Daniel Kraus talks Rotters, and pushing the envelope of young-adult fiction
We last talked with Daniel Kraus when his debut novel The Monster Variations was published in 2009, and due to a little bit of gruesome imagery, we discussed the nature of horror and violence in young-adult fiction. Well, now Kraus is back with Rotters (read our review), and given that it's about a high-school kid apprenticing as a grave robber, you might imagine the gruesome dial has been spun to 11. Kraus, a filmmaker and magazine editor as well as an author, spoke to us on the phone about the history of grave robbing, young-adult literature, and a little something called coffin liquor.
So, Rotters. It’s…kind of messed up.
Yeah. Yeah, that was part of the goal, I guess.
How did you get started on it?
About ten years ago I was in North Carolina, working for NBC as a videographer. I was in my news van trying to outrun a hurricane and I passed this cemetery, and it was flooded over, and I had this sudden vision of all the coffins rising up through the mud, and becoming loosed by the water. And I had this idea, this image of two men battling through the muck and the floating caskets trying to find something of value. I thought that was an exciting gothic image. But I didn’t know what to do with it. Every once in a while, throughout the years, I’d take a stab at a few pages. But it wasn’t until I came up with the idea of an apprentice, who had to learn the trade from a master, that provided me sort of the inroad to the plot.
When I read the book, I saw the hurricane scene as a device to get everyone in one place, but it’s actually the genesis of the story.
I know, it’s kind of bizarre. But it speaks to my two interests in life. On the one hand I love horror, I love B movies, grindhouse films, movies with elements of horror fan’s horror. But on the other hand I love literary fiction. I can spend all day writing the most beautiful sentence that I can, but at the end of the day, what I really want, in my gut, is a big, splashy, gothic horror scene that I never should be able to pull off considering the way I write. But if I can get there, and make them believe this sort of character stuff and also get to this heightened climax, then I feel like I’ve really done something a little ballsy.
Do you consider yourself a horror writer?
That’s a hard question. I would be proud to call myself a horror writer but I don’t know that I am. I haven’t written anything that’s remotely supernatural. I write about the horrifying, so in that sense, yes, I’m a horror writer. But a horror writer conjures up monsters, which I haven’t touched on, so far.
When I talked to you about Monster Variations, you mentioned how you were very influenced by Stephen King, and I felt there was a big Stephen King influence here.
Yeah. I think sentence-by-sentence style is very different. But I think that all of that Stephen King ingested during my middle school years—and there has never been—any writer more important to me than Stephen King was to me during those years, some of his plot engine is sort of worked into my DNA.
Do you consider this to be a coming-of-age story?
I think it is. I think in some ways, it’s very much a coming-of-age story, it’s just a very, very unusual one.
A coming-of-age story with coffin liquor.
Which is a real term by the way.
Which makes me wonder, what kind of research did you do for the book?
I did a lot of research, months of research. I started with the history of grave robbers, mostly the 19th-century Scotland variety. Then I did some research on burial customs around the world. But there was a big chunk at the end—I saved it till the end because I didn’t want to do it—about decomposition, and the properties of what happens to a body as it expires. I learned a lot of disgusting things, including this term "coffin liquor," which is the ooze that forms in the casket, after the body starts melting. I didn’t want to ignore any of this, because if I was going to take on this topic of grave-robbing—which appears in a lot of books and movies but kind of off to the side—I was going to take it head on, and I kind of needed to know really what it was like inside that coffin.
Did you feel, as you were writing it, Okay, this part is too disgusting.
Yeah, often I thought, I’m going too far. And then almost every time I went ahead and went too far. Because if there’s anything I prize in authors, it’s them giving total commitment to what they’re doing. You need to go whole hog. All I want out of any artist is commitment.
What I liked most about the book was how you built this sort of graverobbing mythology. How important was that for you?
It’s very important. I’m trying to generate sympathy for the least sympathetic act you can think of. So I had to come up with a way for readers to look at this as not entirely revolting, but possibly something that was honorable, or an art. And to do this, I had to create this history that was passed down, almost like a knighthood, but instead of swords they had shovels.
There seems to be a little bit of a political thread, not just that it’s a waste to bury people with all of these valuables, but also that sealing a dead body in a box is a very unnatural process.
Yeah, it’s interesting, it’s not something that I went into the book to preach about, by any means. But it’s hard to do the research I did and not come out the other end, feeling that putting a body in a box, which becomes a box of spoiled meat, is not possibly the best way to handle the dead. There’s cremation, there’s donating your body to science, which was the original purpose of the grave robbers back in Scotland. I can’t say I didn’t come out the other end of this book not having certain opinions.
We talked about this with your first book, but how young-adult do you consider this book?
Not a lot. I can say that when I wrote this book, I didn’t give a single thought to the age of my audience. I don’t think I ever have. But it does have a teenage protagonist, which does make it a candidate for young-adult release. I try not to worry about whether or not the choice to release the book as young-adult or adult would have been better. It makes me a little nervous, obviously, because it’s such a grueling book. But it doesn’t seem to be a problem so far.