Author Daniel Kraus on his new thriller 'Whalefall'
AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
How deep would you dive to retrieve something or someone you lost from the past? In Daniel Kraus' new book "Whalefall," 17-year-old Jay has one hour of oxygen to make it to treacherous depths along Monterey, Calif., and bring back his father's skeleton.
(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE CALLING)
RASCOE: But before he can, he's swallowed alive by a giant sperm whale. Kraus' novel is a thriller, and it really gets the heart pumping. But even as almost every chapter leads with Jay's oxygen depleting, there's still time to reflect - on his regrets, on his upbringing, on his father.
DANIEL KRAUS: The book is really about death in a lot of ways. I mean, the story begins with the diver's father already dead and the idea of a whale fall, which is a giant whale who sinks to the bottom of the deepest part of the ocean, and the corpse lands - what it really does is it creates life. And it creates centuries' worth of life because of its decomposition. And I thought it was kind of a beautiful metaphor for what the book is about in that there are good deaths, and there's bad deaths. And the best death of all, I think, is when you can die and your death means something to others, whether that's - you're passing along something biological, you've got a family, you're leaving behind art, or you've just touched people in some way.
RASCOE: I have to ask you about the pace because what I found was some chapters are super short. They're just, like, a sentence. They flash back and forth in time. How did you go about planning the writing for this and the structure of this?
KRAUS: My idea was that I wanted the chapter breaks to feel like gasps for air. And I wanted the reader to constantly be aware of how much air he's losing, you know? The chapter headings are all essentially telling you how much oxygen he has left. So with the short chapters, you're constantly gasping and constantly having to sink, then, back down to the drama. And it alternates between what's going on inside the whale and these flashbacks.
RASCOE: One thing that the main character in this story, Jay - that he has is this wealth of knowledge about diving and about sea creatures that he got from his father, who he has a very difficult relationship with. But this book is full of information. Are you a diver yourself? How did you learn all of this?
KRAUS: Well, I grew up in Iowa, so...
RASCOE: So you weren't diving (laughter).
KRAUS: ...There's not a lot of oceans in Iowa. There's some sort of gross lakes. No. This book really is the opposite of the old adage, write what you know. I knew absolutely nothing about whales. I knew nothing about diving, knew very little about the ocean. So I was starting with nothing, you know? Like, usually when I start a book, I've got an idea of a plot, and then I'll kind of research to kind of fill in the gaps. But with this I had to frontload the process with about three months of intense interviews with whale scientists and diving experts.
RASCOE: Yeah. Getting to, I guess, the heart of the book, the stomach of the book, the intestines of the book, Jay - he gets swallowed by a giant sperm whale. That's not giving anything away. But while he's in the whale, he's alive. He's thinking about his father, Mitt, and his regrets. Talk to us about this relationship with his dad.
KRAUS: Yeah. Well, you know, when I came up with the premise of the book, it immediately struck me as something really primeval, almost. And it reminds us, I think, of when we used to be beings that had to worry about being swallowed, that had to worry about being eaten. And centuries of domination have sort of made that fear go dormant, but it's still there. And so I wanted to pair that with a relationship that also wasn't overly complicated. I wanted it to be something that was simple and everyone could understand. And the simplest relationship is the first one we have, which is child and parent.
Yes, Jay and his father have a troubled relationship, you know? Mitt was a man of the sea, a local diving legend, but also the kind of guy who couldn't hold down a job and felt emasculated by his domestic life and just wanted to be out in the sea. And he wanted to mold Jay in his image, and Jay didn't want that. They ultimately, through some terrible things that the father did, became estranged. So Jay leaves home for a year, and that's when Mitt gets cancer and dies. And Jay never sees him, never visits him on his deathbed.
So when Jay is swallowed, he begins, under the influence of the methane in the whale's stomach and the injury and the panic, to conflate the whale with his father, almost as if the whale is his father, because his father died in the same waters the whale swims in. So the book becomes one of reconciliation - that the father and the son have to sort of reconcile their regrets of how they treated each other if Jay has any chance of getting out.
RASCOE: What do you think about that? - because, you know, the relationship between a parent and a child - like, in a way, a parent can almost swallow a child whole in the sense that your whole life - right? - can be - whether you are running away from the - who the parent was, whether you're trying to live up to what the parent wanted you to be - you can be consumed by who your parents were and what they did and did not do. Jay does seem to come to the realization there were good moments with his father, but there were a lot of bad moments with his father. Does reconciliation mean forgiveness? Does it mean letting go? Does it mean accepting?
KRAUS: I don't think it necessarily means - has to mean any of those things. The book is divided into two sections, and those sections are drawn from my reading of the Book of Jonah. And the sections are titled Truth and Mercy. I mean, there are truths. There are the facts of what Jay did to Mitt and what Mitt did to Jay. And I'm not saying they're equal, you know? I think Mitt was worse to Jay than Jay ever was to Mitt. But the second section of the book, titled Mercy, points toward or hopes for a better response, a way to understand that we've all been part of ugly truths and can we - when the chips are down, and particularly when life is ending, can we show mercy? And that's not something that I can really answer, you know, in a kind of blanket way. But it's a question that the book really wrestles with.
RASCOE: And, well, I have to ask. This is all about fathers and sons. Did you draw from your own personal relationship with your father for this story or from, you know, your relationship with your parents or a family member?
KRAUS: Well, I mean, I would not say that my father's - is like Mitt. Mitt is...
RASCOE: He wasn't like this.
KRAUS: ...Pretty brutal. It was more that I was drawing from things happening around me at the time. Like, I'm 48, you know? I'm at that age where people I know are starting to die. Just in the last few months, I've had a good friend die, and my father-in-law died, and...
RASCOE: I'm sorry. Yeah.
KRAUS: ...My sister is dying right now.
RASCOE: Oh, my gosh. I'm so sorry.
KRAUS: She - you know, she has very little time left to live. That made me think, you know, about "Whalefall." It made me think about what a good death is. And those sort of ideas collided with the basic high concept idea of being swallowed by a whale and, you know, being swallowed by - whether it's your parents or the life that you've lived and the regrets that you have, you know? And being in this moment, whether that's slowly dying in a bed or dying inside the belly of a whale - you are at this moment. There comes a time where we have to - there's nowhere else to turn. And we have to look into ourselves and, you know, determine, have we lived a life worthy of whale fall?
RASCOE: Daniel Kraus's new book is "Whalefall." Thank you for joining us.
KRAUS: Oh, absolutely. My pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF VITAMIN STRING QUARTET'S "WHAT SARAH SAID") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.