Author Interview: Peter Heller

Peter Heller author of, The Painter  Photo by: Tory Read

Peter Heller author of, The Painter
Photo by: Tory Read

Peter Heller recently answered questions for Books In Common about his experiences at author events both for his previous novel The Dog Stars and his latest novel The Painter.

How many Community Reads type events have you done, and how is it different for you than your typical author event?

I’ve done half a dozen. These are my favorite events, hands down. The community has been engaging with my novel for months, with workshops on all aspects of the book, literary and practical. In Grand Junction, CO, the director of the county health Department had his entire staff read The Dog Stars so they could get an idea what their city might be like after a devastating flu pandemic. In Bend, OR, dozens of master quilters sewed quilts with scenes or images from the book that meant a lot to them. And then you go and speak to a theater full of readers who loved the novel. It’s a rush.

In The Painter, what themes do you think resonate with Community Reads Programs (One Book, One City), especially related to issues of bringing together diverse communities of people?

The Painter is ideal for this sort of program, as the novel explores themes that are most important to all of us: how does one lead a good life? How do we find peace and connection in a world that sometimes wants to pull us apart? How do we stay connected to the natural world, to the world of the imagination, to our children? Where does being creative fit in to a fulfilled life? The novel is full of characters from all walks of life, rich and poor, blue collar and artistic. I have received emails from successful artists who felt the book captured what they do, and from people who told me that they grew up poor and that this was one of the first novels they could relate to.

What are the “teachable topics” in your first novel The Dog Stars, which schools and students could pull from?

The Dog Stars is about what we are willing to risk to stay connected and to love. It is about a man struggling to hold on to his humanity in a post-apocalyptic world. It is about how to confront great loss with courage, how to hold on to humor and kindness. Also, it is about a man and his dog—what can be better than that?

Would you share some notable experiences you’ve had at speaking events?

Once, in a theater packed with five hundred people, my hosts unveiled on stage a large painting of Jasper, the loyal dog in The Dog Stars. I almost fell over! Another time, I walked into a room where fifty-three quilts with scenes from the novel were gathered together. It was the most moving tribute. A folk singer got on the stage of one of my readings and sang a song he’d written from a part of the book. I’ve had people walk up to the signing table and thank me in tears, saying that the book helped them get through the recent loss of a husband. I’ve had librarians approach and say that they recommend both novels to as many readers as they can.

What do you take away with you from speaking engagements with your readers?

It is absolutely thrilling to meet readers and see, face to face, how a book moves and affects them, and literally changes and enriches their lives.

Anything else you’d care to add?

I got into writing because I am a born storyteller. It’s wonderful to stand up in front of a community of readers and engage them in person. Nothing better, really.

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