A San Francisco Chronicle and Atlantic Monthly Best Book of the Year
Hig somehow survived the flu pandemic that killed everyone he knows. Now his wife is gone, his friends are dead, and he lives in the hangar of a small abandoned airport with his dog, Jasper, and a mercurial, gun-toting misanthrope named Bangley.
But when a random transmission beams through the radio of his 1956 Cessna, the voice ignites a hope deep inside him that a better life exists outside their tightly controlled perimeter. Risking everything, he flies past his point of no return and follows its static-broken trail, only to find something that is both better and worse than anything he could ever hope for.
Excerpted from The Dog Stars by Peter Heller. Copyright © 2012 by Peter Heller. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A conversation with Peter Heller
Author of THE DOG STARS
Q: You've set out to master surfing in a year (as described in the book Kook), traveled with eco-pirates taking down Japanese whaling ships (Whale Warriors), and were part of what has been called one of the greatest river expeditions in history through Tibet’s notorious Tsangpo Gorge (Hell or High Water). And that's not counting exploits recorded for Outside, National Geographic Adventure and Men's Journal. THE DOG STARS is your first work of fiction. Were you looking for a new adventure? What drew you to fiction now?
A: Fiction is something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. Great fiction and poetry are what I always most admired. When I got out of college I worked on them both—short stories and poems—while I did every other job under the sun. Cutting wood, lobster fishing, teaching kayaking, guiding river trips. Pizza delivery. When I started writing about expeditions and the outdoors for a living I thought I’d found the dream job. It was. So I was happily diverted into non-fiction, explored some of the wildest places on earth on assignment, and the non-fiction books grew out of these experiences. Two years ago I took a deep breath. I had money saved, I had some time, and I felt that I might come to, at last, what was for me the greatest adventure of all: writing a novel. The Dog Stars grew out of this sense of excitement.
Q: What were some of the challenges (and maybe the joys?) of writing your first novel after years as a successful non-fiction author? Were there any surprises?
A: It was like coming home. My spirit just sang. One thing I knew was that I never wanted to know what was going to happen next, what the ending would be. With all the non-fiction books, of course I always knew. There is this incredible sense of adventure when you kayak a river that has never been done. Or that was maybe run but never well described. You come around a tight bend in a walled canyon and you have no idea what you’ll see around the corner. It might be a waterfall. I wanted that experience again in writing. I wanted to be surprised, shocked, thrilled, awed. Maybe terrified. I called my old friend Carlton Cuse, who was the showrunner and producer of the TV show Lost. We’ve been best friends since we were fifteen. I said, “Carlton, do you know any novelists that just start with a first line and have no idea where it will lead?” He didn’t hesitate. “Oh, yeah, lots. I’ve worked with a bunch. Stephen King, for one; Elmore Leonard.” I was jazzed. It kind of gave me permission. I sat down and wrote a first line and it was Hig talking and he spoke The Dog Stars. Of everything I’ve ever done, that was the most thrilling.
Q: The core of THE DOG STARS is Hig, who is living in an abandoned airport with his beloved dog, Jasper, when we first meet him. How did you first "meet," imagine, conceive of Hig?
A: I was sitting in my local coffee shop, where I like to write—and incidentally where I met my wife, whom I was too shy to talk to and so wooed with a note written on a napkin—and I set down the first line of the book. Then the second and third. The fourth and fifth lines were: “My name is Hig, one name. Big Hig if you need another.” That’s how I met him. I knew immediately that this was a voice worth listening to. The depth of heartbreak and trauma were evident, but so was this formidable toughness combined with a huge love of the world, a generosity of spirit and the sensitivities of an artist. I was transfixed. The story is told from his point of view, first person, so all I had to do was get out of the way.
Q: Hig's story takes many twists and turns, including some near death encounters and, perhaps equally panic-inducing, a potential love affair. Without giving away too much, can you talk about the journey you wanted Hig to take and why a rather dark near-future was the setting you chose?
A: I have a good friend, Kirk, who is one of the world’s leading paleobotanists. He studies seventy million year old plant fossils, so you might say he has the Long View. One of his areas of expertise is the “K-T Boundary”, the geologic layer that represents the line between when there were lots of dinosaurs and when they all went extinct about 65 million years ago. Kirk is an aficionado of extinction. We go to breakfast now and then and one of the topics that always comes up is how we’re now in the middle of the Sixth Great Mass Extinction, this one caused by us. This often leads to imaginings of what the apocalypse will look like when it comes, which it surely must. The eco-sphere as we know it is unraveling so fast. The odd thing is, these are not depressing discussions. To us, they are exciting, riveting. Scary, too. But the prospect that the earth may try to shrug off Homo sapiens after what he has inflicted on millions of other species does not seem unjust. What would you do when everything really hits the fan? How would you reckon the losses? How do you reckon the losses that are occurring now? I think that when I came at last to writing a novel this is the subject that was most on my mind. And in my heart. I am, if I am moved by anything, profoundly moved by nature. Have been since I was the smallest child. And moved by her struggles right now. These themes had to be central to this book.
Q: Another main character and great love of Hig's is the Beast, his 1956 Cessna plane. It just so happens you own a 1956 Cessna and are a pilot yourself. For those of us who don't (and can't) pilot a plane would you tell us what it's like to fly?
A: Flying! Pulse quickens just talking about it. Like Hig, I came to it as something that I’d been meant to do my whole life. To see the world from the air, the way landscapes, topography fit together, how the creeks thread, the rivers unwind. You get this sense flying a small plane not too far from the ground that the world below is perfect. Neat. Everything in its place. And you are detached from it. It’s like flying through a landscape painting. All the earthly problems, sickness, poverty, death, they vanish, they can’t touch you. Then you get hit by turbulence and you are jolted sideways and you stop being all poetic and right the controls and get an adrenalin rush like nothing else. So fun. I got my pilot’s license in twenty days in northern Montana with crazy bush pilots. It was an assignment for Men’s Journal: How to Be a Bush Pilot in Three Weeks kind of thing. When I showed up I didn’t even know what a flap was, a rudder. It was like drinking from a fire hose. And I was not a natural. Dave Hoerner, my instructor, turned to me after one of my landings in the first week and said, “You came in like a sick goose. That was atrocious!” He had been a logger all his life. To haul out and use the word “atrocious” was a very special circumstance. I loved it.
Q: Can you tell us about the title, THE DOG STARS, and why you chose it?
A: It came from Hig’s proclivity to make up constellations when he sleeps out under the stars every night. He used to have a book of the stars, but now he doesn’t. So he makes them up. His are almost
always animals, and his favorite being at this point in his life is his dog Jasper.
Q: The world Hig inhabits is fully formed and packed with details, from scenes of gardening to mentions of poetry to excitement about the best gun for a particular shot. Was there any research or outside expertise you called on during the writing of THE DOG STARS?
A: Most of the details in the book come from the things I love to do. But I did get my Navy SEAL friend to take me out to shoot a couple of sniper rifles, which I had never done. That was eye opening. And I’ve had a garden over a couple of different summers, but I’m a bad gardener, so I called a friend who is an incredible, prolific, obsessive gardener and had her make sure my details in that piece were correct.
Q: The book is full of the outdoors and nature – fishing, hunting, camping, even farming. Did you bring your passions to the book or did the demands of the story introduce you to any new passions?
A: Every passion is in here--all things that have brought me great joy. Well, not farming. I’ve tried it, and like Bangley, don’t like it much. I hunt deer and elk out the back fence of our place in western Colorado. Like Hig, I love to hunt and hate to kill anything. The off-the-grid living piece came from building a small adobe house out there, off the grid, solar powered, and it took a long time because I’d never built anything on my own. I love to fly fish. Really love it. And to be out in the mountains, on rivers. I have been on extreme kayak expeditions all over the world and that sense of being on the edge, of not really knowing if you will live through the day or the next, and being somehow okay with that, informed the story and Hig’s situation. The verdant box canyon in the book is an actual place. I spent a week there with a master survival instructor—no food, no sleeping bags, tents, or matches. He taught me to catch trout by hand and start fires with a sage bow and drill. Five of us slept on piles of pine needles and huddled for warmth. It made a big impression on me.
One thing, though, that the novel introduced me to was the complete joy of being able to make it all up. A story, I mean.
Q: Who are some of your favorites writers?
A: The T.S. Eliot of The Four Quartets and Ash Wednesday, Li Po, Rilke, Derek Walcott, W.S. Merwin, Neruda, Haruki Murakami, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, the Marilynne Robinson of Gilead. The David Foster Wallace of Infinite Jest. Italo Calvino.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Another novel. There is no going back.
“Extraordinary. . . . One of those books that makes you happy for literature.” —Junot Díaz, The Wall Street Journal
“This end-of-the-world novel [is] more like a rapturous beginning. . . . Remarkable.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“For all those who thought Cormac McCarthy’s The Road the last word on the post-apocalyptic world—think again. . . . Make time and space for this savage, tender, brilliant book.” —Glen Duncan, author of The Last Werewolf
“Heart-wrenching and richly written. . . . The Dog Stars is a love story, but not just in the typical sense. It’s an ode to friendship between two men, a story of the strong bond between a human and a dog, and a reminder of what is worth living for.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“A dreamy, postapocalyptic love letter to things of beauty, big and small.” –Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl
"Heartbreaking" —The Seattle Times
“A brilliant success.” —The New Yorker
“Beautifully written and morally challenging” –The Atlantic Monthly
“A book that rests easily on shelves with Dean Koontz, Jack London or Hemingway." —The Missourian
"Dark, poetic, and funny." —Jennifer Reese, NPR
“Terrific. . . . Recalling the bleakness of Cormac McCarthy and the trout-praising beauty of David James Duncan, The Dog Stars makes a compelling case that the wild world will survive the apocalypse just fine; it’s the humans who will have the heavy lifting.” —Outside
“A post-apocalyptic adventure novel with the soul of haiku.” —The Columbus Dispatch
“An elegy for a lost world turns suddenly into a paean to new possibilities. In The Dog Stars, Peter Heller serves up an insightful account of physical, mental, and spiritual survival unfolded in dramatic and often lyrical prose.” —The Boston Globe
“Take the sensibility of Hemingway. Or James Dickey. Place it in a world where a flu mutation has wiped out ninety-nine percent of the population. Add in a heartbroken man with a fishing rod, some guns, a small plane. Don’t forget the dog. Now imagine this man retains more hope than might be wise in such a battered and brutal time. More trust. More hunger for love—more capacity for it, too. That’s what Peter Heller has given us in his beautifully written first novel.” —Scott Smith, author of A Simple Plan and The Ruins
“With its evocative descriptions of hunting, fishing, and flying, [The Dog Stars], perhaps the world’s most poetic survival guide, reads as if Billy Collins had novelized one of George Romero’s zombie flicks.” —Publishers Weekly (starred)
“The Dog Stars can feel less like a 21st-century apocalypse and more like a 19th-century frontier narrative (albeit one in which many, many species have become extinct). There are echoes of Grizzly Adams or Jeremiah Johnson in scenes where Heller lingers on the details of how the water in a flowing stream changes color as the sun moves across the sky.” —The Dallas Morning News
“Full of action and hope…. One you’ll not soon forget.” — The Oklahoman
“A heavenly book, a stellar achievement by a debut novelist that manages to combine sparkling prose with truly memorable, shining, characters.” —The New York Journal of Books
“Gruff, tormented and inspirational, Heller has the astonishing ability to make you laugh, cringe and feel ridiculously vulnerable throughout the novel that will have you rereading certain passages with a hard lump in the pit of your stomach. One of the most powerful reads in years.” —Playboy
“The Dog Stars is a wholly compelling and deeply engaging debut.” —Pam Houston, author of Contents May Have Shifted
“Beautiful, haunting and hopeful. . . . Makes your breath catch and your heart ache.” —Aspen Daily News
“At times funny, at times thrilling, at times simply heartbreaking and always rich with a love of nature, The Dog Stars finds a peculiar poetry in deciding that there’s really no such thing as the end of the world—just a series of decisions about how we live in whatever world we’ve got.” —Salt Lake City Weekly
“What separates Heller’s book from other End of Days stories is that it doesn’t rely on the thematic fail-safes to tell the story—The Dog Stars is quite simply the story of what it’s like to be alonet.” —The Stranger
“Proves a truth we know from our everyday nonfictional lives: Even when it seems like all the humans in the world are only out for themselves, there are always those few who prove you absolutely wrong—in the most surprising of ways.” —Oprah.com
“Heller has created a heartbreakingly moving love story. . . . It’s an ode to what we’ve lost so far, and how we risk losing everything.” —Cincinnati City Beat
“A stunning, hope-riddled end-of-the-world story. . . . Bound to become a classic.” —Flavorwire
“Heller’s writing gives you a heartbreaking jolt, like a sudden wakening from a dream.” —The Seattle Times
“Heller is a masterful storyteller and The Dog Stars is a beautiful tribute to the resilience of nature and the relentless human drive to find meaning and deep connections with life and the living.” —Julianna Baggott, author of Pure
“Terrific . . . With echoes of Moby Dick, The Dog Stars . . . brings Melville’s broad, contemplative exploration of good and evil to his story.” —Shelf Awareness
“Heller’s surprising and irresistible blend of suspense, romance, social insight, and humor creates a cunning form of cognitive dissonance neatly pegged by Hig as an ‘apocalyptic parody of Norman Rockwell’—a novel, that is, of spiky pleasure and signal resonance.” —Booklist (starred)
The prose style of The Dog Stars is clipped, terse, often fragmented. Why would Heller choose this way of writing this particular story? In what ways is it fitting?
2. At the beginning of Chapter III, the narrator wonders why he’s telling this story. What might be his motivations? Who does he imagine his audience will be?
3. Hig says that Bangley “had been waiting for the End all his life. . . . He didn’t do anything that wasn’t aimed at surviving” [p. 71]. He also clearly enjoys killing people. In what ways is Hig different from Bangley? How did “the End” affect him? How does he feel about killing?
4. How and why does Hig’s relationship with Bangley change over the course of the novel?
5. Jasper’s death is a turning point for Hig. How and why does it affect him so powerfully?
6. When Cima’s father asks Hig why he came to their canyon—why he flew beyond the point of no return—Hig can’t find an answer. What might have prompted Hig to take that risk? What was he looking for?
7. When they decide to take a ewe and a ram with them on the plane, Hig says, “Like the Ark. Here we go” [p. 273]. He says it jokingly, but does the novel offer a sense of hope that life on the planet might continue, postapocalypse? What other biblical references occur in the novel?
8. The Dog Stars is a serious book about a devastating subject, but what are some of its more lighthearted moments? Why is it important that the book have this mixture of tenderness and violence, anxiety and peace?
9. What has caused the end of human civilization in the novel? Why have the scattered survivors become so savage? Does the postapocalyptic world Heller presents seem accurate and likely, given the state of the world today?
10. Why is Hig’s relationship with Cima so important in the novel? What makes it particularly touching, given what each of them has suffered?
11. The novel’s ending is ambiguous. Cima, Hig, Bangley, and Pops have formed a kind of family, the spruce and aspen are coming back, eagles and hawks are flourishing, but the trout and elk are gone, water is disappearing, and mysterious jets are flying overhead. What might happen next, or in the next ten years, for these characters and the world they live in?
12. Why does Heller conclude The Dog Stars with Hig’s favorite poem “When Will I Be Home?” by Li Shang-Yin? Why is this a fitting way to end the story? In what ways is the novel about the longing for home?
13. What does the novel imply about human nature, after the constraints of civilization have been removed? What does it suggest about the possible consequences of the way we are living now?
What similarities does The Dog Stars share with other recent dystopian novels like The Hunger Games and The Road? In what important ways does it differ from them?