Before delving into fiction writing, Peter Heller was a regular contributor to NPR, Outside, Men’s Journal and National Geographic. He then began translating his real-life adventures fishing, flying and finding peace with nature into his novels The Dog Stars, The Painter, Celine, The River and The Guide. “I love how fiction can overlay and overlap with the real world and it keeps a lot of my readers on their toes,” Heller says. Basing his books on real places and people, his novels border so closely with reality, readers forget it’s all fiction.
What brought you to Colorado?
“I was 21 when I had just learned how to kayak at Dartmouth. New England rivers the first week of April are pretty miserable—no leaves on the trees and ice in the water. A few friends were headed to Colorado in June and I went along. We drove straight to Buena Vista, The Numbers section of the Arkansas River. The water was in flood and I was a beginner so those guys spent the next week trying to drown me. I swam a lot that trip. But I just fell in love with the valley around Salida. It was 90° outside, sunny, elk in the fields, snow-capped mountains surrounding me. I was beside myself and moved shortly after college.”
Fly fishing is very central in your books. Are you a fly fisherman?
“I was so intimidated by fly fishing. I had read A River Runs Through It and even had lunch with Norman Maclean. Fly fishing in that book is such an art, even spiritual. I thought you had to start when you were a little kid. It wasn’t until I moved to Paonia that I started fishing. I bought a rod and this guy Bobby Reedy told me, ‘Trout have a brain the size of a pea. Just throw it out there and see what happens.’ He taught me the basic cast and told me where to go. That evening I caught my first fish on a dry fly and that was it—I was hooked. This was in August. I must have driven up there every night until November. I didn’t even have waders; I was just so enamored and loved everything about it. Now I live in Denver but still go back to fish on the rivers in the West Elk Wilderness.”
How do you pick the topic of your next book?
“I don’t plot or outline. I came up as a poet so I am much more interested in the music of the language. I just start with the first line and often end up transporting to places I love. When I can go anywhere, it’s usually a creek in the mountains of Colorado. My books and the places I write about are real to me and my characters speak to me. In the first novel I wrote, Hig, my main character, started talking to me and I just thought, ‘Don’t think, just listen. Let Hig speak.’ I remember thinking that of all the crazy expeditions I went on, this, in a coffee shop right now, is the craziest. I loved writing The Dog Stars because it was my first novel, Celine because it’s about my mom, The River is a love song to my best friend in college and The Painter is based on my friend Jim Wagner whose entire back story is true—he called me up after reading the book saying, ‘I know this was only in your novel but I keep thinking I have killed someone!’”
Are any of your characters based on your wife?
“Hank in Celine is very close to me, so his wife in the book is my wife, Kim. But her biggest impact on my books is actually as a reader. She brings the female perspective. When I have a chunk ready, I read it to my wife. She will be sitting on the end of the couch and start to nod off. She will start to murmur, ‘too much fishing’ and I know to cut it in half. She’s always right. She is such a great editor for character and continuity, my professional editors always wait for her notes before moving on. It’s great to have her in my corner.”
What is your writing process?
“I don’t believe in writer’s block. If you don’t believe in it, you can’t have it. It’s just perfectionism because writers are too afraid to write something that’s not awesome. I have no fear. I believe in momentum and speed and that the process will take care of itself. I write my books in three to seven months, 1,000 words every day. I never let myself go too much past it but I like to stop right in the middle of an exciting scene. That way I can’t wait to hop out of bed the next morning and get started again. I hold back and garner that energy. Writing a novel is a marathon and you need to store up energy. In non-fiction, I always knew what would happen next. Fiction I wanted it to be like a river, never knowing what’s around the next bend.”
Tell us about your outdoor adventure background and how that translates into your novels.
“After college when I was living in Boulder I taught for the National Outdoor Leadership School, mountain biked, became somewhat of an extreme kayaker and guided trips in Costa Rica. My non-fiction writing brought me on some great adventures. I learned to fly an airplane in 20 days in Montana for a Men’s Journal article. It was like drinking out of a fire hose. It was great training in picking up sense details that make a story come alive. I learned right away you have to transport the reader away from where they are and take them to a place where they can be fully immersed in another world. Then, you need to have characters that jump off the page and keep the pages turning.”
What is on the horizon for you?
“I just finished a book loosely titled The Ranger. It is about an enforcement ranger in Yellowstone who likes wolves better than people. He meets a world-renowned wolf biologist and there is a bit of a love story. I have started working on my next book but am not totally sure what it will turn into yet. For me, because of the way I write—going to the coffee shop, closing my eyes and listening—it’s all about who steps up and begins to speak. If Hig starts to talk again, I would write a sequel to The Dog Stars. I kind of miss him. Even though my new books won’t be published for a year or two there are a lot of books I want to write. I don’t wait around between books.”
You can buy his books at Tattered Covers, Barnes & Nobles, Amazon and Audible.