"How I Went from Journalist to Fiction Writer" by Peter Heller

Chris Schluep on March 20, 2017


Peter Heller was in town a couple weeks ago, and fellow Amazon editor Jon Foro and I met him for lunch. He's a favorite author of many here--having written The Dog Stars, The Painter, and most recently Celine--and as we were talking I started wishing that everyone could have at least one lunch with Peter Heller. He's such a nice, fascinating, talented, and inspirational guy. But that would surely cut into his writing time, so I asked if he would write something for us about how he got to where he is.




By Peter Heller

I wanted to be a fiction writer ever since my school librarian handed me a copy of Hemingway’s In Our Time when I was eleven.  It’s that thin volume of early stories, mostly about Nick Adams in the wild country of Upper Michigan.  I took it home and was riveted.  I wanted to do that: I wanted to hop off a slow-moving freight and carry my rucksack through woods and tall grass that wet my pantlegs with dew.  I wanted to camp by the Big Two-Hearted River and make cowboy coffee and not burn my tongue the way Nick didn’t and fish for those gorgeous trout.  I wanted to have a beautiful girlfriend that could row and fish like a man--and then break up with her, because Nick did.  But mostly I was transported by the cadence of the prose and the music of the language.  I wanted to do that.  To write stories just like that.

I read everything I could and tried to everything one needed to do to become a great writer.  I read the dictionary and taped words I didn’t know on the wall because I’d heard that Jack London did it.  I copied out poems and paragraphs written by writers I admired.  I went to a good college and studied literature.  But they didn’t tell me at the English Department at Dartmouth that you can’t make a living writing short stories.  They probably should have.  I got out of school, moved to Boulder, and worked construction, delivered pizza, taught kayaking.  I was a passionate kayaker then, and paddling some crazy rivers.  On my days off I wrote poetry and stories.

One day a friend said, Why don’t you combine your interests and write for Outside Magazine?  When you’re young and dumb, you often don’t know what you can’t do.  I went down to the magazine store and got an Outside and flipped to the masthead and chose the name of a senior editor that sounded nice.  I got the main number for the magazine and called and tried to sound confident and offhand and said, “Laura Hohnhold, please.”  “Just a second.”  I was startled.  She picked up.  I started talking fast.  I told her that I’d published a short story in Harper’s, which was sort of true—it was a very short reprint of a college piece, published in the Readings section—I said that I could paddle Class V, and that she should send me on an expedition to the Tibetan Plateau to run a first descent of a remote river.  Long pause.  Then she said, “We’ve heard about this expedition and we don’t have a writer that can kayak Class V.  I’m going to take a chance on you.”

That first story did not go the way I planned, and come to think of it, none of them ever have.  A man died in my arms on the first day of the expedition.  A raft flipped and he washed into a logjam, and I and another kayaker tried to extract him and he was stuck, and the river rose over his head.  I came home grieving and traumatized and wrote about it in a long piece called “Set Free in China.”

It was an odd way to start my career in magazine journalism.  I knew that if I didn’t paddle something hard again right away I might never paddle again.  So I got an assignment from Playboy to cover a Kiwi-Russian expedition to try the first descent of the Muk Su, “The Everest of Rivers” in the old Soviet Union.  It was way up in the High Pamirs of Tajikistan, and the last Russian team to attempt it had lost five of their eleven men.  I’d be one of the two kayakers that would probe out front of the rafts and signal the way through.  It was massive whitewater that flowed through a constricted canyon, and there were snow leopards everywhere and wolf tracks in the sand of the beaches.  We’d get to a hard rapid and the Russians would squat on the high bank and look grim and smoke cigarettes; it looked in the hunch of their broad shoulders like they were carrying the weight of history.  The Kiwis would hop along the bank hooting, saying “She’ll be right.  Now worries, I see a line there…”  A trip for the ages.  Seventeen days of wild whitewater and nobody died.

That began a decades-long joyful diversion away from fiction.  I wrote stories about adventure and the environment, because that’s what I cared about, and some of those stories turned into books of non-fiction. 

A few years ago, I thought I’d saved up enough to spend nine months writing a novel and I thought, It’s time.  I went to my local coffee shop and sat down and began from a first line.  I didn’t plot or outline.  In all my non-fiction I always knew the ending, knew what was going to happen next, because it happened.  Now I wanted to be surprised.  Just like running a river that had never been run: I wanted to paddle around the bend of my narrative and have no idea what would be there: a cougar drinking, a waterfall, a flight of swallows.  I wrote a few lines and then, “My name is Hig, one name.  Big Hig if you need another.  If I ever woke up crying in the middle of a dream, and I’m not saying I did, it’s because the trout are gone, every one.”  I sat up.  I listened.  I listened for seven months straight and that became The Dog Stars.

What I realized is that all those years of writing magazine stories was the best training.  I had learned to create a strong sense of place that would immediately capture and immerse a reader.  To conjure characters that were alive and authentic and jumped off the page.  To lay down a pace and cadence that kept the reader turning the pages.  And after so many wild expeditions and trips, I had also been studying, without really knowing it, what people do under immense pressure.  The grace and courage, and sometimes the unraveling, the betrayals, the meanness and fear.  What could be better for writing novels?

Celine, my new novel, was a bit different, and very special, because it is about my mom.  She died two and half years ago, and I think I wanted to spend another year with her.  Like the protagonist she was a crack investigator who specialized in reuniting birth families.  Like Celine, she could shoot—the scene in Idaho with the gun dealer when she blows seven cans and bottles off the log is true—and she really did bring in a bank fraud perp for the FBI—after spying on him with her opera glasses, and executing a high speed car chase in her old Volvo.  She really was courageous and elegant, and the family backstory in France during the war is all true.  I tried to write her as closely as I could.

The book, I guess, was a coming home for me.  As writing fiction was, after so many years as a journalist.

-- Peter Heller



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