Peter Heller has an MFA in fiction and poetry from the Iowa Writers Workshop, but how has he made his living?
By kayaking in Tibet, crewing on an eco-pirate ship near Japan, surfing in Mexico, flying a bush plane over Glacier National Park — and writing about these adventures for Outside, National Geographic, Men's Journal, and in books.
"Fresh snow dusted the summits, etching the ledges and covering the glaciers that had broken apart in milky lakes," he wrote in "A Wing and a Prayer," published in Men's Journal. That's poetry.
But then: "This is not a place where you ever want your plane to quit working." That's adventure.
In recent years, Heller has published two novels: "The Dog Stars," which takes place after a devastating pandemic, and "The Painter," about an artist trying to escape his past.
He will be at Magers & Quinn on Wednesday and at Club Book at the Stillwater Public Library on Thursday.
In an e-mail interview, he talked about his lucky — and tragic — break into magazines, the rush of adventure writing, and why he always stops when he has more to say.
Q: In your years of adventure journalism, you've had some tragedies, including your first assignment, in Tibet, when someone in your group died. How did that affect your work?
A: I got into adventure journalism because no one at the English Department at Dartmouth told me you can't make a living being a poet. I think they should.
I was in my 20s sharing a house with a kayaking partner and writing poems and short stories in my room in Boulder — and one day a friend said, "Why don't you combine your interests and write for Outside Magazine?"
The great thing about being Young and Dumb is that you don't know what you can't do. I called the magazine and asked for a senior editor that I'd picked out from the masthead because her name sounded nice. I was put through!
I began talking really fast, saying I had just published a short story in Harper's and I could kayak Class V, and they should send me on assignment on an expedition to run a first descent river off the Tibetan Plateau.
Laura Hohnhold said, "We've heard about this trip and we don't have a writer that can kayak Class V and I'm going to take a chance on you."
On the first day a man died in my arms in a logjam. I came back in grief and shock and called Laura and said, "Sorry, I can't write your story." She said, "Why?" and for 45 minutes I unloaded. She said, "You go write that."
It was their submission that year for the National Magazine Awards, and a strange way to start in journalism.
But I loved writing about wild places, and characters under pressure, and it taught me a lot about how to make a place vivid and alive, and how to make characters jump off the page, and how to pace an exciting story.
Q: You learned to fly a plane and told a reporter that it was like "drinking out of a fire hose." What's the attraction?
A: I just love when the learning curve is steep. And I love being in nature, in the wild. My flight instructor was one of the greatest backcountry pilots who ever lived, Dave Hoerner — he has 30,000 hours flying wolves and grizzlies in Montana. When I first looked into his Cessna 185, he said, "I can fit seven wolves back there, stacked like cordwood."
Once he was taxiing from a mountain strip with a huge grizzly bear boar tranquilized in the back, so big his giant head lay right next to Dave's hip — where he lay a .44 magnum.
Dave looked down and saw the bear's mouth twitching and realized he was waking up! How cool is that? To learn to fly from someone with that experience?
Q: What made you switch to fiction?
A: Wanted to write fiction since I was 11, since I first read "In Our Time" by Hemingway.
I had to make a living and so I got joyfully diverted writing for magazines. Writing fiction is like coming home. As thrilling as anything I have ever done.
Q: Is nonfiction writing behind you now? And do you still write poems?
A: Once you start making it all up, there's no going back! Yes, I love poetry, both to read and to write it. A first love. I am working on two books of poems now.
Q: Describe your writing room.
A: My writing room is a coffee shop up the street in my Denver neighborhood. It's a small converted Victorian house popular with students, Realtors conducting meetings, young mothers eager to get away from the house, giant malamutes, and me.
The malamutes are leashed on the porch and look through the window and seem to be begging me to get them the hell out of here to go run the Iditarod.
Q: What is your writing strategy — do you have rituals that you maintain?
A: I write a thousand words a day, every day. I read once that Graham Greene did that, 500 words and kept a subtotal and stopped at word 500 — in the middle of a sentence if need be. That way, he always stopped in the middle of things.
When I read that I realized that I don't do that, nor do my author friends — we always finish by writing through a scene or thought, which is always stopping at a transition, a double return, white space. Might as well start the book over every day.
So I adapted Greene's method: I pass word 1,000 and go on until I am right in the middle of an exciting piece, and then I stop. Then I can't wait to get up the next morning and go to work. It has changed my writing life.
Q: How do you get past writers' block?
A: Once when I was just starting out one of my dearest friends gave me a galvanized trash can for my birthday. She meant: fill it up. Don't be afraid to write bad stuff, stuff you will throw out, the thing is to write write write, make a bunch of clay that you can hew and trim and shape later.
Sometimes moving forward, momentum, speed, is more important than what you write.
Q: Do you have a favorite book from childhood?
A: "Huck Finn." "Archy and Mehitabel."
Q: What's been the best place so far to do a reading?
A: My very favorite was a packed theater in Bend, Ore. "The Dog Stars" was the annual Community Read, and just before I read I was taken to a gallery where I viewed pieces woven by 54 master weavers — all scenes and images inspired by the book. I was blown away.
Then just before I read I was on stage and my hosts unveiled a painting of Jasper, the dog in my book.
Again, it took me a minute to regain my composure. I was so moved and grateful.
Laurie Hertzel • 612-673-7302