Q & A with Peter Heller – “The Dog Stars”

Denver’s own Peter Heller, following a string of adventure-packed non-fiction books (chasing Japanese whale hunters, kayaking remote whitewater in Asia, and learning to surf) has his first novel out. The Dog Stars is a post-apocalyptic story about life, death, living, loving, nature, and brutality. It will no doubt draw many comparisons to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

My review follows.

First, Peter was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book and his thoughts about a planet under stress. He also sent along pictures of Jasper and The Beast. Both the dog and the airplane play critical roles.

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Question: For starters, what was the moment-of-inspiration for this book? Did the idea evolve over time—was it something you’ve been contemplating for a long time—or did it just come to you all in a flash? Do you think we are headed for some kind of apocalypse that will leave a few humans left to struggle and fight over what’s left?

Heller: Mark, you and I both have I have a good friend who is one of the world’s leading paleobotanists. Kirk Johnson studies seventy million year old plant fossils. You might say he has the Long View. One of his areas of expertise is the “K-T Boundary,” the geologic layer that represents the line between when there were lots of dinosaurs and when they all went extinct. About 65 million years ago.

Kirk is an aficionado of extinction. We go to breakfast now and then and one of the topics that always comes up is how we’re now in the middle of the Sixth Great Mass Extinction, this one caused by us. This often leads to imaginings of what the apocalypse will look like when it comes, which it surely must. The eco-sphere as we know it is unraveling so fast. The odd thing is, these are not depressing discussions. To us, they are exciting, riveting. Scary, too. But the prospect that the earth may try to shrug off Homo sapiens after what he has inflicted on millions of other species does not seem unjust. What would you do when everything really hits the fan? How would you reckon the losses? How do you reckon the losses that are occurring now? I think that when I came at last to writing a novel this is the subject that was most on my mind. And in my heart. I am, if I am moved by anything, profoundly moved by nature. Have been since I was the smallest child. And moved by her struggles right now. These themes had to be central to this book.

I had been writing non-fiction for many years, and when I wrote those books I always knew of course what was going to happen next, how it was going to end. This time I wanted to be surprised. Like kayaking a river you’ve never done: coming around a tight bend and not knowing what would be there—a pool, a waterfall, a bear drinking, a battalion of Yanomami. I wanted to be surprised, shocked, thrilled, awed. Maybe terrified. When I sat down to write The Dog Stars I began with a first line and wrote into the story.

Question: Your story has several elements in common with McCarthy’s The Road.  It’s post-apocalypse and there are very few characters. Is that on purpose? While The Dog Stars has a great deal more specificity and detail to the world Hig inhabits and while there are some very uplifting and human moments in The Dog Stars, what was the thinking about writing something in a similar vein?

Heller: I think The Road is one of the great American novels. Almost the last word on the American novel, and I admire McCarthy’s writing with a passion. But I didn’t sit down to write anything similar. I sat down instead with all my feelings about where the earth was headed and how human beings are participating in this arc, and with a huge desire to write fiction, which is what I’ve wanted to do since I was six. It was like coming home. My spirit just sang. At some point I realized, Hey, I am writing a post-apocalyptic novel. And I knew that it would be compared with The Road. Dang. By then it was too late. Happily, I also knew that the tone of these two books is very different, almost diametrically opposed, and that The Dog Stars would stand on its own.

Question:  Hig is a pilot, a hunter, a fisherman, an outdoorsman and a poet—at least, he sees his world quite poetically. You are a pilot, a hunter, a fisherman, an outdoorsman and you are, in fact, a poet. How much of Hig is an extension of you?

Heller: Fiction writers like to say that all their characters are somehow extensions of themselves. Hig is very close to my heart. He loves what I love, shies from the things I shy from, cries over the things I would cry over and laughs hard at the things I think are funny. He also loves many of the same poems. But he cooks. He excels at it. That’s one thing I always swear I will learn to do.

Question: Are you an optimist or a pessimist when it comes to future of the human race? Can “we” find a way to take a step back and live in balance with the Earth?

Heller: Of course we can–live in balance with the earth. Humans are very good at doing the same thing and expecting different results. It’s the optimist in us! So we may need a little help. A flu pandemic could be just the thing…

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Thank you Peter !

By the way, The Dog Stars is an Amazon Best Book of the Month, IndieBound pick for August, Publisher’s Weekly pick for fall, and an NPR First Read.

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Review:

In The Dog Stars, the “old rules” are done.

For the first big chunk of the novel, we’re with Hig and Bangley at an abandoned airstrip near Denver. Hig is our narrator, a survivor of a major pandemic that has left resources scarce and left behind a world where it’s every man for himself.

“Old rules are done Hig.” (This is Bangley talking but Heller uses no quote marks in the book.)  “Went the way of the woodpecker. Gone with the glaciers and the government. New world now. New world new rules. Never ever negotiate.”

Bangley is the grizzled older tough-guy and weapons nut who is merciless when it comes to watching out for numero uno. Hig is more sensitive, reflective type—more apt to head into the countryside for a fishing trip with his dog, Jasper—but finds it with himself to kill when it’s needed.

Thinks Hig: “Life and death lived inside each other. That’s what occurred to me. Death was inside all of us, waiting for warmer nights, a compromised system, a beetle, as in the now dying black timber on the mountains. And life was inside death, virulent and insistent as a strain of flu. How it should be.”

The first third of the book is about Hig and Bangley working to gather resources and keep their “world” going, including fending off attackers and defending their corner of the bleak landscape. In the middle third, Hig flies to Western Colorado in hopes of finding a voice on the other end of a radio transmission. In the last section, Hig first must find a way to avoid getting shot by a rancher and his daughter, who treat Hig at first the way he has treated others. Slowly Hig ingratiates himself into the small farm, finds himself drawn to beautiful and alluring daughter, Cima.  Hig helps them escape and then….

Okay, I don’t want to have to use the words “spoiler alert” but the love story at the end here—significantly between a healthy man and a healthy woman—distinguishes The Dog Stars from The Road. 

Heller’s prose is light, breezy and wonderfully poetic.  He uses a choppy, brisk, and nearly pixilated approach to descriptions. “Younger than. Or not. Leaner. White haired. Hard like shoe leather. Creases. Creased lines deep from cheeks down. Grimace lines. Spray of creases from corners of the eyes, outside corners. Gray eyes sparking.”

But he mixes it up, too.  In the airplane flying west: “Drop down and follow the Fraser past Tabernash. Most of the valley burned except the firehouse and the discount liquor store which now stands alone at the edge of a field full of bighorn sheep. They rouse, swing and trot in a panic toward the blackened forest as I pass and I see four wolves standing out of the grass and they turn them back like sheepdogs. Fly on.”

Heller is a pilot and his knowledge here plays a nifty role in helping make the return trip to the Front Range. The flying sequences are powerfully written.

I can imagine hundreds of fascinating book club discussions debating whether The Dog Stars envisions a world we should all fear—and perhaps do something now to avoid. (OK, I’d vote for a plan of action now.) The central question is what is a good man going to do? How will he act? How will he behave when all the rules have changed?

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