Peter Heller is the author of The Dog Stars, a quietly poetic post-apocalyptic novel whose themes of solitude and survival reflect the experiences of the author, An avid outdoorsman and adventure writer. Heller, spoke with me about the dogs in his life, the necessary role of of solitude in a writer’s life, and his own harrowing experiences in the great outdoors.
About The Dog Stars:
Hig survived the flu that killed everyone he knows. His wife is gone, his friends are dead, he lives in the hangar of a small abandoned airport with his dog, his only neighbor a gun-toting misanthrope. In his 1956 Cessna, Hig flies the perimeter of the airfield or sneaks off to the mountains to fish and to pretend that things are the way they used to be. But when a random transmission somehow beams through his radio, the voice ignites a hope deep inside him that a better life—something like his old life—exists beyond the airport. Risking everything, he flies past his point of no return—not enough fuel to get him home—following the trail of the static-broken voice on the radio. But what he encounters and what he must face—in the people he meets, and in himself—is both better and worse than anything he could have hoped for.
Narrated by a man who is part warrior and part dreamer, a hunter with a great shot and a heart that refuses to harden, The Dog Stars is both savagely funny and achingly sad, a breathtaking story about what it means to be human.
An interview with Peter Heller:
Given the set-up of the novel, I’d take it that you’re a dog person. Would I be right? Do you have a dog? Any memories of childhood dogs?
We always had dogs growing up. When I was eleven, I found a stray I brought home and named Gilligan. He slept on my bed. We had a German shepherd named Duchess and a tiny affenpinscher named Hercules. Later, when I lived in Paonia, Colorado, as an adult I traveled too much on assignment to be fair to a dog, but the shepherd from the ranch next door adopted me and would tear across a quarter mile of pasture when he heard my truck, to meet me at the door. I’ve always had a special affinity for dogs.
We’re living in a very interesting time when a novel with an apocalyptic premise can be a New York Times bestseller. It seems like it’s happening more often, too. What do people see in this kind of subject matter?
I think people are worried. Understandably. Scientists say we are in the middle of the Sixth Great Mass Extinction, this one caused by us. We are losing something like 50,000 species a year, our coral reefs are collapsing, 25% of all mammals are under threat, according to the IUCN Red List. People may not know the figures or the science, but I think there is an awareness that things are changing and that losses are accelerating. It makes people uneasy, and I think apocalyptic stories in movies and fiction are a way to grapple with this unraveling.
I’ve been struggling to compare your writing to other authors. There’s a poetic tone to it that I think is fascinating. Who are your influences? Also, how do writers acknowledge influences in their writing without mimicking them?
Great question. I’ve been reading and writing poetry since I was like six. I love TS Eliot, the music of The Four Quartets. Derek Wolcott in The Schooner Flight. Yeats, the antic freedom of Dickinson, the exuberance and passion of Neruda. The quiet, extreme simplicity and beauty of the classical Chinese poets, especially of the Tang Dynasty. I just adore it. Writers and artists like to say that their art is a big conversation, with past masters and contemporaries. For me, that’s true. I am often writing along and will see with surprise, and delight, that a line I have written resonates with or approximates the rhythm or music of a line of some master. It’s the greatest form of flattery, of course. I think that in this way we are the sum of everything we have read and seen and everything that has deeply impressed us.
I’ve heard that you’re quite the outdoorsman yourself. Did you do any particular training or research for this book? Have you always had a connection with nature and the outdoors? Ever been in a scary or dangerous situation?
Every passion is in here–all things that have brought me great joy. Well, not farming. I’ve tried it, and like Bangley, don’t like it much. I hunt deer and elk out the back fence of our place in western Colorado. Like Hig, I love to hunt and hate to kill anything. The off-the-grid living piece came from building a small adobe house out there, off the grid, solar powered, and it took a long time because I’d never built anything on my own. I love to fly fish. Really love it. And to be out in the mountains, on rivers. I have been on extreme kayak expeditions all over the world and that sense of being on the edge, of not really knowing if you will live through the day or the next, and being somehow okay with that, informed the story and Hig’s situation. Once I tried to rescue another river runner who was caught in a logjam, and we couldn’t free him and the river rose and he died in my arms. The verdant box canyon in the book is an actual place. I spent a week there with a master survival instructor—no food, no sleeping bags, tents, or matches. He taught me to catch trout by hand and start fires with a sage bow and drill. Five of us slept on piles of pine needles and huddled for warmth. It made a big impression on me.
Would you actually want to survive something like the even depicted in your novel?
Yes! I think it’s our job to be grateful for every breath, to piece together meaning with the materials at hand, and to keep our love alive. I think about Mandela in his cell, in isolation, all those years, keeping his faith and nurturing his love.
I’ve been amused by shows like “Preppers” which ostensibly are about people quietly preparing for the end of modern civilization, yet these people love showing off their secret caches of food and weapons on national television. My own thoughts are admittedly pessimistic: I can only imagine that after a couple of weeks when the supplies start running out that once-friendly neighbors would quickly become marauders whose first target would be their prepper neighbors. What do you think? Would people come together or would everything go Lord of the Flies rather quickly? Something in between?
I imagine it would be all over the map. Katrina was scary, how fast the veneer ripped off. Obviously cooperation and community is the best defense.
Have you met any real-life Bangleys?
Oh, sure. One of my best buddies has something like seventy assault rifles. He likes to show me the new one over dessert.
In some ways The Dog Stars is a meditation on solitude and the related state of loneliness. Solitude would seem to be a mandatory component of the writer’s life. What is your own relationship to solitude?
Complicated! I love solitude. I love to fish alone on a mountain creek, into the evening, into the dark, with the air chilling and the sound of elk moving in the trees. Writing alone is the best part of my day. But I’m extremely gregarious. I love to mix it up, to be around a big table over a meal with a bunch of great story tellers. I love expeditions and river trips where you are with a group of good people twenty-four hours a day. It’s like a tribe. I adore spending quiet time with my wife. Maybe because alone time is so important, so then is an appreciation of others, and of human connection.