The National Writers Series Presents Peter Heller

An Evening with Peter Heller
Friday, February 2
City Opera House
Cocktail Hour ~ 6 p.m.
Live music, Morsels
Event Begins ~ 7 p.m.
Guest Host: Ron Jolly
Tickets: $15.50/$25.50 – available at the door

It is safe to say that Peter Heller enjoys the element of surprise. His career, after all, began from the perspective of an adventure writer. He first gained recognition for his nonfiction journalism by traveling the world as a kayaker and then documenting his experiences. Heller has chronicled some of the most daunting white-water runs in the world, including the Muk Su River in the High Pamirs of Tajikistan—appropriately nicknamed the “Everest of the Soviet Union”—and the Eastern Tibet’s harrowing Tsang Po Gorge.

His stories only get more exciting from there. Heller has sailed to Antarctica with a group of environmental “pirates” to disrupt a Japanese whaling fleet; he has stood witness—or paddled into, really—a dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan. He’s even been a temporary apprentice to local surfing masters on the coast of Mexico. It’s this sense of “not knowing,” Heller says, that he’s enjoyed most about his adventures in the wild.

It’s precisely that desire to be surprised that made his rather recent transition into writing fiction feel more like a homecoming than unfamiliar terrain. But Heller hasn’t become complacent just because he’s now the designer of his own storylines. On the contrary, while writing he makes a point of staying as unknowing of the outcome as his readers will be so that he’s equally as surprised by the ending. In homage of the waters he used to run, Heller prefers to begin each new literary undertaking with “just the first line,” because, much like an unseen dip or bend in a river, he’s never quite sure where a story will take him. You just start with the first line, he says, “and let it rip.”

And let it rip he has. Heller’s first two novels, The Painter and The Dog Stars, both hit national bestseller lists. His newest book, Celine—featuring the unlikely figure of an intrepid, crime-solving sexagenarian—is also a national bestseller and was named a best book of 2017 by Esquire and Minnesota Public Radio. NPR describes the novel as a “book for anyone who ever wondered what happened to Nancy Drew after she grew up.” 

When did you realize that you wanted to pursue writing?

I was sort of born a writer. I was writing poetry when I was like, six. My dad used to read to me every night before I went to bed, lots of poetry, aside from Treasure Island, of course, when I was really little, and I loved it. I loved the music of the language. My dad was a writer, an occasional poet, a playwright, and a huge reader, and so I think I just sort of inherited that gene. I grew up with a love of language and very early on I thought, “I want to do that.”

You mentioned you’ve been writing poetry since your early childhood. How would you say poetry has informed your writing?

I would say that poetry is the reason I write. I care more about the music of the language than I do about story or plot. I start with the first line, its rhythm, its music; it’s the first line, it will have music, and I will follow the music of the first line into the story. The story is really carried on the back of the language rather than the other way around. I think maybe lots of other writers work the other way—that is, they have a story in mind, or kind of plot it out, and they harness language to work for the story. I work the other way. I really just love the music of it, and the story grows out of that. I’ll follow the rhythm, the cadence, the music of the language into the story, into the voices of the characters.

Which authors have you found most influential as a writer?

Hemingway, for sure, and since you’re in Michigan. Once, when I was eleven, I was wandering around the library of a little school in Brooklyn Heights, New York City, and the librarian was there, whose name was Annie Bosworth—I had a crush on her. She was English and I would have married her right then, just for how she said my name—“Pee-tah!” She asked me if I was looking for something to read, and I said yes, I was. A great librarian like her knows just what you’re looking for, because they have been following your reading all your life, and she pulled down In Our Time by Hemingway. It’s mostly Nick Adams stories in Upper Michigan. You’ve gotta picture an eleven-year-old kid reading this in New York City. And I thought, “I want to do that!”  I wanted to carry a rucksack through grass that wets my pants with dew, make cowboy coffee—I didn’t really know what that was—and not burn my tongue. I wanted to fish for gorgeous trout. I wanted to do that! I wanted a girlfriend that could grow and fish like a man, and then break up with her, like Nick did.

Mostly, I wanted to write about it all, like this guy, because the prose went straight to my heart through my skin, and bypassed my head. And then I read Faulkner soon after that. I was thirteen when I read Faulkner, and it blew me away. The music of language, piling on, the poetry, just really interested me. After reading some poetry, the music of certain poets stuck with me. One is TS Eliot, especially in The Four Quartets, in Yeats’ Prayer for my Daughter, and the poems of Pablo Neruda—the lushness of the language bowled me over, and I began to read other novelists who were taking great risks. Especially the South American writer, Mutis, in Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, who I’ve recommended to the Traverse City bookstore. Also, people like Murakami, the Japanese novelist, have impressed me greatly, because he takes the reader’s hand and leads them into the story, and before long, the sheep are talking and there are two moons in the sky, and you’re totally willing to go there because he’s so good. And there are some writers writing in Spanish who I think are amazing. One is Aira in Argentina, and the other is Vila-Matas in Barcelona, Spain. Both of these guys are extremely playful and take huge risks with their stories. The stories just get really wacky, but who cares, because they’re so brilliant and they’re having so much fun. And I should mention Emily Dickinson: she’s been a big influence, and it’s for the bravery of her risk-taking, and the nimbleness of her work.

To what extent do you see your experience as an outdoorsman reflected in your writing?

When I started, I was writing about lots of things for magazines. When I was going on those expeditions, I was a journalist at the same time, and that was really great training, both in terms of training to notice the details that could bring a story alive, and in the actual writing all of those stories, learning how to evoke a sense of place right away and developing characters that were vivid and could jump off the page—all of that was great training for writing books.

When you’re running a river that’s never been described or you have never heard about, you start paddling and come around a bend and you don’t know what’s gonna be there. It could be a waterfall or a cougar. It could be five guys with bows and arrows or just a flight of swallows. It’s always a surprise. That’s one thing I loved about river running—the not knowing—and that’s one thing I’ve carried into writing fiction. I always wanted, in the narrative, to have as much fun as my reader and be as surprised as my reader, and shocked and thrilled with the outcome. I never outlined or came to fiction with some grand idea. I started with a first line, like you would on the river, and let it rip, and it’s so much fun that way.

The bulk of your earlier writing was nonfiction, but your three most recent books have all been fiction. What do you think sparked the jump from nonfiction to fiction?

There was really no jump at all. As I came up, as a reader and a writer, I always was writing poetry and short stories and I always wanted to be a novelist and write fiction, but I had to make a living. I started writing magazine stories for Outside magazine and Men’s Journal. I was a kayaker and I could write about it, could go on these expeditions, and it was the most natural way to start writing for magazines. Eventually, some of those articles grew into books. So, for me as a writer, nonfiction was a way to make a living and to joyfully pursue this thing that I loved, which was being out in the wild and kayaking. As I traveled more, I began to write more and more environmental articles, because it became clear to me that you couldn’t just write about adventure. It was clear that the ecosphere was unraveling and that we had to take some responsibility, and some of those articles turned into books. And then one day, when I was writing for Business Week, saving some money, I thought, I think I can write for nine months without taking a magazine story. I thought I think it’s time to write that novel.” It was more like a coming home to something that I’d always wanted to do. It really felt like I was taking that one hand that had been tied behind my back and it was like I could go with all cylinders now, give my imagination and love of language full reign, and it was thrilling. Because I had written so much nonfiction, I always had known what the ending was going to be. And I always knew what would happen next, because it had happened. Now, when I sit down to write fiction, I want to be surprised. I don’t want to know what happens, so I just start with the first line and let it rip.

What was your research process for your most recent novel, Celine?

My research process for Celine was having a mom, because Celine is my mother. I just wrote my mother. My mom is very closely written in this book: the character, how she looks, how she speaks, the way she sings, her backstory, her family history—all of that is true. Her husband is as written—I didn’t even change his name, he’s a real guy. The only thing that’s really fictional in this book is the case she takes and then pursues. But the house on the dock under the Brooklyn Bridge, where she lives, that’s all real. Mom could shoot, and drive, and all those stories are true. Mom died three years ago, and writing Celine was my way of spending another year with her.

Do you do that often? That is, are most of your fictional characters based on real people?

Yes. In The Painter, Jim Stegner, who is an impressionist painter, is very closely based on my dear friend Jim Wagner, an impressionist painter in Taos, New Mexico. When I started writing the book, I got a few pages in and was like, “Hmm, this guy sounds like Jim Wagner,” but I made a command decision, that no, it’s not him. Jim Wagner isn’t him—Jim’s still alive, and the potential liability would have been too rough. But then a few weeks later, I was like, no, it is him, so I called him up. “I’m writing about an impressionist painter in Taos, New Mexico, and hey, he shot a guy in a bar just like you did for making a comment about his kid. He loves to fly-fish just like you, and in fact, he kind of looks like you. He has paint splattered clothes and a beard like you do. He has a fly in his cap, his palette’s like yours, and you know, he even made one of your paintings.” I went on and on and at the end, he said, “That sounds amazing! Let me know how it goes!” I finished the book—and when you finish a book, the author gets two copies of the hardback right away—and I sent one to him. A few days later, I got a call. “I read the book, and I loved it! And now I’m wandering around the house wondering if I killed a guy!” That book was very closely based on a real person. I just finished a book called The River, which is about two college boys on a canoe trip up north by Hudson Bay, and that is also based on two real people. And so, you know, on and on. A lot of fiction writers are very touchy about this, but I’m not.

Do you have any advice for individuals pursuing writing professionally?

I think it’s probably like any other serious pursuit, whether it’s in the arts, or music, or painting, or dance, or athletics, the goal is not to do it professionally, but be as good as one can be, right now. So, I think it’s very important for writers to not be aiming their work, or angling it some way, to make money, or aiming their work at some certain audience, but to write as true as one can, and see where the chips fall. I think that’s the best approach. To write as true as one can takes years and years of discipline and practice, so get ready to work hard. I think you read as much as you can, in multiple genres, poetry included, just for the language, and I think you write every day. When I’m writing, I write every day of the week. You set a certain goal of words and always write that many words, but never much past that many words, even if you’re getting carried away, and you always stop in the middle, so that you’re excited to get up the next day and keep going. If you set your goal as 500 or 1000 words per day, you go until you’re right in the middle of the scene, and then you get up the next morning excited to start again. Don’t edit or revise as you go. You can trim later on. The last thing I would say is follow your nose and have fun. If the energy starts to drop as you’re writing, if it becomes not fun, I’d say steer the horse over a bit to a different trail, and just nudge it over, and make sure it’s always fun. Because if you’re not having fun, the reader won’t be having any fun.

Would you say that you have a regular writing process, then? What does a typical writing day look like for you?

It’s like athletic training. For me, it’s the same thing. I get up in the morning, make some coffee, head to the coffee shop where I write, and then I sit there and write 1000 words every day. I always go just past that 1000 until I’m right in the middle of the scene, it keeps the momentum going. If you get excited, you could write 3000 words a day, and you write to the end of a scene, well you’re stopping at a transition. It’s a double return, white space. The blank page. You might as well start the book over every day. I stay disciplined and stop in the middle. And exercise each day, eat well, and keep energized. It really feels like being an Olympic athlete. I don’t fog up my mind with chemicals. You know, that whole mess, this whole thing about the hard-drinking writers and stuff. I just think of what those guys could have written if they weren’t drunk. Another way to think about it, for me, it’s very important to stay humble before the craft of writing. And to stay humble before the process. If I think of myself as someone who makes furniture, and not someone who’s making grand art, if I think that I come into the shop every morning, put on my apron, sharpen my chisels, cut the wood, sand it, make the joints, put it together, and try to build something solid and beautiful, and I just do it every day, then something’s going to happen. In France, writers have to suffer. Lots of them take a long time to write books, and they wait for inspiration and suffer a lot. It’s a very different way of looking at it.

So, what’s coming up the pipeline next?

I just finished a novel called The River six weeks ago. It’s out next January. It’s about two college-aged boys in a canoe, paddling a river way up north in northern Ontario, on a river that flows into Hudson Bay, and stuff happens. I just love it, I really love it. It’s very lyrical, and it’s a page-turner and it’s fun.

About the Author
Peter Heller is a native of New York and a current resident of Denver, Colorado. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and holds an MFA in fiction and poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Heller began his celebrated literary career as a journalist for expedition and outdoor magazines, chronicling his experiences as a white-water kayaker. It was this skillful retelling of his adventures and commitment to environmental conservation that won him national acclaim. Heller has since authored three full-length memoirs, including Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet’s Tsang Po Gorge (2004), The Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet’s Largest Mammals (2007), and his most recent memoir, Kook: What Surfing Taught Me about Life, Love, and Catching the Perfect Wave, which won the National Outdoor Book Award for Literature in 2010. Heller is also the author of three bestselling novels: The Dog Stars (2012), and The Painter (2014), have both received nods as Hudson Books “Top Fiction Picks” of the year. The Painter won the prestigious Reading the West award. His most recent novel, Celine, was just released in March of 2017. In addition to his literary pursuits, Heller has been featured on NPR for over two decades, and is a contributing editor at Outside Magazine, Men’s Journal, and National Geographic Adventure. His much-anticipated fourth novel, The River, is due to be released in January of 2019.

Anna Faller is a freelance writer based in Traverse City. She can be contacted via email at [email protected].