'Whiteness of the Whale' mashes up 'Moby Dick,' environmental concerns

David Poyer is a retired naval officer, and most of the 34 thrillers that he's written draw on his experience serving in the waters of the Atlantic, Arctic, Pacific, Caribbean and Persian Gulf.

So it was inevitable that at some point he'd take on the whale of all tales, "Moby Dick."

But try as Poyer might, he couldn't figure out how to write the sequel to Herman Melville's great American novel. Then one day, while the 63-year-old Poyer was teaching a creative writing course at Pennsylvania's Wilkes University, the solution came to him in a flash:

"When I'm brainstorming with students, my brain doubles its IQ after a short period of time from my usually reptilian torpor at home," the 63-year-old Poyer said in a telephone interview.

"All of a sudden, I knew how to do a modern-day retelling of 'Moby Dick.' I decided to set it on a whaling ship but from the point of view of anti-whaling activists who were trying to stop the killing. I got the whole plot down on one page."

The result is "The Whiteness of the Whale," released this month. The novel is told from the point of view of Sara Pollard, an animal behavior biologist who boards the private anti-whaling vessel, the Black Anemone. She's part of a crew planning to disrupt a Japanese fleet that's killing endangered whales in protected waters in defiance of international law.

But Sara — along with every other member of the crew of misfits — has a secret to hide.

Melville fans may enjoy tracing the ways in which the update both adheres to and departs from its famous predecessor. But Poyer also hopes "The Whiteness of the Whale" will appeal to thriller readers who've never cracked open "Moby Dick."

Poyer graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1971 and lives now on Virginia's Eastern Shore. Annapolis is the site of at least one of his novels, and his work has been taught as part of the academy's "Literature of the Sea" course.

He talked recently about his development as a writer and the challenges of following in "Moby's" wake.

How did you start writing?

I knew I was a writer from the age of 3. I would ask my mother where things came from, where the sky came from, where birds came from, and her answer usually was, "God made them." But one day she was reading to me, and I asked her where books came from. She said, "Writers make them." And that's when I knew what I was.

You had an influential mentor.

In the 1970s, I was teaching with [novelist] John Gardner under the auspices of the New Virginia Review, and he pushed me to become a better writer than I ever thought I could be.

He thought that a writer should be socially committed. First, you need to be able to tell a story that intrigues the reader, but second, the writer should have a moral compass. You don't want to be overt about it, but you want your characters to move in a moral universe and make moral choices. As he put it: "There should be monsters moving under the ice."

I was intrigued that you wrote from the point of view of a young woman.

I try to do something new in each book. In "The Whiteness of the Whale" I used a female protagonist for the first time, and about a third of the way through the book, I realized that I was thinking like a woman. I'm not really sure I can elucidate it, but I started seeing the world not primarily in terms of objects and forces but of relationships between people.

I also got very interested in the idea of the rogue. Each of the persons on the Black Anemone is a rogue in some way, the whale is a rogue, and human beings are a rogue species.

Did you do much research? Your discussion of von Economo neurons — a kind of brain cell found in the most highly developed mammals — sounded to my uninformed ears as though you knew what you were talking about.

For this book, I had a primate researcher read it. The discussion of the neurons and whale communication came from scientific papers and National Geographic magazine. A lot of the things at sea — the dynamics of people living in small, enclosed spaces, operating a small ship in the Arctic — came from my own experience.

Was it daunting to take on Melville?

No, I don't think so. I took on the Captain Kyd story in "China Sea," though no one really picked up on it. One of my other influences is Norman Mailer, and he's never cowed or intimidated or afraid to take on a challenge. He sometimes overreaches himself, but I'd rather do that than be a writer who doesn't work to the limits of his talents.

Who was your Ahab? Dru is the captain, Mick has lost both of his legs and Lars strikes me as the most obsessed. And is Sara your Ishmael?

There's no one-to-one correspondence. That would be too artificial. Eddi has tattoos, but that doesn't mean that she's Queequeg. Each reader is going to have to make those comparisons for himself.

The book doesn't much like the whalers, but it also seems somewhat ambivalent about the activists. What moral are you hoping that readers will take away?

I think at the end it boils down to the fact that we're a short-visioned species that does not know what's good for us.

We fought our way to the top out of a very violent and savage environment in which everything eats everything else. So it's no surprise that we became the most violent and savage species of all. But that doesn't mean we can continue to do this on our planet without devastating consequences. We're at war with ourselves in the most serious way.


About the Book

"The Whiteness of the Whale" was published April 2 by St. Martin's Press. $26.99. 336 pages.

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