In Peter Heller’s second novel, The Painter, well-known expressionist painter Jim Stegner confronts his inner demons and tries to outrun his past.
You skewer the pretense of the art world and the glorification of “bad boy” artists, yet you are known as an outdoorsman. Where does such an intimate knowledge of the art world spring?
My family is full of artists. I grew up in New York City in an extremely artistic family. I have a lot of artists on both sides of the family. My mom is a sculptor; when she was younger she was a painter. My father paints. I went to high school in Vermont, at the Putney School. Art was a major component of the education there.
Is Jim Stegner’s character based on a real person or incident?
I lived for about nine years in Paonia, Colo., named in the book. I became friends with Jim Wagner, a famous painter from Taos, [N.Mex.,] who shot a guy in a bar for making a comment about his son. He went to prison and the only reason he survived is his wife’s cousin ran the cell block and told everyone to stay away from him. He spent the years painting and doing ceramics and woodworking. He finally got pardoned by the governor. The son he was trying to protect was killed in a drug deal, sort of like Stegner’s daughter did. I’m fascinated by characters who are faced with big losses and have to put their lives back together again.
The name “Stegner” is evocative of western writer and environmentalist Wallace Stegner. Was that a conscious strategy on your part?
I wanted a name that evoked my friend, Jim Wagner, but the evocation of Wallace Stegner also worked for me because I wanted someone of immense scope and integrity and passion who was at the top of the game in their art.
Did you consciously set out to make political statements about such issues as how the art world works, the relationships between men and women, the environment, or the criminal justice system in America?
That’s such an interesting question. A lot of my nonfiction is very strong environmental stories—I was the first guy to write about the dolphin killings in Japan. I wrote strong advocacy stories, and when I got to fiction I made a deliberate effort to leave that behind and enter a country where I had no ax to grind, no advocacy issues that I was carrying with me. My intention was just to let the characters speak and let them unravel their stories. The great thing about fiction is that everything you care about ends up going into the book.