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Award-Winning Author Discusses Writing Career At LitFest

Peter Heller shares writing and nature experiences with student body.

National best-selling author Peter Heller, the keynote speaker for the 27th annual Highland Park Literary Festival, has lived a life most people can only dream about.  

Heller was born and raised in Brooklyn Heights in New York where his father was a writer and his mother was a private investigator. At an early age he fell in love with reading and writing and remembers writing his first poem at just six years old. 

“It started out, ‘my eye, my eye, with which I see the world,’” Heller said. “I just knew I was going to be a writer.”

Although he grew up in one of the largest cities in the world, Heller never enjoyed the bustle of the metropolis. 

“I knew I wasn’t a city kid,” he said. “I went to camp, ever since I was nine, up in the Adirondacks for seven weeks at a time and I learned to canoe, hike and climb. I just loved it all.”

Knowing he would be better suited for country life, Heller begged his parents to let him move to Vermont when he was 15. His parents eventually agreed and he was sent to a boarding school there.   

“I never looked back,” Heller said.

After graduating from high school, Heller attended Dartmouth college where he studied English and biology, combining his love for writing with nature and the outdoors. Post college, Heller took on various jobs including kayak instructor, construction worker and pizza deliverer while he was trying to get his stories published in magazines. 

After his friend suggested that he write to Outside Magazine, a publication that blends the two things Heller loves most, he was hired to write a story about his experience going on a whitewater expedition in Tibet where he would make his way through the Tsangpo Gorge with a ground team. What followed was assignments to Peru, the Tien Shan mountains, the Pamirs and even the opportunity to join the crew of an eco-pirate ship belonging to the radical environmental group the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society for National Geographic Adventure.

“There was this all-black pirate ship tied up with a jolly Roger skull [flag] and I walked up to it and I saw all these skulls and crossbones painted on the superstructure with the names of ships,” Heller said. “I realized these were all ships they had rammed or sunk. I kind of knew from the beginning that this was going to be really serious.” 

Despite the slightly intimidating first impression of the expedition he would be joining, it wasn’t long before Heller saw how passionate the group was about protecting sea life, particularly whales, and the lengths they were willing to go to keep them safe from harm. 

“It was like 40 people totally committed and ready to die to save the whales and I thought that was really moving because what they were really doing was trying to raise awareness about the crisis of the ocean through this sort of sensational activity,” he said. 

Still, no matter how many thrilling and life changing adventures he goes on, Heller always finds himself coming back to sit down to a cup of coffee and putting pen to paper. Heller has dabbled in different forms of writing varying from journalism to literary nonfiction, but he says fiction is undoubtedly his favorite genre to write. 

“Once you start making it up you can’t go back,” he said. “I get totally transported in writing fiction. The characters feel so real to me.”

Heller calls “The Dog Stars”, his 2012 novel about a pilot trying to survive in a post apocalyptic world, his favorite out of all of his published novels because of the emotional attachment he has to the characters. New Regency Pictures also recently announced that they had acquired the film rights to the book, news Heller says he is very excited about. 

Heller jokes that he can’t get his creative juices flowing without several cups of coffee first and prefers working in coffee shops to his home office. He says the secret to preventing himself from getting writer’s block is to never write less than 1,000 words a day.

“I always go just past [1,000 words] until I’m in the middle of a scene that really excites me,” he said. “So what happens then is that I can’t wait to get up the next morning and keep writing. You get a lot of momentum that way.” 

For Heller, the most important part of being a writer is to find the joy in the work. His philosophy is that if he’s enjoying writing, then that will translate into the finished product and readers will enjoy reading his work. He says he hopes to have communicated this in his presentation to the student body and the rest of the community on March 2. 

“I don’t have any agenda. I just want people to be inspired to read,” Heller said. “Stories are not only fun and an escape, but they can really help us navigate our lives because they deal with all those big issues that are tough.”

During his presentation Heller also shared that while his journey to becoming a successful writer has not always been an easy one, it has definitely been worthwhile. He encourages students who are interested in pursuing a career in writing to push themselves and not be afraid to start over. 

“Treat it like an olympic sport,” he said. “Bring the best of yourself to your writing.”

About the Contributor
Lucy Gomez, Editor-in-chief
What is your favorite dessert? Lemon bars What do you like to do to relax? Do a face mask What is your zodiac sign? Scorpio