MISSOULA – National bestselling author Peter Heller has chased a whaling fleet, documented ecoterrorism, kayaked some of the world’s most dangerous whitewater and reaped a long list of awards for his writing. Lauded as a premier voice of western literature, Heller will visit the University of Montana as part of UM’s Visiting Writers Series, hosted by the Department of Creative Writing in UM’s College of Humanities & Sciences.
Heller will read from his latest novel, “The Guide,” published by Random House, from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 7, at Fact and Fiction Books at 220 N. Higgins Ave. in downtown Missoula.
A finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and winner of the prestigious Reading the West Book Award, Heller is the national best-selling author of “The River,” “The Painter,” “Celine” and “The Dog Stars,” which has been published in 22 languages. He is also the author of four nonfiction books, including “Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life and Catching the Perfect Wave,” which was awarded the National Outdoor Book Award for Literature.
Heller holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Iowa Writers' Workshop in poetry and fiction and lives in Denver.
Ahead of his visit, Heller answered questions from UM News on writing, the West and the power of stories.
We’re living in a time where the West is facing multiple, layered challenges from drought, population migration, tourism, affordability and wildfire (to name a few). How might these hard times influence western literature?
Heller: Hard times. We’re facing existential threats, and they can’t help but influence all the arts. American literature is serving up some powerful responses, from the controversial migrant story “American Dirt” to Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Water Knife” about extreme drought.
Your career impressively weaves together poetry, adventure and magazine writing and novels, and you have a long list of awards for works in each genre. Which do you like best?
Heller: I came up as poet. My father was reading e.e. cummings poems to me when I was 6. Thank God I didn’t understand them! Many were pretty bawdy, but I loved the music of the language and I wanted to do that. At 11 I read the slim book of stories “In Our Time” by Hemingway, and the prose went through my skin straight to my heart, and after that I was set on writing fiction, too. When I got out of college, I had to make a living so I started writing for magazines ꟷ mostly expedition accounts ꟷ and I tried to use the stories as a training ground for fiction. I learned to create a vivid sense of place and evoke characters that felt alive and true. But when I returned to writing fiction it was like coming home. Once you start making it all up, it’s hard to go back.
Your book, “The Dog Stars,” places a post-apocalyptic fictional story set in Colorado at an airport hangar. Here we are, in the midst of global pandemic with plenty of societal and foreign strife and isolationism. How can stories reflect our shared worry and offer a thread of hope?
Heller: The job of the novelist is maybe to grapple with the hardest things, the stuff we have the toughest time getting our arms around. “Job” is the wrong word, because a good novelist, an artist, will go wherever her heart leads her, and that’s usually where the most energy is, where the stories live that are most troubling or exciting. I think a lot about mass extinction – the one we are causing – and so, of course, it informs my novels. And human beings have this way of redeeming themselves, so if there’s hope in the stories, it’s because we seem to be resilient and able, in the worst circumstances, to find a measure of grace.
What’s a healthy writing habit you might share?
Heller: I write a thousand words a day, every day and always go just past the quota until I’m in the middle of a scene or a thought that’s exciting. And then I make myself stop. I don’t run on, I don’t let myself. So, I’m always stopping in the middle, and then I can’t wait to jump out of bed in the morning and keep going. It’s a good way to generate a lot of momentum.
You’re an avid outdoorsman and expert kayaker – including tackling some of the world’s most dangerous whitewater runs. How does exploring your own boundaries in nature translate to storytelling?
Heller: I spent half my life running rivers. And when you’re paddling a river that you don’t know or that’s never been described, you come around a tight bend and have no idea what will be there. It could be a waterfall or a cougar drinking or a flight of swallows. I loved that. I wanted that same thrill in my writing. So, I never outline or plot. Not in the beginning. I start with a first line whose music I love and let it rip. I put on a narrative current and follow it into new and strange territory, and in this way I can be as shocked and thrilled and surprised as the reader. It’s really fun.
UM is a special place to study creative writing in the heart of the northern Rockies against the backdrop of western Montana, with access to some of the county’s best backcountry and writing faculty. What advice might you share with our next-generation writers?
Heller: Learn the plants and the birds. Notice the smells and changes in temperature as you splash cross a creek. Ground your writing in the senses and in the particular.
Favorite book? What are you currently reading?
Heller: Ha! That’s like asking which one is your favorite kid. They change all the time. I just finished the Brazilian genius Machado de Assis’s “Dom Casmurro.” It was written in 1899 and feels terrifically modern. Satire, wry humor, compassion. I will read anything Murakami writes, and I recently read “Deacon King Kong” by James McBride and adored it.
Many of your characters are expert fishermen and your latest book, “The River,” centers around fishing and a canoe trip. You’re here visiting Missoula and our legendary waters. Any plans to get out?
Heller: There is no way on earth I would come up to Missoula and not bring a rod. I’ll be fishing for a few days with the legendary guide Chris Dombrowski, who also happens to be a brilliant poet.
Contact: Christopher Dombrowski, UM visiting professor, Department of Creative Writing, Christopher.firstname.lastname@example.org