the answer is clearly yes. Yes you are projecting.
How are you related to Wyze Geye, the rapper not-quite-famed for his YouTube hits “Say What’s Realer” and “1000 Subs”?
You’ve heard the expression, “My brutha from anotha mutha”? Yeah, no. Wyze and I share no bloodlines, though I do like to think our mutual love of the English language comes from the same cosmic star. Check it, I culled these words from the dubbed lyrics rolling across the screen for “Say What’s Realer”: “Unless it’s fiction every love story ends the same way.” That, my friend, blew my mind.
But listen, my man Wyze is rolling to the tune of 25,000 you tube views. That’s big time. I think the YouTube video of a reading I did in Illinois has nine views. I’m no math major, but Wyze is beating me down.
You’ve got a character with a literally odd name in your new novel, The Lighthouse Road. How did you come up with that? Like your last name, it seems to me, it’s also readily mispronouncable to the non-Norwegian among us. Do you feel more than nominally kindred to Odd?
When my wife and I needed a name for our first son, the suggestions I came to the table with included Olaf, Gustav, Per, and Magnus (for the record, they were sincere suggestions). My wife had other ideas. When our second son was in the oven, I came with Kjell, Sigurd, and Dag. Suffice it to say, neither of my sons ended up with a good, strong Norwegian name. Since all the good names were vetoed in real life, I started piling them on my characters.
Odd (pronounced Ode) was so named in protest. Just as Olaf was before him. If you believe (as some folks do), that the names are a little too Nordic, then take it up with my wife.