In 1989, Peter Heller was a few years out of college, trying to make a living. He delivered pizzas, worked construction, taught kayaking. In his free time, he wrote short stories and poems.
One day a friend asked why he didn’t combine his love of the outdoors with his writing, and work for Outside magazine. So he got a copy and called an editor. He said, “Hey, I’m a writer in Boulder, and a kayaker, and I just had a short story in Harper’s, and I think you should send me to the Tibetan Plateau to run this river that’s never been run,” Heller recalled in an interview from his home in Denver. “And there was this incredulous pause, and she said, ‘You know, I’m going to take a chance on you.’ ”
So, for more than 20 years he wrote about adventures in the outdoors. By 2011 he’d saved enough to take off several months for his first love: fiction. He went down to a coffee shop and started writing. “It was like this guy, Hig, was sitting across the campfire from me telling me what had happened to him a few years before,” said Heller, of the protagonist in his bestselling novel in 2012. “And I would be laughing out loud, or crying with tears puddling on the table. I know people were looking at me thinking, that poor bastard is going through a bad divorce. But what was really happening was that I was the most thrilled I’d even been in my life.”
The book, “The Dog Stars,” was a critical and commercial success. Heller never looked back. In a recent conversation, Heller talked about the inspirations for his fourth novel, “The River,” about a canoeing expedition gone horribly awry. He will read from the book Monday at Next Chapter Booksellers in St. Paul.
Q: You seem to know your way around a paddle. Have you spent much time in canoe country?
A: Yeah, I’ve been paddling a canoe since I was 9 in the Adirondacks. We’d go up there every summer and do multiday canoe trips. When I got to college, I started kayaking and became a full-on white-water and river devotee. The Maskwa River is based on the Winisk River, which is as described in the book. It flows north out of a string of lakes, and a couple hundred miles into Hudson Bay. I did that a few years ago, on the third date with a gal I was dating.
A: Yeah, I got an assignment from a magazine to paddle this river. And I was dating this gal. We were on our third date, and she came over to my house to drop her gym bag off before we went to dinner. I picked it up and it was sort of heavy. And I said what’s in here, and she said, “Weaponry.” She opened it up, and there were short swords and throwing stars and sharpened chopsticks. So on the date, I thought, she seems really tough and capable. Maybe she could protect me from bears. So I invited her on the trip.
Q: And it went well?
A: We’re married now.
Q: Was that trip the germ of “The River”? Or was it later that it came to you?
A: The trip gave me the setting. It’s a place that I went to. But I always start writing with a first line. I started with: “They had been smelling smoke for two days.”
The story I quickly bumped into was something that happened when I was 17 at a boarding school in Vermont. I was in love with a girl across the river in New Hampshire. She lived in a little cedar shingle farmhouse with her mom and three older sisters. And we’d go visit on weekends, and have these big spaghetti dinners with cheap beer.
At one of these parties, I noticed this guy leaning against the wall. He seemed charismatic and handsome and sad, and everyone was treating him sort of gingerly. Someone said, “Pete, he makes his living in a canoe. You should go talk to him. He’s a geochemist. He takes these long expeditions studying watersheds up in Canada with his wife.” So I went over and I said “Hey, what’s up. You look kind of rough.” And he said, “I lost my wife two months ago.” I said, “What happened?” And he said, “We were on this expedition up in Labrador. It was really remote. We were in a canoe. And we were a couple weeks out. We were camped, and she left the breakfast fire and went over the berm to relieve herself and I never saw her again.” I said, “Was there a bear sign?” He said “No.” I said, “Did you search for her?” He goes, “Yeah, of course, I looked for a few days.”
I walked away from that conversation and, even at 17, I thought: “That son of a bitch killed his wife.” And I must have been thinking about that for 40 years. Because that’s the story I bumped into when I started “The River.”
Q: There seems to be a certain amount of darkness in your novels. Is that something that emerges from the story, or the characters, or the settings?
A: It’s probably from me. It’s interesting. I’m not a depressed person. I’m fairly exuberant and gregarious. I tend to have a lot of joy. At the same time, I’m particularly attuned to loss. So there’s that mix. And I’m always surprised at how dark things can get. I think every author that I love is like a mountain spring. And each one has different water. I think we go back to the authors we love because we love the taste of their spring. Mine has a lot of loss, and can be dark at times, but also has a lot of beauty, too.
Q: I noticed in “The River,” the loon call makes many appearances. What is it about that sound that resonates for you?
A: It is so piercingly forlorn, and it travels such great distances. I think, in that way, it’s like my fiction. It’s like the loon and I, we, can relate.
Frank Bures edited a new anthology of Minneapolis writing, “Under Purple Skies.” He lives in Minneapolis.