Sharon Sullivan

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December 20, 2012
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Author talks about best-selling book set in Grand Junction, Colorado

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. - This year's One Book, One Mesa County 2013 selection, "The Dog Stars" by Peter Heller, is a perfect choice for Grand Valley readers for several reasons.

It's a New York Times bestseller; an Atlantic Monthly best book of 2012; and a Publishers Weekly best book of 2012. On Friday, Apple iTunes named it "novel of the year."

National Public Radio listed it as a "best book;" so has Hudson Booksellers, Amazon and several others.

The book is being translated into 15 different languages, and there are plans already to make it into a movie.

And, the story takes place in Colorado, including Grand Junction.

The story centers on Hig, a pilot, who has survived a flu epidemic that has killed everyone he knows, including his wife, Melissa. Hig lives in an abandoned airport hangar near Erie, Colo., with his dog, Jasper; and his only neighbor is a "gun-toting misanthrope" who goes by his last name of Bangley.

Hig flies his 1956 Cessna around the airfield's perimeter, and occasionally into the mountains to go fishing. After years of living in a post-apocalyptic world, one day Hig hears a radio transmission from Grand Junction - and eventually flies west (knowing he doesn't have the fuel to return home).

Heller, 52, is an award-winning magazine journalist based in Denver, who has written for Outside magazine, National Geographic Adventure, and Men's Journal." He currently writes for Bloomberg Businessweek and is the author of four nonfiction books.

Unlike all the nonfiction pieces that Heller has written previously, he began the novel not knowing where it was going, or how it would end.

"I went to the coffee shop (where Heller does all his writing), and wrote the first line. As I wrote the second and third page, it became a post-apocalyptic novel," - not what Heller had intended, but a project different than others of that genre, he said.

"About 10 pages in I was laughing out loud at the main character, who has a sense of fun, even in a bleak world," Heller said, during a phone interview with the Free Press earlier this week.

The writing style, the dialog, is different than most novels - it's written the way people actually talk.

"I wrote it down as I heard it, as if we were sitting at a campfire," Heller said. "It's the way someone would be speaking, especially in the beginning, (someone who's been) heavily traumatized, the clearing of the throat, the broken language."

Twenty years ago Heller was an avid kayaker living in Boulder, with a Master's in Fine Arts in both poetry and fiction from the Iowa Writers Workshop. He turned to magazine writing as a way to combine his writing skills with a love for the outdoors.

His goal was always to write a novel that had "the music and some of the power of poetry," Heller said.

He accomplished that with "The Dog Stars." His descriptions of the outdoors are beautiful, and vivid.

As a magazine writer, Heller gradually shifted from adventure-type articles to more environmental pieces as he became more aware of environmental devastation, he said.

Heller's essay, titled "The Fight Over Fracking in Colorado's North Fork Valley," appeared in the July 12, 2012 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek.

Heller lived outside of Paonia for 10 years, and it's clear in "The Dog Stars" that he knows the land. Heller spent years hunting, fishing, mountain biking, skiing and kayaking on the Western Slope, he said.

For the past 10 years, Heller has written 1,000 to 1,200 words a day - stopping in the middle of a scene, a thought, a dialog - a writing practice he said he borrowed from the late English novelist Graham Greene.

"It's great, you can't wait to get up and write the next day," he said.

Heller said he is looking forward to visiting the Western Slope in March for a series of One Book, One Mesa County author events.

He's especially pleased that the novel is Mesa County's One Book choice, given that part of the story takes place here.

"There's something wonderful about doing something you've wanted to do since you were 6, and have people respond to it. It's really, really wonderful," Heller said.

His second novel, recently finished, but not yet titled, is also set on the Western Slope.

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The Post Independent Updated Dec 21, 2012 11:34AM Published Dec 20, 2012 02:58PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.