Years ago, Peter Heller was at a party when he met a geochemist, “melancholic but charismatic,” who mentioned he’d lost his wife during a camping trip. Heller listened as the man told his story, explaining how his wife wandered away to relieve herself and never returned.
“I walked away from that conversation, and I knew he was lying,” says Heller of the incident that happened more than 40 years ago and is the basis for his latest novel, The River (Knopf). “I was only 17, but I knew. And that stayed with me.”
The River, Heller’s fourth novel, features Wynn and Jack, college students on a canoe trip in Canada, who hear a man and woman arguing at a campsite. Fleeing a wildfire, Wynn and Jack decide to stop to warn the campers but find no one. The next day, they meet a man who says his wife has disappeared.
Awash in natural color and vivid details, The River becomes a morality play masquerading as an adventure story.
“Those guys make a choice and try to keep other people safe,” says Heller, who appears Fri., Sept. 6 at the opening night of the Beaver County BookFest. “To me, that’s a big deal. That defines their character.”
Formerly a contributing editor for Outside magazine, Heller wrote four nonfiction books before publishing the critically acclaimed novel Dog Stars in 2012. That book, a post-apocalyptic story, was followed by Celine, a novel inspired by his mother who was a private detective, and The Painter, an examination of an artist’s life.
“I don’t want to be too comfortable either in any genre or setting or with certain kinds of characters,” Heller says. “For me, the thrill of fiction writing is that it’s a lot like a river expedition. You’re on this current, this river, you follow it into a territory where you’ve never been. You don’t know what’s there. It’s terra incognita.”
If there is a theme that runs through Heller’s work, it’s his love of the natural world. The River is filled with evocative descriptions of the Canadian wilderness and what it’s like to be disconnected from civilization.
Despite growing up in New York City, Heller says he was always happiest when his family took summer trips to the Adirondacks, where he learned to paddle a canoe and swim and fish. By the time he went to college, Heller knew he was going to be a nature writer, so he studied English and biology.
Heller, who now lives in Denver, agrees that if he hadn’t grown up in city environments, his fascination with nature might not have been so keen.
“I think the most passionate outdoors people are the ones who grow up in the city because they are so damn grateful to be in nature,” he says.
Beaver County BookFest Opening Night with Peter Heller, 6-8:30 p.m. Fri., Sept. 6. Irvine Square, Beaver. www.littsburgh.com