This is not the first coverage of Peter Kray’s “The God of Skiing” nor will it be the last. It’s being touted as the first great novel about skiing. It is that and then some. Hell I’m a snowboarder and I even like it.
In his book, Kray captures the essence of those blissful moments in between turns, face shots and fleeting glimpses of perfect nature—and delivers it to the reader as only he can. He's got a fluency in the language of shred that few will ever attain, and intimate knowledge of the sport's history and lifestyle that makes this book read like non-fiction, even though it's not. The characters come off so tangible and real you'd swear you saw them in the bar or the lift line just the other day.
The Gods of Skiing are everywhere, icons in our micro-culture whose heroics are the folklore upon which many shape their lives, some for a short time and others for a lifetime. Their stories rarely become legends, but some are etched into bar tops and the minds of ski bums forever. This is one of those stories. —Interview by Mike Horn
Q: You talked about writing this book for some time, about how there were no great novels about “people like us.” What inspired you to finally put pen to paper and craft “The God of Skiing?”
PK: In a sport with so many great characters, great stories, and talented writers, it baffles me why there aren’t more fantastic stories about skiing and snowboarding. I can think of a few dozen chairlift or barstool conversations I would love to see translated to written form—especially by the fantastic storytellers who shared them. It’s as if our sport is still living in a time when the spoken word is king. I wanted to share my own story in print in a way that meant the most to me. And hopefully in a way that inspires others to share the stories they are carrying.
Q: When you meet the hero of the book, Tack Strau, for the first time, he asks: “You walkin’ ‘cause you want to, or ‘cause you have to?” Those are the first words Tack ever says to you, even though it feels like he’s been with you since the story’s beginning. How does this exchange establish the relationship for the rest of the book?
PK: That scene is based on a personal experience—one that ended with a police car bringing me home and a lot of roommates running out the back door of the Jackson Hole house we were sharing. I think Tack Strau’s first quote (at least to the narrator) emphasizes how quickly he sees the possible variables of any situation. As a skier at his level, you have to size things up very quickly, then make a split second decision. As the story goes, it becomes clear how this ski legend makes some very cut and dry decisions.
Q: Do you see some of yourself in Tack? Who else inspired his character?
PK: For sure I see myself in Tack, especially when I’m dreaming. But really, I can see a lot of this character in everyone who lives for skiing. Every ski area has its own local legends, and they are the best skiers or snowboarders on that mountain. They have their own special lines, their own style, and their own following. But if you don’t ride there, then you’ve never heard of them. Tack Strau is the embodiment of all of those local legends.
Q: You have a fluency in ski history and stokelore that adds significant depth to the book. How long has skiing been a part of your life, and how did you amass such a large body of knowledge on the subject?
PK: I started skiing when I was two, thanks to my dad, who was a volunteer ski patrolman at Vail with a bunch of his friends. In the winter, I can’t remember ever being asked what I wanted to do on the weekends. Your butt was in the car, heading West on I-70 every Friday evening. It’s been my life ever since, from teaching skiing in Jackson Hole for four seasons, to finally getting regular work as a writer to cover three Olympics and take assignments from South America to France, Austria, Italy and Greenland. Skiers fascinate me. I find them incredibly cerebral and passionate at the same time. They love speed and adventure, but are also very aware of the environment in which they are traveling.
Q: Toby the dog and Tack the skier seem to have very similar personalities. One sniff of the wind and either might disappear in an instant. Likewise, for Tack, speed and grace were instinctual and he had a certain clarity, an acute focus on what was right in front of him. It’s a rare quality. What is it like to reach that level of clarity?
PK: Dogs and skiers, right? It’s hard to tell them apart sometimes. And a powder day is just as distracting to a skier as a dog might find the smell of a barbecue on the wind. The other common denominator is just how great it feels to both of them to be moving. They aren’t the kind of beings to sit still for very long. When they are truly alive is when they are in action. Which is why I think we all love outdoor sports, because of that feeling of exploring and reacting at the exact same time. It just feels good to run!
Q: In one of my favorite passages in the book, in Chapter 6, you write about the fleeting nature of material things, like a big house in a kitschy neighborhood with all the fixings:
“You could always lose those things. Sometimes I think those things are just for losing. Like life, how no one figures out how to keep it in the end. But if you ski then you have that forever. Nobody can buy that. Nobody can pay someone to do that for them. And I always wanted to know how good I was when I was the best I could have ever been. I’ll always have that to hold, even when I’m gone.”
Do you ever think about what your life would be like without skiing…where you’d be today? How does sliding on snow make you whole?
PK: I do think about that sometimes. My parents were both from Syracuse, NY. Some of which is in the book—how they longed for bigger mountains. And if they had raised me there, all that family and love and community would still be present, but the sense of adventure might be lacking. The fact they left all that behind to raise my brother and me in Colorado, because they were risk-takers and wanted to ski, to me has meant everything. That chapter is about the difference between a life really lived, and the life you’re just flaunting. It’s about committing yourself to a deeper feeling.
Q: In one of the epilogue's final paragraphs, you write:
“For a sport so present in the now, it’s the memories that make it important. Going fast through nature. Those long moments lost to a turn, and the feeling of flying when you are thinking of everything and nothing at the exact same time.”
Is this the common space we share? Is that the essence of “this thing of ours?” (To put it in Mafia terms).
PK: This whole sport is based on sensation. And the longer you maintain that sensation, the more it feels like meditation—physically great yet super focused at the exact same time. None of us can quite describe how it feels to go fast like that, except how even as you’re reading the terrain and enjoying the speed, you’re also thinking about a million other things. You get a day on the snow with friends and you just disappear into that. It feels better than anything.
Q: The book ends with an element of sadness and cold finality. It seems as if two opposing cultures have clashed, and the darker force has won. Why did you end the book on a somewhat dark note? Or, is it not meant to be dark at all?
PK: There is always a clash of culture—especially in sport and art. It’s a clash between the people who have set the rules, and want to follow the rules, and the people who could give a shit, or at least expect there are new rules to come. As the book says, there are always people who “want to control the fun.” I try to ignore them. I like to think that chapter talks about how little power they really hold, and how easily they are forgotten. At least in this book, those people only exist in reference to their relationship to Tack Strau. It’s his raw freedom and their attempt to control it that gives their lives meaning. But as for finality, I don’t think I’m giving too much away to say they don’t ever really prove that they found him.
Q: Will there ever be another Tack Strau?
PK: There is. I met him early this season. He’s a local bartender with a racing background who recently won a pair of custom skis, tore them down a sketchy, avalanche-prone line in Silverton, and got his picture on the cover of a magazine. I can’t wait to see him again.
Buy The Book | Cover Image of Fritz Stammberger by Chris Cassatt.