News Column

Picturing a novel: Peter Heller's "The Painter"

May 23, 2014

By Bill Kohlhaase, The Santa Fe New Mexican

May 23--There's plenty that's familiar in Peter Heller's new novel, The Painter: Canyon Road art galleries, the Tesuque Village Market, a certain hotel on Don Gaspar, Pasqual's, thunderstorms in the Sangre de Cristos. Heller's character Jim Stegner travels -- you might say flees -- from Colorado to Santa Fe to paint a commission, a portrait of twin girls. The settings he moves through during his time in Santa Fe are as recognizable as if they were pulled from a postcard. "I never actually lived in Santa Fe," Heller said from his home in Denver. "But I was in and out a lot after Outside magazine moved there [Heller is a contributing editor]. My dad lived there for 25 years, still does."

Heller's novel also paints a recognizable picture of the local art scene and the art world in general. Heller dedicates The Painter to "all the artists in my family." "My dad's wife, my stepmom, is a serious painter. My dad also paints. My mother is a brilliant sculptor, and her husband is a sculptor. Mom painted in Paris in her 20s. My cousin, Eric Aho, is a well-known artist. So I've been around a lot of artists. Me? I can't even draw." Jim Stegner, the painter of the novel, also seems familiar. He's modeled after artist and former Taos resident Jim Wagner. Like Wagner, Stegner loves fishing, has a history of drinking and carousing, sports a white beard, and has a unique, much-copied style of painting that sometimes places people and animals in imaginative juxtapositions. Also like Wagner, Stegner has shot a man, spent time in prison, and lost a daughter in a drug deal gone bad. "That's where the biography turns fictional," said Heller. "Wagner hasn't killed a man like Stegner does." Haunted by memories of his dead daughter, Stegner wrestles with his own sense of control as he moves through life. Like Wagner, Stegner's shooting involves a suspected pedophile. In the novel, a theater owner makes suggestive remarks to Stegner about his daughter, who's then still alive. The painter reacts violently, almost without thinking. Luckily, his aim is off. The act gives him time behind bars to think about his lack of control. Years later, when he sees an outfitter beating a horse with a club, his anger on behalf of the innocent again comes into play.

Both of Heller's novels -- his first is The Dog Stars -- share a common theme. The Dog Stars is set in a world that has literally been stripped of its humanity. Two epidemics and a combination of ecological disasters have swept most of mankind away. Hig, flying what might be the only airplane left on earth, seeks moments of quiet in which he can forget himself, while struggling against other survivors who want his food, his fuel, and his life. In both books, the central characters are looking for peace in circumstances that make finding it difficult. "I think [both stories] are about men trying to redeem their lives after terrible loss," the author said, " to stay connected to the things they love after they've lost them." Has Heller himself suffered the sort of terrible personal loss that marks his characters' lives? "Anyone who gets to be my age [Heller is 55] has suffered some kind of loss -- maybe not something that would make headlines, but a sense of it. Loss is universal. I've lost grandparents that I dearly adored, lost animals that were like brothers to me. Many of us have gone through terrible breakups."

Heller's men are manly -- they're fisherman, they're comfortable with firearms, they lust after women -- but they aren't the clichÉd macho types you might expect. Hig loves to hunt but doesn't enjoy killing. These sensitivities extend to characters that are only memories. Hig recalls hunting with his Uncle Pete, "an unreconstructed man of letters and of action in the mode of Ernest Hemingway and Jack London, except that he taught ballroom dancing." Heller said he isn't deliberately conscious of creating his character in this manner, "but I do get excited and amused when guys come out in a way that works against type. Those are the most interesting people -- not just men -- who are more catholic in their interests, who operate out of the box. I think of this friend I have in Vermont, a feminist who's very arty and a conceptualist painter. But he's also the toughest pond-hockey player you'll ever meet."

Heller, a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, said he wanted to be a novelist since he was 11. "The one thing they didn't tell you at Iowa is how hard it is to make a living writing fiction and poetry." A friend suggested that he combine his two interests -- writing and outdoor adventuring -- and make a living that way. He cold-called an editor at Outside, urging her to include him as a writer for a story on a kayaking expedition to Tibet'sTsangpo Gorge. That article led to his 2004 book Hell or Highwater: Surviving Tibet's Tsangpo River. He has also written books on efforts to defend whales in the Antarctic, travels in remote China, and the aesthetics of surfing.

Starting a fiction career was like coming home, he said. He started his first novel with the first sentence and, he explained, just let it rip. "I called a buddy who knew about fiction and structure and asked him if there was anyone who just started writing the book from the opening sentence. He surprised me when he said Stephen King and, even more surprising, Elmore Leonard, whose work seems so structured and thought out. It gave me permission to do it my way."

While Heller's characters share his interests and experience with fishing, hunting, wilderness travel and the like, writing about a painter proved a challenge. Despite his experience with painters and the art scene, creating paintings with the written word was something new. Sections of the book are identified with the titles of Stegner's work -- the chapter on his arrival in Santa Fe is called "In Hostile Country, Oil on Canvas, 20 x 24 inches." The paintings themselves, with strangely colored birds sitting on subjects' heads and unlikely pairings of men and beasts, offer clues to Stegner's personality. How does one create a painting as a writer, especially paintings so laden with imagery and symbolism, without touching brush to canvas? "I just imagined the essence of them," Heller said, "imagined what was in [Stegner's] head. I wanted to portray an exuberant, joyful sense of the art, that kind of feeling of gladness you get looking at a Matisse. The paintings just came to me as they came to the character. As they unfolded to him, they unfolded to me." The imagery of the paintings, the unexpected juxtapositions and coloring, developed in much the same way that the imagery of poetry develops. "The way Stegner describes the art coming to him, letting go and letting the images roll out of his mind, letting them speak to him -- to me that's analogous to writing poetry." (Heller, who has written poetry since his Iowa days, has just finished a new collection of poems.)

You might recognize the men in Heller's fiction and how they relate to one another. Hig survives with an older buddy named (not so cryptically) Bangley, an expert in guns and larger firepower. Stegner spends time fishing with the man who wants to kill him. That's what's unfamiliar in Heller's fiction, the unusual situations, the sense of being shadowed and stalked, and the gunplay that's common to both novels. In this sense, the stories are of a classic type: unusual men, the kind we can identify with even if we're not painters or pilots, thrust into unusual, even tragic situations. Yet at heart, these men are not so different than those we know. "I've wondered what Jim Wagner must think if he's been reading the book," Stegner said. There's a chance we might find out.


--Peter Heller reads from The Painter

--6 p.m. Wednesday, May 28

--Collected Works Bookstore, 202 Galisteo St., 505-988-4226


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Source: Santa Fe New Mexican, The (NM)

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