I met Stu Krieger through my Disney Channel research in 2021. In 2022, I learned about his next novel — and now that novel is here! RAFT follows children’s book author Clark Whitaker, his wife Julia, and their children Katie and Charlie on an adventure like no other. Clark’s midlife crisis manifests itself in his sudden transformation into a penguin. The Whitakers must work together to keep their arctic bird safe as they navigate their changing family life on a road trip, which is a “journey of healing,” Stu explained. Stu’s publishers told him, “We pretty much laughed on every page and we cried at the end.” That is his unique gift, and many of us have been fortunate to experience it in our lives.
Stu has been a screenwriter for over four decades and wrote some of the best family movies of all time, including The Land Before Time, The Parent Trap II, and DCOMs such as Smart House, Cow Belles, Phantom of the Megaplex, Tru Confessions, and the Zenon trilogy. Stu won the Riverside International Film Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Screenwriting in 2017. He is a professor of theatre, film, and digital production at UC Riverside. You can pick up a copy of his new book, RAFT, on Amazon or through Warren Publishing. Don’t forget to leave a book review and follow Stu on Instagram and TikTok! He is here with us to share more about RAFT and how this story came to be. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Clearly there are some parts of Clark that are inspired by your life: You’re both from Rochester, in the writing profession, living in the L.A. area, are a husband and a dad with a son and a daughter. I’m curious about some of your other life experiences or discoveries that might also be in Clark’s DNA.
It’s so fruitful for me to be teaching at the same time that I’m writing because I’m constantly, even at my advanced age, making new discoveries that I feel are really valuable to share with the students. And with this project, it actually began almost 20 years ago as a screenplay. When I wrote the screenplay version of it, I was actually in the throes of the midlife crisis that Clark is experiencing. So it was at the time when I was turning 50, my son was leaving for college, my father-in-law had died. There was a lot of things going on in my professional career that felt like it was slowing down. And I didn’t have the same juice that I had when I was the hot young kid in town, and I had this crisis of, I still feel really young and vital. Is everything going to be about loss, moving forward? I’m not ready to be at that place where every day is a different loss, and letting go of things I wasn’t ready to let go of.
At the core of it… it’s about an existential crisis. Unlike Big, it’s not ‘I found the Zoltar machine and it turned me into the penguin.’ It’s not ‘I pissed off a wizard who turned me into a penguin.’ It’s really about, ‘Some men leave their wives for a younger woman. Some buy a sports car. Some take up mountain biking. Clark Whitaker turns into a penguin.’ [In Hollywood] everybody would say, ‘Yeah, yeah, but why is he a penguin?’ And I would say, ‘As soon as I answer that question, the whole premise goes away. Why do some people get cancer? Why do some people get in a horrible car crash? Stuff happens, and you have to deal with it.’ So that was obstacle one. But then obstacle two that I realized partway through was, it was not the right time for me to write that story ’cause I was too in it to understand what I was bringing to the table. So the screenplay was much more, Clark was a victim of the world, and that just wasn’t really what I wanted to be writing about. And so I got frustrated, I put it away, went on to other things, started my teaching career. The rest is a beautiful history.
How RAFT transformed from screenplay to novel:
But then about three years ago — every summer from probably April to end of October, I swim every day — I was in the middle of my daily swim and suddenly I went, ‘Wait. I always loved that idea. But it’s a book.’ And the reason it’s a book is because this idea of the four different perspectives of each family member being able to weigh in and being able to talk about navigating this experience and what it meant to them was really interesting to me. But also, I’ve always been a journal keeper. And so what I was able to do, when I got out of the pool and dried off, was go back in and pull out the journals from that era. And reading what I was going through, reading now with 20 years of perspective of how that resonated, what that meant, what I learned from the whole experience — it was like, now I can write this story.
The best compliment I have gotten so far is when I finished the first three chapters, which end with his conversion to becoming the penguin. I gave them to my daughter, and she’s now a 34-year-old married woman. And she called me and she said, ‘I hope I don’t hurt your feelings, Dadda, but Clark’s kind of an asshole.’ And I said, ‘You just gave me the best compliment you could have possibly given me. Because if he’s not to begin with, how does he grow? How does he change? What’s his journey?’ So that was something that then being able to go back to my journals, going back to some perspective, going back to everything that had changed, I could write about that in a clean and clear and objective way that I couldn’t when I was in the middle of it.
Once Clark is in his penguin form, a lot of his emotions are conveyed and recognized in the eyes. I’d love to hear your writerly wisdom on revealing characters’ emotional states with such depth. Katie is very perceptive with this when her penguin dad is ‘smizing’: And he couldn’t take those happy, smiling eyes off his wife. Melt me like butter; I was done.
You can’t write your characters without thoroughly knowing them. I use the trick of taking the Proust Questionnaire from the last page of Vanity Fair magazine and ‘asking’ each character those twenty questions. I fill it in with each character’s specific voice, manner or speaking and idioms so they begin to acquire three dimensions I can draw from in fleshing them out in the book.
I would love to hear a little bit more about some of your inspirations for the California road trip and bringing that dose of reality. Sometimes it can be a lovely family experience. And then there are also moments that are very much not wonderful.
Both of the towns that they visit, where they spend any kind of amount of time at all, are made-up towns. They’re made up so that I could do composites from different places we’ve been. Our daughter lives in Northern California. We have friends up in Alta, California, which is at the foothills of the Sierras. And anytime we were going on visits for two years, it was car trips rather than plane trips coming out of the pandemic. So there was a lot of opportunity to explore from Los Angeles to San Francisco and some of the quirky places in between that we would stop for meals or sometimes spend the night.
Over the years, raising kids, we did a lot of road trips. And a lot of that’s part of what Clark is longing for in the beginning — remember when we used to do that, what special time that was? So drawing from all those experiences, both when the kids were little and then as recently as the couple of years coming out of the pandemic, it was just thinking about all those people you encounter. Walking into a gas station with suddenly big six-foot-tall Trump piggy banks. You’re just going, ‘I thought I lived in California. What do I know?’ So realizing the diversity of the state and all those nooks and crannies was just something that was fun and interesting to me.
I think that a real gift of being able to read your work is — of course, in a movie, we’re seeing a lot of your writing talent come through in the dialogue — here we get to see these wonderful descriptive bits: Want to know the real problem with living in a house with so many bathrooms? If someone messes with the main line, you’ve suddenly got a quartet of toilets spewing out a shitstorm in four-part harmony. What are some of the joys you found in creating this story where there is a really serious life path coming together [but also] these whimsical moments, and you get to craft wonderful visions with the language?
One of the things that’s going to be very fun as the journey continues is, I will venture to say there are several incidents in the book that people are going to be 100% convinced are pure fantastical invention that are absolutely true.
Truly, aside from the fact that I can honestly tell you I have never been a penguin, 90% of the incidents in the book are things that happened, and what was so wonderful about having kept a journal, some of them I had forgotten completely, totally were out of my consciousness. The passage you referenced happened in the middle of a Thanksgiving dinner when we had 40 people at the house. And it was one of my daughter’s friends who caused the problem.
You have written for a variety of ages and audiences. So what did you enjoy most about, specifically, this adult audience, but still a highly creative focus with RAFT?
One of the things that the publisher said that was such a compliment, and it’s why I’ve put this toe in the water in social media after studiously avoiding it for so long is, they were saying this really feels like the book for the kids that grew up on your movies who are now young adults themselves, raising their own families. But it feels like the underlying sensibility that they responded to as kids is something they can now respond to and relate to as adults. And that was part of the goal for me. The family-centric nature of most of my film career really happened when I started to have my own kids, and I wanted to do things for them that were engaging and entertaining, but not stupid. And there was so much of the family entertainment like we’ve talked about before, of just dumb dads and peepee caca jokes and just things that were condescending to kids.
And even during my time at the Disney Channel, I would often get in fights with them because they would say things like, ‘A nine-year-old wouldn’t say that.’ And I would go, ‘Well, my daughter said it at a dinner last night and excuse me, how many kids do you have?’ And often, particularly at the Disney Channel, there were many, many executives with no children at all, which was quite ironic. But in any case, kind of the joy of the book was thinking about that. What is that underlying sensibility of my prime audience now as adults, dealing with all the things that they’re dealing with, raising their own kids?
I think I’m like the perfect age for this [with the multiple perspectives]. I can look ahead a little bit and see what the parents are going through, but I’m not too far off. I can kind of remember what Katie and Charlie, the teenagers, are going through from their perspective. Watching DCOMs now, sometimes [people my age are] closer to the age of the parents in a lot of these movies. So it’s interesting to have that more adult point of view in this story, but still know that it’s you, the man who wrote our childhood continuing to take us ‘on the ride,’ to use a Cow Belles reference there.
Yeah, and one of the other very interesting things about the process of writing the book was, once I decided that I was going to do the four perspectives, what I did was I went back to the outline of the book. I revised the outline, I revised the story and journey of it, and then I would sit with each chapter and go, ‘Okay, who’s the right narrator for this piece of the story?’ So if you observe, it doesn’t go like Mom, Dad, Katie, Charlie. Mom, Dad, Katie, Charlie. Sometimes it’ll be Katie, Julia, back to Katie again, because it was really looking at, here’s the information of this piece, whose perspective is going to be either the funniest or the most interesting or complementary to what came before? And so giving myself that permission of, it’s not the assigned narrator, it’s the right narrator, was also a really fun and interesting part of working it all out.
You also have the grandmother character, Nonnie Honey. So I was wondering, what were some of the inspirations for her and her [Boston] accent, her little quirks?
Pretty much 100% my mother-in-law. She has since passed, but she was an incredibly hilarious and wonderful character. And one of my favorite stories to tell is, it was the first time we got the four parents together. So I had known Hillary, my wife, we have been married for 42 years this summer. I knew her parents, but the first time we got all four parents together, her parents and my parents together, her mother was a great storyteller, and she maintained her Boston accent for all 50 years she lived in Los Angeles. Never waned. And the night we got the four of them together, she was just regaling us with these hilarious stories. And I remember very distinctly having this moment of looking at her, looking at my wife, who was in her twenties at that point, looking back to Bunny and going, that’s my future, and I’m okay with that.
If you had to choose one DCOM character to drop into this universe in the future, who do you think it would be and what would they think of the Whitakers?
Somehow it seems to me that Ryan Merriman, Smart House guy, would be the right guy to be dropped in there. It seems like he would kind of have the rye appreciation, he would not be freaked out by Clark in his penguin form. It just feels like he’d be the right guy to drop in there.
Next year will be the 25th anniversary of both Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century and Smart House. What do you think of writing a crossover movie where these two worlds collide now that their futuristic technology is the norm?
I’m the guy who is absolutely fine with letting the original work stand as my legacy without feeling a need to revisit the past. It’s one of the reasons I voluntarily stepped away from the The Land Before Time franchise after the original movie. I was asked to write the first two sequels and passed. Been there, done that. I’m a writing shark: I prefer to keep swimming forward into new waters.
You touched on your social media presence, but I’d like to highlight your popular Instagram and TikTok even more! What’s the best part of discussing your work — past and present — on IG and TikTok? Is there a particular work in your filmography you’ve especially enjoyed sharing stories or trivia about?
One thing that has amazed me in dipping my terrified toes into the social media pool is how rabid the fan base is for my work. I’m stunned by how it’s endured over 20-30 years. The fact that one The Land Before Time post has over 2.8 million views is stunning. Land Before Time, Zenon, and Smart House posts seem to generate the most buzz; it’s all very touching and gratifying.
In a family story like RAFT, translating it into real life, what do you think it takes today for families going in different directions and reaching different phases of their lives to come together and appreciate one another? And even if things aren’t going to be the same as they were, to find special new experiences together?
First and foremost, it’s communication. But interestingly enough, my son and daughter-in-law and their two-year-old, our first grandchild, were here and spent the weekend with us, even though they live locally. It was like, let’s do a sleepover because we never have time anymore. It’s either all baby-focused, and then you’ve got to get home to get her to bed, or you go out and we babysit. But the four of us haven’t had time in a very long time.
So they were here for the weekend, and after the baby was in bed, we had a fire pit going in the backyard, just sitting around with a beer talking. And I was saying to them, everybody is so afraid of the teenage years, and everybody gets so freaked out about that. And my daughter-in-law was saying, ‘Well, I was a rambunctious teenager, so I can’t even imagine what we’re in for already, looking at her as a two-year-old.’ I said, ‘For me (if I could be so bold when you were not asking for advice), I think part of the reason that we still like each other, we still spend time together, we make time for each other, is that we always really allowed the kids to just be who they were. And there were boundaries, there were guardrails. They had discipline in their life, but we never tried to control who they were.’
And I think that’s where families get in trouble. So many of the families I know where there’s so much underlying tension or distrust or lack of communication, it’s all about that need to control in a way that doesn’t allow everybody to blossom and be humanized and be who they are. So I think that’s a lot of it.
We talked about the process of families changing and coming together, and about Clark’s profound internal and external transformations. I think we’re all faced with opportunities to transform or grow in life. What advice do you have for readers who are going through the rougher patches of such a journey? You give great life advice, so had to ask!
Allow yourself to be present in your own life. Don’t regret the past and don’t worry about the future; both are fruitless wastes of time. If you allow yourself to feel the full range of your emotions without judgement or labels, you can begin to identify what the rough patch is truly all about; once you identify the issues you can learn from them, heal and move on.
Thank you, Stu, for sharing your insights with us! RAFT is now available in paperback and hardcover. You can let Stu know how much you love his work by leaving a book review and following him on TikTok and Instagram.