Adventure writer Peter Heller, who has surfed in Mexico, kayaked the Muk Su River gorges in the High Pamirs, and sailed an eco-pirate vessel, has a first novel, The Dog Stars, about the end of the world.
Do you really think our civilization is doomed?
There are 50,000 species going extinct every year. And I think the book partly is my way of struggling through that issue. I don’t know if we will really have a doomsday for human beings, but if we did, to me, it wouldn’t be an unjust outcome, given how many species we’re taking with us every year.
Is taking things to extremes a good way for you to examine and highlight human behavior?
For a writer, what could be a better place to put a character than under pressure, and how could the stakes be higher? From a literary point of view, it’s wonderful. You know, I didn’t plan any of it. I started with the first line and just let it rip and at some point I realized I was writing a postapocalyptic novel.
Why do you think so many novelists are currently concerned with the end of the world?
I think it’s just that it’s now dawning on people that we really are in the middle of this great mass extinction. Even if they don’t know the facts, I think there’s a growing awareness or sense of things being lost, and lost more and more quickly on this planet. Don’t you think that writers really are the canaries in the coal mine and they’re just responding to that?
What’s your writing process?
I use something I call the Graham Greene method. He wrote five hundred words a day, every day. He kept a subtotal in the margin and when he got to word five hundred, he stopped. He could be in the middle of a sentence, the middle of dialogue, the middle of a scene. And I do the same thing. I write a thousand words a day and I always stop in the middle of a scene or thought, and it makes it easy to pick up on the next day.
Is there any one physical activity you do that acts as an apt metaphor for the act of writing?
Writing to me is like kayaking a river. You are paddling down and you come to a walled-off canyon and you make a sharp turn and you don’t know what’s around the corner. It could be a waterfall, it could be a big pool. The narrative current carries you. You’re surprised and you’re thrilled and sometimes you’re terrified.
What was it like writing your first novel after a career in non-fiction?
It was like the next big adventure, something I wanted to do my whole life. Ever since I was six years old, I wanted to write fiction and poetry. When I got out of college, I had to make a living, and I started writing for magazines and it felt like the perfect job. I was happily diverted from those ambitions as a fiction writer. This felt like coming home.