By Daniel Ford
I can’t tell you how many times I picked up Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars while frequenting bookstores in New York City. I may have read the entire book in aisles and walking around stores figuring out if I had enough money in my account to buy it (I didn’t).
I wasn’t the only one who fell hard for Heller’s post-apocalyptic story that centered around a man, his dog, and an airplane. It was a New York Times best-seller, the 2012 iTunes novel of the year, and an Atlantic Monthly best book of 2012.
Not bad for a first novel.
Heller took a timeout from promoting his new book The Painter to talk to me about loving the music of language, his early influences, and who he bases his characters on.
Daniel Ford: When did you start writing? Was it something that came to you naturally or was it developed over time?
Peter Heller: My father read to me every night before bed. Started when I was very small. I remember him reading e.e. cummings poems to me when I was six, “Buffalo Bill’s defunct…!” He was a writer and loved words and from that time it was all I wanted to do. When I was eleven, my school librarian handed me In Our Time, that beautiful collection of Ernest Hemingway stories, mostly about Nick Adams in Upper Michigan. My jaw dropped. I wanted to do that.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you outline? Listen to music?
PH: I write in a coffee shop. Music or no, it doesn’t matter. Something about the hubbub hones my focus. I write fiction starting with the first line. I just love the music of the language, and I let that music carry me into the story. I don’t plot much. I want to be as surprised as the reader, and I know that if I am thrilled, shocked, surprised, she will be, too.
DF: The Dog Stars put you on the map as a writer and was on a ton of best of lists in 2012. How did you go about publishing it and how did it feel to experience that kind of positive reaction for your first novel?
PH: I wrote the book in a white heat in seven months. My agent was bowled over and sold it in a week to Jenny Jackson at Knopf, who is the most wonderful editor. I was blown away by the response. First from the people at Knopf, then from Random House reps who travel the country to booksellers, then from the booksellers and readers. It hit a chord that people responded to in a very powerful way. I was amazed and kind of awed, deeply humbled, and grateful.
DF: The literary landscape is saturated, and in a sense always has been, with apocalyptic stories. During your writing process, what decisions did you make to ensure that The Dog Stars stood out?
PH: I didn’t! I just listened to Hig’s voice and wrote it as fast as I could. About three pages in, I realized, “Holy crap, I’m writing a post-apocalyptic novel. I don’t want to write a post-apocalyptic novel!” For one, I didn’t, as a first time novelist, want to be compared to Cormac McCarthy and The Road. But I could see that my character Hig had a certain joy of life and a sense of humor an that this was a different project, so I persisted.
DF: Your most recent novel, The Painter, is a genre switch, but also focuses on a character trying to survive and overcome the events surrounding him. What was the inspiration for the novel and was the writing process different the second time around?
PH: The process was similar to The Dog Stars. I began with a first line and let it rip. Soon it became apparent that the character narrating the story sounded a lot like my painter friend Jim Wagner. A lot. He has a similar backstory: he is a famous artist from Taos, he shot a guy in a bar, etc. And my character looked and sounded like the real Jim. So I had to call him up and ask permission. He is a huge hearted generous soul like the fictional Jim Stegner, so he laughed and said, “Keep going!” I had to thin a bit more in structuring this book; thought about what might happen next. But only in the broadest terms. The rest, as in The Dog Stars, was about letting the character tell his story, following the music of the language.
DF: Given the nature of The Dog Stars and The Painter, the readers spend a lot of time with your main characters. How much of yourself, or those you interact with on a daily basis, do you put into each character? How do you go about developing your character once you have him or her in your mind?
PH: Hig spoke and I listened and wrote. I suppose he is a lot like me. Except that he can cook! Jim Stegner, as I said, is wholly based on my artist friend Jim Wagner. It’s interesting to experiment with characters who are very similar to real people, characters who are composites, and characters who are wholly invented.
DF: Now that you have two well-received novels under your belt, what’s next?
PH: I’m beginning the third. Once you begin making it all up, there’s no going back.
DF: What advice do you give to up-and-coming writers?
PH: Write a certain amount of words every day, and once you hit that mark, continue a bit until you can stop in the middle of an exciting scene or thought. That way, you can’t wait to get up in the morning and begin again.
DF: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?
PH: I learned to catch trout by hand a few summers ago. A kid in Paonia, Colorado who is a master tracker taught me how. I’d always thought it was a myth.