My interview with Moby-Duck author Donovan Hohn touched on a number of subjects — childhood, wilderness, nature writing, Moby-Dick — but it represented only part of our conversation. Over the course of nearly an hour, Mr. Hohn and I spoke about a host of other topics that unfortunately did not fit into the finished product, including his heroes, teaching, China, and what we can do about reducing the amount of plastic pollution in the ocean.
You taught at a high school in New York before writing Moby Duck, but also wrote for Harper’s and other magazines during breaks. How did that balance work?
People I know who are best able to be freelance writers tend to be married to someone with benefits and an income. I loved teaching. Although it meant nine months of the year I really couldn’t be writing, it fed the writing I did in the summer in a very useful way. I was able to teach American Lit and [then] have my heroes in my head while writing.
Who were the heroes in your head?
Thoreou, Melville, in particular. But I also taught a literary journalism course, where I was able to teach my favorite nonfiction pieces from over the years and study them, because you never learn something better than when you’re teaching it.
I had been an editor at Harper’s and gotten a serious journalistic education there – a certain kind of journalism, though, doing all the reporting for the Index, you learn how to do the phone journalism – but the other stuff I was self-taught by studying John McPhee, David Foster Wallace, Joan Didion, all the people I was teaching. Whenever I got stuck in the writing, I devised a bunch of assignments for my students and I would just follow my own instructions.
You give yourself the role of Ishmael — Moby Duck is also, to an extent, the story of your journey into fatherhood. What do you think the autobiographical elements of the book accomplish? Were they difficult to write?
The very first draft I wrote, I had this idea that I was going to be in an omniscient third-person: I was going to begin with the spin, then tell the story of the toys – where they drifted, and then I would braid digressions into it. And I was imagining it as a 6,000 word piece. Once I got this invitation to go on a beachcombing expedition in Alaska, [an invitation] I felt I couldn’t say no to; it was just too tempting. Then it became clear that that was going to coincide with the imminent birth of my first child.
When I’ve done literary journalistic projects, almost inevitably you’re going to encounter obstacles. Something’s gone wrong: what the hell am I going to do? Eric Carle just published a children’s book [about the rubber ducks] now I have to do something about that. There are these things that are completely unpredictable and that’s part of the pleasure of it. So the trick, I think, for me, is, can you take what looks like an obstacle – I should be in Manhattan, taking care of my wife – can you take that and write honestly enough in a personal mode, then it can become an opportunity.
Of course, once I started thinking about the core I was chasing, which is a symbol of childhood, I thought it would be weird to leave [the autobiographical elements] out. The stuff about feeling chronically juvenile, even in my 30s, is totally heartfelt. Maybe less so now, but certainly when I set out, when I was 33.
On being a journalist in China:
That was one of the harder trips. As much as possible, whether I was traveling with a bunch of conservationists cleaning up a beach or with scientists, I wanted to travel among them, to embed, to participate. In China, my access was the most limited. …. I had a sense of being a tourist on an economic safari. I went in, I saw, I spoke to certain people. I would have loved to have lived a week in one of their dormitories and worked several shifts, seriously. I would have learned a helluva lot more.
But I was lucky, especially in 2007 when the toy scare was going on, to get access at all. When you think about China, again, you have to abide contradictions. It’s a repressive totalitarian government that impinges on human rights and free speech. The conditions in many factories we would be unable to tolerate. There are horrible stories that you come across, like a woman dying from what’s simply called “overwork death” – exhaustion and hunger. Also part of the reality are the numbers of people who have been lifted out of poverty: most of the workers coming to the coastland are from the rural interior of China. There’s a growing Chinese middle class: that has problems too, as the burning of coal and consumption goes up too.
In 2007, there was this simplified idea that Chinese manufacturers couldn’t be trusted: they’d put lead in our toys! But that’s by design. There’s a reason – not simply the labor costs – that multinational companyies have outsourced manufacturing. They go to countries with laxer environmental laws. Even the factory I visited, he outsources his painting to another country. So, to follow that supply chain — where’s the guy who’s painting the toys getting his paint? – becomes this Warren-like supply chain. Most of the time, the companies manufacturing profit from them. And they’ll say, this is what’s necessary to keep prices low, which is what the American consumer wants. It does get back to, why were these toys having all these safety flaws? Because we wanted them to be super-cheap. If we wanted them to have rigorous inspection, or if we wanted Chinese workers to have a better wage, we’d have to pay for it. The complicity of Americans in the nature of the means of production, I had a greater appreciation for after China.
What can people do to reduce the amount of plastic in the ocean?
That’s a hard question. In part, because I increasingly came to appreciate that plastic is the most visible pollution in the sea, but it’s not the most egregious. CO2 is doing a lot more on a larger scale, but it’s not as sexy: you can’t see it. Oceans are acidifying and warming. There’s a sense of journalistic responsibility of not wanting to oversell the story or make it a scare story, which is one of the dangers of environmental reporting, as you can lose credibility. So that’s part of the doubt. But it is genuinely a problem, as is invisible pollution. In an ideal solution, you imagine a situation where you have cradle-to-cradle manufacturing and the true costs of raw materials are reflected in the products they’re turned in to. I cannot to this day, figure out how to reconcile the environmental imperatives that require a reduction in the rate at which we’re consuming and the imperatives of an economy that relies on growth. It’s not simply an easy choice. As we see in this Recession: you want to see some growth right now. I can imagine both an economy and an ecological relationship that would be a lot better.
But simplifying it down to plastics? There are a few things that should be done, easily. There should be strong deposit laws. It’s crazy that in New York City, although there is a deposit law, it’s very difficult to return bottles to the store. There should be an incentive built in to it, for manufacturers to create objects that are more easily recyclable. I think the idea of disposability could be eliminated without a huge degree of impact. The problem with the oceans, though, comes to infrastructure – and it’s not just American infrastructure, it’s around the world. A great majority of plastic and other pollutants are washing out of watersheds. So, even though New York has, by historical standards, a pretty state-of-the-art sewage system, you still have massive storm drain and sewage overflows. The one thing that’s been circulating recently in political circles is s this investment bank that John Kerry’s advancing, which is for bridges, dams, and sewage systems. That alone would do more if you had SEED money for municipalities to reengineer their sewage systems. That’s not as heroic looking as getting out on a sailboat and trying to skim the stuff out, but is probably more effective.
Again, you can read our interview with Moby-Duck author Donovan Hohn here.