JC: John Minichillo’s The Snow Whale is another of the great books to come out from Atticus Book this year. He and I were emailing back and forth about him contributing a WWFIL piece and I mentioned that I was thinking about a longish blog post about Moby-Dick and the recent uptick in it’s legacy and influence. I was thinking about John’s book, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, and Swell, by Corwin Ericson, among many others. John was interested, so I said “why don’t you do it?” He did and here it is:
Why I Wrote a New Moby Dick
by John Minichillo
My debut novel, The Snow Whale, is about a mild-mannered cubicle worker, a white guy, who gets a DNA-ancestry test and it comes back that he’s part Inuit. The surprise revelation gives him a new identity and changes everything for him. So much so that he goes up to Northern Alaska to join a tribal whale hunt. And this seed of an idea – coupled with the fact that Moby-Dick is in the public domain and Herman Melville’s ancestors can’t sue me – allowed me to steal the most famous character in all of American literature, the white whale.
I’m of the stripe that if I’m going to commit myself to writing a novel, I’m at least going to have fun with it. And so I did.
I was introduced to Moby-Dick by a landscaper at a cemetery in my hometown where I worked summers when I was in college. He was a National Merit Scholar who had gone to Johns Hopkins and dropped out after a year. Now he worked for The Department of Cemeteries and was paying off his debt for his one year of higher education. I had switched from studying biology to English because I had a talent for writing and I knew I wanted to spend my study time reading, though I probably got more reading done working summers in the cemetery.
Moby-Dick was a book that loomed large. I’d never read a book that long, and while I was just fine with reading Hawthorne and Poe, most of the other writers from the same period were work for me. I knew enough, however, to understand that when the National Merit Scholar told me Moby-Dick was “the Great American Novel,” the qualifier was a joke and not a joke. All novels are flawed to some degree. Let me repeat this for emphasis. You may have a favorite novel, a novel you love start to finish, a novel that has changed your thinking and made you feel alive, but because it’s a novel, it is flawed. And having read Moby-Dick as a young reader, I would say that it’s not as bad as most readers would lead you to believe, and it was a whole lot better than I had expected.
I missed a lot of what’s in Moby-Dick because I was young, and I chose not to pick it up again when writing The Snow Whale, because I didn’t want to be too heavily influenced. I really didn’t have to reread it though, because Moby-Dick is everywhere. The loose approach I took to borrowing from Melville gave me a cast of stock characters and the occasional plot milestone to touch on along the way. It gave me a quest and a mythical beast, who, in the words of the website “Bad-ass of the week”: “…got hit with harpoons and lances all the time, and he didn’t even care.” And that was the kind of fun I was becoming more interested in as a writer.
So I went to Google to see if there was already a book like mine out there. I knew Jaws was the ultimate contemporary retelling, but had anybody taken the story up to the North Slope of Alaska, where the Inupiat still practice subsistence whaling under tribal rights? Yes, there was a play but the synopsis and a few photos were all I found.
I sort of vaguely knew that there were tribes who were allowed to whale, and once I started looking into it, I became fascinated. What I loved most about Moby-Dick were the parts many readers will tell you they wanted to skip, the long nonfiction accounts of a way of life that no longer exists. I’d considered myself well-educated but how was it I didn’t know anything about the history of whaling in our country, and some twenty years later, why didn’t I know anything about the Inupiat up there in the farthest corner of our United States? From a writing perspective, the landscape of ice, and the Inupiat way of life, was an incredible discovery – beautiful, bleak, and deadly. Here was the oldest continuously settled village in North America. Here was the bridge between Asia and America, where the ancestors of some of the continent’s earliest settlers still lived, and lived in a relatively similar way. Simply looking at this landscape from the sky terrified me. If I’m honest with myself, I was glad that I lived on a teacher’s salary and couldn’t afford to pay a visit, camp out on the sea ice, or insinuate myself where I might not be welcome, though this is exactly what my main character did.
My novel and Moby-Dick are both books about race. This genetic frontier we’re charging into, and the ongoing clash of cultures, which are wondrous yet destructive. At the same time that cultures and languages are disappearing, we’re getting better at tracing genetic origin. More knowledge; less meaning.
Over the course of writing and publishing The Snow Whale, I became aware that there are hundreds of Melville scholars who have devoted their research-lives to Moby-Dick, and I encountered artists like Matt Kish, who endeavored for a year-and-a-half to make an illustration for every page of Moby-Dick.
All this love for Moby-Dick, and the white whale is ever-present in the pop culture, with Moby-Dick inspired books, films, TV shows and on and on. The white whale is ubiquitous and I’m being asked about Moby-Dick a lot these days.
No, I haven’t been back to it, other than to scout out the occasional famous passage. And yes, I intend to. I wrote a book I wanted associated with Moby-Dick and now that it’s published that’s what I’ve gotten. And so I have homework to do. When Matt Kish’s book comes out I’ll go back to Moby-Dick one page at a time, and his illustrations will spur me on. It seems a wonderful way to reread, and I’m really looking forward to it. After all, take a look at what Matt Kish did for me. And then while you’re there at his website, spend some time with his Moby-Dick drawings and see what a truly inspiring story Melville’s Great American Novel continues to be.