DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Our guest, Peter Heller, is an experienced outdoorsman and adventure writer who's gone to some pretty remote places and done some pretty dangerous things. His book "Whale Warriors" is about his time on a boat full of environmentalists ready to ram a huge commercial whaling vessel. He wrote "Hell or High Water" about an expedition to an unfathomably deep river gorge in Tibet.
Heller's now written his first novel, and it's, well, kind of about the end of the world. We meet two men struggling to survive at a rural Colorado airport after a pandemic has wiped out most of the country's population. Peter Heller holds an MFA from the Iowa's Writers Workshop in both fiction and poetry. He's a contributing writer to Outside magazine and a longtime contributor to NPR. His new novel is called "The Dog Stars."
Well, Peter Heller, welcome to FRESH AIR.
PETER HELLER: Thank you for having me.
DAVIES: Now, this is your first novel. You've written a lot of nonfiction. Why a novel set in a post-apocalyptic world where civilization has collapsed?
HELLER: Yeah, I'm not sure why. I know why I wanted to write a novel. I've been writing nonfiction for many years and, you know, when you write a nonfiction book, you know, of course I always know what's going to happen next, and I know what the ending is going to be. And all my life I've been, you know, writing poetry and working on little bits of fiction, and that's what I really wanted to do all my life.
And I got into writing nonfiction through magazine work and it was just a great way to make a living, but when I had a little money saved up, I decided to sort of head for the first love and I just didn't want to know what was going to happen next.
And so I went to the coffee shop where I write, and I sat down, and I began with the first line. So - and then, you know, I just sort of wrote in to the story. So I didn't even, to tell you the truth, know that it was going to be a post-apocalyptic story when I started.
DAVIES: Wow. The first line is: I keep the beast running. The beast refers to an old Cessna aircraft. That's how you started?
HELLER: Yeah, and, I mean, I know that this stuff about the unraveling of the ecosphere and the apocalypse is something that I've been thinking about a lot. I write a lot about environmental issues, and - I have a dear friend, he's a paleobotanist, and his - what he does is look at 70-million-year-old fossil leaves. And his specialty is the K-T Boundary. That's the geologic layer that represents the time between when there were a lot of dinosaurs and then when there weren't any.
So this guy, Kirk, is an aficionado of extinction, you might say, and we eat breakfast now and then and we always talk about, you know, this sixth great mass extinction that we're in the middle of right now that scientists, you know, are talking about a lot. We always end up imagining what it'll be like when that apocalypse, this unraveling, you know, begins to affect human society and what it'll look like.
So, you know, those themes had been on my mind, and so when I sat down to write, I think, you know, they had to be central to the book.
DAVIES: You know, I had my own notion about this, which is that, you know, as I read about what you've done, I mean, you've been quite an outdoorsman, you've been, you know, an expedition kayaker, you've gone to some incredibly remote and sometimes dangerous places. And I wondered if you were at times in places where it might have felt like you were one of the last people on Earth.
HELLER: Oh yeah, you know, that's - I hadn't thought of it that way, but I was thinking this morning about sometimes I just - the wonderful thing about, you know, traveling to these places and taking these expeditions is you have these memories and these images that sort of, you know, they form your interior landscape, and you can come back to them.
And this morning I was thinking about the Tsangpo Gorge in Eastern Tibet, and, you know, it's like the deepest gorge in the world. It's right in the middle of the high Himalayas, and it's so deep that it's sub-tropical. And there are tigers in there, and, you know, four species of leopards and 200 species and counting of rhododendrons.
You know, I was on this expedition that went through there, and it did, you know, it felt like the end of the world or maybe like some sort of Shangri-la, some sort of, you know, imagined place on Earth that no one had ever been to before. And so. yeah, maybe so. And I also think, you know, in this book, there is a lot - our hero Hig is very vulnerable every day. I mean, he's sort of living on the edge, and he never knows, you know, when he's going to meet that adversary or situation that might write his ending.
And I think, you know, on some of these trips, actually, you know, when you get into the kayak, you don't even know - you stretch the spray skirt on over the cockpit, and you don't know if that's the last time you'll ever be doing that. And you sort of pray that it's not.
And so I think I think that might have informed some of it, for sure.
DAVIES: Right, you know, one of the things that I thought - I just, I really enjoyed reading this. It's told in the first person. Your character Hig is this guy who was a pilot, and he's at an airport with another guy who's very different from him. And it kind of reminds me of the old jokes or stories about you being, you know, on a deserted island. I mean, who would you want to spend eternity with?
And of course the reality in this circumstance is that you don't get to pick.
DAVIES: So let's talk about these two characters. First your character, Hig, the one who tells the story. Tell us about him.
HELLER: Well, he's - he was a contractor. He was married, very happily married to his wife named Melissa. She was seven months pregnant when this super-flu hit and hit, you know, across - it was a pandemic, world pandemic. And so that was their first child. And so in this flu pandemic, he lost his wife, he lost his unborn child, he lost everything.
And in his previous life before that, he had wanted to be a writer. He was - he had written a bunch of poetry and was kind of a failed poet and, you know, had to go to work. And so, you know, he did this job building houses. And he's a big guy. He's a very tough and formidable dude, but, you know, he still has that sensibility of, you know, he just loves to read poetry more than anything.
And he has a sensitivity towards beauty and nature, and he loves to fly-fish. That's what he loves to do more than anything. And, you know, in this situation, in this post-Apocalyptic time that he finds himself in, he'll still at great risk to himself, he and his dog Jasper will head into the mountains just to go fishing.
DAVIES: Right, now they end up at this little rural airport called Eerie. Is it a real place?
HELLER: Yeah, it's where I keep my plane, the old '56.
DAVIES: A '56 Cessna, an old plane. And because of the circumstances, there are fuel tanks that are solar-powered. So he can - there's enough fuel that he can continue to fly. The other guy at the airport is the one he's destined to perhaps spend an eternity with, this character Bangley. Tell us about Bangley.
HELLER: Bangley's an enigma. You know, he shows up a few months after everything hit the fan with a trailer full of guns and ammo.
HELLER: And he's just a really mean gun nut, and you get the sense that he's been waiting for this his whole life, this sort of survival situation. And, you know, throughout the whole beginning of the book, you know, and as I was writing it, you know, I was discovering these characters that I was writing, just as Hig was. And so it was really fun.
You know, Bangley is a tough nut to crack. He doesn't give away much, and his whole deal is about survival. It is about dotting your I's and crossing every T and about redundancy and about never slipping up and never making a mistake and never letting some situation get out of hand or letting the other guy win.
DAVIES: And treating every other human being you may encounter as a threat.
HELLER: Yeah, definitely. He's a crusty dude for sure.
DAVIES: So tell us, what's the symbiotic relationship? Why does Bangley accept your character Hig into his little world?
HELLER: Well, you know, I think on the surface, you know, explicitly it's because Hig has this airplane, and he knows how to fly it, and every day, after - you know, there's a lot of action in the book, and in one of these sort of attacks that nearly cleans their clock, you know, Bangley sort of realizes that it's Higs' daily patrols in his old plane - you know, he circles out towards the mountain front, which is eight miles away, and then he circles around and does a - out to the south and then the east and to the north, he has a 30-mile radius.
And it's sort of a day's walk for an intruder. So after his patrol, he knows that they're safe for probably a - for 24 hours. And it's that patrol, that perimeter that Hig maintains that, you know, keeps him alive. You know, in Bangley's book, he's useful then.
DAVIES: And your character Hig is not happy just to stay alive, right. He's always kind of reaching for something else.
HELLER: Yeah, I mean, I -Hig's challenge is to find a reason to stay alive and to stay connected with the things he loves. I think that's why I named the book "The Dog Stars" because Hig sleeps out every night with his dog, Jasper. They huddle up and sleep out under the stars, and every night, Hig names the constellations.
And he used to have a book of stars, but now he doesn't, and so he remembers some of the constellations - you know, Orion and the Big Dipper, and the Chariot - but a lot of them he doesn't, so he makes them up and they're usually animals.
And he makes one up for his wife, and for the little angel, he calls it, which is - was his child, and he makes one up for Jasper, his dog. And it's his way of reinventing the world and also staying connected to the things he loves. So that's his challenge every day is to find a reason to live, to find joy, to find some richness. And I think that's what makes him so interesting. It's not just about, you know, finding the calories to stay alive.
DAVIES: And Bangley's reaction to every move is: that's too risky, make sure you're protected, get the right angles on an intruder, that kind of a thing.
HELLER: Exactly. Yeah, they're working at - you know, they have two different tracks they're working on every day.
HELLER: And so their relationship is very interesting, and Hig doesn't like to kill, and, you know, in a lot of ways, I'm like Hig in that way. I mean, I love to fly-fish, almost more than anything, and I hunt elk, and I just can't stand killing things. I mean, I'll - if I see a spider, you know, flailing on the surface of the water, I'll go to great effort to save him sometimes.
HELLER: Don't tell my buddies. But Hig is like that, too. You know, he just - he's in a situation where they do get attacked, and he does sometimes have to step up, and he just can't stand it, whereas Bangley, you know, he relishes that. And, you know, he thinks Hig lives in the past too much.
You know, a lot of the book is Hig's interior monologue, his memories of the past. There's a lot - there's layering of his memories of his marriage, of, you know, things he used to love to do, and his impressions, and so he's in his head a lot. And to Bangley, you know, this is just cross purposes to what they want to do. You know, he's always telling Hig to wake up, you know, stop - you know, he's going to be trying to think about the past and get blindsided by some...
DAVIES: We're speaking with writer Peter Heller. His new novel is called "The Dog Stars." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with writer Peter Heller. He has a new novel, his first. It's called "The Dog Stars." One of the things that people I think probably think about, if they know they're going to pick a post-apocalyptic story is: Is this just going to be nothing but despair? Did you know as you wrote it how much of that there would be?
HELLER: I was having so much fun, you know, as I was writing it that I never thought that it would be, you know, full of despair. And so I wasn't too afraid of, you know, "The Road" either, or anything like that because that to me is one of the great American novels, almost the last word on the American novel.
And I thought oh, my gosh, you know, am I going to be compared to that? And then I realized that this book was so - you know, I mean, I would be laughing out loud as these guys...
HELLER: You know, as these guys - as Bangley started to say some of the stuff he said, I'd just start laughing or, you know, crying sometimes. I mean, people in the coffee shop must have thought I was going through a divorce or something, I don't know.
HELLER: But anyway, it was fun like that, you know, just to discover - it was sort of like, you know, coming around a corner on a river, you know, that you hadn't done and not knowing what was there; if it was going to be a waterfall or a pool or a bear drinking. And it was like that every day, and it was just a gas. You know, I have to say it was like the most thrilling thing that I've ever done in my life.
DAVIES: All right, and without giving away too much, I will say that it is not filled utterly with despair. You know, but there is this question of - that you think about when you imagine what would it be like if you were really - if you lost not just your own family but that you faced a world when you might never have another real friendship again, kind of sort of that unfathomable loneliness. How do you fathom - how do you find it?
HELLER: Oh, it's interesting. You know, I think we all go through that in our lives, in our daily lives anyway, even with our families, even with our friends. I think that, you know, one of the most challenging things about being a human being is that we do feel alone sometimes. You know, we came into the world, you know, naked and alone; we're going to go out of it that way.
And we have - you know, we're blessed with being able to make these connections on the way, in our lives. But sometimes those connections can feel frayed, and we can feel alienated and not understood. And so I think it's almost just a figure for, or an analogy to just the challenges of being a human being in some ways. It's just the apocalyptic situation throws all that stuff into starker relief, I think.
DAVIES: All right, one more connection that I'm imagining between some of your life in, you know, in wild settings and the subject of the book. You know, you've taken people on some extreme adventures, and, you know, environments can't be controlled. There's weather. There's sometimes dangerous circumstances that arise. And you get to know, you know, to use sort of a cliched term, what people are made of.
And I wonder if you thought about what kind of people would best be able to manage the, you know, the disintegration of civilization. I mean, obviously, some technical skills would be helpful, but then there are also, I don't know, there's sort a mentality and emotional kind of composition that might fit better. Did you think about that at all?
HELLER: Yeah, I mean, it's nothing that again I consciously thought about, you know, as I was writing. But you do see it again and again on expeditions, and, you know, the people that - I did this expedition once that was - it was to a very extreme river in the High Pamirs along the Afghan border in Uzbekistan, and it was in the old Soviet Union. This was just at the end of the Soviet Union, around 1990.
And it was half-Kiwi, new Zealanders, and, you know, they had a couple rafts, and it was half-Russian, and they had these big floats, these big giant rafts. And it was down - the river came out of a hole in the ground, behind the Fedchenko Glacier, and there were snow leopards up there and everything. It was very high. It was very remote.
And the expedition before had lost five of its 11 guys. So it was very dangerous, and, you know, it was kind of intimidating. And that's what this expedition was coming into, you know, it was...
DAVIES: You mean they had been killed?
DAVIES: Wow, OK, sorry.
HELLER: So here comes these Kiwis and these Russians, and they come to this thing, you know, they're helicoptered into this high morained, stony camp above tree line. And the Kiwis were so optimistic. You know, you get to some raging rapid and some walled-in gorge, and, you know, the Kiwis would be hopping around the back going, you know, she'll be right - look at the line there, you know, no problem, you know.
And the Russians, they would like squat and just smoke and look really grim.
HELLER: And it was a wonderful sort of contrast, and, you know, tough, capable, competent dudes. And, you know, I don't know. I think they both did really well in the river, but I kind of - I'm in the Kiwi camp, and I think Hig is, too, which is there's that sort of resiliency, that sense of humor that keeps cropping up. You know, it's irrepressible.
Even with Hig, you know, in his situation, he's always thinking of funny stuff. And so, you know, I always found those guys - you know, I've never been, you know, in combat or anything, but I imagine, you know, if you talk to soldiers, it's probably the soldiers who are, you know, very resourceful but also have that sort of flexibility, the sense of humor that are the most, you know, survivable and formidable. I don't know. That's what I found.
DAVIES: You said that you've written poetry, read poetry for a long time. Did that inform the writing of this book?
HELLER: Definitely, yeah. I think that the writers I loved most all my life were musical writers, and in prose, you know, it's guys like - it's the guys like Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, and this great lyricist - this great music in their language.
And my dad started reading poetry to me when I was like six, you know, before I'd go to sleep. He would read e.e. cummings' Buffalo Bill's defunct who used to ride a watersmooth-silver stallion and break onetwothreefourfive pigeons - read that stuff, and that music, you know, as I became enthralled with poetry as a kid, you know, that's what I always wanted to do. I always wanted to write something with that kind of - with the power of song, of music. And so yeah, I would say that all the poets I've read have definitely informed the writing.
DAVIES: When you've been in the outdoors, and you've been in some incredible settings, do these awe-inspiring moments, I don't know, bring poetry to your head?
HELLER: Yeah, I think so. I can't keep the music out in a way. You know, you hear - you read Yeats, you know, he's like "Prayer for My Daughter," I've walked and prayed for this young child an hour and heard the sea wind scream upon the tower and under the arches of the bridge and scream, in the elms above the flooded stream.
I mean, that stuff is so magnificent, and it's - yeah, and it's nature, too. And yeah, I definitely, I mean, those sorts of - it's sort of like pop songs you can't get out of your head. Those lines, you know, sort of are running around my mind all the time.
DAVIES: You know, I pictured you in these outdoor settings with, you know, guys in kayaks and on - wearing crampons and muscles bulging out of their vests.
DAVIES: And you're this guy among them who sneaks off and reads poetry. I mean, do you fit in? Do you feel different?
HELLER: Oh yeah, those guys love it. I mean, you know, get out on some trip in the middle of nowhere and start reading, you know, reading them Keats, you know. They love the stuff. They just think you're a little odd, that's all.
DAVIES: Peter Heller's new novel is called "The Dog Star." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross who is off this week. We're speaking with Peter Heller. He's a veteran adventure writer who's written books about descending into a remote Tibetan River gorge and sailing with radical environmentalists trying to ram whaling ships.
He's now written his first novel, which is set in rural Colorado after a pandemic has destroyed human civilization. It's called "The Dog Stars."
Now you grew up in New York. What kind of neighborhood where you in? What kind of kid were you?
HELLER: So I grew up in Brooklyn Heights, which is, you know, it's a genteel neighborhood above the piers, right across from the Financial District in Brooklyn. And it was a quiet neighborhood. I spent all my time, like, in the bushes when I was really little around the playground. My friends were in the playground. I was like in the bushes. I don't know, just as a kid, I just wanted to be out of the city so bad. I couldn't stand the city. You know, I went to school. I liked school a lot. I liked reading. But I couldn't wait until I got out of there, and so I begged my parents when I was 15 to send me to a school in southern Vermont. I have a lot of cousins and uncle and aunt in Putney, Vermont, and so I went to a school there for high school and I, you know, I was just like oh my god, hills and rivers and it was great. And I loved it so much. I built a teepee and I lived in it, you know, through the Vermont winter when I was a teenager and cut my firewood and all that stuff. I was just, I was just so happy in the country. And so, you know, went on from there, you know, I stayed, I didn't want to go to college in the city so I went to college in New England in the country - yeah.
DAVIES: Right. And you became an expedition kayaker, right? I mean you would take groups of people into these remote settings and with tough rapids bring everybody back alive, huh?
HELLER: Yeah. I was a kayaking...
HELLER: Most of the times on the big expeditions I was on assignment, so I was like the - kayak - I was the writer in the kayak and I didn't lead the trip. But I did a lot of guiding and I did a lot of kayak instruction along the way and, you know, in Costa Rica and the Southeast and in Colorado. So, yeah, did a lot of that. On the big trips, you know, it was really I always just felt like I was so lucky to be along in that I could kayak well enough to be on the trips that I could write about it.
DAVIES: Right. I mean the - I guess the best known is the trip that led to your book "Hell or High Water," and that's this remarkable river gorge in Eastern Tibet. You want to describe the setting here and what this expedition was about?
HELLER: Oh gosh. I mean this thing is like mythic. This - the Tsangpo River runs west-east across Tibet. It drains the entire North Slope of the Himalayas. It's a big river. And then in Eastern Tibet at about 10,000 foot elevation it just drops off the edge of the earth and flows between two mountains - a 25,000 footer and a 23,000 foot peak. The peaks are very close together and the river just drops off between them. And then 150 river miles later, it flows out into the hills of Assam, India at an altitude of 500 feet. So if you think, it drops off the edge of 10,000 feet and 150 river miles later comes out at 500 foot elevation, think of the relief in there, the steepness of this river - and it's a big river.
So these guys, an expedition led by Scott Lindgren and a few of his kayak buddies decide that they wanted to try and kayak this river - and these are the best expedition kayakers in the world - they decide they wanted to kayak it in the middle of the winter when the river was at its lowest level, which was a good idea. And...
DAVIES: But when it's very, very cold, right?
HELLER: When it's cold. And at some point, you know, how many river miles? It's something like 20 river miles and the river gets to a precipitous waterfall that hadn't been described that was, you know, sort of imagined but hadn't described until 1998 by National Geographic. I mean that's how remote this place was. So you get to a place where you can't paddle any more and then you have to climb over a high snow pass. But the thing about it is, is that those passes aren't even, you know, the locals don't go anywhere near them after November. So here we are in February and these guys are carrying their kayaks up, you know these 60 degrees slopes. A guy is cutting step with an ice axe and...
HELLER: ...carrying their kayaks up these, you know, just open snow slopes way up over a high pass. It was epic and I was just, I was on the ground team and, you know, it was, we were 37 days in the gorge.
DAVIES: So now did you have a kayak yourself or you were...
HELLER: No, no, no, no, no, no. I was way past - I was 40-something, these guys were all like in their 20s, you know, nobody really older than 30. They kayaked, you know, 350 days a year, top of their form. And so I was on assignment. I just was on the ground team and I wrote about the story. But, you know, it was challenging enough just trying to get through there. Only two expeditions in history had ever done it.
DAVIES: So what does it mean to be on the ground team?
HELLER: It means that you're with five Nepali Sherpas, like Everest Sherpas, who were there for mountaineering and stuff and 60 porters and then this international team of like mountaineers and you are trying to keep pace with the kayakers, you know, along the side of this precipitous gorge. And so, yeah, it's just, it's a lot of walking, a lot of scrambling and some praying.
DAVIES: And this gorge inspired the legend of Shangri-La? Is that right?
HELLER: Yeah. Yup. It was the inspiration for Shangri-La and the gorge is very sacred to Buddhists and has one of the most remote - had one of the most remote temples on earth and the Chinese destroyed it in 1959. And so we walked among the ruins of that place. You know, you have to sort of picture this jungly(ph), you know, bamboo and rhododendron forest, the sort of the lid of a human skull lying in the leaves, you know, it was this, a ceremonial cup that they use where they kind of saw off the top of a skull that's just lying there in these leaves among these like ruins. It's just wild.
DAVIES: What was the most harrowing moment?
HELLER: I think for me I'm scared of heights so for me was, you know, when we had to do these traverses. You know, you get to a place you'd be, you know, kind of hopping along in the boulders along the bank and then you'd get to a place where there'd just be a big spur and the wall and you couldn't go any further, you'd have to climb up, you know, a couple thousand feet say to get around it and that, you know, that was dicey for me.
DAVIES: And you're a writer. How were you recording this? Did you...
HELLER: I once met John McPhee, you know, at a wedding, and I love his writing. and I asked him, you know, I said: Do you - when you're doing, you know, encounters with the Archdruid and you're, you know, you're writing these conversations while you're climbing these mountains and you're hiking along, are you actually writing them as you go or do you just kind of remember them, you have such a good memory? And he said oh - I think I was like 23 and he said always write it down as you go - I carry a little notebook with me as I'm hiking, and I'm writing as I'm walking. If you wait until the end of the day, you know, it'll all just sound like you. You know, you'll remember it, but it'll be in your voice. So to get the authentic dialogue, you have to write it down. And so I've always done, you know, I took that to heart and I always, you know, carried a note book in a little dry bag between my legs and a kayak. Whenever I pulled over I would write anything I, any conversations I heard or anything I'd seen. Same, you know, hiking along or climbing. And I think that's good advice also for, you know, writers just getting into that kind of journalism. I think any journalism, you know, write down what everybody says even the ers and the ahs and where they cough.
DAVIES: So an iPhone or a Blackberry isn't going to do that for you?
HELLER: It probably would but I'd be so afraid that it would run out of batteries were, you know, get wet. And it's just nothing like, I carry his composition books, you know, the ones we had in second grade - the black and white marbled ones, they're tough. I've had them blown into rivers and stuff and fetched them, dried them out and they still work.
HELLER: You know, it's not like your iPhone.
DAVIES: We're speaking with writer Peter Heller. His new novel is called "The Dog Stars." We'll talk more after a short break.
This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us we're speaking with writer Peter Heller. He has a new novel, his first, it's called "The Dog Stars."
Well, I just wanted to ask you about the time you spent aboard a vessel of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, this led to your book "Whale Warrior." People know about Greenpeace and their efforts to stop commercial whalers. These guys were a little different. You want to explain their approach?
HELLER: Oh yes, Sea Shepherd. They've got Greenpeace was, you know, they thought they were, what did they call them? Quakers with attitude. They had no respect for those guys. I got this assignment for National Geographic Adventure. They were sort of loath to do it because they didn't want to send a writer to glorify like any eco terrorism. And these guys are considered eco terrorists by the FBI and all that. So I showed up then, you know, I finally got the magazine to agree and I was, you know, I had to sign a letter saying I was a non-participant and so did Captain Paul Watson. And I showed up in Melbourne, Australia, with my duffel bag at the beginning of the Japanese whaling season in Antarctica. And I walked down to the dock and there was all these cafes and it's very prosperous and restaurants and people strolling along the dock.
And parked there was this all-black pirate ship with a jolly-roger flying at the bow. And I looked at the superstructure, you know, the part of the ship that sticks up with the bridge on it. And I looked at the side of the - and there were all these skulls and crossbones painted on it with the names of ships, Isba I, Isba II, the Morrill, the Sierra, and they were all, it was sort of like notches in a gunfighters belt, they were all ships that these guys had sunk or rammed. And so that was interesting, you know. I found my berth and I was informed that I was supposed to sleep in my clothes in case that there were some incidents like what happened with the Rainbow Warrior where there was sabotage and explosion. You have to be able to get up and out quickly, you could save your life that was, you know, a little bit interesting to hear.
And then we sailed. And I found that it was a vegan ship. I was glad I didn't bring the fishing gear I was going to bring. And straight south towards Antarctica. And after we got a few days past Tasmania, all the welders came on board and welded a big blade to the bow of the ship, and I'm talking about like a triple reinforced T-bar steel-sharpened blade for gutting the hulls of other ships. And that's when I knew that, you know, this assignment was not a lark at all. These guys were really serious about stopping the Japanese whaling fleet.
DAVIES: Right. Now they knew you were coming, right? They accepted you as a trustworthy journalist?
HELLER: You know, that was really interesting. I mean, you know, the letter that I signed said I was a non-participants so, you know, I was standing there with that little marble notebook I was talking about while they were moving stuff around in the deck and I would just kind of step of the way and write stuff down. But, you know, a week into it, you know, I was, you know, picking up stuff and helping them. I mean I'm just not the type of person just to stand there. And as I learned more and more about the crisis of the oceans and as I read more and more on the ship and talked to people - there were environmental film producers on board, they were marine biologists.
As I talked to these people about what was happening to the oceans, I have to say that I became less and less neutral and less and less objective as a journalist. You know, I sort of decided that these guys, what they were doing, trying to stop - I may not have believed in their methods, you know, I certainly wouldn't endorse violence or hurting anybody else. And luckily, they never had heard anybody in their rammings. But I did sort of feel like, you know, the Japanese shouldn't be whaling in an internationally ordained whale sanctuary in contravention of an international moratorium on whaling. They shouldn't be doing that and it, you know, somebody was actually going to go out there and put their lives on the line and stop them, you know, I have to admire them.
DAVIES: I want to talk about their encounter this huge Japanese vessel. But I wanted to ask first, you mentioned that they had some was eight vessels, most of them in port?
HELLER: Yeah. Yeah. Is that the number? I'm trying to remember now. I think it was...
HELLER: Yeah, it was eight.
DAVIES: A number. And how - why were they not arrested? I mean how can they be at a dock in Melbourne and not be arrested if they've sunk vessels?
HELLER: You know, Paul Watson, I mean, you know, he's a real iconoclast, he's a different kind of dude, and...
DAVIES: He's the commander of the vessel?
HELLER: Commander of the vessel and the director of Sea Shepherd. And, you know, he always does things, you know, his way. And what they did when they saw the ships in, like, in Norway they would be whaling ships, they would search them in the middle of the night and, you know, one time they found a drunken Norwegian watchmen in there, you know, asleep on the galley table. And they just cut the ship loose. But they would make sure no one was on there and then they would open to sea cogs(ph) or a couple of ships they blew the hulls open with limpet mines and sink them. And so they, you know, they got away without hurting anybody. But Watson begged the Norwegians to arrest him and put him on trial. And they wouldn't do it because they knew that it would give him a bully pulpit, that, sort of, podium to talk about Norwegian whaling. They, you know, they didn't want to give him the spotlight. So he was a very canny dude about, you know, keeping away from the law.
DAVIES: So you head off into these waters near Antarctica where you believe there's this Japanese vessel, the Nisshin Maru? Do I have that right?
HELLER: Yep. Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: And how were they able to find it out there in the open sea? This is a fascinating piece of the story.
HELLER: Yeah. So it was two and a half million square kilometers so it was like the area that they were searching was the entire western United States, you know? And the ship that they were on, the Farley Mowat, as menacing a pirate ship as it appears, could only go nine knots. I mean, you know, you can practically run that fast.
So the Japanese whaling fleet could go 25 knots. Way, way outpaced them. So how - sort of like if you were in a VW Beetle sitting in Denver saying I want to find a convey of semi-trucks somewhere in Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, you know, Oregon, Washington, California, you know, I don't know. And radar only goes out to line of sight, you know, 12 miles to the horizon. How do you do it?
And Watson, well, you know, he uses every method at his disposal and he did on one dawn, Christmas morning, in a force eight gale and 40 foot seas find Nisshin Maru. It was unbelievable. I remember I was standing on the bridge with him and it was the weirdest thing because the wind was blowing at whatever it was, you know, 45 knots. Huge seas and there was still fog which is a weird thing.
You know, if you grew up in New England you never see that. And it kind of like - the veil kind of tore away and there was this huge ship right in front of us. And they were idling, just trying to, you know, stay into the seas and idling, you know, against this gale, this huge Japanese factory ship. And they thought we on our little boat, or ship, where it was one of the Greenpeace ships.
So they weren't worried about us at all. They thought we had just come up on them. You know, they weren't expected the Sea Shepherd at all.
DAVIES: Because the Greenpeace ships observe. They don't try and interfere, right?
HELLER: They observe, they don't — yeah. And, you know, Watson attempted to attack them. It was, you know, sort of heart-stopping.
DAVIES: Right. Well, so he's got this ramming bar, I mean, this blade attached to the bow of his vessel and he's going to try and rip a hole in the hull of the Japanese ship, right? What happened?
HELLER: Well, so he had one shot at it because as soon as they would see, you know, who it was they would take off. So here he is. You know, he's coming up on them, pedal to the metal. It's sort of like, you know, give it more, Scotty. You know. Oh, Captain, she's, like, coming apart. It was like that.
And they did. You know, what he wanted to do - his plan was there's a slipway in the back in the stern of the ships where they crank the whales up. It's just a ramp in the stern and what Watson wanted to do was come up fast enough that he could ride up on one of these huge waves and then slam down on the base of the slipway at waterline and crack the hull at waterline.
Was, you know, it was highly dangerous to the crew and the ship, the other ship. That's what he wanted to do. So tried it. They looked out, you know, the bridge, saw who it was, and took off. And then the most amazing thing happened. I will never forget this the rest of my life.
That ship got about two miles out ahead of us and then it was as if the captain, this Japanese captain who had been doing this for, you know, years and years and years - he was so sick of Sea Shepherd. He was terrified of their attacks and it was almost like it was like let's just get this over with.
And I remember seeing that big factory ship just turn - turn to starboard and they slowed down and they were kind of like - we were both coming at an oblique angle towards each other. And he was like let's just get this over with. And the two ships came at each other and the distance closed and the seas were so big that this factory ship, the bow was, you know, three stories high.
It was airborne off of these waves and plunging down and tearing out huge chunks of ocean that were just ripped down away on the wind. And they got within 150 feet and the horns were blaring and then Watson signaled the guys on the stern to unleash a prop fouler.
A bunch of lines to try and foul their props. And it was unbelievable. Someone in the Nisshin Maru must've, you know, got a clue and got some sanity and they threw their wheel over and, you know, for an agonizing couple of seconds both ships just were side by side in these huge seas, you know, feet apart. And then they took off again. He didn't encounter them again for another, you know, uh, couple of weeks.
DAVIES: And is that as scared as you've ever been?
HELLER: I wasn't scared. I mean, it was the weirdest thing. You know, I had a dry suit. I had the little letter from National Geographic saying I was a journalist that I'd laminated. I figured I could wave it, you know, if I got - and I just, I was so, you know, in those situations you're sort of so immersed in the whole thing and you're so, kind of, excited to see what's going to happen, I mean, it wasn't really scary.
It was just more like a big adrenaline rush. But the relief that swept through the ship afterwards was really, you know, incredible. I mean, I think a lot of people on that ship thought that that was their last, you know, minute on earth.
DAVIES: We're speaking with writer Peter Heller. His new novel is called "The Dog Stars." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with writer Peter Heller. He has a new novel, his first. It's called "The Dog Stars." Your character in "The Dog Stars," Hig, is a pilot and his Cessna aircraft is an important part of the story and, you know, there's some really evocative scenes where he writes about flying. You're a pilot yourself, right?
HELLER: Yeah. I came to it in a funny way. I was doing a kayak trip in northern Montana. We had to fly into the river to do it. This is a few years ago, and I found that my favorite part of the whole trip was the flight in. You know, it was just so cool to be flying through these mountains close enough - where the wingtips were close enough to the mountain slopes that you could see, you know, the tracks of elk, you know, going up along the ridge.
And the landing in this little grass strip surrounded by mountains. I just thought it was cool. So I asked them. I got an assignment from Men's Journal. It was sort of like how to be a bush pilot in three weeks kind of thing. And, you know, they gave me the assignment. I went up there to Kalispell, Montana and I got my license in 20 days with these incredible back country pilots.
DAVIES: The assignment was to learn to fly and write a story?
HELLER: Yeah. It was like, could you, like, in three weeks, like, learn to fly, get your license, and then land on a back country strip. And so the guy I learned from, Dave Horner, is one of the truly great back country pilots in the world. He has 30,000 hours flying in the mountains of Glacier National Park and around there tracking wolves and grizzly bears - radio collar tracking.
So he's always flying low and slow with, you know, the mountain peaks all around him and above him. It's very dangerous flying and he's still alive after 30,000 hours. He's extraordinary. It was sort of like learning to play tennis from, you know, Roger Federer. It should never happen.
And he was so fun to learn from because he had been a logger and, you know, I was not a natural (unintelligible). I think it was like day three. We were landing in, like, Polson on the southern end of Flathead Lake and we came in, he goes you drive a truck? I'm like yes, yes, sir. He was like you drive a motorcycle? I'm like yeah. He goes, this isn't either one. It's a bird, damn it. You know, little adjustments, little adjustments.
HELLER: Then when we landed he turned and he goes that was atrocious. He said you landed and that looked like a sick goose. And, you know, for a logger to pull out the word atrocious, I mean, it was a special circumstance and I felt very honored.
HELLER: Anyway, I fell in love with flying and Dave actually emailed me, you know, a couple years ago a little bit after the assignment and said, hey, a buddy of mine who used this plane to track wolves, this 56 Cessna, it's a beautiful plane, he's selling it cheap. You should buy it. And I did.
DAVIES: Right. He will enjoy the book, I'm sure.
HELLER: Yeah. Oh, yeah.
DAVIES: But did I get this right? You're afraid of heights?
DAVIES: So how do you reconcile that with flying?
HELLER: It's different when you're actually, you know, at the controls and you're flying the plane. I don't know why. It's different than, say, being way up on a cliff with no rope.
HELLER: It doesn't bother me at all. And my wife is really relaxed. This old plane, the engine was timed out. We lost the engine right over the Continental Divide, basically. And, you know, I said Kim, I think we've got to turn back to Erie(ph) and land. She's like, oh, that's a good idea. You know, she's very calm and cool. So good person to fly with.
DAVIES: You lost the engine? The only engine?
HELLER: Yeah. It was starting to go. I mean, what happens is the prop goes over red line and you can't bring it back and so, you know, you know that the engine's getting torn up. And, you know, when I finally landed the guys at the airport who, you know, took the engine apart, said they'd never seen one so torn up that wasn't, like, in a wreck. So we were very lucky.
DAVIES: When you say over the red line you mean, like, what? Short of oil or something? Or burning up?
HELLER: No, the RPMs.
DAVIES: Oh. Revving too high.
HELLER: Yeah, the prop is just, yes, revving way too high and it's tearing up the engine. So that was my fault. I mean, I bought the plane with, you know, a timed out engine. They recommended only so many hours and I thought I could kind of nurse it along past that and I was wrong.
DAVIES: So do you ever think about slowing down and, like, writing about neurotic people in Manhattan or something?
HELLER: Oh, I'd love to. If I were smart enough I would do that. You know, I do. I slowed down a lot. I mean, what I love to do now is fish. I like to surf. Surfing is really a mellow thing, usually. I mean, you go out early in the morning and, you know, hopefully there's just a few people out and it's quiet. You ride up and down on the swell.
To me, catching the wave is just sort of the cream. And, you know, I love to drink coffee and, you know, write at the coffee shop. I love to fish and, you know, I'm married now. And I have a wonderful wife who, you know, I like to go biking around the park with. So, yeah. You know, things have slowed down a lot.
DAVIES: Peter Heller, it's been great. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
HELLER: Thanks for having me. It's fun.
DAVIES: Peter Heller's first novel is called "The Dog Stars." You can read or download audio of an exclusive selection from the book on the NPR website where it's part of the First Reads Series. You can find it at nprbooks.org. You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and you can download Podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.
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