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.