Peter Heller’s career as an adventure writer almost ended with his first assignment. A jack-of-all-trades who had done everything from logging and fishing to construction and washing dishes, he was 29 when Outside magazine sent him on a kayaking expedition in western Sichuan, on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau.
On the first day of the expedition, a fellow traveler died in his arms. “He had been in a raft that flipped, and I got to him,” Heller said. “He was locked in the logs, so we couldn’t pull him out. I was trying to hold his head above the water and the river rose right above his head. We saved one guy, but we couldn’t save him.”
Heller came back from China too traumatized to put pen to paper. But then he changed his mind, responding to a call "I felt in my bones," he said. “I felt what better way to process what happened and to try to find some meaning in such a painful event. As I wrote, I wept and grieved, and was also grateful for the chance to tell it."
Since that time, Heller, 53, has chronicled the exploits of an eco-pirate ship trying to stop whaling in Antarctica; was the official journalist of a kayaking team that dared to traverse Tibet’s Tsangpo Gorge (also known as “the Everest of rivers”); and used a helmet cam to capture grisly footage of Japan’s dolphin-killing cove, which appeared in the Academy Award-winning film “The Cove.”
His latest undertaking is a debut novel “The Dog Stars,” a post-apocalyptic tale of a man who’s survived a flu epidemic that wiped out most of the world -- including his pregnant wife. The main character tries to find a survivor's radio transmission. Publishers Weekly gave the book a star, its highest honor, and named it one of its top 10 picks for the fall.
Heller spoke with Huff/Post50 about how a nature-loving boy from Brooklyn Heights, New York became a world-class adventure writer, the scariest thing he’s ever done and how the concept of adventure has changed now that he’s older.
What drew you to adventure and the idea of being an outdoorsman?
I spent all my time when I was little in the bushes around the playground instead of in the playground, climbing the backs of buildings, jumping into people’s carriage houses. I couldn’t wait to get out of the city, so I went to school in Putney, Vermont where I had a lot of family when I was 15. I just loved being out in nature. It wasn’t so much about adventure.
You got your MFA at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop in both writing and poetry. How did you bridge your love of writing with your love of the outdoors?
[I've been] writing ever since I was 6. While my friends were listening to the Beatles, I would listen to “I Have A Dream” because of the building cadence, the music of the language. It just thrilled me!
When I got out of college, I did every job: logging, fishing, construction, washing dishes… I was living in Boulder, Colorado and I was teaching kayaking, delivering pizza and writing poems and short stories. A buddy of mine said, “Why don’t you combine your interests? Why don’t you write for Outside magazine?” I heard about this kayaking expedition going through the Tibetan plateau, the first descent on this river, and I thought, “Wow!” I picked a name on the masthead and I just called. I started talking fast. (Laughs)
I told them I had a short story published in Harper’s, which was true, and that I paddle Class 5 and wanted to go on this trip, and that’s how it started.
Did you have any fears about writing fiction?
Writing this novel was like a return to what I’ve always wanted to do. It was like coming home. I couldn’t wait. The thing about writing nonfiction books is that I always knew what was going to happen next. When you run a river for the first time and you come to a tight bend, you don’t know what’s around the corner. It could be a big pool, it could be a mountain lion drinking… it’s thrilling! I wanted that experience writing again. So I just sat down and started with a first line. The great thing about writing adventure [instead of living it] is that you don’t have to take Ibuprofen! (Laughs)
What inspired “The Dog Stars”?
I write a lot of environmental stories. I have a dear friend who is a paleobotanist. Whenever we meet for breakfast, we always talk about the six mass extinctions, which we’re in the middle of right now and this one is caused by us. It’s just outstanding. This was on my mind. This unraveling of the ecosphere that we’re experiencing, it really gets to me and I think it had to be central to whatever fiction I wrote. It was five months of writing. It’s the most thrilling thing I’ve ever done, hands down.
Why do you feel that way?
What makes an adventure thrilling is two things: what’s at stake -- and sometimes that can be your physical life if it’s a crazy ass expedition -- and how much of the best parts of yourself you bring to it. Writing nonfiction you’re responsible to posterity, to history, to other people because the events happened and you feel responsible to record them as they happened. With fiction I felt like I could bring to bear my full imagination, my entire heart, and so you feel very vulnerable. It’s not your physical life but it’s everything else, so it felt like a lot was at stake. I felt like I brought everything I had to the thing. It’s sort of like going for the first time in your life on all cylinders.
Have your ideas of adventure changed now that you’re older?
I think it used to be all about adrenaline. If it didn’t involve cliffs or whitewater [I wasn’t interested]. Now I love to walk! I think marriage is an adventure, I got married a few years ago. I never really could do that the way my life was before. I think now it’s less about adrenaline, and more about stretching and taking risks in a whole host of ways that I wouldn’t have considered before. And that can be creative or spiritual.
There’s always been in my life that tension between living and writing. For me, because I’m so physically exuberant, it was extra hard to sit still at the desk and put in the hours that you need to put in to write. Getting a little older and slowing down, it’s easier because I really like sitting for three hours with a cup of coffee now!
How do those lessons apply in midlife?
My most important tenet on going out on an adventure is not to be afraid of wiping out and making a fool of yourself. My last book was about surfing and I just got hammered. But in six months I rode a big fat wave on a shortboard. It was amazing!
I don’t mind looking like an idiot and I don’t mind getting up and trying again. If you’re going to learn to kayak, if you’re going to learn to ski well ... you need to have that attitude. It’s like “What the hell? We don’t mind a few bumps and bruises.” I think it really helps in writing and I think it really helps in life, too. It’s beginner’s mind, I guess. That’s what all great adventures are about: It’s about taking big risks and having trust in the outcome.