‘Dog Star’ characters jump off page
It started, as things often do, with a desire to jump off a freight train in upper Michigan. He wanted to hop off the train and walk through tall wet grass that would swish against his legs.
He wanted to break up with a girl who could row and fish — not because she could do those things, but because she was too good for him.
Peter Heller wanted to do all those things, and it should go without saying that he was an impressionable adolescent reader of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories. The lesson, learned by both Heller and Papa himself, is this: Life is for living and stories are for telling. Sometimes they swirl vividly around a campfire in the Tianshan mountains, sometimes they breathe to life on the page.
And so it was for “The Dog Stars,” Heller’s first novel and the 2013 choice for One Book, One Mesa County.
He was in Grand Junction Saturday to discuss his book and writing and a dog named Jasper, and his lifelong love of stories.
Heller, 54, said he’d wanted to write a novel for most of his life. So, a little more than two years ago, he simply started:
“I keep the Beast running, I keep the 100 low lead on tap. I foresee attacks. I am young enough, I am old enough. I used to love to fish for trout more than almost anything.”
He had no map and no plan for what became the story of a man named Hig, one of the few survivors of a deadly flu that killed most of humanity. Hig lives in Erie and flies his old Cessna (the Beast) with good dog Jasper as co-pilot, fishes even though the trout are gone and doesn’t let hope die.
Heller, who lives in Denver, had a lifetime of experiences for foundation: growing up in New York and Vermont and attending Dartmouth, where he became an avid kayaker. Writing for magazines about his worldwide adventures as a kayaker, fisherman and river guide.
His previous books were non-fiction — “Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet’s Tsangpo River,” about a treacherous kayaking expedition; “The Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet’s Largest Mammals,” about the radical Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and its efforts, under a Jolly Roger flag, to protect whales; and “Kook: What Surfing Taught Me about Love, Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave,” which he wrote about life and Earth and learning to surf along the California and Mexican coast.
The central thread in all his writing has always been the story.
“I don’t think there’s anything better in the world than sitting around a campfire or around a table with a good meal and hearing a well-told story,” he said. “My father is an amazing storyteller and both my uncles were… (from them) I learned about pacing, about vivid detail, about humor, about keeping the audience involved.”
So, to hear Heller tell it, Hig seemingly wrote his own story. Heller admits to being as surprised as anyone when events happened in the novel.
The suspicious, crotchety character Bangley? “He just showed up,” Heller said, “barrel-chested and with a trailer full of ammo.”
Sitting in the Denver coffee shop where he writes, Heller laughed, to the outside observer, at nothing and wept until tears dripped off his chin. He looked nuts, but the story was rolling. It was the same process for “The Painter,” his second novel, which he completed Friday.
You write about things that you love, he said, and writing is what he loves to do — write the stories of a life lived fully.