Jen: How many people are currently in your home during the day?
Peter: On most days, there are 7 people in the house, including 5 students and 2 adults working from home.
J: How many people are usually at home during the day?
P: One. That’s been difficult because for years I’ve been alone during the day to work and now I’m not. It’s not just the kids, it’s overhearing my wife working in the next room. It’s been a big adjustment.
J: Has COVID-19 affected your creativity? Either stifled or jumpstarted it?
P: I think it’s been going through a process. When things started to get serious with COVID-19, we became paralyzed and transfixed by this disease and what it was doing. I think I, like a lot of other people, have become calloused to it. It mostly seems like something that’s happening in the news, not in my real life, so that’s strange. I don’t think that’ll stay that way forever.
The other thing that happened is that publication of my new book, Northernmost, was postponed. When that happened, on the one hand it made perfect sense and I don’t regret it happening. On the other hand, it put things into perspective for me. Rather than being obsessed with the process of this book that I worked so hard on and love and that I was anxious for people to get their hands on, it suddenly felt less important, given the context of the rest of the world. I wondered, “what am I even doing, writing these books? Why aren’t I something useful like a doctor or a nurse?” It put everything into a new perspective. I love what I do and I want to do it for the rest of my life, but my world revolving entirely around my work didn’t seem as imperative.
To get back to your question, I felt uninspired and non-essential. I wondered about it and wrote very little. Since I’ve been working again, I’m way more inspired and way more productive than I usually am. I don’t know what to attribute that to, because I still have the perspective that I’ve gained. Of course we need books and that’s meaningful in all sorts of ways, but there are other things that are more important than whether or not there’s another book written by me in the world. I’ve been reading again and the experience of reading has begun to feel more meaningful.
The book I’m working on now is a book about ski-jumping, which is something I did as a kid. Who cares about that? Who needs that book? It turns out the answer to that question is, I need that book in order for me to stay sane. I need that book and I need to be writing it.
J: Would you normally have been writing right after the release of a book anyway?
P: No. If the book would have been published a month and a half ago, I would have been driving around the upper Midwest in my car all spring for events, including one at your store. Rather than doing that, I’ve been sitting at my desk and making terrific progress on this current project, which is proving to be pretty meaningful. In the past, the experience of having a new book out and promoting it and being preoccupied by its reception and worrying about its sales and things like that, cancels out the likelihood of getting much new work done and usually there’s a little lull between wrapping all of that up and working on a new project.
J: What’s been your favorite bookstore/author/reader response to all of this?
P: A couple of things have really impressed me so far. One of them is that many of the stores I have relationships with have amazed me with their adaptability. Your business is closed, figure out how to keep it alive, and many bookstores are working so hard that it’s astonishing. I think of The Loft’s Wordplay. It was canceled, of course, and yet they managed to make it a pretty remarkable virtual event that reached thousands and thousands of people, more people than would have been reached if they’d held it in person and they did that because there’s a culture to sustain and that’s amazing.
J: What are you reading?
P: Killing Mr. Watson by Peter Matthiessen. I’ve been bowled over by how amazing the writing and the storytelling are. Lily King’s new book, Writers & Lovers. I thought that book was so smart and so beautifully written and so understated and profound about what it means to pursue a dream of writing. I thought it was a terrific book. I’m going to read Louise Erdrich’s latest book next.
J: Have you binge-watched anything?
P: Not really. I’d rather play cribbage than watch TV at night.
J: Do you think you might talk about COVID-19 in future books?
P: In the book I’m writing now, there was a storyline that started in the winter of 2020, right after New Year’s 2020, when all of this happened, I changed the date to 2019 because I didn’t want COVID-19 to be in the book. I don’t know if that was a good choice or a bad choice. On a daily basis, it’s a really good choice because I don’t have to spend time thinking about COVID-19, but I don’t know. When I was writing my first book, the U.S. attacked Iraq—I think it was Iraq. I remember standing on campus and watching a TV in the student union and thinking this is incredible and terrifying and it seems like I absolutely have to include this because it’s the most profound and important thing that’s happened in my lifetime and now, 20 years later, I don’t even remember what war it was. I don’t know how we’ll feel about this time in the future, but my suspicion is that it will be the defining event of my lifetime and probably my children’s lifetimes, but maybe that’s wrong. Maybe something else will come along and pass it and make it seem almost quaint or something. That seems very unlikely, but who knows. I have no inclination whatsoever to write about it and the fact that I changed that timeline of my book is proof of that for me.
Most importantly, how is your dog Mia? (We’d love a picture of the two of you!)
Good! She’s pretty new to the family; we’ve had her for less than a year. She’s a rescue dog, picked up off the streets of Joplin, Missouri, She’s pretty stoked to have a loving family to be around all the time.
See Sally's review of Northernmost.