Peter Heller knows how to write the outdoors.
The veteran adventure and environment reporter took a turn to fiction with 2012's The Dog Stars, a post-apocalyptic novel set in western Colorado, and that turned out to be a good move. Rich with a landscape coming back from humanity's ravages and a human heart — the hero, Hig, is looking for a reason to live, and that means to love — The Dog Stars made multiple best-books lists, got rave reviews and has been optioned for a movie adaptation.
Now, Heller's coming to the Pikes Peak Library District's eighth annual Mountain of Authors, where he'll be the keynote speaker at the free event.
"What I like to do is to read a little from the book," says Heller. "I think it's really great to hear fiction read aloud by the author, especially since it's a first-person narrator. You can kind of hear Hig's voice as I heard it."
Heller will also discuss how, after years writing for publications like Outside and National Geographic Adventure, he came to write fiction.
"I've wanted to write a novel since I was about 11," he says. A school librarian pointed him toward fiction by giving him Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time, with its Nick Adams stories.
"I took it home and my jaw just dropped," Heller says. "I wanted to hop off a freight in Upper Michigan, walk into burned-out forest and hike to this river and camp and make cowboy coffee — I didn't know what that was, but it sounded like it would burn my tongue — and fish for the most beautiful trout in the world."
Mostly, even though he was an 11-year-old Brooklyn kid, "I wanted to do those things and write about it the way this guy was writing about it."
And he did, with stories that included reporting on Japan's dolphin killing, as well as books about kayaking Tibet's Tsangpo Gorge.
Then, he turned his hand to a novel.
"I just started with the first line and let it rip," Heller says. "It was Hig talking, and a few pages into it, I realized that it was a post-apocalyptic novel and went, 'Dang it! I don't want to write a post-apocalyptic novel.'"
Of course, that's not necessarily a choice. Years before that, he'd begun to focus more on environmental journalism because, in his travels, he became "more and more aware that the ecosphere was unraveling."
"It's been a huge issue and a challenge to me to realize that we are in the middle of the sixth great mass extinction," Heller says. "That is the story of our time. There is no other story that can touch it. Species are going extinct at a rate faster than when the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, and we're causing it. It's hard to grapple with emotionally and spiritually."
So he let Hig, the protagonist of his novel, do the grappling. In a Western Colorado airport nine years after a nasty strain of influenza has killed off 97 percent of humanity, Hig's only comforts are his dog, his survivalist neighbor and a Cessna nicknamed "the Beast."
But even though Hig is traumatized and the scenario is bleak, The Dog Stars is an optimistic novel. Part of that, Heller says, is because Hig is "hugely resilient and has this joy of life that he's trying to keep intact."
The optimism also comes from the reality that "without people, things are starting to rejuvenate."
"The forest is starting to come back in patches, and Hig notices that," says Heller. "The wolves are coming down out of the hills and onto the plains, the buffalo are repopulating, the grizzly bears are moving out and expanding their range. In some ways, it's exciting."
Heller's second novel, The Painter, due to be published by Knopf in May, is also set in Western Colorado. In it, an expressionist painter flees Taos after serving a year for shooting a man in a bar, and subsequently suffering the loss of his daughter. While trying to rebuild his life, painting and fly fishing, he is pushed to another act of violence that sends him into a journey of self-examination.
Clearly, Heller has no intentions of letting go of fiction: "Everything you know, and a lot of stuff that you don't know or didn't know that you knew, goes into it."