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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Peter Heller shares unnerving origin story of latest novel at Northwest Passages Book Club

The first line of author Peter Heller’s latest book “The River” reads, “They had been smelling smoke for two days.”

Like all his fiction, he starts the book by writing the first line and letting the story flow out of it.

What follows is a tense wildfire scene that quickly unfolds, as a wall of flames chases two canoeists through the wilderness.

He said the rest of the book flows like a river.

The Northwest Passages Book Club at the Montvale Event Center on Tuesday night featured Heller in front of a crowd of about 175 people. Interviewed by Spokesman-Review Editor Rob Curley, Heller dived into the origin stories of his books, including “The River.”

“I start with the first line and a story comes out of it,” Heller said. “I follow the music and the language.”

But along the way, he said, he bumps into motifs and issues that he cares about.

For “The River,” the book originated partly out of an unusual interaction with a stranger from Heller’s youth.

He remembers attending boarding school in Vermont while his girlfriend at the time lived across the New Hampshire state line in a house near the wilderness, where she would ride horses.

“I thought this girl was so exotic,” he said.

Her family hosted big spaghetti dinners at their house, where Heller would meet strange characters.

During one of the dinners, the stars were out and the wind blew in the trees. Heller spotted a man in his late 20s leaning up against a wall looking “charismatic and sad,” he said. Someone told him the man made a living in a canoe doing studies on watersheds, which grabbed Heller’s interest as a kayaker and canoeist himself.

“I said, ‘Hey. What’s up? You look a little distraught,’ ” Heller recalled saying to the man.

That’s when the man told Heller that he’d lost his wife two months ago while the two conducted a remote study in the wilderness. The man said his wife went out of sight and he never saw her again, even after searching for her for three days.

“I walked away from that conversation and I knew he was lying” and thinking the man killed his wife, Heller told the book club audience.

“I must have been thinking about that for 40 years,” Heller said, and now he’s incorporated that idea into “The River.”

The book club is hosted by The Spokesman-Review, and a podcast with Heller will soon be available online at