Local Author Spotlight: Daniel Kraus

By Betsy Mikel in Arts & Entertainment on May 17, 2011 9:30PM

5011_05Rotters.jpg Daniel Kraus is a local author who seems like a normal dude judging by his website’s bio page. There you’ll find a picture of a seemingly easygoing guy, reading a book with an adorable little dog curled in his lap. But even he’ll admit he has a dark and twisted mind. His first book, The Monster Variations, was about a small town killer. And his just-released second novel, Rotters is about a teenage kid learning a gruesome trade. Protagonist Joey is sent to live with his weirdo estranged father when his mother dies. Although Joey and his dad don’t hit it off right away, when Joey discovers what his father does for a living, he’s intrigued. What follows is an apprenticeship in his father’s craft — graverobbing. What’s more, both of Kraus’ novels can be found in the Young Adult section at bookstores or libraries, since he writes about YA protagonists.

But Kraus seems to keep his scary ideas locked inside the books he writes. He’s also a filmmaker who’s directed six feature films; his most recent films include a series of documentaries about working in America. And, he was nice enough to chat with us about his Rotters and his work, about the research he did for his new book (coffin liquor anyone?), and what he digs about Chicago.

Chicagoist: I don’t talk to a lot of authors who are also filmmakers. How do these two creative endeavors complement each other, and how are they different?

Daniel Kraus: I understand that this question is tempting -- I get asked it all the time -- but the truth is that there is very little overlap. The only way they are similar is in the way that all art is similar: you prepare as much as you can so that when the moment comes and you're standing there with the camera and microphones, or sitting down at an empty page, you are able to perform instead of just becoming frozen with fright. But the two tasks are so different that I often will edit a film as a break between book drafts, just to clear my head.

C: What were some of the most surprising pieces of information you came across as you were researching the grave robbing “industry?” Personally, I didn’t even know there was so much history there.

DK: I could go on and on. There was a period in the nineteenth century where it was not illegal to rob a corpse from a grave, but it was illegal to take clothes from a grave, so you'd have all these grave robbers stripping the corpses and leaving behind the clothes. Some people would bury barbed wire in the dirt above a casket so robbers would have trouble digging through. And, of course, there's the nugget of information from the book that everyone seems to love: "coffin liquor," the term for the biological sludge that gathers in a casket when a body decomposes.

C: What audience did you have in mind in writing this book? How did you try to make this subject, which is a little wacky and gross, an appealing read for people?

DK: I wasn't thinking of any particular audience. I just tried to write the best sentences I could and make each page as interesting as possible. A lot happens in this book; there is plot happening all over the place. My hope was that just when you think it can't get weirder and wilder, it does. There were plenty of moments when I wondered if I had gone too far. Then I went ahead and went too far anyway.

C: Both Rotters and The Monster Variations have dark themes. But, your Twitter bio says “got some scary ideas, but not a scary man.” How can a nice man such as yourself write these morbid books?

DK: I blame it on my mom, who used to make me stay up late with her and watch Twilight Zone when I was little. That shit was scary as hell, but watching it with her made it about the funnest thing ever.

C: Is there anything about Chicago that inspires your writing?

DK: As a writing scene, I like Chicago for what it's not. It's not New York or Brooklyn, where I imagine the competition and envy run wild in tight little publishing circles, and it's not L.A., where everyone's telling you what you want to hear and everything is a conduit to the movies. Here I'm basically left alone. And I dig that about you, Chicago!