All About Awe: A Conversation with Peter Heller

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THE NOVELIST PETER HELLER grew up in New York City and found a love of moving waters while paddling the Connecticut River during his time as an undergraduate at Dartmouth. His new novel, The River, tells the story of two college friends on a canoe journey toward Canada’s Hudson Bay in the midst of a forest fire, and an encounter with a man who may or may not have tried to murder his wife. His previous novel, The Dog Stars, a post-apocalyptic yarn set in a depopulated Colorado, also dealt with the complicated dynamic of male friendship amid the overweening presence of nature, which is by turns gorgeous and indifferent. Before finding a second vocation in fiction, Heller worked as a contributing editor for Outside magazine and wrote frequently about kayaking in spots around the globe. He spoke to LARB on the third-floor patio of his home near Sloan’s Lake in the western part of Denver.

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TOM ZOELLNER: You spend a lot of time describing landscape. Some literary critics will consider that a foul. They’re going to say that’s a violation of “the pathetic fallacy,” this idea that landscape isn’t supposed to have characterizations that we impute to humans. PETER HELLER: I know all about the pathetic fallacy. I spent way more time in the wilderness than those critics, and I never think of nature as having agency. I’m aware we project onto nature whatever emotional or spiritual obsessions we’re in. When I write nature I always try to write it as true as I can, and what that means is my own experience. It is heedless, it is pitiless, it is grand, it is filled with awesome beauty, it’s unpredictable. When I’m in nature, I’m always my most happy. One thing is that people are complicated and they hurt your feelings and they’re a pain in the ass. They don’t act the way you want them to. The other thing is that I can fish my little creek outside Paonia and go there on a September evening, and there is a little dirt road the creek falls away from and it’s a little wooden canyon, and I’m up there all alone, and a deer might stop in the middle of the creek and look at me, or a bear might be there. When I’m smelling that particular sweetness of willows turning yellow, wind gust comes through and a few leaves fall in the creek and I can look upstream and see the treeless ridge of the mountain, I forget my name, and I forget for a little bit that I’m a human being and it’s an incredible relief. And at the same time, I’ve been in lots of situations as a kayaker where I’ve nearly died and I found the forces to be really terrifying. All of that tends to quicken my spirit, and I find myself more alive than I ever do here in this town, or in any other part of my life except when I’m writing. My novels are more like Westerns than anything else, where all the drama is thrown up against the most powerful character of all, which is the Rocky Mountains or the high desert. I write about nature because I love being there. But nature can defy description even more than people. Wasn’t it Flannery O’Connor who said writing is like a sea creature always swimming off into the murk? We can describe her but never capture her. Same deal. How do you write about God? Do you have any spiritual practices? Fishing. Kayaking. I’m not being facetious. Last weekend, I went with two of the friends I met my first year in college. One lives six blocks away, and the other lives in Boulder. These are the guys that dragged me out to Colorado my sophomore summer and taught me to paddle. We went back to the same river, the same set of rapids. Here we are, 60-year-old guys, and we camped and ran the same set of rapids. And just felt so connected to everything. [Pause.] I stopped because I ran into the thing about the Tao that can be named. I’m struck with awe, there’s something about being connected with friends, with the river, with the night. I can’t imagine any church being as powerful as that. I feel the same thing when I’m writing and I feel the total transport. I forget my name, I forget I’m a person. I’m just lost, and I love that. I’ll tell you a story. One of the greatest things I took away from Iowa was this one quote. I was in a workshop with Jorie Graham, this brilliant poet. She said, every poem and every work of art begins with a question and the art is the answer. You might as well not ask the question of your professor or your editor, or your professor, or your peers, or the market or your publisher, or the critics. Ask the question of God. Why not aim high? I thought that was so marvelous. And so when I sit down to write, I try not to wonder if my editor will like it or if it’ll sell. I just want to write something true. If I sit down and write something true and beautiful, I can’t imagine a better way to spend life on the planet. That’s the spiritual practice, I guess. Because that’s my response. It’s all about awe. The practice of writing is also the practice of faith because you have to trust that everything is going to work out alright. So much of your fiction deals with the niceties of society stripped away, and human beings brought down to their essence. Here’s the thing: I had to make a living when I got out of Dartmouth and they never told me in the English department that you can’t make a living as a poet or short story writer, which was kind of mean of them. So I started writing for magazines. The way I got into that was as a kayaker, and I suppose to Outside magazine I was indispensable. I was the only writer who could kayak class 5. So I went around doing all these crazy adventures and I discovered I loved writing about characters under pressure, they’re just the best stories, and that just carried into the fiction. Writing for Outside was a joyful distraction from life as a literary writer. All the stuff I was working on in poetry: the cadence, the imagery, packing as much emotional punch into as few words as possible, they were all applicable to the journalism I was doing. I realized that in writing magazine articles that you have to grab the reader by the hand and take them into some sort of territory they’ve never been in and immerse them right away or they’ll toss the magazine on the coffee table. So I learned a lot about evoking characters that jumped off the page, bringing people into a sense of place. It was all good training for the later fiction. Anytime you get one of those stories of acts of violence on a canoe trip, you run up against the D-word, which is to say, Deliverance. I had to tip my hat to James Dickey, because it’s one of my favorite books. So I make sure I acknowledge it. But did you see the tall shadow of that book a distraction? You know that Wallace Stevens poem “Bantams in Pine-Woods”? That’s sort of the way I feel. You old fathers and grandfathers, I adore you, and I admire you, and I worship your work. I’m going to sit down and write something as well as I can, and I hope and pray it’ll be just as good or better. Stevens wrote that poem to Walt Whitman as sort of throwing down the gauntlet. He was saying, “You’re the big rooster, but here I come.” I mean, literature is just a huge conversation, right? I wouldn’t do it unless I thought I could at least attempt to write as well as the people I admire. You’ve said that at 60 years old, you feel like you’re just getting started. I do, I really do. I feel like I’m just starting to write with the power I want to write with. It’d be neat if I was just 30 feeling this way with 60 more years left to write. Pretty much when I’m on a novel I write a thousand words a day for seven days a week. I’m finally doing what I’ve wanted to do my whole life and I just want to go 100 miles an hour. By now you’ve written so many stories that haven’t worked, written yourself into so many cul-de-sacs and you know the feeling when energy is dropping. It’s like riding a mountain horse that knows the terrain. You give the horse its head and you let it run, and you’re bouncing along in the saddle. Every once in a while he is a horse and he has a brain the size of a walnut, he’ll want to go down into an arroyo and check something out and you know it’s a bad idea. And you can feel it when you’re writing, you can feel the arroyo is a bad idea because you have so many years of writing things and crumpling them up and throwing them into the trash. So you just nudge him over. You put him back on the trail and let him run. There’s giving free rein, and then taking back authorial control. That’s all going on unconsciously. It feels like you’re channeling, but what’s going on is all these micro-decisions, like an NBA pro driving a basketball down the court. I’m inspired by people like Norman Maclean, who wrote A River Runs Through It, which is a powerful story, when he was in his 70s, or Philip Roth doing what he did in his 80s. Another metaphor is that of a river trip: you put on the river and narrative is current and you follow it into territory you’ve never seen before. If you don’t think too much, you’ll come around the bend and there can be a mountain lion.

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Tom Zoellner is the politics editor of LARB.