[Interview] with Peter Heller

Updated: Jul 1

Transcribed from a live recording


Peter Heller is a longtime contributor to NPR, and a former contributing editor at Outside Magazine, Men’s Journal, and National Geographic Adventure. He is an award winning adventure writer and the author of four books of literary nonfiction.  He lives in Denver. Heller was born and raised in New York. He attended high school in Vermont and Dartmouth College in New Hampshire where he became an outdoorsman and whitewater kayaker. He traveled the world as an expedition kayaker, writing about challenging descents in the Pamirs, the Tien Shan mountains, the Caucuses, Central America and Peru. He was the first man, with a Kiwi paddler named Roy Bailey, to kayak the Muk Su River in the High Pamirs of Tadjikistan. The river was known as the Everest of Rivers in the Soviet Union, and the last team that had attempted it lost five of their eleven men. The run was 17 days of massive whitewater through a canyon inhabited by wolves and snow leopards.


At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he received an MFA in fiction and poetry, he won a Michener fellowship for his epic poem “The Psalms of Malvine.”  He has worked as a dishwasher, construction worker, logger, offshore fisherman, kayak instructor, river guide, and world class pizza deliverer. Some of these stories can be found in Set Free in China, Sojourns on the Edge. In the winter of 2002 he joined, on the ground team, the most ambitious whitewater expedition in history as it made its way through the treacherous Tsangpo Gorge in Eastern Tibet. He chronicled what has been called The Last Great Adventure Prize for Outside, and in his book Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet’s Tsangpo River.


Heller’s highly anticipated new novel, The River, was published with Knopf in March, 2019. It’s the story of two college students on a wilderness canoe trip–a gripping tale of a friendship tested by fire, white water, and violence.  The River is a National Bestseller, an Indie Next Pick, and has been included on many “Best Of” lists for 2019.

[David M. Olsen, Kelp Journal] You have an incredibly impressive resume. I am intrigued by the kayaking, too. I understand you are still kayak regularly? Where are you going next?

[Peter Heller] This weekend I’m going to a place where some guys in college first took me when I was nineteen or twenty. The Arkansas River, over by Buena Vista. It was an amazing experience then. I remember the water was super high, and we camped in a beautiful valley with the Collegiates off to the west—I had first kayaked in New Hampshire in early April, when the rivers were running, and there was ice on the banks, and it was freezing—so when I came out in the summer with these guys, I couldn’t believe it was 90 degrees out with snowcapped peaks, and there were deer and elk. Your gear dried in five minutes instead of having to stuff frozen socks into the defrost while you drove to the river. So, I just fell in love with kayaking, and this weekend I’m going with the same guys that taught me, and we’ll hang out for three or four days and paddle the same run, so it’ll be really fun.

[DMO] I’ve always wanted to kayak, but we don’t have the greatest rivers in California that I know of--maybe up north. But, I started surfing a few years ago. That’s when I first read Kook.

[PH] You poor guy. There goes the rest of your life.

[DMO] It sinks its teeth, and pretty deep. Tell you what. [PH] When I caught my first wave in Huntington Beach, I tripped out and went into S&S Surf Shop for something, and I couldn’t help telling the manager all about it, and I was like forty-five, and he put his arm around me and said, “If you were younger, I’d say, ‘There goes college.’” So, where do you surf? [DMO] I live in Pacific Grove, and I was able to surf through the pandemic here in Pebble Beach since they had the gate closed off to tourists, so it turned into a real locals-only spot for the past few months, and there's a pretty good break in there. But, you know, I've yet to do much traveling specific to surfing, so I'm really looking forward to that. But after reading The River and listening to your stories, I think I'm gonna have to kayak some rivers at some point; it sounds pretty amazing. [PH] Well, surfing is pretty awesome. I mean, I almost stopped kayaking except for social runs once in a while for like ten years because I just love surfing so much. In all my free time, I would travel to surf. I love going down to Mexico whenever I can. It’s tough living in Denver from that respect, you know. You’re really lucky to live there, but it seems you definitely appreciate it.

[DMO] I definitely appreciate it, for sure. I surf almost every day even when it’s wind chop, just to be out on the water. So, then you still surf at all? That's one of the questions I actually had. [PH] Yeah, oh yeah. I still go down to Mexico, to Zihuantanejo a few times a year for like a month at a time. It's pretty amazing. [DMO] That sounds perfect. I’ve always wanted to travel there. It’s on the radar. So, The River, and this actually ties into one of my other questions—I was reading your bio, and you've done some pretty crazy stuff in your day. You kayaked the most dangerous river in Europe, is that right? After the previous expedition had lost some members. It sounds incredible, and dangerous. [PH] Yeah, the Muksu River in Tajikistan. [DMO] And then you rode on some anti-whaling vessels, through some pretty intense storms. And you shot some footage for The Cove, which was a really great film. During these experiences, did you ever hit that point where you're thinking like I'm not going to make it out of this? Did you ever have that sort of sensation? [PH] Yeah. Oh, yeah. All the time. The Muksu was a really intense river. Like seventeen days of big, big water. A lot of blind passages. I mean, it was Russians and Kiwis, these two teams. I was the only American, and this kid, Roy Bailey—he is a New Zealander—and I were the two kayakers, and the Kiwis were in rafts, and the Russians had a boat that looked like a floating oil rig. A giant deck with five-foot-high pontoons with huge sweep oars, and the pontoons were oriented across the current with a sweep oar facing down current, and a sweep oar facing upstream, and you had two men standing at each oar. They had tremendous leverage, but it was the perfect rig for this huge water because they could really precisely get their line with those big, long oars. They could line up exactly where they wanted to be. But they didn't have any forward power, which they didn't need in this big, heavy current, and they could go through holes that would normally swallow a school bus, you know, go right through them.

Roy and I were the kayakers, and we kind of paddled out for the group and scouted as we went. We would get to some heavy, really heavy water like a gorge or whatever, and we'd wave everybody over to eddy out. And the Russians would scout and squat and get all grim and start chain-smoking. And they acted like it was the weight of history, like Tolstoy, and the Kiwis were hopping around, saying, “It’s all right, we see a line.” It was just a really interesting contrast of cultures. So, it was quite a trip, and to answer your question, a lot of times in the morning when we would stretch our spray skirts over the cockpit, I would just think of myself not feeling dread or anything but an idle sort of wonder, like is this the last time ever, ever that I was going to do this? You know? And definitely on the Sea Shepherd, we were going through thirty- to forty-foot seas; it would pour over the bridge. And we were like twenty feet up in this superstructure, and it would just be green water over that bridge. So, you were basically a submarine in these swells. Every swell. I had a dry suit, you know, but it was intense. [DMO] Wow, that sounds intense. Seriously, thanks for sharing all of that. It’s really fascinating for me, and I think for my readers, to see what some authors go through for their stories. But switch tack a little bit here. You've been nominated and won lots of awards for your fiction and nonfiction. And it seems like you could have made a crossover to fiction. Are you still doing some nonfiction projects, or what caused you to make that switch? [PH] My dad used to read to me every night before I went to sleep. A lot of poetry to me coming up, and what he read, like E.E. Cummings when I was like six, was almost grounds for social services. Some of the poems were pretty bawdy, and I didn't understand them, but I loved the music and the language of them. I still remember:


Buffalo Bill’s

defunct

who used to

ride a watersmooth-silver

stallion


I just loved it, and I wanted to be a poet. One day when I was walking around the library at my little school in Brooklyn, New York. The librarian—Annie Bosworth was her name—I had a crush on her. She was English, and I would have married her right then for the way she said my name: “Pet-ah. Are you looking for something to read?” I said, “Uh-huh, anything you recommend.” And she was a good librarian who had followed my reading since I was probably five. She knew what I was ready for, and she pulled Hemingway's In Our Time off the shelf, and it's a slim little volume of short stories based mainly in Michigan. I took a crack at it, and my heart leapt out of my chest—I was like, I want to do that, I want to hop off a slow-moving freight in upper Michigan and walk through the woods with a rucksack and make a campfire at the big Two-Hearted River and drink cowboy coffee and not burn my tongue the way Nick didn’t burn his tongue. And then fish for those gorgeous trout. Then I wanted to have a girlfriend like in The End of Something, that story, the breakup story. I wanted to have a girlfriend that could row and fish like a man. And it was beautiful, and then break up with her because Nick did, you know.

Mostly I wanted to write like this guy because it was that first experience, or one of the first, where the prose went right through my skin and straight to my heart. And I just wanted to do that; from then on, I was writing. I was writing short stories and writing fiction and all that coming up. And when I got out of college, I had to make a living, and one of my friends said, “You know, you're writing all these poems and stories, and you're teaching kayaking and all this crazy stuff—why don't you just combine your interests and write for Outside magazine?” And a little light bulb went off, so I went down to the magazine store and I bought an Outside. Then I looked on the masthead for senior editors whose names sounded nice, like Laura Honnold. I called the 800 number for the magazine—I was probably twenty-eight, and the woman said, “Outside magazine.” I said, “Laura Honnold, please,” and she said, “Just a minute.” And I thought, Holy crap. And I heard, “Laura here.” And I just started talking really fast—I said, “I'm a writer in Colorado, and I just had a short story in Harper's,” which was sort of true. It was a little reprint of a college-journal story that they had in the reading section, really short, but it was in there, and I said, “I think you should send me to the Tibetan plateau to kayak this river that's never been run.” And there was a sort of long incredulous silence before she said, “You know I'm gonna take a chance on you.” She said, “We heard about this expedition. We'd like to cover it, but we don't have a kayaker writer that can kayak a Class five, and I'm going to send you, and I'll pay half your expenses. If you write a good story, I'll pay the other half and buy it.” And so, I went, and that was my first assignment, and on the first day, a guy died in my arms in a logjam. It was really sad, and when I came home, I was traumatized. I mean, we were able to drag one guy off this logjam, but we couldn't see this other guy who was really wedged in there. We put a Z-Drag on him that would normally drag a pancake craft off of rock—it has a huge amount of leverage. But we couldn't budge him, and we just kind of held him and tried to hold his head up as the river rose over his head. And he was on his honeymoon. We had to paddle across the river and tell his wife that her new husband had died. It was rugged.


And when I got back, I called Laura and told her I couldn’t write the story. She asked what happened, so I vented for like forty-five minutes. She said to write that, my vented story, and it ended up being a seven-thousand-word piece and their submission for the national magazine award that year. It was an odd and tough way to start a career in journalism. But, I had to make a living, so after that, the next magazine assignment that I took was that Russia trip, which ended up being an amazing trip and nobody died. It sort of launched this career in adventure journalism, and so I was for years joyfully diverted from the original desire to write fiction, and so when I sat down to write Dog Stars, it wasn't so much a transition, it was just like coming home. [DMO] Wow, that was an amazing story. What a journey. [PH] And, you know, nothing was wasted. I mean, everything that I learned in writing magazine stories which was grab the reader, transport them right away to a place that you know is not the dentist's office, make characters come alive on the page really fast, keep the flow and the pace moving, and make it vivid—and I ended up using all of that in my fiction.

[DMO] Also kind of like Hemingway. Parlaying that journalistic background into great fiction, and your fiction is amazing. I mean, obviously it sold well and it's reviewed well and I loved reading it. Including The River. The writing is so crisp, so tactile. I'm transported there. Your descriptions are so wonderful, too. It's a great book. And building on that, I was curious about your writing day. What does that look like? Do you write fiction every day? [PH] When I'm working, seven days a week. I get up and have a couple big cups of coffee. Before the pandemic, I would go to my coffee shop, and I had a couple of tables that I liked, and they would have my John Deere mug with a latte in it before I even sat down. That was a good routine. But now I’m writing at home because of the whole COVID deal. I got this process from Graham Greene, who I think was just an amazing writer. I read somewhere that he wrote five hundred words a day every day of his life, and he was so assiduous about it that he would stop at word five hundred exactly. He keeps a subtotal in the margin of this notebook. And he would write at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore or in his flat in London or the deck of his friend's yacht on the Mediterranean. He just wrote every day. And he would stop at word five hundred in the middle of a sentence, in the middle of dialogue, in the middle of the love scene—he would stop.


When I read that, I realized that he was stopping in the middle. When you set an arbitrary number like that and you hold to it, you're always going to be in the middle of something. And I thought, I don't write like that. And none of my other writer friends do that either, though everybody has their quota. Whether it's their three hours a day that they have free or they write five hundred words every day. But all of us, if we get excited about a scene or a train of thought, we just blow through and keep going and write three thousand words, you know, a big, exciting scene, and then stop and say, that was awesome and go on with the rest of the day. But if you think about writing like that, then in the morning, when you get up, you're always coming back to transition. It's a double return, it's white space; you're coming back to white space, and so you might as well start the book every morning, over again, and get that rock rolling back up the hill. And so I thought, Well, let's try Graham Greene’s method. How much can I write with good energy every day, about a thousand words? So what I do is write a thousand words every day, seven days a week, and I don't write less than that ever. But, I'll go just past it until I'm in the middle of something exciting. And I make myself stop. What it does, if I’m in the middle of something exciting, is save up all that energy that I could have spent that afternoon—I've saved up this power. And you also do a lot of work unconsciously, in the evening, and at night, when you're asleep. And so, then you jump out of bed in the morning, you can't wait to get back to where you were. So, all of a sudden, it changed my relationship to my writing in a very dramatic way. And I just couldn't wait to get up in the morning and get back to it every day, and it's a wonderful method for the long marathon of the novel. [DMO] Yeah, that’s so true. If you write until the scene is over, you definitely get that same sensation of having to start over. That’s a pretty ingenious way to keep the momentum going. So cool. Thank you.

[PH] That's the word and it’s a good one. I didn't say it, but it's all about the momentum. I really believe in that. I think speed is important, too. I really think writing a first draft is like basically making a bunch of clay. And that clay has to be full of, you know, colors and minerals and energy, and later you can shape it if you need to, but the way to get that is to follow your nose and write what's exciting and keep moving. That's for me. [DMO] Do you have a time frame for getting that first draft out? [PH] No. Because I just want the story to be like a kayak expedition. I spent so many years running rivers, and if you think about it, drafting is like a river—if you don't plot. I always just start at the first line and just let it rip. And because I was a poet first, I got really interested in the music of language. So, I'll just start with the first line with a rhythm and sound I love, and follow that into the next line. So I’m following the music of the language, and somehow that always leads me into a story, and I just have to trust that, and then, you know, within a few pages, you sort of bump into whatever you're really thinking about or what's in your heart. And I like doing it like that because then it really is like running a river that you’ve never run or hasn't been described, and you come around a tight corner and you don’t know what's going to be there—a waterfall or cougar drinking or flight of swallows—I'm always surprised. I'm always excited in the coffee shop, and I laugh out loud, or I'll just have tears dripping onto the table. And I know people are looking at me wondering if I’m going through a bad divorce. But what’s really happening is that I'm more thrilled than I've ever been in my life. [DMO] Wow. That’s amazing. To write by the flow of the language. And speaking of rivers, in the writing of The River, did you do some research, this kind of stuff? Did you kayak this particular river in the book to get your bearings? Do you do some preparation before you start the draft? [PH] No. You know, I’ve seen so many stories around the world. I've spent time with so many characters, so many interesting people. Really, the landscape is so populated and rich, that I just start writing and figure someone will show up. And the river in the book is actually the Winisk. And it was an assignment that I got a few years ago, and I was on my third date with this gal that I liked. She wanted to drop her gym bag off at my house before going out to dinner, so I picked it up and it was really heavy. I asked what was in there, and she said, “Weaponry.” And I said, “Can I look?” and she said, “Sure.” I unzipped it, and there were like six short swords, throwing stars, and sharpened chopsticks.

And I thought, Wow, I better be on my best behavior. Then as we were having dinner, I thought about inviting her on this trip on the Winisk, which was a several hundred-mile canoe trip—it’s huge. It's the same river that flows into Hudson Bay. It's really wild, and so I invited her. And so, now we’re married. Yeah, so, anyways, we did do the Winisk as a model for the river in the book. [DMO] She was a keeper, obviously. Sounds like a fantastic bonding experience. So quick note on Dog Stars, which is about a flu pandemic that wipes out humanity. Did this COVID thing really freak you out when it hit? [PH] It’s so weird. I got to say, the night that Denver went into a lockdown, I was fishing in the canyon here, where the river comes out right at the flank of the foothills, just south of Denver. And the South Platte there, where I was fishing, kind of looks like a mountain creek. It's really pretty with big, old cottonwoods and gravel bars and beaver dams. And when I drove into the state park that afternoon, there was nobody manning the post for the first time ever. There were just a couple of fly-fishermen on the river. None of them were catching any trout, because the suckers were running. Big suckers. Everybody was a little wary. I have to say, I felt a lot like Hig. It was really uncanny. I drove home, and you know, all the stores and businesses were shuttered along the street, and I just got goose bumps. I was like, this is a lot like the Dog Stars. It was sort of like life was imitating art, and it was; it was weird. Sure. [DMO] Yeah, there were some times out there, I’d go surfing and I’d be the only person out there. The beach is totally empty, no cars, you know, and I feel like I'm surfing in the apocalypse. Yeah. It was weird, weird time.

So I think that's pretty much the all the questions I have. Do you have any other big trips planned? Once this whole thing wraps up and we can kind of travel normally again?


[PH] Man, I can't wait. The first thing is to go down to Mexico, go surfing. I was about to go, and we were heading to go down in March. I think it was March 14 or something, right when they shut everything down. And so I want to go to Mexico, and then I think at the end of the summer, I'm going to go to Alaska and go fishing because I had a magazine call the other day. So that'll be a really nice Alaskan September, looking forward to that.


David M. Olsen is the Founder of Kelp Journal. He is a writer, photographer, filmmaker, and poet. He is an alumnus of Stanford’s OWC program in novel writing and holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California, Riverside. He is at work on a collection of linked short stories, a novel, and a chapbook. His work has appeared in Catamaran Literary Reader, The RumpusThe Coachella Review, Close to the Bone, Scheherazade, and elsewhere. He resides on California's central coast where he surfs daily.






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