One of the first things Peter Heller does, after joining a Zoom call to discuss his forthcoming novel, The Guide (Knopf, Aug.), is pick up his laptop and point its camera out his window. Heller lives near Denver, and the view he presents is picturesquely western: rolling grass, bright sunlight, wide open sky. After a moment, he turns his laptop back around and resumes the conversation, but the image of that landscape lingers over everything he says. No matter what he’s doing, no matter what he’s writing, Heller is always, in a sense, looking outside.
Heller, 62, has written five novels, three works of nonfiction, and numerous magazine articles, all focused in one way or another on the natural world. His work also often exposes the dangers posed to it by mankind. The Guide is no different: it follows a young rancher who takes a job as a guide at an upscale Colorado fishing resort, where he uncovers a conspiracy involving a nature-perverting scientific experiment.
For a wilderness obsessive, Heller’s roots are surprisingly metropolitan. He grew up in Brooklyn Heights, where he attended the prestigious St. Ann’s School. The itch to explore the great outdoors came early. He fell in love with fiction writers and poets who transported him to the natural world—among them Joseph Conrad, James Dickey, Jack London, and Derek Walcott. He also got out of the city as much as possible. When he was 14, he and a friend took a Greyhound bus to the Adirondacks, where they spent 12 days hiking off-trail mountains by compass.
“I was crazy about the outdoors, but I was also crazy about poetry, and the two threads kind of wound together,” Heller says. “Lyricism and love of wild places propelled me into this life.”
Early in his career, Heller combined these interests by writing environmental journalism for Outside, National Geographic, and other publications. He covered subjects ranging from illegal Japanese whaling in the Antarctic to fracking in western Colorado.
He inherited his creative bent, as well as his investigative instincts, from his mother, who worked as an artist and a PI. According to Heller, she was once commissioned by the FBI to track down a fraudster banker in Greenwich, Conn. “She spied on him with her opera glasses,” he says, laughing.
But Heller’s mother’s influence was primarily an artistic one. Even as he amassed an impressive journalistic portfolio, she kept nudging him toward his early literary aspirations. “She’d say, ‘How’s the poetry going?’ She didn’t care if I made a penny. She wanted me to follow my heart.”
In his early 30s, Heller followed his heart to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where his teachers included Marilynne Robinson (who makes a cameo appearance in The Guide, in a flashback to the protagonist’s college days). But it wasn’t until he was in his early 50s that he embarked on his dream of writing the kinds of books he’d loved as a child. He got to the point, he says, where he thought, “I don’t want to end my life and have never tried.”
Heller’s first novel, however belated, was auspicious. The Dog Stars, published in 2012, captivated readers and reviewers with its story of a man struggling to survive in Colorado after a superflu has wiped out most of mankind. It was a bestseller and named a best book of the year by this magazine. In a starred review, PW described the novel as “perhaps the world’s most poetic survival guide.”
Heller followed The Dog Stars with four more novels in quick succession, as if making up for lost time. In 2014 he published The Painter, about an artist in New Mexico racked by violent impulses. Three years later came Celine, the story of a private investigator (based on Heller’s mother) who hunts for a missing man in Yellowstone National Park. His fourth novel, The River, follows two Dartmouth students on a hellish canoeing trip in northern Canada.
The Guide, like Heller’s previous books, offers a signature blend of lyrical, leisurely nature writing and pulse-quickening suspense. Within hours of arriving at the fishing resort where he’ll be working, the protagonist, Jack (whom readers will recognize from The River), begins to suspect that the idyllic landscape around him harbors threats. Why are there hidden cameras installed throughout the property? Why does the main gate require a code to leave? And what really happened to the guide who held his job before him?
In interviews, Heller often stresses that his writing process is intuitive. He told the Denver Post in 2018 that, when he started writing fiction, “I didn’t want to know what happened next. I didn’t want to know the ending.”
This may surprise readers of The Guide, which appears intricately constructed. Heller says that for this outing he took inspiration from thriller writer Lee Child, whom he met at a literary festival in Palm Springs, Calif. Child told Heller that he too begins his books without a clear idea of where they’ll end, which Heller found hard to believe.
“My method,” Child said, “is, I throw everything against the wall in the first half—dead bodies, menacing lurkers, car accidents—and in the second half I mirror it, tie up all the threads, and whatever doesn’t tie up is a red herring, and I’m good.”
Heller appears to have adopted this strategy in The Guide, especially when it comes to his bold decision to incorporate the Covid-19 pandemic. At first, the virus seems like suspenseful window dressing—a detail that, like the hidden cameras, imbues the novel with ambient dread. But eventually it becomes central to the novel’s mystery, in an unexpected and horrifying way.
Heller, who came down with a serious case of Covid in November, can’t help but see the pandemic as an extension of the environmental calamities that he’s documented in his journalism. “We’re in the middle of the sixth mass extinction,” he says. “These issues, the accelerating losses—Covid is part of it. It’s all intertwined. I feel like, as people with conscience and consciousness, it’s very, very difficult to be a human being today.”
Heller admits that, amid so many near and looming disasters, it feels “weird” to be an artist right now. “It could be seen as frivolous,” he says. But he hopes that his fiction, with its deep attention to the natural world, “will in some way influence people toward solutions, a better life for our planet.”
When Heller was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he studied with the poet Jorie Graham, who told her students that every poem poses a question, and that they should pose that question not to their teachers, not to the market, but to God.
“She meant God as it manifests for each of us,” Heller says. “For me, God had to do with my experience in nature, this spirit that I felt ran through everything, through the rivers and the trees and the rocks. Every time I start a new work of fiction, I get on my knees and I pray that I can be true to that.”
Daniel Lefferts is a writer in New York City.