A dad. His midlife crisis. And life’s idiosyncrasies.
Clark Alexander Whitaker is a frustrated children’s book illustrator dealing with all the responsibilities that come with his 50-year-old self: a wife, two teens, a mother-in-law, a mortgage, the never-ending pile of bills, and the pressure that comes from being his family’s sole breadwinner.
Whitaker is a character that author Stu Krieger had been developing for nearly 20 years. On April 25, 2023, that character comes to life in Krieger’s newest novel, “Raft” (PipeVine Press). Krieger, a UC Riverside professor of screen and television writing, co-wrote the Emmy award winning mini-series “A Year in the Life.” Among his more than 25 produced credits, Krieger wrote the animated classic “The Land Before Time” for producers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, as well as 10 original movies for the Disney Channel, including “Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century.”
“Raft,” Krieger’s second book, reflects his own family’s life, Krieger said. He looked back at old journals and reread the entries to draw inspiration from those snippets of family life.
“‘Raft’ actually began as an idea for a screenplay almost 20 years ago when I was undergoing my own midlife crisis. My father-in-law had just died, my son was leaving for college and my film and television writing career was slowing down,” Krieger said. “Even though I still felt young and vital I was afraid I was on the verge of having the rest of my life be about loss. It didn't work as a script because I was too in it to have any objectivity about my own role in how things were shaking out.”
“Raft” is filled with hilarious, fiery conversations that draw the reader into the characters’ mind. The chapters have revolving narrators: Whitaker; his wife, Julia; and his high school-aged children, Katie and Charlie.
In an early scene, the reader gets a glimpse of how unappreciated Whitaker feels. He wants to avoid arguing with Julia, who insists on telling him how to drive and where to park.
“So this morning, I followed her instructions into the Kaiser parking garage that got them closest to the wing they needed to report to (to spare Honey from having to walk farther than necessary). I was coming up to a second level clearly marked One Way, Do Not Enter when Julia started yelling at me to make a right-hand turn. ‘Here! Right here!’
And I did ... only to find a big black Escalade coming directly at me, destined for a head-on collision. Because, just like the sign said, it was a one-way passage. I couldn’t back up due to a steady line of cars (going the correct way), moving up to the next level. The Escalade had nowhere to go because there were several cars behind it. The square-headed driver of said Huge Vehicle decided his best response was to lean on his horn, issuing a bleating, unrelenting blast that ricocheted off every wall in the claustrophobia-inducing parking structure.
In response, I only did what any reasonable man in my position would have done.
I threw the car into park, turned to my wife, and yelled, ‘You got us into this, you deal with it!’ Then I got out, slammed the door, and walked away. How she extricated herself, I have no idea because she’s still not speaking to me.
I walked down to the ground level, called an Uber, and went off to meet with the mortgage broker.”
On one of those difficult days, Whitaker cried an ocean… until he fell asleep. He woke up feeling like a different self.
He had morphed into a penguin. Penguin-Dadda began to primarily live in the home’s swimming pool and at some point, visits Lake Tahoe too.
“Although, believe it or not, I have never spontaneously turned into a penguin, many of the incidents in the book are based on things my family went through,” Krieger said. “I've kept a journal since I was in my early 20s so it was incredibly helpful to go back and read about the period in our lives I was portraying to be able to accurately recreate and access the incidents and emotions of the time.”
As the chapters unfold the reader meets all the characters. It becomes obvious that wedged in between those comical, routine, and mundane instances of home life, love reigns.
It was obvious when Penguin-Dadda was caught surrounded by three coyotes. Julia jumped in, broom in hand, to triumphantly defend her penguin husband. When college-bound Charlie needed advice, he sat by the pool and had a long conversation with Penguin-Dadda.
“Raft’s” pages carry through comedic relief and a very real life with a penguin. For Krieger, finding this blend of characters partially derives from his love for Disney movies. He is a self-described “Disney kid” who grew up watching films like the original “Parent Trap,” “Swiss Family Robinson” and “Mary Poppins.”
“Family fantasy/adventure has always held great appeal to me and was a big influence in the Disney Channel films I did like ‘Zenon: Girl of the 2st Century’ and ‘Phantom of the Megaplex,’” Krieger said. “My publisher, PipeVine Press, feels strongly that the now-adult kids who grew up on my movies are the perfect audience for ‘Raft.’”
For the adults Krieger references, “Raft’s” storyline is relatable. It’s easy to understand why becoming a penguin might not just be a figment of Whitaker’s imagination. It’s easy to see why the patriarch simply needed a breather, it’s almost as if by turning Whitaker into a penguin, Krieger broke the societal expectations, allowing him to simply be a man.
“One of the reasons I wanted to use all four family members as narrators for various chapters is because I believe that in order to be a healthy, happy family you need to be able to see and respect each other's perspective,” Krieger said. “The rotating narrators provide a chance to witness how each of them responds to the challenge of dad suddenly becoming a penguin — and hopefully, by the end, they're all in a better place having navigated this storm together.”
Meet the author
At UC Riverside on Wednesday, May 24, 4 p.m. at INTS 1111
“Hot-Off-the-Presses” with UCR’s Center for Ideas & Society, hosted by Professor Robin Russin.
Praise for “Raft”
“Fun and imaginative… just the kind of trip we all need right now.”
— David Crosby
“Starting with an unlikely comic premise, Stu Krieger has created a memorable, funny, and surprisingly touching family tale.”
— Meryl Gordon (“Mrs. Astor Regrets,” “Bunny Mellon”)
“‘RAFT’ is an absolutely hilarious and heartwarming family story with a very clever off-the-wall twist. Stu Krieger’s second novel nailed the speech of both parents and two teenagers. Something, as a writer, I know first-hand, is extremely difficult. The graduation and aquarium antics had me in hysterics. I actually fell in love with a penguin! I know you don’t know me but trust me on this…you’re going to love it!”
— Laura Numeroff (“If You Give a Mouse a Cookie”)
“Stu Krieger’s L.A. is a riotous landscape of family – human and animal – and the myriad ways all these beings try to discern who they are, who they love, and what they’re willing to do for happiness.”
— Susan Straight (National Book Award Finalist, “Mecca,” “In the Country of Women”)
“Stu Krieger, a uniquely talented and successful screenwriter, has gifted us all with a magical and surprising, laugh-out-loud novel. It should not be missed. Read it!”
— Parker Stevenson
“I enjoyed RAFT immensely; it’s very entertaining and illuminates a modern dilemma: man’s eternal search for elusive happiness.”
— Hayley Mills