Peter Heller's Approach: 'Start With A First Line And Let It Rip'

Mar 15, 2018

The bestselling author of "The Dog Stars" returns with a luminous and captivating novel about an eccentric, glamorous private eye who specializes in reuniting long-lost family members, seeking reparations for her own fractured past.


The following highlights are from a conversation with Peter Heller about his novel, Celine. To hear more, click the audio link above or subscribe to our podcast.

Sarah Aronson: It’s written in the dedication, “To Caroline Watkins Heller, Artist, Spiritual Warrior, Artist, Private Eye.” Is this the inspiration for Celine?

Peter Heller:  Absolutely. My mom died three years ago and a little bit after that I sat down to write my next novel. I always start with the first line and have no clue. . . I love it that way because I came up as an expedition kayaker and what I loved about running rivers, especially ones that hadn’t been described, is that you come around a tight bend in a canyon and you have no idea what’s around the corner. It could be a waterfall, or a cougar drinking, or a flight of swallows and I just love that. . .

And so I started Celine with a first line and it was the story of a young woman who had lost her father 20 years before in a bear mauling (supposedly) and it was also the story of this woman who, when she was very young, had been put in her own apartment by a jealous step-mom and this was a compelling story. But very quickly, as I was writing, this young woman contacted a private eye whose specialty was reuniting birth families, cold cases. And this private eye ended up being a lot like my mother. In fact, she lived in my mother’s studio, right on the dock under the Brooklyn Bridge. She looked like my mom. She talked like my mom. And she had the same family history, and the same sisters. What ended up happening was that I spent the eight or nine months writing Celine just being with my mother again after she’d died. It was really cool. It was wonderful.

Peter, I’m not a reader who gets overly attached to characters, but I have to tell you that for several nights after finishing Celine, I felt lonely for her and I was wondering what, do you think, makes that character so lovable?

Well, it’s because I loved her so much. You know, it’s funny writing fiction that’s so closely based on a real person because I love this character and this woman with every cell and fiber of my being and it was easy. I think how you are, your relationship to the world, to your characters, how open your heart is, always comes through in the writing. You can’t hide when you’re writing, when you’re writing honestly. So, I just loved this character because she really was my mom. You know my mom had this crazy, cool history that led her to becoming a detective, and for a novelist, it’s sort of a no-brainer. Not only do you love the character, but the story is so fun.


Peter, you also write about Celine, “Her finely tuned sense of empathy vibrated and hummed. It was the harmonic that ruled her life.” How did you know to write it like that?


I never know anything, to tell you the truth. Really for me the writing process is just. . . I follow my nose. I follow the music and the language, and then I’m always surprised. The interesting thing is that my writing is always much smarter than I am and more surprisingly lovely. 

Do you trust your writing that much? It sounds like you let it have its way. . .

Absolutely. When I started my first novel, The Dog Stars, I was finally writing fiction and you know I had wanted to do this my whole life, but I’d had to make a living. . . but fiction was something I always wanted to do. When I finally had a chance to sit down and write a novel, I just started with a first line but I didn’t know if that was legal. Could you do that without an outline or a plot? Would the fiction police come and bust down the door? . . .

Peter Heller
Credit John Burcham

About the Book:

The bestselling author of The Dog Stars returns with a luminous and captivating novel about an eccentric, glamorous private eye who specializes in reuniting long-lost family members, seeking reparations for her own fractured past.

Celine is not your typical private eye. With prep school pedigree and a pair of opera glasses for stakeouts, her methods are unconventional but extremely successful. Working out of her jewel box of an apartment nestled under the Brooklyn Bridge, Celine has made a career out of tracking down missing persons nobody else can find. But when a young woman named Gabriela employs her expertise, what was meant to be Celine's last case becomes a scavenger hunt through her own memories, a mix of melancholy, regret and redemption.

Gabriela's father was a National Geographic photographer who went missing in Wyoming twenty years ago and while he was assumed to have been mauled by a grizzly his body was never found. Celine and her partner set out to Yellowstone National Park to follow a trail gone cold but soon realize that somebody desperately wants to keep this case closed. Combining ingenious plotting with crystalline prose and sweeping natural panoramas, Peter Heller gives us his finest work to date.

About the Author:

Peter Heller is the bestselling author of The Painter and The Dog Stars. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop in both fiction and poetry. An award-winning adventure writer and a longtime contributor to NPR, Heller is a contributing editor at Outside magazine, Men's Journal, and National Geographic Adventure, and a regular contributor to Bloomberg Businessweek.  He is also the author of several nonfiction books, including Kook, The Whale Warriors, and Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet's Tsangpo River. He lives in Denver, Colorado. For more information, visit his website.