Peter Heller ’82

Whether he’s embracing the great outdoors or crafting his next novel, the bestselling author is firmly in his element.

The Dog Stars was the breakout.

Peter Heller’s 2012 postapocalyptic novel became a New York Times bestseller and iTunes novel of the year, and it introduced Heller to a worldwide audience in 22 languages. Reviewers called the book ravishing, heart-wrenching, a stunning debut for an author who few mentioned was 53 and credited kayaking, of all things, for launching his career.

When Heller picked up the phone to cold-call a magazine editor in 1988, a quarter century before The Dog Stars was published, he was patching a life together in Boulder, Colorado, teaching kayaking, delivering pizzas, and spending long hours writing poetry that was going nowhere. On Mondays, he skied at Breckenridge on tickets given to him by his friend and kayaking buddy Sascha Steinway ’81, a ski instructor at the mountain. One day, Steinway made a suggestion. “You’re spending all day in your room writing poems. You’re paddling all this crazy water,” he said. “Why don’t you combine your interests and write for Outside magazine?”

Heller found a copy of the magazine on a newsstand and picked out an editor whose name sounded kind. He was startled when Laura Hohnhold answered the phone. In a stammering rush, he told her he was from Colorado, that he’d just had a piece published in Harper’s (which was sort of true: A short story of his had been reprinted in the magazine’s “Readings” section), and that he was a Class V kayaker. And would the magazine have any interest in sending him to the far edge of the Tibetan plateau where a team was planning a first descent of a remote river called the Dadu? As Heller recalls, there was a long pause—and then: “You know, we’ve heard about this expedition,” Hohnhold said. “And we don’t have a writer who can kayak Class V. I’m going to take a chance on you.”

The trip ended in tragedy before it even began. In a driving Himalayan rainstorm, one of the boaters capsized during a shakedown run and got pinned against a log jam. Heller reached him but couldn’t budge his body against the tremendous current. Team members joined and added their strength, then ropes, working for more than an hour. Heller held the man’s head above the water until the storm-swollen current gradually, inexorably rose. His 7,000-word account, “Set Free in China,” was nominated for a 1990 National Magazine Award.

The piece put Heller on the literary map as a nonfiction writer with a rare combination of traits: He wrote lyrically of wild nature, observed details keenly, and plotted a taut, muscular narrative. He quoted Ken Kesey along with eighth-century Tang dynasty poetry. Other assignments followed, for Playboy and National Geographic Adventure. He chronicled descents of the world’s most fearsome rivers: in the Tien Shan mountains, Central America, Peru. With a New Zealand paddler, he became the first kayaker to run the Muk Su river in Tajikistan—covering 17 days of thundering rapids through a canyon full of wolves and snow leopards. 

The magazine writing led to nonfiction books. He wrote about riding furious whitewater through the Tsangpo Gorge in eastern Tibet; about an eco-pirate ship’s clandestine attempt to thwart an illegal Japanese whaling crew off Antarctica; about falling in love and learning to become a big-wave surfer over a nine-month road trip down the coasts of California and Mexico. His writing got rave reviews, won awards. 

But it occurred to him that he wasn’t the kind of writer he had dreamed of being since he was a kid. 

Heller grew up in Brooklyn Heights in a cultured family surrounded by the playfulness and power of language. His mother, Caroline Watkins Heller, born to a banking family in Paris before World War II, was an artist who moonlit as a private detective. His father, John Heller, a Madison Avenue advertising exec, could come up with brilliant campaigns for clients such as Seagram’s and Timex on his way home from work or in the shower. He’d later spend a day conceptualizing several bad ideas, just to show that he’d put in the work. Peter calls him the best wordsmith he’s ever known. “The rest of the week,” says Heller, “he’d write plays and take five-martini lunches.” When Peter founded a literary journal as a student at Dartmouth, he asked his father for help naming it—something rustic and strong, maybe an old New England phrase. His dad suggested The Stonefence Review. It’s still in print nearly 50 years on. 

“The man was amazing,” says Heller. “He could pun in several languages.” Family dinner conversation routinely included spirited limerick competitions. His father also introduced him to the work of Louis L’Amour, whose novels romanticized the American West, and read poetry to him every night before bed, starting at a young age with e.e. cummings. Some of the poems were pretty bawdy. “I didn’t understand them,” says Heller, “but I loved the language.” 

A librarian gave him a copy of Hemingway’s short-story collection, In Our Time. “I took it straight home,” he says. “I was, like, I want to hop off a slow-moving freight train and camp with a rucksack by the Big Two-Hearted River in Upper Michigan, make cowboy coffee, and fish for those gorgeous trout. That was the first time that prose bypassed my head and went straight through my skin to my heart.”

 “That was the first time that prose bypassed my head and went straight through my skin to my heart.”

He began reading the dictionary and making lists of words that had heft and texture, that sounded interesting, and he committed to using three of them each day. He read somewhere that Jack London used to tape cards of unfamiliar words on his walls, so Heller did that, too. He copied out long passages of prose and poetry with pen and paper, just to feel the cadence of the language moving through his hand.

He took all that passion for music and words to the Putney School in Vermont, where other streams converged. He had relished family visits in the country there, with older cousins who skied and lived closer to the land than Heller did in Brooklyn Heights. In Putney, he realized he wanted to emulate Hemingway’s life as a man of action. He played soccer, skied, learned to rock climb. He cut firewood, drove a tedder to dry hay, and tossed bales into the back of a farm truck until his muscles cramped. The landscape of dirt roads and stone walls and maple-covered hills along the Connecticut River Valley got inside him. 

Heller followed his older cousins upriver to Dartmouth, where he immediately met a kindred spirit on his floor of Lord Hall. Jay Mead ’82 was an outdoors kid who had grown up on Squam Lake in New Hampshire. They bonded on their freshman trip, a hardcore hiking section across the top of the Presidentials. In the winter, they took Heller’s beat-up Land Rover up to the Second College Grant, where they camped overnight in temperatures that reached 20 below. In the spring, they took a phys ed class and learned to roll kayaks.

Heller describes that first class as an epiphany. His eyes get big, and he laughs in staccato bursts throughout the telling, as he often does, almost for dramatic pauses: “They dragged us down to Hartland Rapids and basically tried to drown us. All I did was keep hitting eddies and dumping and swimming, over and over—and I don’t think I’d ever been happier.” 

Heller became friends with Steinway and Landis Arnold ’82, Ledyard Canoe Club paddlers who taught beginners. He arranged his classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays to free up long weekends. He and Arnold would throw some kayaks on a truck and head out to paddle the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers. Heller joined Ledyard expeditions on bigger water farther afield. 

After college, he enrolled in the elite paddling school of the Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina, where he refined his technique and became expert at swiftwater rescue and wilderness medical training. “I approached it the way I do writing: Give your full attention, your very best, every single moment, every single eddy turn,” he says. “It became like dancing.” The training equipped him to paddle any river in the world—and return to Ledyard in 1986 for a year as a paid director and instructor.

He made his way to Boulder and finally figured out how to bring his twin passions of writing and outdoor adventure together. His magazine career unfolded. In his 30s and into his 40s, Heller made a living as an adventure writer, built a cabin off the grid in Paonia, Colorado, and learned to hunt elk and fly-fish for trout. At a coffee shop in Denver, he met Kim Yan, a model/actress/ninja-trained educator. He shyly asked her out via a hand-written extended haiku. They married in 2007 during Heller’s surfing-book road trip in Baja California, standing thigh-deep in turquoise water while a boat captain poured water over their joined hands. 

He got an assignment from Men’s Journal to get a bush pilot’s license—a demanding process that generally takes six months to three years or more to complete. Heller put all of his attention into the training and earned his license in three weeks. He bought a 1956 Cessna 182 with an engine that he knew he’d need to replace at some point. He was flying over the Continental Divide with Yan when the engine quit. He could make out the airstrip at Colorado’s Erie Airport ahead in the distance, and said, “I think we should shoot for Erie and put it down there.” Yan said, calmly, “Good idea.” 

He had achieved his goal of becoming a man of action.

He wanted to return to that feeling he had as a kayaker on unfamiliar water, coming around a tight bend into a gorge and not knowing the wild terrain ahead.

After Heller turned 50, the sense of being unfulfilled as a writer pulled at him. In the same Denver café where he had met Yan, he finally got serious about attempting to write the kind of stories that had so moved him as a kid. In his nonfiction, he’d always known what would happen next, what the endings would be. In turning to fiction, he wanted to return to that feeling he had as a kayaker on unfamiliar water, coming around a tight bend into a gorge and not knowing the wild terrain ahead.

He swears that he closed his eyes, told himself not to think and just listen, and heard a voice come into his head. By now, he’s polished the story through dozens of book readings and interviews. “I heard this guy speaking to me,” says Heller, “as if he was sitting on the other side of a campfire on an October night, with the wind blowing the flames around. And he was just telling me what had happened to him a couple of years before. It was the most thrilling thing I had ever experienced.” The divination became the opening to The Dog Stars, set along Colorado’s Front Range in the fallout of a devastating pandemic. He wrote the book in a white heat over a few months, listening, following the voices and characters where they led him.

Fearing that the response to the book—good or bad—would stymie his writing, he turned immediately to his next novel, The Painter (2014), which became a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. More bestsellers followed like clockwork: Celine (2017), The River (2019), The Guide (2021), and The Last Ranger (2023). 

He writes a thousand words a day, six or seven days a week. He forces himself to stop mid-scene, so he’ll have something to let his subconscious play with overnight, something on the screen to jump back into the next day. His key to writing a novel is energy management. He almost always writes in a fuguelike state of flow, and he trusts the momentum to carry him through—not unlike pulling out after a day of kayaking, knowing the river will still be flowing the next morning, ready to step back into. 

“Most writers need their special pen, their special chair, in order to write,” says Jenny Jackson, Heller’s editor at Knopf. “Not Peter. I used to think the whole ‘muse’ thing was bullshit. Now I think the muse just doesn’t visit most writers. I’ve worked with Peter for 12 years, and he hasn’t had a dry spell.” Knopf, for its part, has recently made a rare exception with Heller and committed to a publishing schedule that introduces a new title every year. 

His novels occupy an unusual and profitable niche, simultaneously seen as literary and commercial. “Peter Heller is the poet laureate of the literary thriller,” says author Michael Koryta. The threads through his novels run dark, often including personal loss and environmental destruction. Jackson calls him a writer’s writer. “That usually is shorthand for a writer who doesn’t sell many copies,” she says. “But Peter wins awards, and you can find his books in airports. That gives us two bites of the apple.” She notes that 50 percent of Heller’s readers are men—an almost unheard-of percentage among novel buyers today. “And the fan mail we get for Peter is deeply personal,” Jackson adds. “It’s unlike any I’ve ever seen.”

The salespeople at Knopf are especially high on his forthcoming novel, Burn, scheduled to come out in August. The book centers on two lifelong friends from Putney who go into the wild country of north central Maine for a two-week moose hunting trip and come out of the woods to blown-up bridges and burned-down villages in a state that has seceded, violently, from a deeply divided union. A 10-city book tour (also rare in today’s publishing world) is scheduled. 

Some on the Knopf team, noting how The Dog Stars predated the Covid-19 pandemic and The River anticipated the massive, unprecedented wildfires across northern Canada, have privately dubbed Heller “The Prophet.” They hope the pattern doesn’t continue.

Heller sits at an outdoor café in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, overlooking a horseshoe-shaped bay and a line of low-slung fishing pangas pulled up on shore. The morning air is soft, the heat of the day coming on. Heller and Yan own a place nearby that they bought after falling in love with the exquisite geography of the coast and the surfing at a secluded beach. They’re here for the winter. Heller wears a faded Dartmouth T-shirt, cargo shorts, sandals, a weathered ball cap bearing the name of a Missoula fly-fishing shop, and Ray-Bans propped up on his visor. He is tanned and relaxed. 

He had gone out on his 7-foot-6-inch board at first light to catch a couple of gorgeous waves, riding one of them for more than half a minute and 200 yards before the swell delivered him back to the beach. The kind of ride, he says, that lives in your body the rest of the day.

Heller surfs each day from around 7 to 9, makes coffee, maybe shares a light breakfast with Yan, and sits down with his laptop to write in an Adirondack chair in the cool of the screened porch. He puts in earbuds, sets an app on his phone to an Oregon rainforest soundscape, and disappears into a flow of imagery and language that carries him away.


JIM COLLINS wrote about Brother Pháp Lưu ’97 in the January/February issue.                


Shared Experiences
Excerpts from “Why Black Men Nod at Each Other,” by Bill Raynor ’74
One of a Kind
Author Lynn Lobban ’69 confronts painful past.
Going the Distance

How Abbey D’Agostino ’14 became one of the most prolific athletes in Dartmouth history. 

Joseph Campbell, Class of 1925
The author (1904-1987) on mythology and bliss

Recent Issues

July-August 2024

July-August 2024

May-June 2024

May-June 2024

March - April 2024

March - April 2024

January-February 2024

January-February 2024

November-December 2023

November-December 2023

September-October 2023

September-October 2023