The Snow Whale, the debut novel from John Minichillo, will be released July 30, and the rave reviews have been rolling in. Dubbed “[w]onderfully inventive” by Publisher’s Weekly and hailed by the Los Angeles Times as “wry, dry, pure hilarity all around,” this irony-clad reimagining of the quest for a white whale is off to a rollicking start. In the midst of the not-so-calm before the storm, author John Minichillo has granted us an interview, assured us we’re safe from lawsuits from old Herman Melville and that, as we’ve always suspected, it’s a good thing we don’t take ourselves too seriously.
Atticus Books:We’ve been calling The Snow Whale a modern retelling (or reimagining) of Moby-Dick—in what way do you think your book differs the most from Melville’s?
John Minichillo: My book was written in a different century and I was never a whaler. A lot of readers complain about the nonfiction sections in Moby-Dick and those were the ones that I enjoyed most, because they showed me a world that doesn’t exist anymore. By contrast, because I don’t have that kind of work experience, couldn’t even catch a catfish, my book is sleeker.
AB: How loosely or closely based on the classic did you want to make it? Are there many parallels that only an initiated reader would notice?
JM: Moby-Dick is a book that everyone knows whether they’ve read it or not. With respect to Moby-Dick I wrote it in broad strokes, the book served as an outline the way The Odyssey is a very loose outline of what’s in Ulysses, so that a familiarity with The Odyssey only adds another layer for the reader versus being necessary to understanding. That said, I do believe Moby-Dick is probably THE great American novel, if there is such a thing. And I’ve come to realize there’s a cult of Melville out there, people who are nuts about the white whale, and I’m becoming more like them, and I’m glad.
AB: Is there any characteristic of Moby-Dick you wanted to preserve or keep consistent?
JM: The white whale is in the public domain now. Melville can’t sue me. So I wanted to have some fun with what is probably the most famous character in American literature. I wanted a book with a white whale in it.
AB: Some critics might claim that an increasing number of book releases (e.g., publishers, such as Quirk Books, with the runaway popularity of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) are bastardizing the standards set by our literary ancestors. Atticus Books has two other novels that fall into the retelling/”inspired by” category with Tommy Zurhellen’s Nazareth, North Dakota (an imaginative retelling of the Greatest Story Ever Told) and J M Tohline’s The Great Lenore, which undoubtedly (but respectfully) drinks from the same waters as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Are today’s authors on the road to blasphemous mishmash (and potential copyright violation) because they’re simply running out of ideas or is it more of a tribute to the accomplishments of previous generations of writers?
JM: Have you heard of these guys, T.S. Eliot and James Joyce? Or we could update it and say Joyce Carol Oates, John Gardener, Jane Smiley. There’s no lack of heft there. I see it more as intentionally aligning oneself with a literary tradition at a time when the question of ‘what is literary’ isn’t always obvious.
AB: Can you tell us about the research that went into the writing of the book, specifically with regard to Inupiat (what many of us would unwittingly call “Eskimo”) culture?
JM: I was writing retellings of short stories, but this was the first time I took on one this large (not just in pages but in reputation). When I learned of the tribal whaling in Alaska I realized it was a way to get to a white whale in a contemporary setting. But I live on a teacher’s salary and going to Alaska to research a book was out of the question. So I’ve never been to Alaska and I’ve never, to my knowledge, met an Inuk.
I was spurred on by two things. One was the advice by Ron Carlson for writers to “swim out into the deep end.” In other words, once you know a fair amount about something, you have to trust that your imagination will get you the rest of the way there.
The second thing was that I was talking about the idea, but was discouraged that I didn’t know enough to write about it, and a friend suggested I look at videos on YouTube. Specifically, he had suggested that I watch the killing of a seal, that “all that blood on the snow” made for really striking imagery. So I was driven by the possibility of a really incredible setting. To someone like me, The North Slope of Alaska may as well be the surface of Mars.
So I started to research the culture, old and contemporary, of the whaling and of the town that served as my setting. I learned a lot. And there’s enough there that I think your average reader will learn from the book, but it’s not intended to be nonfiction. I would love to visit, I would love to see it with my own eyes, and maybe even write the nonfiction version, but it would first require an improvement upon the teacher’s salary.
To clarify, Inupiat is a particular group of Inuit who live in the North Slope of Alaska, up above the Bering Straight, at the top of the world. Humans have lived there, and whaled there, for at least a thousand years, but probably for several thousand.
AB: More and more we’re seeing stories, books and movies in which the unfulfilled, burnt-out office worker jumps ship in search of something more (Office Space, The Bee-Loud Glade, Jerry Maguire, etc.)—is there something inherently emasculating or inhibiting about the 9-to-5 office job that many men hold these days? Would all the guys we know be happier and more fulfilled if they were out hunting whales rather than making spreadsheets?
I tried to avoid those stories while writing, but they are everywhere now. The Office is a really influential show in terms of the culture looking at itself and it probably will be for quite some time.
AB: The book plays with the idea of “wherever you go, there you are.” Does John Jacobs change as a result of his trip or does he simply discover who he has been all along?
JM: The biggest change occurs in the first chapter, when he gets the DNA test back and it tells him he’s Inuit. For the first time I wrote a character who was also named “John” but he’s as unlike me as they come. For a writer, this is kind of a milestone, when your characters are no longer just projections of yourself.
I was raised with an ethnic identity as an Italian-American (which is a clue as to how to pronounce my name) and it touched everything. We ate ravioli on Thanksgiving and were proud of it. We proudly watched gangster movies but were able to get righteous about the stereotypes. The main character in my book didn’t think of himself as having an ethnic identity, and so this knowledge changed his identity in profound ways. It makes for comic gags but it also threatens his marriage and his livelihood. And yes, it sends him off on a quest.
AB: While Jacobs does an overhaul of his life and priorities in order to respond to the results of a mail-order DNA test, the legitimacy of the test is challenged more than once by other characters and by Jacobs’ utter “whiteness.” Does it matter whether the test is correct or not? Or is cultural heritage much more an ideal we try to fulfill than something embedded in our physical DNA?
AM: There are some biology jokes in the book. One character learns he has Mongolian ancestry and thinks of himself as a descendant of the conqueror, Khan. Well, many of us, a pretty fair percentage of us, really are the descendants of the conqueror, Khan, and to be his descendant is to be a descendant of the conquered.
Not too long ago 23 and Me had sent a lot of people the wrong results. This technology is brand new and we have too much confidence in it. We don’t know the ethical consequences and we charge ahead.
We know that race is a cultural construct, yet we cling to those biological signifiers that make up the DNA code as comforting and real. We look for race in the DNA code and tell ourselves there are good reasons to do this.
If race is in the DNA, then a white guy can have those racial signifiers. Of course, this is where some of the outrageousness and some of the fun of the book comes from. If a white guy, a very white guy, repeatedly declares himself to be something other than what is obvious to our eyes, he seems to us more than a little crazy.
AB: Many of the Alaskans that Jacobs meets complain about their treatment at the hand of the U.S. government. Is it possible to hold on to one’s culture while also immersing oneself in another? Does the idea of the melting pot necessarily imply a process of homogenization?
JM: Indigenous whaling hasn’t caused any problems with the whale populations. They became decimated because of industrial whaling. The Inuit have been instrumental in keeping tracks of numbers of whales, and also in proving that there are more whales than the U.S. government estimates.
As to your larger question, culture is the larger force and it’s a steamroller. Peoples and languages are disappearing. It’s not just the animals.
AB: Jacobs’s appreciation for/addiction to famous quotes presumably developed during his years selling “inspiration” desk doodles. Any thoughts on the value or danger of our tendency to be satisfied with this kind of aphoristic wisdom?
JM: Truisms only appear true and they break down upon further scrutiny. When the truism becomes a creed or a political slogan, then the little people are at risk of being trampled by someone’s lofty idea.
AB: If this book accomplishes just one thing, what would you want it to be?
JM: To stop global warming? Just kidding. We’re all effed as far as that goes. How about just getting folks to question how seriously we take ourselves all too often?
AB: Is there another novel-length retelling in your future?
I really enjoyed writing this book. It was a gift. I will probably keep writing for the rest of my life. I believe I have more novels in me. Whether or not they will be retellings really just depends on the right book to retell and the right way to do it. It would require a eureka moment, which hasn’t happened since this one.
About the Author
John Minichillo lives in Nashville with his wife and son. This is his first novel.