Daniel Kraus has a long tattoo of a sperm whale on his left arm. He took it last spring to predict the breach of his latest novel, “Whalefall,” which is his 21st and best novel. He’s so confident about “Whalefall” and he probably should be. He lives in Evanston and grew up in Iowa and didn’t know a beluga whale from the barn until he started researching “Whalefall” in late 2020. But gradually, words were heard about the brilliant book that was coming and, if it could make it, a blockbuster book beyond even publishing. Soon his house was filled with whales. Whale shirts, stuffed whales, whale cocktail glasses.
More recently, as it seems to have succeeded, Dark Matter in Chicago introduced a special Whalefall blend, and Orono Brewing of Maine created a Whalefall beer. More impressively, Imagine Entertainment, led by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, bought the rights to a screen adaptation before it went up for auction. Then The New York Times Book Review slapped the front of its cover for the most recent Sunday.
But here’s the thing about “Whale Fall”:
It describes something very, very unlikely – although not impossible – the story is still very good. It’s also the latest version of one of humanity’s touchstone mythologies: it’s about a boy being eaten by a whale and his struggle to somehow escape from that monster’s belly. This time it takes place on the coast of Monterey, California, with poignant consequences, oscillating between a claustrophobic race against time and the memories of a 17-year-old boy and his relationship with his deceased father, who crushed his body and drowned. itself.
I met Kraus the other day. He was wearing the old Chicago Whales baseball cap. The following talk has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: When you first told me about this book, I thought of the man who said he was swallowed by a whale on Cape Cod a few years ago. His story was debunked.
A: Negative Definitely Debunked People never swallowed by whales. But about once a year, you see a story like this. them mouthed, not swallowed. I can’t underestimate how terrible this would be, but these people accidentally land in the mouths of whales. Whales couldn’t or wouldn’t want to eat them. No one is swallowed here. No matter how old this story is, it never happened. There is a story about a man in the 1800s when a whaler went missing, his crew beached a sperm whale, cut its stomach and had his skin bleached by acid. None of these are checked. He would be dead. The whale has no air in its stomach. So as far as we know, it never happened. But this will be more so as the climate changes and we enter more of their territory.
Q: You will receive a letter from someone saying they were swallowed by a whale.
A: In a scientific book, I found evidence in the footnote that a whale once contained human remains. I researched that evidence at the Evanston Public Library, and it was a hoax. But you know, maybe we don’t To know if this happened.
Q: So why did you decide this is your next book?
A: It was in the middle of the Omicron wave, socially distancing hanging out with friends near Jarvis Beach. They watched a viral video in which a humpback whale swallowed several skiers. The following thought immediately came to my mind: Has anyone ever taken this seriously? can you live It is often metaphorical, myth, biblical legend. There is something primitive in thought. Maybe we all instinctively remember a time when we were prey and worried about being swallowed. Regardless, it’s an old idea, so I assumed that in the last few thousand years someone had taken this seriously scientifically. I couldn’t find anything. After Jarvis Beach, at the end of the morning, I was calling the whale scientists to ask if that was possible. Theoretically, it was – with a sperm whale. Other whale species have throats the size of a soup can.
Q: So now you are trying to decide how a character can be swallowed.
A: It will never be willing. After talking to the scientists, the only sensible way was to accidentally swallow a diver. with another thing. This gave my whale a reason to get close to the surface: It’s chasing a giant squid. This gave me the chance to introduce bioluminescence, which will be important later in the book. You also get this cinematic scene where a whale fights a giant squid. We have evidence of these fights, but nothing in the movie. The character is drawn as the squid becomes entangled in the bag he brought with him to collect his father’s bones.
Q: Okay, but now a giant squid has been swallowed by a whale in the process of swallowing it. This adds an improbable scenario on top of an improbable scenario.
A: But it’s possible!
Q: In a story like this, how close can you get to a metaphor without getting too close?
A: I think I was shielded from this with scientific accuracy. If this isn’t 100% scientifically correct, I wouldn’t want to do it. We’ve heard of metaphorical approaches. Before I could write any of this, I had to do months of research with scientists and dive experts explaining every minute what this man was going to experience. But I also didn’t want to preload all this information, so while he learns, we must learn the bitter truth. Also, the reality of what was going on with the character’s health and diving equipment was so sudden that it was a counterweight to anything lyrical or figurative. Except where I deliberately delve into the more cosmic elements. But I’m not afraid of metaphors. My two favorite artists are George Romero and Rod Serling, both were metaphor machines. I was brought up to think in terms of metaphor.
Q: Are you a fan of high concept movies? I ask in part because I remember thinking at the beginning when you told the plot: Oh, “‘Die Hard’ in a Whale.” “Speed” was “Die Hard” on the Bus.” So why not? Your work has always looked film-ready. Plus, you co-wrote the book version of “The Shape of Water” with Guillermo del Toro and finished the “Living Dead” novel that Romero started before he died.
A: I would never think of a book like that. I’m also not a big action movie fan. What excited me was that it was a closed room. I like single location stories. A crucible in which an artist can prove himself. Subtract locations, characters and accessories and all you have left is creativity. It’s not just the creativity of a character, it’s the creativity of an author.
Q: Change the tone here and you have a Samuel Beckett game.
A: This is true. There is a movie called “Buried” from a few years ago.
Q: “‘Die Hard’ in the Coffin.” With Ryan Reynolds.
A: Good movie. My setting is smaller. The whale stomach is like an elastic sleeping bag.
Q: Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” is a frequently used touchstone in the book.
A: I was working with a diver named Connor Gallagher and I was still choosing where to put the book, and he lives in Monterey and suggested Monastery Beach there, which is extremely dangerous. There’s an epic drop the size of the Grand Canyon where if you swim for 20 minutes from the beach you might encounter a sperm whale. So once I own Monterey, you can’t go 5 feet there without being reminded that it has a “Cannery Row” setting. Also, I didn’t want a book that required knowing the “Book of Jonah”.
Q: What is your relationship with “Moby Dick”?
A: I had never read it until the idea came to my mind. I love it now. I didn’t expect how funny it would be, but also how crazy and weird it would be. This was also the touchstone.
Q: Currently, at least two of your books focus on a father-son relationship.
A: Of course it’s complicated. My mother died when she was 52 and I was close to her. He was the one who was interested in books and movies, and my relationship with my father is different. He’s a good person, he doesn’t look like any of these characters, but we have different interests and we accepted that. Still weird. As we speak now, my sister is dying of cancer, and I’ve spent most of the last week trying to decide whether to cancel this book tour, but she wants me to do it, so now I’m going to try to reframe this while I’m traveling for her. About most of the book whale fall conceptis a term used when a whale dies and sinks to the bottom of the ocean. Its trunk is large enough to give birth to centuries of life. And the idea that death can create life is very present in the book. In many ways, this is the subject of the book. I feel this personally right now. The only way out for the boy in this book is to reconcile with his father and family, to remember what they told him, and to come to the surface by making peace with them somehow. It’s his only chance to survive.
Q: But let’s not say it survived or not. There is a real hunch in your books and I had no idea if it would survive for long.
A: I am not an optimistic person.
Q: Yet let’s say he died – there is still a story of hope here.
A: He fixed it. He’s out looking for his father’s bones and –
Q: An impossible task on its own.
A: Yes. However, he realizes that he does not need to search for his father’s remains. HE is is the remains of his father. We are what we seek. What feels lacking is often found within us.
Q: If it’s a hit, could there be a sequel? ” ‘Die Hard’ in a Slightly Smaller Whale?”
A: You can’t minimize it and make it believable at all.