National best-selling author and award-winning adventure writer Peter Heller visited with Upper Schoolers on Monday, October 25, to discuss his writing inspirations and how the process of writing a book is one of discovery.
“I start with a line,” he told students. “I have no idea what the book is about. I discover that as I’m writing.
“Within a few pages, I bump into what’s on my heart,” he said. “A story is a little like a river. I want that surprise.”
An expert outdoorsman and world-renowned expedition kayaker, Heller is this year’s visiting author and spoke to Upper School students and faculty from both Brunswick and Greenwich Academy in an assembly hosted at GA.
He is the author of the new, best-selling adventure novel The River, which all Upper School students read this past summer as a prelude to discussion and written exploration in English classes. The novel chronicles two friends from Dartmouth who travel a wild Canadian river on an adventure canoe trip, and are tested by fire and human menace.
Heller is also the acclaimed author of 2012 New York Times bestselling novel The Dog Stars. Set in the grim aftermath of a fictional pandemic, The Dog Stars was heralded as an “end-of-the-world novel more like a rapturous beginning” (San Francisco Chronicle) and “an ode to friendship between two men ... the strong bond between a human and a dog, and a reminder of what is worth living for” (Minneapolis Star-Tribune).
As he addressed Brunswick and Greenwich Academy students, Heller recalled the circumstances that helped shape his life as a writer, starting with a father who read him the poetry of E. E. Cummings, when he was six years old.
“I loved the sound of it,” he said. “I came up as a poet. I love the texture of the words.”
A librarian introduced Heller to Ernest Hemingway when he was 11, planting the seeds of adventure in a boy growing up in New York.
“That’s when I first read prose that went straight to the heart,” he said.
After that, Heller found that he was always writing, always watching people — even as he came through Dartmouth as an undergraduate and went on to work as a logger, a fisherman, a kayak instructor, a construction worker, and a champion pizza deliverer.
Heller received an MFA in fiction in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Laughing easily throughout his talk with students, Heller said he has been especially interested in how people act under pressure.
“Do they take care of each other? Or do they get selfish?”
Even so, it may be that the natural landscape is the biggest character in Heller’s work, especially The River.
“I just love nature way more than people,” he said. “People are complicated.”
Heller joins the recent ranks of Jennifer Egan, John Irving, Column McCann, Wes Moore, and Colson Whitehead as distinguished and award-winning writers who’ve visited and had their work featured at Brunswick.