Daniel Kraus is working on something “top secret” – and no, he won’t be induced into elaborating further. “I’m two-thirds of the way through something that absolutely no one knows that I’m writing,” says Kraus from his desk in Chicago. “It’s entirely unlike anything I’ve ever done, which is part of the reason why I’ve told no one about it.
That’s saying something coming from an author whose latest novel, Whalefall, is the story of a teenage boy who gets swallowed by a sperm whale while diving for his father’s remains.
And while Kraus has built a successful career trading into tales of the horrifying and fantastical – after working with Guillermo del Toro to craft the story of sci-fi epic The Shape of Water, he’s best known for the macabre grave-robbing novel Rotters and the terrifying meteor-centric drama Scowler – Whalefall is something special for this prolific author of literary-inflected horror.
“From the moment I came up with the premise, it just felt really powerful. There’s something primordial about it that sparks an immediate, instinctive reaction in people. It certainly did in me,” says Kraus of the suspenseful volume which has hit the USA Today bestseller list and is enjoying major word-of-mouth buzz here in Canada. (Good luck tracking down a copy in your local bookstore.)
Here, we chat with Kraus about reader reactions, the powerful simplicity of writing about parents and children, and just how likely it is that you’ll get swallowed by a whale next time you’re out for a dive.
How would you define your wheelhouse? You’ve written so much about so many different things.
It keeps expanding. There are a few books of mine that I feel are what people generally expect of me – books like Rotters, Bent Heavens, The Living Dead. Those are sort of intelligent horror novels that have a certain sense of beauty to them. Every year, it seems like I keep stretching out because it’s the only thing that can keep me awake and vital and relevant.I’m generally not inclined to do anything like a series. I want to create new problems for myself with every book. Particularly in the second half of my career, I want to make every book feel like I’m writing a book for the first time again.
Is your ultimate fear that you’ll become one of those writers where it’s like, ‘Oh, here’s another book about the same thing just with a different cover?’
I wouldn’t say it’s a fear, because it’s not going to happen – but it would be the worst thing that could happen. I remember one book I was working on mid-career, where at some point I paused and thought, ‘This feels a little bit too much like a Daniel Kraus book.’ That might have been the wake-up moment, where I knew I had to make sure I never double up. From a commercial perspective, it’s really smart to have an identifiable brand, and just write tons of books that are all in that brand. I was just doing this Whalefall tour, and every airport bookstore I was in had a stand-alone display of Colleen Hoover books. I haven’t read any of them, but I can pretty much guarantee they’re all sort of in the same vein, because that’s how you get devoted fans. I understand that, but I’ve tried to make my brand a non-brand. Every time you go outside of what people expect of you, you lose people, hopefully you gain people. I write a lot of books, so that helps me get through it. If you only write one book every three years or so, and every one is a huge genre change, it’s a big risk.
Does that mean your attachment to books is different? With something like Whalefall, if it had gone into the world and sunk like a rock, would that have bothered you?
Whalefall is a separate case, but typically the release and reaction to a book is not on the forefront of my mind. Every time a book comes out, I have to drag myself back to it. My mind has moved on, and I’m not super engaged with reactions to books.
It’s a really visceral book. You’re feeling things, smelling things, tasting them at times. It’s very sensorial. Is that what it felt like to write it?
Part of it was that the setting [inside a whale’s digestive system] was so confined, so I really needed to engage the senses. Usually there are breaks built into stories where a person goes into another setting or the weather changes, these natural breaks where you don’t necessarily have to describe to someone what it’s like to walk outside. In this very alien space, for such a concentrated time, I knew I fully had to be aware of all five senses, all of the time. That goes into why I learned to scuba dive for the book. It was less about mastering diving technique, and more about, ‘What does it feel like inside the suit? What does the mouthpiece taste like? What does it sound like when you breathe?’
You could have written a very compelling book without the layers of emotional depth you have in this story. Why did you add that piece in?
It has to do with the premise. If I was writing a story about someone being attacked by a shark, that’s a very different feeling than someone being swallowed by a whale, which to me doesn’t conjure fear so much as it conjures a sense of awe. You see a shark in the water, you’re just scared. But if you’re a diver in the water and you see a whale, you’re amazed. It’s seeing something god-like. In some ways, this was the opposite of Jaws. I wanted the whale to be a completely benevolent character. When you look at pictures of sperm whales in the water, they’re just so gigantic and alien-looking that there’s a sensation of grandeur. There’s a reason some stores are shelving this in sci-fi, and it’s because the deep sea and outer space are very similar in a way, and the feeling of a really good space novel or movie is similar to the feeling of something like Whalefall. Being stranded in a capsule in space or a whale’s stomach under the sea are very similar things, where technically you’re in a very constrained environment, where really you’re amid this endless, fathomless space that provides opportunity to really get existential about stuff.
Is there a common sentiment in terms of the reaction you’re getting to Whalefall?
The biggest one is just that people cried when they read it, and they didn’t expect to. They expected a breakneck thriller, and it is that, but they didn’t expect it to be so moving. I had a lot of readers tell me they finished the book and they called their dad. That ended up being a lot more universal than I’d expected.
Like stories about whales, that father-son, parent-kid stuff is so potent that it feels like a well that will never run dry.
I chose that relationship very specifically. That diver’s story could have been anything, but to pair it with such a powerfully simple premise, I wanted to have another powerfully simple relationship. The first relationship we ever know is parent and child, so it felt right to keep with this idea of something everyone understands instinctively, and then we can play with that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.