At the top of our list of recommended summer reading is Morten Strøksnes’ non-fiction book Shark Drunk: The Art of Catching a Large Shark from a Tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean. Here Strøksnes talks about how his book came about, whale hunting and the shark of his dreams.
Shark Drunk is the story of two friends in a small boat on a nearly impossible mission, but it’s also a lot more than that. It’s about oceans, fishing, extreme weather, stunning nature and island communities. It’s a book that you’ll savour long after you’ve read it, thanks to Strøksnes’ interesting facts, memorable anecdotes and soothing narrative voice. We’ve been lucky enough to interview Strøksnes, a Norwegian journalist, photographer and author who has written a number of non-fiction books and won several prizes in Norway and abroad for Shark Drunk. Read our full review of the book here.
Q: I very much enjoyed reading Shark Drunk. This book is part history of the ocean, part fishing stories, part philosophy, part meditation on a friendship and a lot more. As readers we feel we’re on this journey with you and that the story unfolds as you write. Did you have a plan for the book or did it develop as you went along?
A: Well, we’re far from in control of what happens most of the time, and never more so when you’re out on the ocean in a small boat, like the weather and what we come across when we’re out there. This also greatly influences the story, of course. During my ‘field trips’ to Skrova I made notes and took photos continuously over the three years I spent doing research. But the final book is actually written from behind a desk in Berlin.
Q: What made you write this book?
A: For a long time, I’ve wanted to write about the sea, but only if I found the right context. That fell into my lap when my old friend and artist Hugo Aasjord asked if I wanted to join him in trying to catch a Greenland shark. It seemed like an excellent starting point as Hugo is an eccentric and knowledgeable character, and the Greenland shark is pretty interesting too. The shark is the result of hundreds of millions of years of evolution and has many highly unusual qualities. The meat can make you, literally, ‘shark’ drunk and the oil from its liver was at one point used in the production of explosives.
Q: Shark Drunk feels like a very ‘Norwegian’ book with lots of references to Norwegian culture and nature. Did the book need extensive editing to adapt to an international readership?
A: Not really, but the translators had trouble with many words and expressions they couldn’t find in any thesaurus, words that most Norwegians don’t even know. Early on, I had to make a pretty long list of words that needed an explanation. The translated versions are not re-edited very much a part from some additions. Some stories that are well-known to most Norwegians weren’t needed in the Norwegian version, but have been added in the foreign versions. For example, the story about the Venetian crew on their way to Flanders in 1431 who got caught up in a storm. Many weeks later, a few survivors drifted ashore on the island of Røst, on the outermost part of the Lofoten Islands.
Q: Your book has been sold to 22 countries. Have you been surprised by the reception? What do you think explains the international interest?
A: Yes, of course, I’m surprised. The feedback I’m getting shows that the book appeals to different people in different ways, but one thing seems to be universal, it has made people look at our planet with different eyes. Nothing less. We live on land, but most of our planet is ocean and the bottom of the sea is a landscape as varied as the one on land. The sea harbours most life forms, some of which seem like they belong on a different planet. All life originated in the sea and the ocean determines the fate of our planet. It’s obvious that the book touches upon a nerve. Perhaps globalisation, which makes places around the world look more and more uniform, inspires people to read about places and cultures that are distinctly different? The sea is not only immensely rich on incredible life forms but also a well for the human imagination, including my own. And finally, if I may be a bit immodest, after having received prizes and rave reviews in a number of countries, I’ve started to suspect that it’s actually quite a good book.
Q: Shark Drunk has something in common with another Norwegian international bestseller Norwegian Wood by Lars Mytting: slow living. A lifestyle that very few people manage to follow these days. Do you think people read these books as a substitute for slowing down or do you think people are inspired to actually change their lifestyle?
A: Maybe there is something there, the slow life, but I’ve never thought of that. Mytting’s book is more a handbook for how to handle firewood, so I’m not sure the two books have so much in common apart from the fact that they are both written by Norwegians and have been successful. By the way, I recently met an Italian olive farmer who told me he had learnt a great deal from Mytting’s book.
Q: It’s not clear from your book where you stand on whale hunting, but the fact that you use whale meat as bait is perhaps a hint? You’re not nervous about shocking your international readers?
A: We don’t use whale meat but whale blubber. I’m ambivalent about whale hunting. On the one hand I understand that many people are shocked that these gracious, fascinating and intelligent animals are killed. On the other hand, hunting and fishing are the only reasons there are people living in a place like Skrova, and they have been at it for hundreds of years. It’s an ingrained part of their culture. A few minke whales are killed every year, but it is by no means a threatened species. Let me ask you something: if you could choose, which animal would you rather be? A minke whale that throughout its life has been swimming freely around the vast oceans in the company of other whales, playing and hunting, until one day it’s hit by a harpoon and dies instantaneously? Or one of the millions of pigs, chickens or cattle trapped in tight cages or pens, genetically manipulated and medicated, as part of our industrial farm production? Is it possible to be against whaling and at the same time be supporting industrial production of meat where animals are treated like objects and not as living creatures, without being hypocritical?
Q: If you were to recommend inspiring books about the sea to our readers, one non-fiction and one fiction, what would you suggest?
A: There’s so much to choose from in the ‘library of the ocean’. One non-fiction classic worth reading is Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us (1951). As far as novels are concerned, I would recommend The North Water by Ian McGuire, the recent winner of Gens de Mer, the French prize for books about the ocean. Shark Drunk was nominated, but it’s easy to see why the judges were swept away by this dark, brutal historical novel, set on a whaling ship in Antarctica.
Q: What is your next project?
A: Out of principle, I try not to talk about my projects before they are finished. There are many reasons for that. The only thing I can say is that I’ve recently returned from crossing the rainforest of central Borneo with two indigenous tribesmen. The trip was research for my next project.