A Conversation with Peter Heller, Author of "The Painter"
Our Seattle Reads author Peter Heller chatted with Reader Services librarian Linda Johns about the power of community book events, the inspiration for his character Jim Stegner, and the crush he had on a librarian when he was eleven years old.
Thank you for being a part of Seattle Reads. You’ve participated in other community reads projects recently. What have those been like, and how are they different from traditional bookstore events for you?
I love community reads. The way an entire region can get involved with one book. In Colorado, one city had fly-fishing groups, the county health department, and astronomy hobbyists meet about “The Dog Stars.” In Bend, Oregon, fifty-three master quilters created quilts inspired by scenes in the novel. I walked into the gallery and nearly fell over. That evening I was up on the stage about ready to speak and the library unveiled a painting made by a local artist of my hero dog, Jasper. I was so moved it took me a minute to gather my wits. Having a whole town or county focus on one of my books is deeply humbling, and a huge honor and a thrill.
You’ve talked about an epiphany you had when you were eleven years old, and a librarian handed a particular book to you. Could you tell us about that moment?
I was walking around my little school library in Brooklyn Heights. The librarian was named Annie Bosworth and I had a crush on her. A great librarian—someone who has been involved with your reading for years—they know. They know what you are ready for. She pulled Hemingway’s “In Our Time” off the shelf and handed it to me. I took it home and my jaw dropped. The prose came through my skin. I wanted to do that. Fish for those big gorgeous trout in the Big Two-Hearted River. Have a girlfriend who could row like a man—and then break up with her! Because Nick did. (What a fool!) But mostly I wanted to write about it all like this guy. It changed my life.
One of the people in the dedication of “The Painter” is Jim. Can we assume that’s artist Jim Wagner? And can you tell us a little bit about him and the relationship of the real Jim to the fictional Jim Stegner?
Yes, it’s Jim Wagner. I begin a novel from a first line and follow the music of the language and the voice. This voice began to sound a lot like my dear friend Jim W., a truly great painter in Taos. I knew I had to call him. When I told him what the book seemed to be about, he said, “That sounds awesome! Let me know how it goes.” The backstory of the two Jims is the same—a shooting in a bar (the man lived), prison, a disintegrated marriage, brilliant painting. But everything else is fictional. When I got the first copy of the book I sent it to Jim and he called me right back and said, “I love it! I’m walking around my house wondering if I killed a guy!” That’s the kind of feedback a novelist loves to hear.
How much of the descriptions of the process of painting came from your relationships with artists in your life?
Much came from my long friendship with Jim Wagner. He was my fly-fishing buddy for ten years in western Colorado. I often watched him work. My mother was a painter and sculptor, my father paints, and my grandmother and uncle did as well. I absorbed a lot just being around artists.
In what ways does your own creative process overlap or differ from what you’ve learned about a visual artist’s process?
I write in much the same way Jim Wagner and his doppelganger, Jim Stegner, paint. When those guys approach the canvas they usually have no idea what they are going to paint. It was such a thrill watching my character Jim work. The paintings unfolded and surprised both of us. I like to start a novel with a first line and go with it, following the rhythm, the voice, the music.
How much about the book “The Painter” did you know or understand when you began writing it? What was revealed to you during the writing?
All was revealed in the writing! There is nothing more thrilling.
After years of successful journalism and nonfiction, what brought you to fiction?
I have been wanting to write fiction since that day when I was eleven and read Hemingway. I wrote short stories and poetry all my life. But I had to make a living and so I wrote adventure for magazines. It was a wonderful way to make ends meet. But writing a novel, at last, was like coming home.
You’ve said that you use the Graham Greene approach to writing. Can you tell us a little about that, and your process?
I read that Graham Greene wrote five hundred words a day, every day of his life. He kept a subtotal and stopped on word five hundred. When I read that, I realized that he was stopping in the middle of things. Rather than writing through a scene the way I and all my author friends liked to do, it occurred to me that when you write through a scene and stop, you are always ending at a transition, white space. Might as well start the book over every day. So I began to write my words every day but continued on until I was in the middle of an exciting scene or thought and then I stopped. Then I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and continue. It changed my relationship to my work.
Can you tell us a little about what you’re working on now?
I’m working on a castaway novel set off the coast of Maine. I adore the sea.
What are five books you’ve read (and loved) recently?
I have been slowly reading Álvaro Mutis’s “The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll.” A truly great writer from Colombia. He reminds me of [Joseph] Conrad and is just as good. I have been reading César Aira, the Argentinian, nonstop—he has written something like seventy novels. One could start with “The Hare.” I just read [Michael] Ondaatje’s “The Cat’s Table,” and marveled at the patience and power of the tale. I recently reread Faulkner’s “The Hamlet” and can’t recommend it enough. Just pure fun. And I keep Kenneth Rexroth’s translations of the Chinese poets on my bed table and read them again and again.
What up-and-coming writers would you love to tell us about?
He’s not up and coming, but people may not know of his work: Bill Roorbach, the novelist from Maine, is just brilliant. I love all his books.
What is one of your favorite things about your local library now?
The Denver Public Library is very brave. A few years ago they displayed Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” in original manuscript. You know it was written on a continuous roll, and every few days they displayed another twenty feet! It was absolutely marvelous—following down the glass counter, reading that nonstop ecstatic prose.
I love how you wrapped up "Peter Heller Recommends..." in “Poets & Writers” (September 18, 2012). Could you send us off with a comment on this quote from that piece?
“If I can’t fish I read the poets of the late Tang—Li Po, Wang Wei, Li Shang Yin. They can put me there in a moment, knee-deep in a stream, up in the tearing clouds of the mountains. They are aficionados of loss, and they make me feel vulnerable and stricken and full of joy. That is a good place to write from."
These poets are my touchstone. I said that I kept Kenneth Rexroth’s translations on my bed table. There is a simplicity and honesty and beauty in these poets that few in the last centuries have matched. They have great humor, too, at times. They are my guides and my mentors and they remind me of what is true in the world.
Our thanks to Peter Heller for taking the time for this interview.