Peter Heller finds success once again in The River, a riveting story of wilderness survival. Things are bleak enough when Wynn and Jack’s idyllic camping trip is interrupted by a forest fire. But when they find an abandoned, badly injured woman, does this mean they are also being tracked by a would-be killer? Heller shares insight into his new novel and a look at his reading list.
The River has so many strong visual elements. Did you start with an image in mind?
I usually begin with music—the cadence and notes of a first line. I just love how the music of the language can carry one straight to a strong visual image and strong emotion, and how, if one lets it run, it can also bring characters alive and lead straight into a story. It’s the magic of writing fiction. So The River began with the first line about smelling smoke and a string of lakes and led to a vivid image of the distant glow of a giant forest fire breathing at nightfall. It still raises the hair on the back of my neck.
When you began to write The River, how much did you know about what was going to happen to Wynn and Jack?
I had no clue about anything. There were these two best friends in a canoe, and a forest fire upwind, and then a couple of shady men camping on an island. I love to be as surprised as my readers. I write in a coffee shop, and as stuff happened I’d find myself shaking my head as if to clear it, and just stopping to breathe. I kept murmuring, “Whoa!” “Gaw!” It was thrilling.
You’ve been very up front that Celine was inspired by your mother. Are Wynn and Jack based on anyone you know?
Yes. I didn’t mean to, but it usually happens that way. As I wrote, and as Jack and Wynn became clear, I realized that Jack was a lot like me. Not that I was raised on a ranch, or ever decked a guy in a bar, but that he was like me in his responses and feelings, and the way he thought about things. And Wynn was a lot like one of my oldest and dearest friends, an ephemeral artist in Vermont who is also a gentle giant and a supremely competent outdoorsman. Jay and I have shared a lot of trips together, and I realized that the boys were acting a lot like us, and that their friendship was just as sweet and based on a lot of the same loves. The scene where the boys meet each other came straight from my first week knowing Jay.
In your own adventures as an outdoorsman, have you ever had any experiences as harrowing as what you write about here? Or maybe not as harrowing, but close? If so, what did that teach you?
Yes. I used to do a lot of expedition paddling in far-flung places. I have been on a kayak expedition, on a first-descent steep creek in the Pamirs, and run out of food and had to paddle very difficult water on a sourball a day for several days. And in the morning found wolf tracks on the sand of the beach. I’ve had another river runner die in my arms. And I’ve wondered at times if I would survive the day. These experiences always drove home that the only way through is to look out for each other. I think it’s a lesson that applies to the rest of life.
I love that Wynn is an artist. You’ve written about the art world before—is there a place where the natural world and the artifice of the gallery naturally meet?
They meet in every good painter’s heart. In the spirit of every good sculptor. I love great art because it makes the natural world intimate in ways that surprise us, and that move us deeply with a knowledge and immediacy and love of the world that is fresh and novel. We can experience nature, in the broadest sense, through another’s eyes and heart. How curious and wonderful.
What nature writers do you admire?
I grew up loving Joseph Conrad and Hemingway. Emily Dickinson slayed me. I admire the music of Derek Walcott and how he writes about the sea. My favorites, though, are the ancient Chinese poets of the Tang Dynasty. In just two lines, the great ones—Li Po, Wang Wei, Tu Fu, Li Shang Yin, Xue Tao—can put you knee deep in a mountain torrent or an autumn lake.
There have been some mystery and thriller elements in your last two books. What crime writers do you like?
I don’t read a lot of crime. My mother, the private eye, had stacks of Dick Francis and Sue Grafton on her bed table. The one crime writer I devour, and whose books I can’t wait for, is James Lee Burke. He’s a wonderful writer, and he has a crazy good series about a Cajun detective in southwest Louisiana named Dave Robicheaux.
Were you a big reader as a kid? What kinds of books did you like?
I read nonstop. I carried a book always, and when I got out of school and was an itinerant kayak instructor I always carried a milk crate full of books, mostly poetry. I loved Faulkner and Wallace Stevens, John McPhee and Eudora Welty; Yeats, Basho, Flannery O’Connor and Gary Snyder. I was very eclectic.
Why did you transition from writing nonfiction to novels?
I wanted to write fiction since I was a kid. After college I had to make a living, so I began writing for magazines, and that led to a slew of nonfiction books. And then it was time. . . . Writing fiction was like coming home.
Do you have any writing rituals?
Yes! Two mugs of coffee and then a double-shot latte. A thousand words a day, every day, and I always stop in the middle of a scene or a compelling train of thought. I read that Graham Greene did that—he wrote 500 words a day, every day of his life, and he’d stop in the middle of a sentence in the middle of a love scene. Most writers I know write through a scene. But if you think about it, that’s stopping at a transition, a double-return, white space. That’s what you face the next morning; it’s almost like starting the book fresh. If you stop in the middle, you can’t wait to continue the next day.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The River.
Author photo by John Burcham