Peter Heller (1959–) is a novelist and travel writer based in Denver. Best known for his 2012 debut novel, The Dog Stars, he is also the author of three other best-selling novels and four nonfiction books. His writing powerfully evokes the natural landscape of Colorado and the West, where he has lived most of his adult life.
Peter Heller was born on February 13, 1959, in New York City, to John and Caroline Watkins Heller. He grew up in Brooklyn as the oldest of three children, learning to love literature and art from his father, a copywriter and playwright, and his mother, an artist and sculptor. He wrote his first poem at the age of six.
Heller also developed an interest in the outdoors and the West through the novels of Ernest Hemingway and Louis L’Amour. As a teenager, he attended the Putney School, a private school in southern Vermont, which allowed him to develop his budding skills further as an outdoorsman. At Dartmouth College, he learned to kayak while also earning a bachelor’s degree in English in 1982.
After college, Heller struck out as a screenwriter in Los Angeles before coming to Colorado, where he worked odd jobs and wrote poetry in Boulder. His big break came in 1988, when he convinced Outside magazine to send him to Tibet to write a story about the first kayak descent of the Dadu River. In 1992 he collected that story and several others in his first book, Set Free in China.
In the early 1990s, Heller took a detour from his budding career in outdoor adventure writing to study fiction and poetry at the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he received his MFA in 1994. Meanwhile, he bought land near Paonia and built an off-grid cabin made of earth walls. He lived there for much of the 1990s while still working as a travel writer, contributing to NPR as well as magazines such as Outside, Men’s Journal, and National Geographic Adventure.
In the 2000s, Heller moved to Denver and turned to book-length nonfiction. Kayaking provided the subject for his first book, Hell or High Water (2004), which recounted the first descent of the harrowing Tsangpo Gorge in Tibet. His next book, The Whale Warriors (2007), told the story of an eco-pirate ship trying to stop illegal whalers off the coast of Antarctica. His last nonfiction book, Kook (2010), was a memoir of learning to surf in middle age, which won the National Outdoor Book Award for Outdoor Literature.
After his surfing adventure, Heller fulfilled a long-standing desire to write fiction. He finished his first novel, The Dog Stars, in just seven months. Published in 2012, it tells the story of a man and his dog trying to survive along the Front Range in the wake of a flu pandemic that has killed nearly everyone else and destroyed civilization. A tale of spiritual regeneration amid death and devastation, the novel became a best seller and was listed by the Atlantic and Publishers Weekly as one of the best books of the year.
Heller’s subsequent novels—The Painter (2014), Celine (2017), and The River (2019)—also received largely positive reviews from national outlets such as NPR and the New York Times. A gripping story of a tempestuous artist who commits murder, The Painter won the Reading the West Book Award and the Colorado Book Award and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. The detective story Celine and the wilderness thriller The River became best sellers and were named to several best-of-year lists.
Heller’s novels are prized for their beautiful, detailed descriptions of the natural world of the American West, which serves as the backdrop for dark, suspenseful adventures involving violence and loss. Despite experiencing significant struggles and sadness, his characters nevertheless maintain their humanity through their connection to the glimpses of peace and promise of new life that nature provides.
A devoted environmentalist, Heller lives with his wife, Kim Yan, in a net-zero house near Sloan’s Lake in Denver. They also spend time at their off-grid cabin near Paonia and their house in Zihuatanejo, Mexico.