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Peter Heller on a Forty-Year-Old Conversation and the Origin of The River

If there is anything that we’ve learned from talking to authors, it’s that inspiration can come from anywhere. We fell in love with the heroine of Peter Heller’s previous novel, Celine, and were in awe when we discovered that he had based her on his mother (read his essay here). When we read The River, we knew that the adventure-loving Heller was probably inspired by his own wilderness excursion. What we never would have guessed, however, was that the mystery that intrudes on the peaceful canoe trip and complicates Wynn and Jack’s race for survival was also born from Heller’s experience. We hope you enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at the conversation that flowed from the past and onto the page to become this bestselling novel.  

Origin of The River

When I was seventeen I fell in love. It was at a little boarding school in southern Vermont and Margaret was from a hamlet at the edge of the White Mountains in New Hampshire. She was a country girl and an equestrienne, used to walking to barn chores before sunrise when the stars were sprays of ice chips and her boots squeaked on the packed snow. Cold, and hard physical work didn’t bother her in the least. And she had a way with all beings: In summer, I had seen her approach a chestnut mare who grazed head down in hip-deep grass and murmur the horse’s name and stroke her neck; and I had watched as Margaret leapt onto her back and nudged the horse into a dead run up the meadow toward the trees: no halter, no blanket, no saddle. The love of my life flattened to the mare’s neck, her hands clutching fistfuls of mane. Her generous laughter, later, as she loped the horse home to me. Of course I was head over heels. She had honey-colored hair to her waist and an infectious sense of humor.

That a young woman like her even existed on earth, much less that she loved me. . . .

Margaret had three older sisters and a single mom. The family lived in a little cedar-shingled farmhouse above the hayfields and a stone blue lake. Across the lake a rock-topped mountain. So every weekend, friends and suitors came out of the hills. Literally. They were musicians who came up from Boston, climbers from Conway, grad students from the Berkshires. They arrived in twenty-year-old Saabs and pickup trucks and convertibles with duct-tape patches. Everyone was mostly broke, and mostly unaware that there never would be a better time in their lives. On Friday and Saturday nights we would have big spaghetti dinners, with beer and jug wine. I thought it was the best thing ever. One night in late September, I noticed a handsome young man leaning against the wall holding a beer and looking a little lost. I noticed that people were treating him gingerly. “Who is that dude?” I asked Susannah, Margaret’s singer-songwriter sister. “That’s Ben. [Not his real name.] He makes his living taking canoe expeditions on remote rivers. He’s a geochemist.” That was enough for me. That’s what I wanted to do with my life, too—spend it outside doing important work in wild places. I beelined over, clinked his beer bottle. “What’s up?” I said. “You seem a little sad.”

“I lost my wife,” he said.

“Huh? What do you mean?”

“We were canoeing a very remote river up in Labrador last summer, doing a study. One morning she went over the berm to go the bathroom and I never saw her again.”

I think I started, as if burned. “You mean like a couple of months ago?”

He nodded.

“Was . . . was there bear sign? A bear attack?”

He shook his head.

“Did you search for her?”

“Of course. For three days.”

I was flabbergasted. We chatted for another couple of minutes and I walked away from aka Ben and I knew he was lying. I knew it. I can’t tell you how, but those antennae were humming and I was dead sure. I thought, “That fucker killed his wife.” And I think that if the knowledge cut me, it cut me more deeply because I was so in love. For the first time. There was nothing on earth I wanted to do more than go on long wilderness canoe trips with Margaret, and study rivers, and make a life together of work and play and love. It was impossible for me to imagine how a man on a canoe trip with the woman he had married could throw it all away, even to the point of murder.

When I start a novel, I begin with a first few lines whose music I love, and I follow the music into the next line and the next, and let the cadence carry me into the story. I must have been thinking about that young man for the last forty years, because when I sat down to write The River I wrote:

“They had been smelling smoke for two days.

“At first they thought it was another campfire and that surprised them because they had not heard the engine of a plane and they had been traveling the string of long lakes for days and had not seen sign of another person or even the distant movement of another canoe. The only tracks in the mud of the portages were wolf and moose, otter, bear….”

And within a thirty pages, the dude showed up. The same mussed curly hair, the same demeanor—a little lost, a little on the edge of panic.

Writing fiction is funny that way. Any old unresolved thing might drift out of the ether and land at your fingertips and move you to tears, and scare you to the bone.

—Peter Heller

(This essay originally appeared on on March 5, 2019.)