Peter Heller: A Novelist, River Guide, and Caffeine Addict


Ishrat Madiha

Novelist Petter Heller visited the Lake Ridge Library to discuss his latest book, The Guide.

Canoeing on water crashing against river banks as deep as they are long, drinking dark coffee while penning great American novels, and telling the world what’s going on through journalism: that is only a fraction of what Peter Heller, author of New York Times #1 Bestselling book, The Guide, balances throughout his life. 

Throughout his life, Heller has been a construction worker, a river guide, and delivered pizzas, among other things. Now, he lives with his wife in Denver, Colorado as a novelist and journalist. 

When he is not out on thrilling adventures with a pocketed notebook and pen, Heller goes to his favorite coffee shop for an hour a day and writes. He sits at a table accompanied by two big mugs of strong French roast coffee, puts soft rain music on his headphones, and starts his work. Inspired by his favorite authors, Heller writes exactly a thousand words a day and then stops. This gives him more motivation to continue the next day. Although Heller prefers being out and about on adventures, writing does not bore him. Instead, he lives even more through his stories. He has learned how to intertwine his favorite topics, the environment and writing, to create a career he loves wholeheartedly.  

“The more I traveled, I can see the coral reefs were dying. I can see that the forests were having a tough time. We’re losing habitat. So I just wrote more environmental pieces. It’s always tough because I love to be athletic. I love to do stuff. I love to paddle a kayak, I love to bike, all that sort of stuff. But I also want to become the best writer I can be, and that means you have got to sit still at a desk for hours every day. So my challenge all my life has been, how do you make a living, how do you keep writing as much as you can, and how do you integrate all those things? And it’s been a challenge, but it’s been really fun,” Heller said. 

His most recent novel, The Guide, was inspired by one of these adventures. Heller has the ability to recognize when some exciting part of one of his escapades will make way into a new book. 

“I did some travel stories for magazines, to very luxurious fishing lodges. And I think when I sat down I guess I had sort of a gleam. I thought, ‘I’m going to have a lot of fun with this.’ I saw a lot of stuff, definitely thought it was intriguing at some of these places,” Heller said.

For Heller, writing is not just an escape, but a passageway into a whole new world. Despite him penning this “world” himself, he experiences a great deal of excitement as he watches his stories unfold. Unlike many other writers, this novelist does not start with an outline. Instead, he starts writing, starts creating, and lets the story go to its intended place. For him, this is what makes writing less of a chore and more of a quest. 

“To me, what I’m writing, that’s the best part of my day. It’s the most free. It’s like I can go anywhere I want. It’s my party, right? I can cry if I want to. I can do any damn thing I want to. How exciting is that? It’s like being a mini God. You’re creating a whole world,” Heller said. 

Although Heller writes his fair share of reality pieces for magazine assignments, he feels his best when he’s writing fiction.

“The great thing about fiction is that it’s not me, it’s my characters, you know, so I can write anything I want. You can sort of hide, your characters are out front. It takes away the vulnerability that you have. I just get transported and I go into places I never could go,” Heller said. 

Heller’s characters are rarely planned out from before. The main character, Jack, and others in The Guide, did not exist fully until Heller finished writing the novel. Page by page, he built a personality into them and gave them depth, creating people that would stay with readers long after they finished the book. Heller discovers his characters just as readers do when they’re reading; he doesn’t know what’s next until it exists in words. 

“I just had to write and they start developing. They were sort of telling me who they were as I was writing, it’s sort of strange. I know some writers that make outlines and they have lots of descriptors about their characters, who they are, and their backstory, but I like to have fun. I like to come around a corner and be surprised. So I just sort of write my characters and follow them as they work into the story,” 

Not only can he create completely new people and write their stories, but he can also incorporate loved ones into his characters and get inside their heads to explore a side of them he had never before seen. In his 2017 book, Celine, Heller wrote about his mother, who passed away shortly before. 

“I was so devastated, and I thought that I just want to spend a year with my mom. I really miss her. So I wrote about it and in that way I sort of got to be,” said Heller.

Innate talent, the theory that some artists are just naturally gifted with their talent from birth, has been a confusing topic for many scientists over the years but Peter Heller takes this theory to another level. The more writing that flows out of him, the more readers are convinced Heller has a gift. Not only does Heller’s ability to write affect readers, but most importantly, it keeps him happy.

“I am so grateful,” Heller said. “Everyday, with that first cup of coffee on my porch, I give gratitude for this gift of storytelling.”